General "Stonewall" Jackson and
Genneral John Pope left Washington on July 29th 1862 and rode a locomotive down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to Warrenton Junction. Irwin McDowell was waiting on the platform when the locomotive hissed to a stop. The two generals walked together to the end of the siding where a train was waiting under steam and climbed aboard. Rolling into motion, the train gathered speed and carried the two generals up the short spur into the village of Warrenton. Orderlies with extra horses were waiting at the Warrenton station when the train arrived and the two generals rode to McDowell's headquarters which was set up in a hotel in the village square.
The next morning, under an intense blue sky, Pope and McDowell came out of the hotel and mingled for a moment with a crowd of staff officers; then, their orders given, they mounted up and, led by a squadron of cavarlymen, rode west into the countryside. Taking the turnpike that leads past the southern end of the Bull Run Mountains—a string of nobby green hills that scatter northward—they headed toward the Waterloo Bridge crossing of the Rappahannock. Along the way they passed the camps of Ricketts's division, the brigades at rest in the patchwork of farm fields and woodland that border the road. Reaching the bridge, Pope inspected the work of the Union pioneers who were hard at work strengthening the abutments and installing trestles to ensure the span would hold up under the load of the army's artillery and wagon traffic. Nodding approvingly as he led his stallion clattering across the boards, he came to the right bank of the river and went at the walk toward the gun metal ramparts of the Blue Ridge Mountains that loom in the distance, heading for Nathaniel Banks's headquarters at the village of Little Washington.
Four weeks earlier, when John Pope first came into the command of Lincoln's new paper army, he had worked out with Lincoln a plan of operation with both defensive and offensive components. From his desk in the War Department, he had sent orders to his commanders in the field to concentrate their brigades near the Blue Ridge where they could either block an enemy advance from the direction of Gordonsville or the Luray Valley, or they could advance themselves toward Richmond along the line of the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. In the early days of July, while Lincoln was at Harrison's Landing, the six German brigades of John Fremont's old corps, now commanded by Franz Sigel, crossed the Blue Ridge through Thornton's Gap, and went into camp near the piedmont village of Sperryville. During the same time, Nathaniel Banks, with five brigades, marching from Winchester through Front Royal, crossed the Blue Ridge at Chester's Gap and came into camp on Sigel's left at Little Washington. Twenty miles to the east of Little Washington, part of Irwin McDowell's corps, one division of three brigades, under the command of John Ricketts, arrived from Manassas at Warrenton and went into camp in front of Waterloo Bridge. The other part—Rufus King's division of four brigades—remained at Fredericksburg.
From their positions on a twenty-five mile arc, extending from Sperryville to Waterloo Bridge, Pope had fourteen brigades available to block the advance of the enemy, by either marching west through the Blue Ridge gaps into the Shenandoah Valley or marching east toward Culpeper and Fredericksburg. If the enemy remained on the defensive at a distance, Lincoln expected Pope's army to march on the offensive south to the Rapidan and operate against the Virginia Central Railroad, Richmond's rail connection with the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and the town of Staunton in the Shenandoah Valley. Once there, in conjunction with King's division, Pope might move on Richmond.
Arriving at the outskirts of Little Washington in the blistering heat of noon, Pope and McDowell turned their dusty horses off the sweltering road, and plodded through a meadow that extended into a hollow surrounded by pinnacled hills. In the far corner of the field, a major general's pennant hung limply from a pole above a string of white tents scattered along the bank of a rocky stream. As the two generals rode into the campground, Nathaniel Banks stepped through the open flaps of the main tent and stood with his hands on his hips. He was dressed in a blue frock coat with two rows of brass buttons down its front, with a white collar held round his neck by a thin black ribbon tied in a bow. Neatly combed brown hair swept over his right eye and his intently staring eyes and bushy mustache gave his face a stern expression.
Born a poor boy in Waltham, Massachusetts, he earned his living as a young man in a cotton mill at a dollar a day; eventually he rose in politics to become a U.S. Congressman, Speaker of the House, and two term governor of his state. Without any military experience to his credit, he was now the third ranking major-general in the Regular Army. Nat Banks didn't like John Pope. Banks, a Democrat who leaned toward American nativism, saw Pope as a fawning acolyte of the Radical Republicans. Though Banks outranked Pope on the senority list, Pope acted as if he was Banks's superior in every way; yet, in the matter of fighting, Pope had done nothing as far as Banks could see. True, Pope had captured a small island the rebels had occupied in the Mississippi, but Banks had fought Stonewall Jackson like the devil in the Valley and, at the first opportunity, he meant to do the same again.
