Prelude to the Battle
Confederate Prospects Dim
Despite their stunning victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate prospects had dimmed less than one year later. In the West, Ulysses S. Grant was having his way with Rebel defenders of vital river systems. In the East, George B. McClellan was inching his way up the Virginia Peninsula, threatening the Confederate capital at Richmond with the largest army ever assembled in North America. In addition, three Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley prepared to move south through the valley to support McClellan’s invasion and hopefully to bring the American Civil War to a quick conclusion.
Stonewall Jackson Holds Three Union Armies at Bay
The main obstacle preventing the three Union armies in the Shenandoah Valley from marching south to support McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was a small detachment of soldiers from the Valley District, Department of Northern Virginia, commanded by Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In a classic exhibition of generalship, Jackson held the three Union armies at bay throughout the first half of 1862. By June, President Abraham Lincoln lost patience with the uncoordinated federal setbacks in the Shenandoah. On June 26, 1862, the President ordered the consolidation of forces in eastern Virginia to form the Army of Virginia. Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the new army.
Confederate Fortunes Change for the Better
By June, the fortunes of war had changed. As McClellan approached the outskirts of Richmond, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia forced a federal retreat down the peninsula. With McClellan on the run, Lee turned his attention to Pope’s Army of Virginia.
“I want Pope to be suppressed”
On August 6, Pope marched his Army of Virginia south into Culpeper County, intent on capturing the rail junction at Gordonsville, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad intersects the Virginia Central Railroad. As Pope approached Culpeper Court House, Lee ordered Jackson to Gordonsville, instructing him that “I want Pope to be suppressed.”
On August 9, 1862, Jackson rallied his troops and inflicted a major defeat on Pope’s troops at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. Following the Rebel victory, Pope consolidated his battered army at Culpeper Court House. Jackson withdrew to Gordonsville on August 12, where Major General James Longstreet and his command of 55,000 soldiers reinforced him. On August 15, 1862, General Lee arrived to take control of the entire force. When Longstreet and Lee arrived, Pope evacuated Culpepper Court House and established a new line along the Rappahannock River on August 21.
August 22–25, 1862 — First Battle of Rappahannock Station
From August 22 to 25, 1862, the two armies engaged in a series of minor skirmishes collectively known as the First Battle of Rappahannock Station. The action began on the night of August 22–23, when J. E. B. Stuart led nearly 1,500 cavalrymen on a daring raid against the Union supply depot at Catlett’s Station to Pope’s rear. Meeting little resistance during the sortie, Stuart captured some Union supplies and took a few prisoners.
During the next three days, small conflicts erupted along the Rappahannock River at several locations, including at Waterloo Bridge, Lee Springs, Freeman’s Ford, and Sulphur Springs. These inconclusive encounters produced casualties that totaled approximately 225 for both sides.
Aftermath of the Battle
The most significant consequence of these engagements was that Lee occupied Pope’s attention, while Stonewall Jackson marched the left-wing of the Army of Northern Virginia through Thoroughfare Gap, flanking Pope’s army and setting the stage for the resounding Confederate victory at the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862).