Winning armies tend to feature unique, even peculiar, personalities, and General Lee’s victorious band of Rebels, known as the Army Of Northern Virginia, was no exception. Lacking authority to create units larger than a division, Lee brought much-needed organization to this collection of independent bodies by dividing it into two informal “commands” each made up of several divisions, in turn made up of several brigades.
The commander of the larger group by one division, “Longstreet’s Command” was the Georgian Maj. Gen. James Longstreet who’d impressed Lee with his cool under fire and able handling of large bodies of men in the confusion of combat. Longstreet, once a gambler and jovial sort, was now a brooding, sober man, having lost three children, ages one, four, and eleven, in one week in January 1862 to scarlet fever. The other smaller unit, “Jackson’s Command,” was led by Stonewall. Jackson was a true eccentric, a fire-and-brimstone Bible-quoting Christian, hard driver of men, and eerily prescient field commander. Their army featured aggressive subordinates including the young, quixotic Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood, just 31, the hot-tempered Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, who liked to wear his red shirt into battle, and joining them after 2nd Bull Run, Jackson’s brother-in-law, the steely-eyed Maj. Gen. D.H. “Harvey” Hill, who taught mathematics before the war and was an avowed Yankee-hater.
Their senior commanders, Longstreet and Jackson, may have differed as to how to wage war — Longstreet favored tactical defense in deference to modern weaponry, whereas Jackson was a master of lightning war and maneuver. But working together, with Lee as the fulcrum constantly balancing his two brilliant lieutenants, and a quickly learning and competent officer corps at the division and brigade level ready to carry out their vision, the seeds were planted for one of the most fluid and exceptional campaigns of any war waged by any army in any theater.
Lee had no time to rest after his win on the peninsula, for he now found himself in a race against time. He’d already sent Jackson north to confront the advancing Pope while Longstreet stayed in front of McClellan. But now the peninsula was being evacuated. Satisfied that Richmond was safe, Lee wasted no time in wheeling his entire army north to counter Pope’s emerging threat before McClellan’s men could join him.
Moving to cut off Pope, Lee sent Jackson’s 24,000-man command on a grueling two-day 50-mile march north through the Thoroughfare Gap in the Shenandoah mountains and around Pope’s right flank to fall 25 miles to his rear at the large Federal depot of Manassas Junction. After looting supplies and cutting off the flummoxed Pope’s communications, Jackson vanished as the Union troops marched this way and that looking for him. Stonewall then hit them on August 28 at Groveton before disappearing again to a position near the old Bull Run battlefield. On August 29, Pope found Jackson’s men waiting for them behind a fortified railroad cut and, true to his bellicose declarations, the Union commander sent his men piecemeal into the attack. The fighting was brutal and close quarters, but the Rebel lines held. Meanwhile Longstreet’s divisions in an equally hard march fought their way through the now-defended pass and took up a position on Jackson’s right. That night, the unsuspecting Pope prepared to destroy Jackson’s command which he mistakenly thought was retreating (they were, in fact, just pulling back to tighten their lines).
On August 30 Pope attacked again. Waiting for just the right moment, Longstreet unleashed his entire command of 28,000 screaming Rebels in a spectacular grand assault (the largest such of the war), sweeping into the stunned Pope’s left flank and driving his army from the field towards Centerville. Lee sent Jackson to attempt another flanking maneuver to cut the distraught Pope’s retreating army off from Washington, but the movement was discovered and on September 1, in the pouring rain, the Union army fought a sharp action at Chantilly, extricated itself, and limped into the capital. Thus ended the third “On To Richmond” drive, and with it the dismissal of the third Union army commander in thirteen months. The Rebels never thought highly of Pope, who’d vowed harsh treatment of Southern civilians. Lee considered him a “miscreant.” When the Union general once boasted that his headquarters would be in the saddle, Jackson quipped: “I can whip any man who doesn’t know his headquarters from his hindquarters!”
While Lee was confronting and outgeneraling Pope in northern Virginia, most of the Army of the Potomac had still been at sea and off the game board. And when the first divisions finally did arrive back in Washington, McClellan, realizing that Pope, in Mac’s words, was in a “scrape,” was so slow to come to his fellow general’s aid that some openly accused him of treason, or at least assuring Pope would lose so he could be positioned to take over joint command when disaster struck. And now it had. Back in D.C., with Pope gone and the armies united, McClellan got what he wanted and assumed command of the combined forces that was the Army of the Potomac. Having lost the initiative, Lincoln, Halleck and McClellan awaited Lee’s next move while fearing for the safety of the capital.
On September 4, a rider spurred a lathered horse through the streets of Washington announcing that the Rebel army was crossing the Potomac at White’s Ford 45 miles to the northwest. The North was being invaded. And at no other time in the war would the stakes be so high, and the nation so in danger of being torn asunder. It was all in McClellan’s hands now.
Brad Schaeffer is an historian, author, musician, and trader. His eclectic body of writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Daily News, and a variety of well-read blogs and news outlets. Of Another Time and Place is his first novel, which takes place in World War II Germany and the deadly skies over the Western Front. You can pre-order his book here: