Henry Halleck was at his desk, pouring over a stack of papers that had accumulated during the night, when he spied a telegram from Pope and snatched it up: "The enemy are massing heavily upon our center and right, and everything indicates an assault will be made upon our position. We are all ready and shall make the best fight we can." Halleck's expression—jaw, cheeks, lips—tightened. He had been anticipating this: the enemy meant to move around the right flank of Pope's army before it could be reinforced with McClellan's troops coming from Richmond.
Slapping the telegram with the back of his hand, he pushed his swivel chair away from the desk, and, stepping quickly to the wall map, he looked over its rendering of the road net between the railroad and the Bull Run Mountains; his baggy eyes taking on a gleam, he focused on a thick black line which traced the only paved road that led from the upper Rappahannock directly to Washington: extending from the direction of Sperryville the road crosses the river at Waterloo Bridge and goes through Warrenton to Gainesville, on the line of the Manassas Gap Railroad, where it then angles eastward to Centerville and Alexandria. A thin smile came slowly over Halleck's face as he took a step back from the map and folded his arms across his chest; with his eyes darting from point to point on the map, he thought: It's the nearest available road that can accommodate the movement of their main body and their wagon trains; if the rebels mean to come around Pope's right toward Washington they must use it to first get to Warrenton. Scanning down the map along the line of the Rappahannock toward the bridge crossing of the Orange & Alexandria railroad, Halleck saw a road crossing the river at White Sulpher Springs from the direction of Jeffersonton. The rebels will march a strong infantry column on this road, to cover their wagon trains on the turnpike, he thought. Shifting his gaze further down to the line of the railroad, he saw the two good roads that run north and south—the turnpike that passes north from Falmouth through Bealton to Warrenton as well as the road that runs north from Kelly's Ford close to the river and intersects the road that bridges the river at the White Sulpher Springs. Pope could use these to interdict the enemy's move on Warrenton.
Nodding his head, General Halleck turned away from the map and sat down behind the desk again. For a moment he sat with his hands clasped in his lap, thinking on how Pope should execute the obvious countermove. Then, as he came to his conclusion, he reached forward and pulled open one of the side drawers on the right side of the desk and removed a letterbook. Laying the book on the desk, he opened the leafs to a blank page and took up his pen to write. But, as he brought the point of the pen to the page, an old memory flooded his mind and he hesitated. Fourteen years before, during a tedious, seven months' voyage from New York to California, he had sat in his cabin translating from the French, Baron Jomini's Life of Napoleon. He was remembering Jomini's text about the essential difference between attack and defense: the attacker knows what he is doing and what he desires to do; he leads the masses to the point where he desires to force a battle. The defender protects as long as possible the country the attacker threatens, by designing operations which retard the attacker's progress and gives some chance of seizing the initiative. Simple enough to understand, but the difficulty was in the execution, Jomini had written; it is not enough, knowing how to take the initiative when the proper time comes. It is the taking it that counts.
The taking it that counts—Henry Halleck repeated the phrase to himself as he sucked in his breath, his eyes fixing on the middle space in a dull stare as a feeling of nausea rose like bile from his gut. He could have taken personal command of McClellan's army on the James, but instead, with Lincoln's imperative being to substitute Burnside in McClellan's place, he had ordered McClellan to bring the army back to the Rappahannock. In the execution of the order he had counted on the enemy standing on the defensive, but he knew from the enemy's movements that the opposite was happening.
Halleck set down the pen with a grunt and put his elbows on the desk; grimacing, he rubbed his fingertips for a long moment against the bridge of his nose and waited for the sickly sensation in the pit of his stomach to go away. A minute passed, then another, until finally feeling it ebb he picked up the pen again and wrote deliberately:
Washington, D.C., August 22, 1862
If you are satisfied that the enemy's main force is moving on Warrenton, then mass your troops on the railroad and take the offensive against his flank movement.
H.W. Halleck, General-in-Chief
John Pope received this message from Halleck at noon—when he was standing in a huddle with his chief of staff, George Ruggles, and two of his aides de camp in front of the telegraph tent near Bealton; he was listening to Herman Haupt explain why the six locomotives he had run down to Bealton that morning had to be immediately returned to Manassas. Twenty thousand troops were on the verge of pouring into Alexandria: one division under Cox was arriving on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from western Virginia, another division, newly organized under Sturgis, was ready to move from its camps in Washington; and the two divisions of Heintzelman's corps—Kearny's and Hooker's—were being diverted from Acquia Creek to Alexandria because the vessels carrying them displaced too much water to reach the Acquia docks. None of them would reach Pope, Haupt was saying, until the locomotives were returned to the Manassas end of the tracks—the main point on the road where westbound trains could pass eastbound trains.
