St. Nick Gives Up; McDowell Sets a Date

Saturday, June 29, 1861

As dawn broke over the Potomac River, the St. Nicolas, captured the day before by the Rebels, steamed against the current searching for the USS Pawnee. Captain Hollins and Colonel Thomas, along with a regiment of Tennessee soldiers, hoped to take the dreaded Union vessel by using a civilian ship as a decoy.

They had little luck in this venture as the Pawnee, after an engagement at Mathias Point, was nearer to Washington than the St. Nicholas wanted to go. She moved out to the Bay, passing the Margaret, a steam ship bound from Alexandria to Staten Island. The St. Nicholas doubled back and pulled along side her as Captain Hollins called out to the Margaret that she was now a prize of the Southern Confederacy.

Twenty-five armed men boarded the Margaret, moving the crew to the hold. She was tethered to the St. Nicholas and towed up the Rappahannock River. That night the St. Nicholas refuled from the Margaret‘s coal hoppers. The next day, they would try again.1

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McDowell’s Plan Beats Out Scott’s

Up river in Washington, Union General Irvin McDowell, commander of the troops opposing General Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the the Potomac, was to meet with President Lincoln and his Cabinet to discuss the details of his plan of operation. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was also called upon to detail his “Anaconda Plan,” which was getting quite a bit of unfavorable attention in the press.

Scott began by explaining that the Atlantic coast needed to be blockaded, which was already beginning, and that the Mississippi River needed to be controlled by establishing posts along it. He also wished for Virginia to not be the focus of the war effort. General Butler’s operations at Fortress Monroe and Newport News were doing relatively little for the war effort.

General Scott was growing old and he knew it. His judgement might not be up to what it was during the Mexican War. He wished that the entire responsibility of fighting the Confederacy was not placed upon his shoulders. However, if called upon to do so, he would accept it.

Scott’s plan was mostly dismissed and attention turned to General McDowell. The commander of Union forces near Washington explained his three-pronged plan of attack to the Cabinet. After tacking a map to the wall, he showed exactly how the columns would move on the Rebel’s right flank at Manassas Junction and cut off their supply line. This would leave Beauregard with two options: retreat or fight. If he chose to fight, McDowell would take the defensive on ground of his own choosing.

He also had a plan for General Patterson at Hagerstown. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah could easily move from Winchester to reinforce Beauregard at Manassas. If Patterson would only move his entire force to Leesburg, it would keep Johnston busy while McDowell routed the Rebels closest to Washington.

By the end of the meeting, it was decided that McDowell could have the 30,000 men he desired and would move on July 8th.2

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Rebels Cross the Potomac?

In Hagerstown, Maryland, General Patterson received word from his scouts that 2,000 Rebels from Kentucky and Mississippi had occupied Harpers Ferry and crossed the Potomac. Maryland Heights had apparently been reoccupied by two regiments.

Patterson’s engineer, Captain John Newton, wondered what this reoccupation might be about. Could it be a screen to cover Johnston’s retreat or perhaps to cover a march against Col. Stone near Poolesville? Had the Rebels been reinforced and this was the vanguard of their offensive?

If this move was their offensive, they would attack via Shepherdstown against General Negley’s Fifth Brigade near Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Meanwhile, in Poolesville, Maryland, Col. Stone of the Rockville Expedition reported that though there was an increased number of Rebels across the Potomac from him at Edwards and Conrads Ferry (near Leesburg), there were no Rebels in Harpers Ferry.

Patterson’s scouts reported their advance around three in the morning. While Stone didn’t give the exact time of his intelligence, scouts traveling from Harpers Ferry to Poolesville (a distance of around thirty miles), it’s very possible that his information was older than Patterson’s. Rebels could very well have reoccupied the town and the Heights across the Potomac.3



  1. History of the Confederate States Navy by John Thomas Scharf, Rogers & Sherwood, 1886. []
  2. The Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860 – September 1861 by Russel Harrison Beatie, Da Capo Press, 2002. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p118-119, 733-734. []
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