The Army of the Potomac Advances on Manassas!

March 10, 1862 (Monday)

With all the terrible excitement held by the previous day, it was easy for many in Washington to overlook the Union advance upon the former Rebel positions near Centreville and Manassas. The move had started three days before, when General Philip Kearny pushed his brigade forward without orders. While General McClellan and President Lincoln were waiting for news from Hampton Roads, Kearny learned for certain that General Joe Johnston’s Confederate Army had abandoned their defenses.

While most of the Rebel infantry was marching south, rear guards were still on patrol, hoping to hold off a Union attack for as long as possible. Kearny ordered his cavalry to charge them, which they brilliantly did, but at the loss of their commanding officer. Kearny continued to scout throughout the night.

Also overnight, General McClellan received word that the Rebels had fallen back from Centreville. He wanted to see for himself and crossed the Potomac accompanied by only two orderlies. With the panic in Washington resolved, thanks to the USS Monitor, McClellan ordered his entire army forward. He ordered General Irvin McDowell’s Division to march from Arlington to Centreville by the end of the day. General Sumner’s Division was to take Manassas Junction. Other divisions were to meet at Fairfax Court House, where McClellan would make his headquarters.

Just who got to Centreville first was up for debate. McClellan had dispatched Pennsylvania cavalry the previous night, and they claimed to have arrived before anyone. Kearny, likewise, stated that it was his men who first occupied Centreville. A third party, the 2nd New York Cavalry, commanded by the irascible Alfred Napoleon Duffie, also begged the honors.

Though it hardly mattered, the Pennsylvania cavalry sent by McClellan were first to arrive, though all three bodies of troops entered Centreville on this date.1

General McClellan made his bed at Fairfax Courthouse, but had traveled light and afforded himself no blanket. Fortunately, someone lent him a blanket and gave him a cot, and he made the best of it.2

And there slept General McClellan, the commander-in-chief of all Union armies, commanding the Army of the Potomac in the field. This interesting fact would not be lost on President Lincoln.

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Jackson Prepares to Retreat; Banks Prepares for War

When General Johnston withdrew from his Centreville line, it left General Stonewall Jackson’s small command in Winchester, just across the Blue Ridge Mountains, dangling in the chilly late-winter breeze. Jackson, who had been looking towards retreating south, up the Shenandoah Valley, for nearly a week, was close to be surrounded.

The push by Union General Nathaniel Banks across the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry was ebbing closer and closer to Jackson’s base. Over the past several days, Jackson had sent his supply wagons south (and with them, the troops’ tents) and was in the process of moving out his heavy siege artillery.3

Opposing his tiny army of no more than 3,600 effectives were over 40,000 Union troops in three divisions. To Jackson’s front were four brigades at Bunker Hill, about fourteen miles distant. On his right, two more brigades held Berryville, ten miles away. Another two brigades held Martinsburg, to the north. If so ordered, there could be upwards of 30,000 Federal troops falling upon Winchester within twenty-four hours. And more were on their way. Jackson also realized that these 30,000 were not stopping their advance.4

By this time, Jackson had probably given up hope on receiving reinforcements from General A.P. Hill’s brigade. They had been stationed at Leesburg, between Centreville and Winchester, but had been called back to Johnston’s army during the retreat. Jackson had asked for Hill, which would have doubled his numbers, but Johnston refused to detach him. By this date, Hill was far out of reach, marching south from Warrenton.5

Though Jackson was most certainly worried, he feigned otherwise in a letter to his wife, whom he had sent to Lexington a week or so prior. He wrote that the troops were “in excellent spirits,” and that he was healthy, thanks to the blessings of God. It was clear, however, that he missed his Mary Anna. “My heart is just overflowing with love for my little darling wife.”6

Meanwhile, Union General Banks, encamped near Charlestown, was paid a visit by three slaves who had just escaped before their master could sell them. They claimed that Jackson had sent 10,000 men south to Strasburg. Banks, not knowing how many men Jackson had in his command, believed them.7

The next day, he would act on this news.



  1. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. This series is amazing, I can’t say that enough, but it is anything but chronological. You could spend the better part of an afternoon playing connect-the-dots in Beatie’s book. Also, it would be a great afternoon. Also used was the Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p536-549. []
  2. McClellan’s Own Story by George B. McClellan. []
  3. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens. []
  4. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1094-1095; 1096. []
  6. As quoted in Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  7. A Virginia Yankee in the Civil War: The Diaries of David Hunter Strother edited by Cecil D. Eby. []
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