While Haupt was talking, Pope's personal telegrapher, a man named McCain, came from the tent and handed him Halleck's message. As Pope was reading it, the sound of artillery shells exploding in rapid succession sprang over the hills from the direction of the river. The cannonading rang in the air with whomping staccato tones. Haupt stopped talking and listened with the others as the sounds of the bombardment thickened and at once fell away to a muted rumbling, like thunder rolling over faraway mountains. As the artillery sounds were fading away, a trooper appeared on the wagon road, riding toward them on a sagging horse from the direction of the river; coming near to the telegraph tent, he dug his spurs in the flanks of his tired horse and the animal, puffing, clopped unsteadily over the ballast bed of the railroad and came to a stop in front of Ruggles. Bending his trunk down to his thigh the trooper handed a note to Ruggles; then, without a word, he slowly reined the horse around and walked him back over the tracks to the wagon road and headed west.
Unfolding the paper Ruggles saw from the heading that it came from the headquarters of Pope's First Corps commander, Franz Sigel. When he was finished reading, he turned and said to Pope, "Sigel sent Bohlen's brigade across the river at Freeman's Ford to attack a rebel wagon train that he thought was passing his front without infantry support, but the brigade was driven into the river by a rebel division that was marching north, to the west of the train. General Bohlen and two of his colonels are dead, and a hundred men in the ranks were killed in the river as they tried to wade back across. Sigel is trying now to disrupt the enemy's movement with an artillery barrage."
Pope listened with a disgusted expression on his face. Since the time of Sigel's delay in marching to Banks's support at Cedar Mountain, Pope had shunned the little German as a coward and an incompetent. Sigel was always drilling his infantry when they were in camp, but, in the field, he never would bring their masses into combat quickly; he preferred instead to engage in battle by using long range artillery duels and skirmishing. Annoyed by Sigel's blotched attempt at taking the initiative, Pope decided to go to the river and find out for himself what was happening.
Abruptly turning back to Haupt, General Pope told the railroad man to take the locomotives but leave the cars, and then he began walking away. Motioning to Ruggles and the two aides de camp to follow him (One of them was his nephew, Douglas Pope; the other was Louis Marshall, a nephew of General Lee's—the son of his sister Anne), Pope strode across the wagon road to a group of saddled horses standing by a small grove of trees. Stepping to his stallion, Pope released the reins from the picket pin, and, passing them over the animal's neck, he sunk his hands into its comb of black hair and sprang to his seat in the saddle; turning out to the wagon road, he halted and waited, as Ruggles and the two young officers cut their mounts out from the pack and mounted up. Soon they all were cantering in a cavalcade west on the wagon road; covering three miles, in a lope over the little hills and hollows, they led their horses down to a blowing walk as they splashed through a shallow creek and came into the rear of a line of ammunition wagons parked haphazardly along the road. Wending their way through the wagon congestion they came to the intersecting river road and they turned their horses onto it, and trotted north along the eastern crest of the narrow river valley.
In the fields all along the river road Sigel's artillery batteries were in action; the cannoneers serving their pieces—for the most part, Parrotts and Napoleons—with shells that ejected from the guns in clouds of white smoke and squealed away over the valley, slamming into the far hillsides with sudden eruptions, heaving lumps of dirt upwards like geysers which then abruptly fell like black rain to earth. In the midst of the plummeting earth, there were sections of rebel cannon along the perimeter of the road that led toward Jeffersonton responding in kind; down in front of them, on the upper reaches of the knobby ground that slopes concavely to the basin of the river, Pelham's rifled Blakely and his howitzers were in action here and then there, ranging bursting shells in spurts into the midst of the Union batteries. Out of range of the enemy's artillery, a mile east of the road that Pope and his cortege was riding on, a blue mass of figures could be seen standing motionless, silent, and small.
Ignoring the shells flying over his head Pope signaled Ruggles and the aides de camp to follow him, and he turned off the river road between two batteries in action and trotted down a farm lane, past the smoking ruins of a large brick house; reining his mount to a halt at the edge of a promontory that gave a view of the river valley, he put up his binoculars and scanned the opposite ridge, pausing at each cleft in the range of hills before shifting the glasses laterally an inch or two. In the momentary snatches of clear space that appeared and disappeared among the drifting strips of smoke hanging over the valley, he caught blurry glimpses of a dark mass of figures moving north past the gaps. Speaking to no one in particular he said in a matter-of-fact voice: "The enemy is moving beyond our right."
