Prelude to the Northern Virginia Campaign
Despite their stunning victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate prospects were dim 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.
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.
Army of Virginia
On June 26, 1862, the President ordered the consolidation of forces commanded by John C. Frémont, Nathaniel Banks, and Irvin McDowell, and several smaller units in eastern Virginia to form the Army of Virginia. Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the new army. The War Department announced the president’s decision in General Orders No. 103, dated August 12, 1862.
Frémont, who was senior to Pope in grade, objected to the command structure and resigned in protest. Because many of the soldiers in Frémont’s Corps were of German extraction, Lincoln named German-born, Major General Franz Sigel as Frémont’s replacement.
Pope’s immediate mission comprised three key components:
- Aid McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign by drawing troops away from Richmond or at least preventing Jackson from reinforcing General Robert E. Lee and his troops, who were protecting the Confederate capital
- Secure the Shenandoah Valley, and
- Protect Washington, DC from a Confederate assault.
Peninsula Campaign Falters
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 Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. As Lee forced McClellan down the peninsula in July, he turned his attention to Pope’s Army of Virginia.
Northern Virginia Campaign Action
Pope on the Move
On August 6, 1862, Pope marched south into Culpeper County, intent on capturing the rail junction at Gordonsville, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crossed the Virginia Central Railroad. As Pope approached Culpeper Court House, Lee ordered Jackson to Gordonsville, instructing him that:
I want Pope to be suppressed.
Battle of Cedar Mountain
On August 9, Jackson marched his army up the main road toward Culpeper Court House in the oppressive heat. Before Pope could gather his forces, Jackson launched an offensive against the center of Pope’s army, commanded by Major General Nathaniel Banks. The Federals had the best of the early fighting, and the battle settled into an artillery duel throughout the afternoon.
At approximately 5:00 p.m., Banks launched two attacks that sent the Rebels fleeing from the field. Jackson galloped into the fray, brandishing his sword (with the scabbard rusted to it), along with a battle flag, and rallied his troops.
Major General A. P. Hill and his Light Division arrived shortly afterward and sent the Federals fleeing. The Rebels pursued the retreating Yankees until after dark. When Jackson learned of approaching federal reinforcements commanded by Major General Irvin McDowell, he called off the pursuit.
The engagement, known as 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 nearly 2,350 soldiers (314 killed, 1,445 wounded, and 594 missing) The Confederacy lost approximately 1,340 men (231 killed and 1,107 wounded).
First Battle of Rappahannock Station
After the Confederate victory at Cedar Mountain, Pope concentrated his battered army at Culpeper Court House. Jackson withdrew to Gordonsville on August 12, where Major General James Longstreet and his 55,000 soldiers reinforced him. On August 15, 1862, General Lee arrived to take control of the entire force.
When Longstreet and Lee advanced, Pope evacuated Culpeper Court House and established a new line along the Rappahannock River on August 21. Two days later, Confederate cavalry commander J. E. B. Stuart led a daring raid on Pope’s headquarters at Catlett Station. For the next several days the two armies engaged in a series of minor indecisive skirmishes collectively known as the First Battle of Rappahannock Station.
Jackson Surprises Pope
While the two opponents continued to spar, Lee boldly sent Jackson and one half of the Rebel army on a march through Thoroughfare Gap that outflanked Pope’s right-wing. Early on the morning of August 27, 1862, Jackson’s soldiers surprised Pope’s forces along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, capturing a massive Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. The loss forced Pope to abandon his defensive line along the Rappahannock River. Overnight, Jackson pushed his soldiers north to the site of the Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run the previous year.
Second Battle of Bull Run
With Jackson now positioned between the Union army and Washington, DC, Pope turned his attention away from Lee. Pope marched his army toward Manassas Junction and attacked Jackson on August 28, the first day of the Second Battle of Bull Run.
On the second day, Pope believed that he was close to crushing Jackson’s forces and continued the attack. Unbeknownst to Pope, Longstreet’s Corps began arriving near the battlefield to relieve Jackson. On August 30, at approximately 4 p.m., Longstreet’s troops smashed into the left side of Pope’s unsuspecting army. Although the surprised Federals did not turn and run toward Washington, as their predecessors had done during the First Battle of Bull Run, to retreated nonetheless. Fortunately for Pope, reinforcements from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac approaching the battle site from Washington prevented the retreat from deteriorating into a disorganized rout.
The Second Battle of Bull Run produced high casualties for both sides. The Union suffered approximately 13,800 losses, including 1.700 killed. The Confederacy suffered nearly 8,300 casualties, including approximately 1,500 killed.
Battle of Chantilly
Despite the retreat from Bull Run, the operational units of Pope’s army remained intact. Reinforced by soldiers detached from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, Pope still commanded a formidable and dangerous fighting force. Under pressure from the War Department, Pope made plans to re-engage Lee’s army rather than to retreat behind the defensive fortifications surrounding Washington. Lee, however, beat him to the punch.
After the Second Battle of Bull Run, Jackson set out toward the northeast on August 31. To protect his right-flank from Jackson’s advance, Pope ordered Major General Joseph Hooker to establish a defensive position to secure Jermantown. With Hooker in his path, Jackson stopped his march to await reinforcements.
Meanwhile, Pope ordered Brigadier General Isaac Stevens to establish a second defensive line between Jackson and Hooker. When Jackson received reports of Stevens’ movement, he dispatched Major General A. P. Hill’s division to determine the strength of the Union force assembling in front of him. As the two sides skirmished during a steady drizzle, Jackson began deploying his soldiers at the edge of a woods at approximately 4 p.m. on September 1, 1862.
At 4:30 p.m., Stevens requested reinforcements and ordered his division forward to engage Jackson’s troops at the edge of the woods. Almost simultaneously, the rain intensified into a severe thunderstorm, soaking the combatants’ gunpowder, rendering many firearms useless. When the Union attack began to stall at approximately 5 o’clock, Stevens moved to the front to urge his troops forward. There, he received a shot to the head, killing him instantly. After Stevens’s death, the Federal advance faltered.
As the Yankees began to retreat, reinforcements from the corps of Major General Philip Kearny began arriving on the field. While Kearny prepared to renew the assault, Jackson solidified his lines at the edge of the woods. At 5:30, Kearny’s men moved forward and engaged Jackson’s right flank. During the action, Kearny rode into the midst of a group of Confederate soldiers who ordered him to halt. Kearny swung his horse around instead and attempted to escape. As the Union general galloped off, a Rebel fired a Minnie ball into his back, killing him almost instantly. After Kearny’s death, the Federals withdrew, and the fighting of the Battle of Chantilly ended.
End of the Fighting
The Battle of Chantilly was a tactical draw. The Union Army suffered approximately 1,300 casualties compared to 800 casualties for the Confederacy. Strategically, however, the engagement was a Union victory. Having failed in his attempt to beat Pope’s forces to Jermantown, Jackson began withdrawing from the vicinity at approximately 11 p.m. on September 1. The Bluecoats maintained their position until 2:30 a.m., when Pope continued his retreat toward Washington, bringing an end to the Northern Virginia Campaign.
Aftermath of the Northern Virginia Campaign
In the aftermath of the Northern Virginia Campaign, Lee concentrated his army in the Shenandoah Valley and, on September 4, 1862, invaded Maryland, taking the war to Union soil. On the Federal side, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 128, on September 7, 1862, reassigning Pope to command the Department of the Northwest. Less than one week later, on September 12, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 129, ending the existence of the Army of Virginia by merging its three corps with the Army of the Potomac.