When Pope and McDowell dismounted, Banks turned back into the tent, gesturing that they follow him. Inside the tent a table with a chest of tiny drawers stood next to the main tent pole, and several chairs were arrayed in a ring around it. Slapping dust from his pant-legs with the brim of his big black hat, John Pope sat down heavily in one of the chairs. Taking a dripping canteen that Banks held out to him, he swigged several mouthfuls of tepid water and passed it to McDowell who sat down beside him. Abruptly, he turned to Banks and said: "When I send you word you will move your corps towards Culpeper; be prepared to lead the army towards Rapidan Station."
Shifting his attention to McDowell, Pope said: "You will move Ricketts's division from Waterloo Bridge towards Culpeper to cooperate with Banks on the movement south." Inviting no discussion, Pope pushed back his chair and stood up. "General McDowell will return to Warrenton and get Ricketts ready to move. I will go to Sigel's camp at Sperryville and return here tonight." Then, after taking the canteen from McDowell's hands and swallowing more water, he went outside the tent and mounted up.
Following, Banks stood in front of his tent and as Pope began to ride off, he called out, "Are we then to march to join McClellan at Richmond?"
Pope suddenly jerked the bit and his stallion spun round with a painful neigh. Settling the horse by gripping the mane with his two hands, Pope looked at Banks silently for a moment. Finally he said, "When King's division joins us, the army will move on Gordonsville immediately." Then he raised a hand carelessly to the brim of his hat and let the stallion canter away.
A sneer crossed Banks's face as Pope rode out of sight. Two weeks before he had sent a report to Pope in Washington that one of his cavalry patrols, sent to burn small railroad bridges, by mistake of orders had burned the Orange & Alexandria's Rapidan Bridge. Pope immediately had wired Banks back: "We are advancing and shall continue to advance, and the roads must be preserved for our use. I beg of you to dismiss any idea that there is any purpose whatever to retreat from the positions which you are instructed to take up or that there is any design whatever to await any attack of the enemy." Aching to take on Stonewall Jackson again, Banks would hold Pope to the letter.
From Bank's headquarters camp, General Pope rode his horse at an easy lope, covering the six miles into Sperryville in an hour. Reining up in front of the Sperryville Hotel, a weather-beaten two story frame building with a covered porch, he swung down from the saddle and swaggered up the wooden stairs to the porch, his bulky cavalry boots clumping on the boards. The porch was crowded with officers in bright uniforms standing about in scattered groups, clubbing together and conversing in various languages: mostly German dialects with a smattering of English and Hungarian. As Pope reached the porch, the conversation among the officers trailed off and, with shuffling feet, those blocking Pope's path to the entrance doors made a lane for him as he crossed the porch and passed into the hotel lobby.
Inside he found Franz Sigel standing in the company of Robert Schenck at the foot of the staircase that led to the second floor. Wearing a knee length frock coat covered with brass buttons down to the waist, Sigel stood rigidly straight glaring at Pope. One hand balled into a fist was pressed against his hip. Next to Sigel, with one arm leaning on the staircase's banister, Schenck was striking a hickory riding stick against one of his knee high boots. Striding across the lobby toward Sigel and Schenck, Pope stopped in front of a large parlor room; gesturing to Sigel to join him, he turned into the room and, stepping to an iron-faced fireplace, he stood there with his elbow resting on the mantelpiece. When Sigel came to his side, Pope leaned forward and spoke in a brusk tone, telling him to be ready to move his brigades south on the road towards Madison.
Franz Sigel listened to Pope with a skeptical look on his face. A thin, ill-humored little man, Sigel had been an officer in the army of the Duchy of Baden during the German revolutionary war of 1848. Immigrating to the United States, in 1849, he became one of the political leaders of the Germans immigrants who flooded St. Louis in the 1840's. Gaining a general's commission from Lincoln, as a reward for inducing thousands of St. Louis Germans to enlist in the Union armies in 1861, Sigel was Lincoln's natural choice to take Fremont's place when he refused to serve under Pope. Arriving in the East, just as the Union cordon in the Valley had disintegrated under the pressure of Stonewall Jackson's troops, Sigel had spent June and July reorganizing Fremont's ragged and dejected corps into a fighting force again. Blenker's division was broken up, the brigades distributed among Schenck's and Carl Schurz's divisions, and the army supplied with equipment, provisions, and transportation.