Slipping his glasses back in their saddle pouch, he reined his stallion close to Ruggles and, pointing to the blocks of Sigel's soldiers standing like midgets in the distant fields, he shouted over the din of the cannonading: "If sesech use the bridge at Sulpher Springs to cross the river, we will mass our whole force behind Sigel's troops over there and advance against their front and flank." Then, wrenching his stallion back on his hind legs in a whirling, whinnying spin, he spurred back down the farm lane to the river road and turned south on to the river road.
Ten minutes later, at the head of his little cavalcade, General Pope rode at a sharp gallop into the fenced yard of Rappahannock Station. Dismounting at the hitching post in front of the station house, he motioned to his companions to leave their horses in the hands of the several orderlies who were loitering by, and he climbed a flight of steps onto a covered porch that led to the entrance of the public waiting room. As he went up the porch steps he felt, suddenly, the pelting of rain drops on his hat and he stepped aside, motioning to the others to pass him and go inside. Standing at the edge of the porch, he cocked his head to look up and was surprised to see that a towering thunderhead of thick black-bottomed cloud, its cauliflower top billowing upwards, had materialized high in the blue sky overhead. In the far distance, to the west of the high spiraling cloud, he saw, too, several fat sausage-shaped, coal-black clouds that were sweeping eastward over the forested slopes of the Blue Ridge, their swollen bellies bursting with grey squalls of dense cascading rain.
John Pope stood still for a full minute, his mind flashing on images of the fierce, brief storms that he had experienced with pleasure when he was stationed for a spring at Fort Union, in the high country of New Mexico Territory. Finally the men will get a few hours of cool relief from the terrible summer heat, he mused. Then, feeling the slight uneasy distraction of the moment evaporate within himself, he turned on his heel and strode to the entrance door of the station house that Ruggles was holding open for him.
The interior of the station house was one large room with two cubicles built into the width of one wall. The entrances to the cubicles had Dutch doors in them, with the top halves latched open. In one of the cubicles a man dressed in civilian clothes was seated at a table, working a telegraph key; in the other, there were two junior officers sorting through papers scattered on a desk. In the public waiting area there was a long pew-like bench in front of which stood an iron stove. Irwin McDowell, Pope's Third Corps commander, was seated on the bench; beside him were the commanders of his two divisions, Rufus King and James Ricketts. Around them, there was a buzz of conversation coming from several groups of staff officers who were standing in different parts of the room. Seeing Pope enter, McDowell shifted his ponderous frame and rose to his feet; as he stepped forward to greet Pope, the murmur of voices in the background faded away.
Coming through the entrance door, Pope saw McDowell look in his direction and rise. Pope took off his hat and, brushing droplets of water from the crown, he strolled forward with quick strides to meet McDowell halfway. Hesitating for a moment as they came together near the center of the room in a mutual exchange of greeting, Pope motioned with his hand for McDowell to walk with him across the waiting room. Near the telegraph operator's cubicle, Pope stopped in front of a pane glass window that gave a view out to the train platform and the tracks. Across the room behind them, Ruggles drew Douglas Pope and Louis Marshall into a circle of staff officers and the volume of conversation slowly rose again—the officers glancing from time to time at Pope and McDowell, trying to read their faces.
Watching the rain—now suddenly a deluge—blow across the platform and clatter against the window pane, Pope listened without expression to McDowell's report of the situation in his sector. McDowell said that, for most of the day, at different points along the rim of the river valley, the enemy's artillery batteries had been firing and his and Sigel's had been responding in kind; and, although the rebel infantry had made no appearance in force in front of the railroad bridge, their skirmishers were in the woods at the bottom of the valley and their sharpshooters had been sniping incessantly at the Union soldiers occupying the blockhouses at the railroad bridgehead. On the left of McDowell's forces, where the divisions of Reno and Stevens were covering the ground, all was quiet down to the fork of the rivers as far as he could tell; and he had heard that the first reinforcements from McClellan's army—eight thousand soldiers from Reynolds’s division of Porter's corps—were approaching Kelly's Ford.
