August 13, 1862 (Wednesday)
General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, was not one to take rumors at face value. The Union Army of the Potomac had sat nearly motionless thirty miles east of Richmond for over a month. There had been recent stirrings and even an advance upon Malvern Hill, but nothing ever materialized. So when an Englishman who claimed to be a Union deserter found his way into Lee’s camp, told tales of a coming Federal retreat, Lee wasn’t about to just believe him.
Lee contacted General D.H. Hill, ordering him to send out scouts along the south bank of the James River, opposite Harrison’s Landing, where the Army of the Potomac was encamped. As soon as they saw a positive movement, they were to alert Lee, who would decide then what to do with his entire army.1
At this point, Lee couldn’t have known whether or not General George McClellan’s Army was in retreat, but, from all appearances, it wasn’t about to attack him. The greater threat was General John Pope at Cedar Mountain, who seemed to be itching for a fight and getting stronger all the time. Pope and Stonewall Jackson had fought to a standoff and Jackson retired south to Gordonsville to await reinforcements from Lee.
Jackson would not have long to wait. Lee had heard more than rumors concerning a Union force under General Ambrose Burnside en route west from Fredericksburg for Cedar Mountain to reinforce Pope. In a hope to counter this movement, he ordered General John Bell Hood to march for Hanover Junction in readiness to move where needed.
But the main thrust was the ten brigades under General James Longstreet. Traveling by rail, they would arrive in Gordonsville within twenty-four hours with somewhere around 20,000 troops. Longstreet, having seniority over Jackson, was assumed by Lee to be in command.
Before Hood could even get there, Lee changed the orders. He had received further word that Burnside was sending a large force to Pope and directed Hood to Gordonsville, where he would be under Longstreet’s command.2
At Cedar Mountain, General Pope had been in sole command of the battlefield for two days. “Do not advance your force across the Rapidan,” warned General-in-Chief Henry Halleck. “Guard well against a flank movement by the enemy.” Pope’s cavalry was scouting as usual, but he also sent out a brigade of infantry from General Franz Sigel’s Corps, allowing their commander to decide how far in advance he wanted to picket.
From their vantage point along the Rapidan, Sigel’s troops could plainly see Jackson’s encampment near Gordonsville. Though the Rebels numbered roughly 22,000, Federal reports placed that figure at 35,000. Pope was steadily gaining reinforcements, but still did not believe that he was strong enough to attack.
While some reinforcements filtered in, like General Jesse Reno’s troops from Burnside’s Corps, others would take time. Pope had called upon General Jacob Cox from Western Virginia to send 5,000 troops. The original plan was for Cox to remain to face off against the Rebel partisans. This, however, was not at all what Cox wanted. When he received the order, he immediately petitioned to have it rescinded so that he could be a part of Pope’s Army of Virginia.
“You can come yourself with the troops,” wrote General Pope’s chief of staff. “Select the best troops to come with you, and come speedily.”3
Cox was elated and, with the bulk of his troops, began the march to the Kanawha River. From there, they would steam to the Ohio, and take the train from Parkersburg to Washington.
Meanwhile, General George McClellan was making a last-ditch effort to keep his Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck had ordered him and his 90,000 to Aquia Landing, near Fredericksburg. McClellan had protested and even tried to pick a fight with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, but there seemed to be no way out of these direct orders.
The previous evening, at 11pm, McClellan pounded out a telegram stuffed with reason upon reason why leaving the Peninsula was a terribly bad idea. He hurled everything from the great delays he expected at Yorktown and Fortress Monroe, to the size of the ships at Halleck. The wharfs at Acquia were too small, said McClellan, there weren’t enough horses, enough hospitals, enough anything. Most importantly, there wasn’t enough time.
“If Washington is in danger now this Army can scarcely arrive in time to save it,” wrote McClellan, “it is in much better position to do so from here than from Acquia.” McClellan closed by telling Halleck that he would be at the telegraph office the next morning so they could have a little chat.4
The telegraph office was seventy miles away at Jamestown Island. On the morning of this date, McClellan took ship to keep the date with Halleck. When he arrived on Jamestown, he discovered that the electricity was down and the telegraph out of order. Not to be thwarted, he went on to Fortress Monroe, and then across the Chesapeake Bay to Cherry Stone Inlet, on the Delmarva Peninsula, to continue the dialog.
By the time he crossed the bay, however, it was well after dark. At 11:30pm, he shot off a message to Halleck: “Please come to office; wish to talk to you. What news from Pope?”
And then McClellan waited for the Washington War Department telegraph operator to send someone to shake Halleck out of bed and drag him down to the office. An hour later, McClellan was tired of waiting and sent another wire telling Halleck about his day and the rumors of a large Rebel force leaving Richmond.
Over an hour after that, at 1:40am, Halleck sent a terse reply: “I have read your dispatch [of 11pm on the 12th]. There is no change of plans. You will send your troops as rapidly as possible. There is no difficulty in landing them. According to your own accounts there is now no difficulty in withdrawing your forces. Do so with all possible rapidity.”
And there it was. McClellan’s last stand was defeated. Before he had a chance to respond – before the telegraph operator even had a chance to fully decrypt the encoded message, the Washington operator informed him that Halleck had left the office. The General-in-Chief did not even wait for a reply. Even long after the war, McClellan was indignant that Halleck didn’t stick around to see why he had crossed the bay to talk to him.
With nothing else he could do, McClellan made his final reply: “Your orders will be obeyed. I return at once. I had hoped to have had a longer and fuller conversation with you, after traveling so far for the purpose.”5
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p673-674. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p674, 675, 676. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p570, 571. [↩]
- Wire from George McClellan to Henry Halleck, August 12, 1862, as printed in The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo, 1989. [↩]
- McClellan’s Own Story by George McClellan, C.L. Webster, 1887. [↩]