Sigel's dealings with Pope, however, had not gone well. As his brigades were on the march through the Luray Valley, to take up the position at Sperryville, he received a telegram from Pope which infuriated him. Pope chastised Sigel for allowing Schenck to stop the march of his brigades, because of vague reports that enemy infantry were blocking the route through Thornton's Gap. "You must march forward and not backward," Pope had wired; "the rule to be followed is to attack the enemy wherever you find him on the route you are ordered to pursue unless he greatly outnumbers you." Having distinguished himself as a fighter on various battle fields in Missouri and Arkansas, Franz Sigel was in no mood to take orders from a neophyte general like Pope.
When he heard the mention of Madison, Sigel turned his body sideways and dropped a shoulder to squint at Pope in feigned disbelief. The Village of Madison lies thirty miles due south of Sperryville, a few miles below a tributary of the Rapidan. What was the point of directing his corps toward Madison, Sigel asked. Pope replied that from Madison Sigel would be in position to move toward Charlottesville and threaten the Virginia Central Railroad. Hearing this, Sigel grunted and shook his head dismissively. "Charlottesville is forty miles from Madison, too far out for my corps to move south alone."
"Banks and McDowell will be on your left flank, moving toward Orange Courthouse, threatening Gordonsville," Pope answered sharply.
Sigel's stern expression registered disbelief: Pope seriously thought it safe to move his paltry force almost seventy-five miles into the heart of Virginia?
Catching Sigel's inner drift, Pope turned toward the parlor entrance with a wave of his hand. "For now, move your cavalry across the river to watch Madison," he snapped.
As Pope moved away from the fireplace Sigel called after him, "The scouts say Stonewall Jackson is at the Rapidan waiting for us."
Pope stopped in his tracks and, with a smirk on his face, he turned around and came back to Sigel. "Is that so?" He said. "Then we'll strike him when he comes."
When Sigel did not answer, Pope strutted from the room and went quickly out of the hotel; passing several Prussian officers who were still standing on the porch, he descended the stairs to the hitching post and stepped into the saddle. Without a backward glance, he cantered down Sperryville's only street and headed back to Little Washington. As he rode, the sun, close now to the peaks of the green mountains that loom above the little town, threw the lunging shadow of the horseman far down the road ahead of him.
In the purple twilight of sundown, Pope came into Banks's headquarters camp and found a telegram from Halleck waiting for him: Burnside's command had been ordered to embark from Hampton Roads for Fredericksburg and McClellan's corps were soon to follow. Soon King's division would be free to join the Army of Virginia at the Rapidan.
At the noonday of August 8th, Stonewall Jackson was lying in a pasture near the Rapidan, resting his head against the fat root of a sycamore tree. The stubby visor of his campaign cap obscured the sharp bridge of his nose, and his hands were folded across his chest. His sword, in its scabbard, was leaning against the trunk of the tree. Above him the sycamore's thick leaf canopy shielded his skinny body from the white ball of sun, hovering virulently overhead. His bony little horse stood shivering behind the tree; tormented by blood-sucking flies, the sorrel horse swished its tail across its haunches and stamped a hind leg in frustration.
Off in the distance, a silent mass of men was tramping northward by files of fours, immersed in a murky cloud of light brown dust. In the withering heat, the particles of dust were so fine that as the men shuffled their feet the dust was like a veil hanging from the plane of their eyes, and suspended there it floated in undulating waves. Each carrying a load of haversack, blanket, rifle and cartridge pouch, the men streamed sweat, their chests heaved, their mouths pressed against mucus-stained bandanas, their nostrils and eyelids caked with brown slime. The strong ones dragged along the road, each man managing his cadence so to keep himself removed from the man in his front, his rear and at his side, while the weak ones fell away in droves to the shoulders of the road.
