Prelude to the Battle
In 1862, Union leaders attempted to bring a quick end to the American Civil War by capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. On March 17, Major General George McClellan began moving the 50,000 men of the Army of the Potomac toward Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. By June, McClellan reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital but, ultimately, retreated after losing a series of encounters, collectively known as the Seven Days Battles, to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee Pursues Pope
As Lee forced McClellan to withdraw from the peninsula, President Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the newly created Army of Virginia. Sensing that McClellan now posed little threat to Richmond, Lee took the offensive, before Pope could unite his army with McClellan’s retreating forces. On July 13, Lee dispatched 14,000 Rebel troops under the command of Major General Stonewall Jackson to secure Confederate railroad links with the Shenandoah Valley. Later that month, Lee sent 12,000 more men, commanded by Major General A. P. Hill, to support Jackson.
On August 6, Pope marched south into Culpeper County, intent on capturing the rail junction at Gordonsville, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crosses the Virginia Central Railroad. As Pope approached Culpeper Court House, Lee ordered Jackson to Gordonsville, instructing him that “I want Pope to be suppressed.”
Before Pope could gather his forces, Jackson launched an offensive against the center of Pope’s army, commanded by Major General Nathaniel Banks. On August 9, Jackson marched his army up the main road toward Culpeper Court House in the oppressive heat. When the Rebels encountered Union artillery near Cedar Run, Brigadier General Jubal A. Early hastily formed a line perpendicular to the road, anchored on the shoulder of Cedar (or Slaughter’s) Mountain. The Confederates then began an artillery barrage on Banks’s soldiers from the mountain, and from a small wooded knoll known afterward as the Cedars and from a gate where the Crittenden House lane met the main road. Banks responded by bringing up his own big guns, and the two sides engaged in an artillery duel throughout the afternoon.
Rebels Turn Back Federal Assaults
At approximately 5:00 p.m., Banks launched two attacks against the Confederates. The Rebel artillery at the Cedars and the Gate, along with their supporting infantry, began fleeing from the field. Early hastened to the front from Cedar Mountain and halted the Union advance on the Confederate right. Jackson, meanwhile, galloped into the center of the assault, brandishing his sword (with the scabbard rusted to it), along with a battle flag, and rallied the rest of the troops. A. P. Hill arrived shortly afterward with reinforcements that repulsed the Union attacks. The Rebels pursued the retreating Yankees until after dark. When Jackson learned that Major General Irvin McDowell and reinforcements had arrived, he called off the pursuit.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Cedar Mountain was a Confederate victory, but Banks’s 12,000 Federals came remarkably close to inflicting a critical defeat on Jackson’s 22,000 Confederates. Casualties were high for both sides. The Union lost roughly 2,350 soldiers (314 killed, 1,445 wounded, and 594 missing) The Confederacy lost approximately 1,340 men (231 killed and 1,107 wounded). As Pope merged his army at Culpeper Court House, Jackson withdrew to Gordonsville on August 12, where Major General James Longstreet’s command of 55,000 soldiers reinforced him. Two weeks later, Lee, Jackson, and Longstreet inflicted a disastrous defeat on Pope’s army at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).