Confederate Tide Rising, Part 7

Confederate Tide Rising: Robert E. Lee and the Making of Southern Strategy, 1861-1862
by Joseph L. Harsh

“If we expect to reap advantage”: Lee Pursues Total Victory, August 27-31, 1862

Jackson’s famous flanking march around Pope’s army, his destruction of the massive number of Union stores at Manassas Junction, and the resulting Battle of Second Manassas are covered in this closing chapter of Confederate Tide Rising. Harsh believes that Lee wanted to avoid a fight in the aftermath of Jackson’s march, but that Stonewall’s aggressive actions led directly to the Second Battle of Manassas. I agree completely with the second part of that statement, but I’m not sold on the first part. In addition, Harsh covers the fight between Lee and Pope, and Lee’s tactical decisions during the battle. As this book ends and Taken at the Flood begins, Lee is within 25 miles of Washington pondering a potential invasion of Maryland.

Interestingly enough, Harsh leads off this chapter explaining his reasoning behind his belief that Lee wanted to avoid a major battle in the Manassas area. He believes that Lee could not have wanted Jackson to start a major fight with 23,000 men PFD. He bases this in part on a letter Lee wrote to Davis on August 30 saying “My desire has been to avoid general engagements.” Working on the assumption that Lee wanted to move into the Shenandoah Valley and pull the Federals with him, Harsh says Jackson’s turning movement was a great way to accomplish this. By getting the Federals to retreat very near Washington, D.C., Lee made his own supply line more secure for when he made his move west (and possibly north). Harsh believes (as do most) that “the true strategic threat to the Northern capital lay not along the Manassas-Centreville-Fairfax line that led directly to the front of Washington’s strong fortifications and ran too near the navigable lower Potomac on the east.” Instead, it lay further west, in the Shenandoah, pointing like a dagger into the heart of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The author does give a nod to the possibility of Lee accepting a fight, saying “on the other hand, it would have been uncharacteristic of Lee to plan too specifically, too far in advance. First, let Jackson break Pope’s communications and compel the Federals to fall back toward Manassas. Next let the Army of Northern Virginia be reunited.” Harsh also believes that Lee and Jackson had an understanding whereby Jackson could strike isolated portions of Pope’s army if the opportunity arose.

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With this interpretation in mind, Harsh describes Jackson’s raid to Bristoe Station. Jackson moved quickly and tried to hide his march from the Federals. Jackson chose lightly guarded Bristoe Station as the his point to strike the Orange and Alexandria. His men managed to capture a few trains, but several others got away in the darkness up and down the line. Thus both Pope and Halleck knew very quickly of the raid, and Jackson’s force was on the clock, so to speak. Jackson next moved north to Manassas Junction, and after scattering or capturing the small Federal force there (apparently Pope was true to his word when he told his men to forget their lines of supply!), he found an “immense quantity” of Union supplies. Ewell’s Division had stayed behind at Broad Run to destroy the railroad bridge there. On the 27th, Jackson’s forces were assailed from several directions. First, Taylor’s VI Corps Brigade came marching west down the railroad and into a trap laid by Jackson. Taylor was driven back in confusion, and lost his own life in the battle. At this point, Harsh says Jackson was in good shape. He had Stuart’s cavalry guarding his northern flank in the direction of Washington, Ewell was guarding the southern flank towards Pope’s Army, and he had a clear line of retreat west to Thoroughfare Gap and the rest of Lee’s Army. The Northern commanders were initiating a series of moves that might squeeze him if executed promptly, however. Plus, Jackson hadn’t left any troops to guard his retreat route, and some of his men were temporarily out of control due to the large amount of stores at Manassas. Harsh says Jackson became enamored of the supply depot at Manassas Junction while losing sight of his true mission. Meanwhile, the Union forces were closing in, reaching Bristoe to the south and Gainesville to the west, interdicting his direct line of retreat. Jackson moved north that night, but it was an extremely confused march that had Confederate units move as far east and north as Centreville. Harsh says Jackson should have sent Stuart to keep his line of retreat open.

On August 27, Lee had Jackson’s 28,500 at Bristoe, Longstreet’s 23,000 west of Thoroughfare Gap, and R. H. Anderson’s Division of 6,100 at Waterloo. D. H. Hill and Lafayette McLaws had their divisions, in addition to Hampton’s cavalry and Pendleton;s Reserve Artillery, even farther south at Hanover junction. This meant Lee had control of 89,000 of the 100,000 Confederate troops in the eastern theater, an impressive concentration of force. Pope, meanwhile, had 83,000 men, with over 30,000 more being sent to him. Also, the Federals had 61,000+ men in other divisions protecting Washington and Maryland, and also at Fort Monroe at the tip of the York-James Peninsula. This meant the Union had a total of 175,000 men facing Lee in various places. Lee decided, therefore, without knowing all of the details as we do, to move quickly and not wait for the portion of his army at Hanover Junction. Lee and Longstreet thus started moving north to follow in Jackson’s footsteps on August 26. Longstreet’s men marched slowly on August 27, and Lee was almost captured by roving Federal cavalry. Lee had sent his cavalry with Jackson, and he was blind on the approach to Thoroughfare Gap. This caused him to lose time by having to march carefully for fear of an ambush, and he didn’t reach the Gap by nightfall of August 27. Here Harsh discusses what Lee must have thought. Should he have Jackson retreat or move forward himself to meet Jackson. Obviously, he decided on the latter course. Harsh believes, however, that Lee planned to rejoin Jackson and continue a campaign of maneuver. Results, mainly as a result of Jackson, soon led Lee in a different direction.

On August 28, Jackson took up a line along Stony Ridge behind an unfinished railroad, northwest of Manassas Junction and east of Gainesville, very near the old Bull Run battlefield. The position was strong, and it also offered Lee a way to reach Jackson even if Lee was blocked on the road to Gainesville. Jackson could also retreat north to Aldie if the situation became dire. At this point, Jackson mistakenly assumed Pope was retreating, and ordered A. P. Hill to move south to “intercept” him. Luckily, Hill ignored the order and moved to reach Jackson. Soon, due to a captured dispatch, Jackson learned that Pope was trying to “bag” his force rather than retreating. At this point, Jackson sent Stuart to try to keep open a connection with Lee, but Stuart became embroiled in a skirmish with Bayard’s Union cavalry and never reached Lee. Jackson now knew that Lee might be blocked from reaching him at Thoroughfare Gap. Luck was with Jackson, however. Pope had heard that Stonewall was at Centreville, to the east, so he moved his troops in that direction. This meant that King’s Division of McDowell’s III Corps, Army of Virginia was marching from west to east directly to the south of Jackson’s line. Jackson attacked King’s Division, no doubt intending to defeat a small portion of Pope’s men, but the battle was a bloody draw. Harsh says “Jackson’s decision to attack is a curious one.” He believes that no matter how decisive Jackson’s victory could have been over King, it still was not worth tying Lee to a battle with only Jackson’s forces available at the start. He concludes that Lee would not get a “heavy victory from easy fighting”. Lee didn’t help matters by covering only a few miles on August 28 without feeling the need to secure Thoroughfare Gap with anything other than a single brigade. This brigade, George T. Anderson’s, found the enemy at the Gap. James Ricketts’ 10,000 man division of McDowell’s III Corps, Army of Virginia was standing in Lee’s way. After some fighting, Ricketts retired, causing Lee no doubt to breathe a sigh of relief. Harsh points out that the presence of Ricketts actually caused Lee to move farther east than he otherwise would have on August 28. Thus Ricketts actually unintentionally benefited the Confederates.

Pope soon received word of the attack on King’s Division at Brawner’s Farm, and he was determined to trap Jackson. He mistakenly thought McDowell was still west of Jackson, but this wasn’t the case. Instead, he would be attacking Jackson from the east only, and he learned this on the morning of August 29. Harsh says Pope showed a good ability to react to changing conditions, but that he tried too much too quickly for his plan to work. Pope seemed to completely forget about Longstreet. Lee got started early on August 29, and he soon heard the roar of battle to the east. Lee now must fight a battle, whether he wanted to or not, to save Jackson. The head of Longstreet’s column reached the battlefield by ten in the morning. Jackson no longer had to worry about his right, and Lee made no effort to hide Longstreet’s arrival. Pope incredibly chose to ignore it. Lee wanted to immediately launch an assault, but Longstreet preferred to wait. Then, Jackson assured Lee that he was doing fine on his own and second, Lee received word that a large Union force was approaching Longstreet’s right. This was Porter’s Union V Corps, on its mission to reach Gainesville. Lee couldn’t attack without exposing his own flank to Porter. Several more times throughout the day, Lee wanted to attack and Longstreet argued against it. Finally, in preparation for an assault the next morning, Longstreet sent Hood’s Division forward along the Warrenton Turnpike, beating back King’s Division in the process. Jackson had swatted away Union attacks throughout the day, mainly because they were made in piecemeal fashion. After an examination of the ground they would have to take, Hood and Wilcox reported to Longstreet that they would face a formidable enemy the next morning. So the attack was called off one last time and postponed to see what Pope would do. Harsh says Lee was influenced by Longstreet that day, but he also says that since Lee had experience with costly frontal assaults during the Seven Days (and believed he might face the same here), the influence wasn’t really that surprising.

On August 30, the Army of Northern Virginia was within 30 miles of the Northern capital, but they were being attacked by potentially both Pope’s and McClellan’s armies. That morning quietly passed with Lee waiting for a Union attack, and he began to think Pope might retreat. He Lee wrote a letter to Davis at this time. Lee told Davis that his purpose had been to maneuver Pope as far north as possible to relieve central Virginia of the enemy’s occupation. Harsh also noted that Lee told Davis he had wished to avoid a general engagement. This is his basis for saying Lee wanted to reunite his army and then move to the Shenandoah, which I discussed at length in an earlier blog entry. He also told Davis he wanted to continue that strategy if he wasn’t “overpowered” in the current battle. He also prodded Davis to hurry the reinforcements to him. At this point, Pope launched an assault on Jackson’s right near the center of the Confederate line. Harsh believes Pope to have been a solid and aggressive tactician, but he also faults the Union general for failing to take into account the shortcomings of his own recently formed army. Pope outnumbered Lee 1.3 to 1, and he had interior lines. Harsh believes Pope could afford to wait on his reinforcements, while Lee could no for the same reason. Pope’s problem was that he believed the Confederates were retreating, and he determined to catch them as they went. Harsh, putting this much better than I ever could, says “thus came the fine irony that climaxed Second Manassas and gave Lee the quickest, easiest, and most decisive tactical victory he would ever achieve. As the Confederate commander laid plans to pursue a nonfleeing foe, his opponent in more deadly ignorance exposed the Federal army to a bone-shattering flank assault.” Jackson finally asked for help against this assault by Porter’s Union V Corps, and this finally got Longstreet in an attacking mood. Harsh believes Lee and Longstreet did not yet know that Pope’s left flank was in the air and ripe for a flank attack. Harsh says that this “tactical dullness” on the part of the Confederate high command can be explained due to where and when Pope attacked. Apparently Lee and Longstreet saw the opportunity for the flanking move at the same time, and Pope was finished from that point on. Lee couldn’t follow up his victory due to nightfall. Lee now had the opportunity to free even more of Virginia from Pope’s yolk. Lee said in a letter to Davis that he had transferred the war “from the interior to the frontier”. Harsh says that what he was doing was moving one step at a time, one frontier at a time, opening new frontiers all the time. The only frontier left at this point was the Potomac River.

Lee faced a similar situation after Second Manassas as he had after the Seven Days. The Union army, though beaten, hadn’t been destroyed, and new men could be pulled from an essentially endless manpower pool. Harsh says that Lee improved his casualty ratios from his first to second battle, but that Lee’s casualties were very high for having fought an essentially defensive battle. Harsh says this ratio could not stay the same for long unless it also caused Northern morale to plummet. Lee wanted to destroy a large portion of Pope’s army, so he pursued immediately. It rained on August 31, and Stuart found Pope in the formidable Centreville fortifications. Lee tripped and fell while holding his horse near Stone Bridge, breaking one hand and severely spraining the other. He was forced to ride in an ambulance for a time. Still, he ordered Jackson on a turning movement north and then east to attempt to cut Pope’s army off from Washington, possibly near Fairfax Court House. In this way, he could draw Pope from his strong position at Centreville. Lee had decided to move ahead again without waiting for his trailing reinforcements. In fact, he was in such a hurry to pursue that he used Jackson’s badly worn out Wing because they were closest to that flank. Time was of the essence. Harsh also points out that Lee had always used Jackson for these advances in the past, and he might have felt comfortable giving his subordinate a familiar task. Lee also learned that more of McClellan’s Army, the II and VI Corps under Sumner and Franklin, respectively, had arrived in the aftermath of Second Manassas. Lee had some help n the fact that Pope knew he was beaten and did not act aggressively in the wake of his defeat at Bull Run. “Jeb” Stuart, leading the way for Jackson’s flanking column, unwisely shelled a Union wagon train near Fairfax Court House and announced the Confederate intentions loudly to Pope. Harsh says he compounded that mistake by visiting a nearby friend’s house without alerting Jackson of his findings. On September 1, Jackson’s column ran into Union forces ordered into position by the now-alerted Pope. Harsh ends by pointing out that marching was one thing for a worn-out, hungry force. Hard fighting would be another.

This ends the first six chapters of Harsh’s multi-volume work. I need to cover an “intermezzo” on the battle of Chantilly plus Harsh’s five fact-filled appendices in one more blog entry, but the main portion of the book is finished. I enjoyed delving into thinking on a strategic scale rather than my usual tactical studies. In other words, I’ve quit staring at one tree and I’m taking a look at the forest as a whole for a change…and I like it a lot. As I’ve stated on several message boards and in some blog entries as well, Harsh should be required reading for Civil War buffs. Even if you disagree with his theories, he makes you want to take a look at those situations to further study the topic. I found myself thinking ahead in several cases to situations that I thought might go against Harsh’s thesis, but in every case, he not only explained how these situations fit, but also said why, and he backed this up with quotes from the main participants. The research in this series looks exhaustive. I’ve read the forward to Taken at the Flood, the next book in the series, and Harsh even admits that his ideas are HIS interpretations of events. In other words, he believes these to be the most likely reasons why things were done. At the same time, he is willing to admit that he could be wrong, and he challenges others to continue the “work in progress” that is the study of history. I can’t recommend this series of books by Joseph Harsh highly enough, and I want to thank the various people who recommended his work to me on several of the Civil War Google and Yahoo Groups, as well as a few other message boards.

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