Before dawn on August 7th, at his camp near Gordonsville, Stonewall had received reports from his scouts that Banks's infantry column was seen late the day before marching from Little Washington, taking the rock road that led to Culpeper. Now, late in the noonday hour of the 8th, a staff officer rode up to the sycamore tree where Stonewall was sleeping and reported that the head of Winder's division was standing in the roadway two miles north of Barnett's Ford, blocked from advancing further by Ewell's wagon train cutting into the road. Quick like a cat, Stonewall was upon his feet, buckling on his sword and taking up the reins of his suffering sorrel.
By nightfall on the 8th, he was riding with Ewell's lead brigade as it reached the demolished railroad crossing of the Rapidan; wading through the adjacent wagon ford in knee-deep water, he climbed the opposite bank through a notch and rode onto the little plain in front of Cedar Mountain. The rest of Ewell's division with Winder's and Hill's and thousands of horses pulling caissons and cannon and wagons were jammed together on the road behind him as far south as the town of Orange. Despite being outnumbered five divisions to three, Stonewall was moving his army to encounter Pope's before it could concenrate
Late in the evening of August 8, Nat Banks rode in to Culpeper at the head of his little corps and was met by a young man named Louis Marshall. The son of General Lee's sister, Marshall had grown up in Baltimore. After his parents left the United States for Europe, in July 1862, he joined John Pope's staff as an aide de camp. Marshall brought Banks oral instructions from Pope which Banks's chief of staff wrote out verbatim: "Move to the front at first light. Deploy skirmishers; if the enemy advances attack him immediately as he approaches and be reinforced from here."
Banks and Pope at Culpepper
The next morning, Nat Banks rode away from Pope with a deep-seeded anger rising. As far as he could see, the enemy's advance had presented Pope with the perfect opportunity to put his words into action. His army was at least as strong as Jackson's, probably much stronger. Pope had Ricketts's division—four fresh brigades at full strength—sitting for days closer to the Rapidan ford on the Culpeper Road than anyone. Ricketts could have easily gotten down to the Rapidan early on the 8th, and Banks then would be moving to reinforce Ricketts while Sigel was marching toward Culpeper as Pope's reserve. Instead, Pope was holding Ricketts back and sending Banks forward alone. Six weeks earlier, in the face of Jackson's breakthrough at Front Royal with superior numbers, Nat Banks had been so badly outnumbered he had no rational choice but to abandon his position at Winchester and retreat to the Potomac River. He had been ridiculed and abused by the Union newspapers for his action and the shame of it was still burning his soul. This time, he said to himself, whether outnumbered or not, he would fight Jackson to his last man.
Ten miles out from Culpeper, Banks reached the crest of a high ridge in the company of his division commanders, Christopher Augur and Alpheus Williams, and Pope's surrogate, General Roberts. Ahead of him, he could see the Culpeper Road descending a gentle grade for half a mile, to the undulating floor of a shallow valley through which winds the branches of an intermittent stream called Cedar Run. From his seat in the saddle, he could see that skirmishers from Augur's division were streaming down from the ridge, the officers spreading a line along a lane that ended in a clearing in front of Mrs. Crittenden's farmhouse. A mile beyond the Union skirmishers, several sections of rebel artillery were in battery, firing shells which sailed over the little valley and exploded on the knolls, the creek bed, and the slope of the north ridge. Behind the rebel cannon, a brigade-size column of infantry was moving slowly up the Culpeper Road from the wagon ford of the Rapidan. Far off in the hazy distance beyond the river, a brown veil of dust hung ominously over the road.
A shell suddenly exploded in the sky above the Union generals. Struggling with one hand to control his excited stallion, Banks removed binoculars from a case strapped to the pommel of his saddle and glassed the terrain of the valley. Scanning across the knolls Banks brought the binoculars to rest on the face of Cedar Mountain, and he saw the glint of moving rifle barrels through the screen of trees. Jamming the binoculars back in its case, he turned in the saddle and sharply gave orders to his division commanders to deploy their brigades into battle lines. "All of them?" the two commanders exclaimed in unison. "You're damn right, all of them," Banks shouted back. "Augur, you put your brigades on the left of the road and advance to the Crittendon farmhouse. Williams, you send Crawford's brigade forward on the right side of the road, keeping back your last brigade, Gordon's, as our general reserve."
A brief moment later, an orderly on horseback was dashing into the valley and Williams and Augur were spurring their horses back down the Culpeper Road. As Williams and Augur were galloping off, Roberts sidled his horse to Banks's side, and leaning close, he said: "General Pope says there must be no backing out today." At this, Banks wrenched back the reins and spun his stallion around, colliding chest to chest with Roberts's mount. Banks glared at Roberts, as more of the rebels' long range shells whizzed over the ridge.
In the din of the burgeoning cannonade, Banks shouted at Roberts: "You tell Pope there will be a battle today, so he best get Ricketts up quick." Then he viciously wheeled his charger around, and, waving to his staff to follow him, he spurred the neighing animal into a gallop, and went flying south on the Culpeper Road. Half-way down the long incline, heading to the valley floor, he turned onto a farm lane that came to the road from the right; galloping west, he went over a saddle between two short hills and followed the lane up the skirt of a gully; grabbing the pommel of his saddle to hold his seat, he climbed the grade, kicking the blowing stallion up the side of a rocky hill; coming over the crown, he passed through several patches of trees and entered a clearing that gave a lookout over the river valley.
There was a cottage in the middle of the plateau. Smoke flitted up from a brick chimney attached to the side of its shed-like roof. A heavy-set white woman was standing in the doorway with her arms folded across her bosom, watching, as Banks, followed by his cavalcade, galloped into the clearing and stopped in a swirl of dust. Ignoring the woman, Banks dismounted in the farm yard and sauntered over to a snake fence and watched the action unfolding below.
In the next several hours, from noon till sometime after three, Nat Banks watched from the cottage knoll as, one by one, rebel brigades appeared on the ground by the bank of the river, creeping forward through the farm fields and the creek beds, edging up to the lane where the Crittenden farm house stands. Swarming over the ground opposite the lane, from the edge of Cedar Mountain to the Culpeper Road, Banks's soldiers—four small brigades—fought from the cover of the knolls and gullies. Soon a wide band of smoke rose over the lane, making it almost impossible to discern which side was advancing and which recoiling. The sight filled Banks with elation; here was his chance to redeem the self-respect he lost when he abandoned Winchester in the spring. There was an instant even, he thought he might snatch from Pope the top command.
Draining the little valley, the South Fork of Cedar Run flows north in the rear of Mrs. Crittenden's farm house; bending around the north face of the mountain it cuts across the flatland beyond the mountain and empties in to the Rapidan. Scanning with his binoculars the broad swale made by the creek bed in the valley floor, Banks saw that between the Crittenden farm house and the middle of the mountain slope, where the enemy were felling trees to open sight lines for their artillery, the ground was yet clear of enemy infantry. Shifting his glasses, he scanned the west side of the Culpeper Road; moving his gaze by degrees along the tree line in front of the wheat field, he saw that the bristling brown line of enemy soldiers thinned to an end in the sector where the scrub brush invaded the field. Lowering the binoculars, he stood for several minutes listening to the sounds of the cannonading and watching the battle lines bulge and shrink, ebb and flow, along the front.
Then, he sent a courier riding to his battery captains with orders to concentrate their fire on the open sector of the Culpeper Road, where the lagging regiments of the enemy were breaking out of the congestion around the river ford and attempting to assemble. Counter fire from the rebel side numbered as many guns: three batteries were in echelon on the Culpeper Road and several more were unlimbering along the river bank and others were opening from the lower elevations of Cedar Mountain.
Resting one boot on the top of the snake fence, Banks beckoned to Roberts, who was standing back with the headquarters staff, to come forward. "Tell the general commanding that the enemy is approaching us in force and we are advancing," He said as Roberts reached his side.
Roberts gripped Banks's arm and leaned close to his ear. "General, you must stand on the defensive. All your troops are in line and you have no reserves." The spectacle of battle had changed his tune. When Banks did not reply, Roberts gripped his arm tighter and pointed to the western horizon. "Look, General, look at the sun. There is but two hours of daylight left. Just hold the high ridge until night falls."
Shaking off Roberts’s grip, Banks casually shifted his gaze from the action in the valley to the western horizon. The sun was a large orange ball hovering in a darkening sky above the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. "It is General Pope's duty to have Ricketts up in time," he said.