McDowell was winding up his report, when a cavalryman, his clothes drenched from the rain, came into the waiting room. All eyes turned the trooper's way as Ruggles stepped from the group of officers and came to his side. After a brief exchange of words, Ruggles ordered the trooper to wait; crossing the room to Pope and McDowell at the window, Ruggles said in a low voice as he came close, "Colonel Breadsley of the 24th New York Cavalry sends this man with the report that the heads of two rebel columns, apparently moving by brigades, are crossing the Rappahannock a mile apart near the Sulpher Springs."
As Ruggles was speaking, a chapfallen expression came upon John Pope's face and, turning his head sharply away, he stared dourly out the window at the rain. He thought: Yes, sesech will come with all their power against my right. I will order Sigel to drive them back. . . though, with the fight gone out of Banks, and Reno needed to block Kelly's Ford, the success of the army on the offensive will ultimately depend upon McDowell—but is it safe to depend on him?
Pope shot a glance at McDowell. The big man had always outranked him in the Regular army. A valued member of General Scott's staff when the war broke out, McDowell had had the experience of commanding the army at the debacle of Bull Run, and of becoming the country's butt: subordinated as he was now—to a junior in rank—would he act energetically and true in the moment of crisis? Pope's lips trembled, so that the hairs of his beard around his mouth moved ever so slightly. Imperceptibly he stiffened his spine, steeling himself to keep above the fear that was rising in the well-spring of his being, lapping at his resolve of will and threatening to suffocate him. Turning back to Ruggles, his gaze slowly taking in the circle of faces in the room, he instructed his chief of staff in a loud voice to send the waiting trooper to Sigel, with orders to move on Sulpher Springs and attack the advancing enemy.
As Ruggles was walking away, Irwin McDowell, his facial expression suddenly a scowl, moved a step closer to Pope and said, "Sigel will need to be supported. If you mean to also move my corps to the right, then you will have only the divisions of Reno and Stevens to hold the four miles of front between Kelly's Ford and the railroad. With Banks unable to do more than guard the wagons, moving the front of the army to the right will offer the enemy the opportunity of a breakthrough on the left. Would it not be prudent to draw the army some distance back from the river—at least until a corps from McClellan's army arrives from Falmouth or Alexandria?"
Pope shrugged his shoulders; then, raising a hand to signal McDowell not to follow him, he turned from the window and walked to the telegrapher's cubicle and went inside. The furnishings in the little room were sparse—nothing except a chair standing in the corner by the door, an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, a stool the telegrapher was using, and a plank resting on two cracker boxes that served as a counter for the telegraph equipment. Fiddling with the equipment when Pope came in, the telegrapher looked at him quizzically and began rising from his stool; but, when he saw that Pope was taking a seat by the door, ignoring him, the telegrapher went about his work.
Plopping his big hat down on the make-shift counter, John Pope reached into the breast pocket of his frock coat and took out a piece of canvas cloth which he unfolded and spread out in front of him. Drawn on the starchy surface of the cloth was the line of the Rappahannock between Kelly's Ford and Waterloo Bridge, as well as the contours of terrain within four miles of the river's margins. Resting his left forearm on the counter, Pope leaned forward and surveyed the map. From Freeman's Ford where Sigel was then, it is six miles to the vicinity of Sulpher Springs: if Sigel were to move north from Freeman's Ford and engage the enemy where they were crossing the river near the springs, the whole of McDowell's corps would have to be moved into the sector north of the railroad to support Sigel's attack from behind; and, to keep the railroad bridgehead covered, Reno and Stevens would have to move up from Kelly's Ford into McDowell's old place in front of Rappahannock Station, while the forces under Banks, which were interspersed among the army's wagon trains between Bealton and Catlett's Station, acted as the army's general reserve.
Pope banged the plank counter with the flat of his hand, muttering to himself that McDowell was right—the lateral shift of the army's front northward would take its left flank several miles away from Kelly's Ford and give the enemy the opportunity to use the ford to move across the river into the army's left rear. Startled by the smacking sound of Pope's hand, the telegrapher jerked his head up from his work and stole a glance in Pope's direction; but he swiftly lowered his eyes when he saw that the commanding general was hunched forward in the chair, staring sullenly at the floor.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty, as Pope concentrated his mind on the alternatives to shifting the army's front northward. Moving the army back from the river, as McDowell had suggested, was clearly the prudent choice, but it was not likely that the President would allow it. Lincoln would have Stanton badger Halleck into ordering the army to make a stand in its present position. Pope stirred in the chair as the sounds of muffled noises—the staff officers' conversations, the scraping of boots and scabbards on the waiting room floor—broke his concentration for a moment. Well, then, he thought, as he settled himself and redoubled his focus. If the army must fight to hold the line of the river, there's a better way of doing it than directly engaging the enemy's forces that are developing a spearhead at the springs: from their front between the railroad bridgehead and Freeman's Ford, McDowell and Sigel might launch a joint attack with their four divisions directly across the river—the objective being to separate the main body of the enemy's infantry columns from their rear guard and their wagon trains. The pressure of such an attack should induce the enemy to arrest the movement of their left wing in order to support their right wing and secure their trains.
