War Along The Rappahannock River

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series The Northern Virginia Campaign

War Along The

Rappahannock River

Northern Virginia is interlaced with a number of rivers that impeded movement of both armies during the entire war. The Rappahannock River was the dividing line between the two armies during the summer of 1862. Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia had settled into a defensive line that stretched along the northeast side of the river.

At this point in the war, Union commanders had been made acutely aware of their need to defend Washington, D.C. from advancing Confederate armies. The Federal authorities believed that the Confederacy had the same need to take the national capital as they did to capture Richmond. Much of their maneuvering was due to this.

Pope had positioned his army in a straight line defending the various fords and bridges that crossed the Rappahannock River. The river was much like many of the rivers in Northern Virginia and was susceptible to flooding and periods of high water due to rain. August of 1862 was one such time and it prompted Confederate General Robert E. Lee to plan a turning movement around the Union right flank. A successful movement would place Lee’s army in Pope’s rear forcing the Union commander to pull his forces back from the Rappahannock.

Click Map to enlarge.

Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and his corps of 24,000 had defeated Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Bank’s much more numerically inferior force at the Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9th. Lee had hoped to use Jackson to defeat the Union army one corps at a time, a defeat in detail, but Pope  had reconstituted his army more quickly than Lee thought possible. He therefore settled on a plan to turn the Union line.

It soon became clear to Lee, who was still to the east of Richmond, that Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was being withdrawn from their defensive positions on the Virginia Peninsula. The Union troops were being moved by boat back to their camps around Washington where they would be in a position to reinforce Pope’s army.

On August 13th, Lee dispatched Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps to reinforce Jackson at Gordonsville. On the following day, Lee left the Peninsula with the rest of his forces except for two brigades left to observe the Union army. On August 15th, Lee arrived at Gordonsville to take command of his constituted Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee massed his army south of Clark’s Mountain, a prominent position that was used on several occasions during the war by one side or the other General J.E.B. Stuartfor observation. Lee’s original plan was to send his cavalry under Maj. Gen. James E. B. Stuart, followed by the rest of his army north to the Rapidan River on August 18, screened from view by Clark’s Mountain.

Stuart was to cross the river and destroy the railroad bridge at Somerville Ford. He would then move around Pope’s left flank, destroying enemy supply depots and cutting off the Union army’s line of retreat. Due to logistical delays, this plan was never executed.

Meanwhile, Pope had firmly positioned his army along the Rappahannock by August 20-21 because of information that had come into his hands. A Union cavalry raid had captured Lee’s order to Stuart. In fact, Stuart himself was almost captured but his plumed hat and cloak was, to the delight of the Union raiders.

Stuart responded with a raid of his own on Pope’s headquarters at Catlett Station on August 22-23, that captured General Pope’s dress coat and demonstrated the Union right flank could be turned, despite the heavy flooding of the Rappahannock River. Stuart also captured Union documents that revealed the plan to increase the size of the Union army to 130,000 men, twice the size of the Confederate army. With this intelligence in hand, Lee began to move his army around the Union’s right flank.

The two sides began a series of skirmishes and engagements along the river that have become collectively known as the First Battle of Rappahannock Station. From August 22nd to August 25th, they fought at Waterloo Bridge, Lee Springs, Freeman’s Ford, and Sulphur Springs. These actions produced about 225 casualties for the two armies.

Due to the heavy rains, Lee was unable to force a crossing over the swollen river. By this time, reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac were arriving from the Peninsula: Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman‘s III Corps, Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter‘s V Corps, and elements of the VI Corps under Brig. Gen. George W. Taylor.

Train Derailed by Confederate CavalryLee decided on a new plan that would send Jackson, accompanied by Stuart’s cavalry, with half of the army on a flanking march to cut Pope’s line of communication, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. This maneuver would force Pope to retreat and his army would be vulnerable during this movement.

Jackson departed on August 25th and arrived at Salem (present-day Marshall) that same night. On the following evening, he passed around Pope’s right flank via Thoroughfare Gap and attacked  the Orange & Alexandria Railroad at Bristoe Station. There, his troops destroyed two trains and tore up several miles of track on the rail line.

The following day, August 27th, Brig. Gen.  Isaac R. Trimble‘s brigade from Jackson’s Corps captured and destroyed the massive Union supply depot at Manassas Junction. Just as Lee had planned, Pope was forced to withdraw his army from their defensive lines along the Rappahannock River.

Jackson’s forces then engaged the New Jersey Brigade of the Union VI Corps on the 27th. Its commander, Brig. Gen. George W. Taylor, was mortally wounded. At Kettle run, Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell‘s Division fought a rearguard action against Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker‘s Division which resulted in a total of 600 casualties for both sides. Ewell was able to hold off the Union division until darkness fell. He then withdrew burning the bridge behind him to forestall any pursuit.

On the night of August 27-28, Jackson marched his corps to the First Bull Run (First Manassas) battlefield and took defensive positions behind an unfinished railroad cut. Meanwhile, Longstreet’s Corps fought a minor action at Thoroughfare Gap that produced few casualties but had a significant result. It virtually assured Pope’s subsequent defeat by allowing both wings of Lee’s army to link up on the Manassas battlefield.

These various actions around Manassas Junction produced a total of 1,144 casualties for the Union army while the Confederates sustained about 173 casualties.

 

 

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