Roberts stepped in front of Banks and faced him. Couriers had been racing back and forth between Pope and him. Pope had not believed that Banks would take the initiative against Jackson without Ricketts up. Now he was frantic that Roberts get Banks to back off. "Ricketts has not moved up. General Pope expected Sigel to reach Culpeper in plenty of time to reinforce you, but Sigel has only just now arrived, and he refuses to march any further until his men are rested and fed."
As Roberts was speaking, Banks's gaze drifted back to the valley. Pope be dammed, he thought. South of the corn field, he saw several teams of artillery horses, dragging bouncing gun carriages, gallop through openings in the enemy infantry ranks; wheeling their teams around at the edge of a clump of cedar trees, the cannoneers quickly dismounted and released their pieces from the limbers and, as the horse-holders ran the teams out of the way, they pushed their pieces beyond the trees, in sections, and commenced firing canister shells into the corn field. Suddenly, a regiment from Prince's Union brigade, fanned out as skirmishers, rushed from the cover of the high corn and ran toward the guns. Seconds later, a battle line of rebel soldiers rose up from behind farm fences, hay stacks and bushes, and fired their rifles in perfect unison. The blast of fire dropped the front rank of the Union skirmishers in their tracks. A moment of stillness, like a sudden falling off of the wind in a storm, filled the valley as thousands of eyes watched the wounded soldiers shriveling to the ground. Then, from both sides came suddenly again the crashing, deafening roar of artillery fire, overlaid this time with the crackling, incessant roll of rifle volleys, and four brigades of soldiers surged violently together again in the middle of the valley.
For sixty minutes the little valley between the high ridge and the knoll where Mrs. Crittenden's farm house stands was the vortex of a human maelstrom. From every direction, artillery shells of every description were hurled, whining and screeching, into it; bursting in the midst of the wild-eyed combatants, the casings of the shells fragmented into flying shards of ragged metal, sweeping clear momentarily patches of ground in the battle lines. Like giant heavy-weight boxers standing toe to toe exchanging body blows, first one side, then the other, would stagger backward from the shock of the scything shells and then come on again. Then, as whole companies of men collapsed to the ground, instantly replaced by fresh ones, the contending battle lines puffed and swayed like cobra snakes to the shrill notes of the bugles, and spit flames of lead venom at each other. Shrouded in smoke and dust the field slowly became grim with desolation: among the splintered trees and wrecked gun carriages, mangled dead bodies of men and horses lay in scattered heaps among long rows of wounded and dying men; some moaning, some calling for their mothers and wives, some, in delirium, repeating the names of their companions, as if they were calling the muster roll over and over again.
The rebel General Winder appeared on the Culpeper Road, near the corner of the field where a section of rebel guns was firing, under the command of Captain Poague; dismounting, he stood in the space between the left gun and its limber and watched the progress of the battle through binoculars. He was the ranking general officer on the field. A mile ahead, he could see the right flank of a Union brigade being cut to pieces as the men crossed the creek bed at the bottom of the Crittenden knoll and climbed the slope. Then, suddenly, a tremendous sound of rifle volleying came from the direction of the wheat field on the west side of the road, and Winder saw that a mass of Union infantry had emerged from a band of woods and was firing rifle volleys into the flank of a rebel brigade—the rebel soldiers caught unawares abruptly abandoned their positions and ran back across the fields. At the same time a courier came galloping up with a message from Jubal Early whose brigade of Virginians was anchoring the rebel right; the lines formed by the Union brigades on Banks's left were overlapping his and he needed reinforcements immediately.
At this, Winder grabbed hold of the courier's shoulder and, stretching to reach his ear, he shouted orders to bring reserves up to the front. Just as the orderly was kicking his horse away, a stream of shells sailed over the canopy of trees and burst among Poague's cannonners, killing one of the sergeants and slaughtering a team of the horses. Standing in the midst of the smoking carnage, Winder was struck in his left side by a spinning fragment of metal which shattered his rib cage as it ripped away a chunk of flesh from his chest and went careening on. The shock of the impact rocked Winder back on his heels and he fell dead to the ground in a quivering heap, the gaping hole in his chest gurgling black blood.
The shells came faster now, ricocheting among the cannonners, splintering the limbers and blowing up the caissons. At the same time a mob of rebel soldiers came scrambling south like hysterical cattle in a stampede. A solid line of hurrahing Union soldiers from Crawford's brigade came close behind them. In the chaos of the moment the survivors among the gun crews drew ropes through the eyelets of the trail handles and dragged their guns away as the surging blue line loosed a crackling rifle volley into them.
The deafening crescendo of battle sounds brought Stonewall Jackson galloping from the river ford. Touched to the quick by the sight of his tottering brigades he has turned pale; he knows that his whole future is suddenly at stake. Winder has been killed. Ronald's brigade is out of touch. Garnett's brigade is giving way in panic under the pressure of Crawford's oblique attack across the wheat field. Taliaferro's left wing is collapsing under Crawford's pressure, and the right wing facing Geary is giving ground. The whole tangled mass of Jackson's disconcerted men is disrupting Early's fight with Prince. Into the eye of this storm Stonewall rides: waving a regimental banner snatched from someone's hand, he shouts orders that no one can hear. Reining up, he sits his little sorrel suspended in time, unseen in the midst of his fleeing soldiers, his eyes darting about the field to see whose reinforcements are coming up. Miraculously he sees A.P. Hill's brigades appear on the field. Hill, wearing his trademark red shirt, waving a sword over his head, directs one brigade to the left, another to the center, and another to the right—a fresh rebel tide swamping the Union forces in the field, driving them back in all sectors.
Overwhelmed now, outnumbered and outclassed, the cohesion of the Union front crumbles as the men in the ranks run for their lives. On the right of the Culpeper Road, Thomas's brigade arrives in Jubal Early's rear and thickens the rebel side of the scrimmage, driving the Union brigades of Geary and Prince back from the knoll, across the creek bed and through the cornfield. Struggling to hold their fall back position on the ridge, Augur is wounded, Geary wounded, Prince captured and all the rest of the field officers, majors, lieutenants, colonels, are killed or wounded. The Union offensive has been crushed and the survival of Banks's corps is now at stake.
From the cottage knoll Nat Banks sees the surge of Jackson's reinforcements push his battle lines back towards the high ridge, and he grunts in angry satisfaction. His little corps has gone against the mighty Stonewall and knocked him on the edge of a serious disaster. There will be no running from the field now, he thinks in glee.
Nat stepped into the saddle and laid a gloved hand on his stallion's croup. The sun was gone behind the Blue Ridge and John Pope and the rest of the army were nowhere in sight. Beneath his droopy mustache his tight lips parted in a thin smile. If the Union general commanding had been as adroit as his rebel counterpart in marshalling the whole of his army for the fight, he might have pushed the enemy into the Rapidan River; but, instead, Pope had hung back, content to dangle Banks's men at the enemy like bait. What did he think? That the newspapers would report that he had stopped Jackson's pursuit of Banks as Banks fell back without a fight? Banks chuckled dryly to himself as he waved to his entourage to come on. Now the newspapers would be telling the North about the courage of the Yankees who fought with Banks at Cedar Mountain.
In the gathering darkness, Nat Banks turned his stallion around and, holding the reins high in his hands, he led his mount at the trot, eastward, toward the Culpeper Road. Arriving there, he found a Pennsylvania regiment of Zouaves in a battle line on both sides of the road. In their front, near the crown of the forested ridge three hundred yards in the distance, he saw tiny flashes of flame from the discharge of the enemy’s rifles, sprinkling the darkness. Deep in the surrounding forest, dark red flashes, in halos of brilliant white light, illuminated the muzzles of a section of rebel field pieces. Shells whooshed high overhead like shooting stars, with their sparkling fuses leaving faint ionized trails in the moonlit sky. Then, from somewhere in the fields behind the Zouaves' battle line, an explosion sounded and a white light suddenly flared; and as it flickered away, he glimpsed scattered groups of his soldiers trudging north, Zombie-like, in the fields beside the road; and on the road behind him, he saw a shadowy procession of creaking ambulances trundling with groaning loads.
Turning his stallion north on the road, Banks heard in the distance the dull clang of sabers rattling in scabbards and the muted stamp of horses' hoofs trotting. Reining his mount to a halt, he straightened his back and sat square in the saddle as John Pope, riding with Roberts and McDowell at the head of Ricketts's division, came into sight. Pope stopped with his entourage in front of Banks and took a long look at the shades of Banks's slouching soldiers making their way rearward. Pope nudged his mount alongside Banks and said coldly, "Why did you not follow Roberts’s instructions?"
"As you can see I have held my position," Banks replied sharply.
"But you have broken your command nearly to pieces."
"Because of the absence of reinforcements from you."
"You should not have brought on a battle until you had the troops necessary to win it."
Banks had been waiting for this; he leaned forward in the moonlit darkness and sneered at Pope. "Well, now that you have brought the army up, you may easily resume it tomorrow."
Just then, a rebel shell exploded overhead and, as fragments of hot metal rained down on them, the knot of horsemen kicked their startled horses into motion and clamored back down the road several hundred yards, to a clearing between two belts of woodlot. There, the generals dismounted and discussed the situation in angry tones. Hardly had they dismounted from their horses than the sound of galloping horses could be heard coming toward them across the clearing from the west belt of woods. Pistol shots were fired at them; realizing that enemy cavalry were charging toward them, they leaped to their saddles. In the confusion, Pope's shying horse knocked against Banks's hip as he raised his boot to the stirrup and he fell down to the ground. As the generals struggled to get Banks up on his horse, a regiment of infantry from Ricketts's lead brigade stormed through the clearing, forcing the enemy cavalry to veer away. Banks was taken from the clearing to an ambulance, his hip and leg so bruised by his collision with Pope's horse he was unable to mount his stallion for a month.
The next day, when the dawn came stifling hot and breezeless, John Pope found the high ridge deserted. During the night the enemy's cavalry scouts had brought Stonewall the news that Ricketts and Sigel had reached the ground, and he quickly withdrew his front to Mrs. Crittenden's farm lane. During the morning, while skirmishers from both sides were again slowly coalescing in the valley of Cedar Run, Pope ordered Ricketts to advance his four brigades to the ridge on the right side of the Culpeper Road, and, by noon, he had Sigel's six brigades follow on the left side. Banks's exhausted command Pope left in camp a mile back from the ridge on the Culpeper Road; those few of Banks's regiments still capable of combat to be used as a general reserve.
Riding up to the high ridge with Dick Milroy, the commander of Sigel's most experienced brigade, John Pope saw for the first time in his military career the horrible desolation of an active battlefield. Wood fragments of cannon carriages, and the broken frames of limbers and caissons, were scattered across the field. Everywhere the ground was pocked with craters from the shells. The ripe stalks in the corn fields lay like a green bamboo carpet on the ground, trodden and trampled by the mad rush of the soldiers back and forth. The cedar trees in the clump on the knoll behind the corn field were splintered and peeled. On the opposite slope of the next knoll, six grey horses lay on their sides in double files, their stiff legs outstretched from their bullet-riddled bodies. In the ravine between the knolls, more dead horses lay entwined in piles, and lying in long, uneven rows between them were scores and scores of dead men swelling, like the horses, in the heat of the merciless sun. A swarm of squabbling crows and vultures, their wings raised to ward off their neighbors, were tearing red morsels of flesh from the grey bodies.
Walking his horse eastward along the ridge, John Pope held his binoculars in one hand and, scanning the distant border of the carrion field, he saw the brown lines of Jackson's infantry massed on the crowns of the knolls that stretch across the valley, from the forest to Cedar Mountain. As Pope was scrutinizing the enemy lines with his binoculars, Franz Sigel rode up with a pack of his brigadiers. Sigel reported that the left wing was ready to advance to the attack and asked Pope what were his orders. The commanding general lowered his binoculars and looked at the officers circled around him. Each of them had their eyes fixed solidly on him and he could see that they were expecting him to order them into action. Not answering Sigel, he looked off in the distance again, his eyes narrowing under the glare of the sun. A sweet, putrid smell in the dead atmosphere congested his nostrils, and he stared at the grotesque sight of the bloated grey bodies strewn over the valley floor and he thought of the possibility that Jackson had been reinforced, of the long road back to the Rappahannock bridges, of Halleck's instructions to be cautious—and he decided to stand on the defensive and wait for King's division to arrive.
Turning in the saddle, he said to Sigel, "The heat is too intense for us to renew the action today." Then, leaving Sigel and the rest with smirking expressions spreading over their faces, he turned his horse around and rode away.
Joe Ryan Original Works
About the author:
Joe Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg several times.
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