Abruptly, as a loud crack of thunder punctuated the monotonous pelting of the rain on the windows, John Pope sprang from the chair and stepped to the doorway. Looking over the cluster of faces in the waiting room he saw that McDowell was gone, and beckoned impatiently to Ruggles to come to him. Placing a hand on his chief of staff's shoulder as he reached his side, Pope told him to clear the officers out of the room. Then he turned around, and coming with a bound to the side of the telegrapher he directed him to send General Halleck this message: "Reports are in that the enemy is crossing the river at the springs. My rear is entirely exposed if I move to the springs now. I must either fall back on the railroad, or cross the river with my whole force and assail the enemy's right flank and rear. Which shall it be?"
John Pope stood next to the telegrapher for a time, watching him tap the key; then he returned to the end of the counter and sat down again in the chair. Pushing the map aside, he raised the heels of his boots to the counter-top and tilted back the chair; soon after, the dull sound of the drumming rain lulled him into a ragged sleep—his arms falling limp in his lap, and, in a series of small jerks, his chin finally dropped to his chest.
Hours later, just as a grey dawn was spreading over the eastern sky, he came awake under the jostling hand of Ruggles and learned that Jeb Stuart had made a raid on the army's supply trains parked at Catlett's Station; not only had Stuart absconded with the quartermaster's safe, which was full of gold bullion and greenbacks, but he had plundered Pope's own headquarters wagons, taking, among other things, Pope's confidential files of correspondence with Halleck, his full dress uniform and hat, a case of bourbon whiskey and two boxes of Havana cigars.
John Pope felt his face flush, as the fact sank in that the enemy had gotten around the rear of his army in the rain. He sat bolt up right and slammed his boots down to the floor. "Banks should have had a brigade protecting my wagons!" He hotly exclaimed.
"Banks had a brigade cordoning the trains all right," Ruggles quickly replied, "but the woods were pitch black and the roads were full of water running like streams, and the pickets had gone for the shelter of their tents. When the alarm was raised, Banks concentrated on preventing the enemy from destroying the railroad bridge over Cedar Run, east of the station, and Stuart used the opportunity to get into your wagons, which were parked miles down the road to the west of it."
John Pope's long hair had fallen in a tangle across his forehead during his sleep, and, now, he brushed at it absently with his hand as Ruggles was explaining away Banks' failure. When Ruggles was finished, the flustered young general waved his hand dismissively in a show of nonchalance. "Well, it's a trifling success for sesech but the New York newspapers will surely gush prose over it."
Turning his back on Ruggles, he leaned over the counter and retrieved his hat from the place where it laid. Then, folding his map, he slipped it back into his coat pocket and took a step toward the door. But he stopped abruptly, to stare inquiringly at Ruggles, whose facial expression signaled he had something else to say. Noticing the paper in Ruggles' hand, John Pope said: "Well, what is it?"
Without a word more Ruggles handed Pope the telegram that had came across the wire from General Halleck shortly before. "I think you had best cross the river and counterattack," the message read. John Pope handed he telegraph back to Ruggles and took long, fast strides into the waiting room. With Ruggles hurrying to catch up, he went out the station house doors and stepped onto the porch boardwalk. Then, as Ruggles followed him out the door, he turned sharply and said, "Wire a reply to Halleck; tell him that, on the morrow, McDowell's and Sigel's corps will cross the river and attack the rebel center. Tell him that I need him to order the troops moving to this army from Falmouth to cross the Rappahannock at the fork of the rivers and march rapidly upon the rear guard of the enemy."
Stepping off the boardwalk into a drizzly rain, John Pope waved his hand in the direction of several soldiers who were down by the stables at the bottom of the yard. Soon an orderly was splashing through the puddles in the station yard, leading Pope's war horse by the halter toward him. "I am going to the railroad bridge to confer with General McDowell," he said to Ruggles, as the orderly came up to him and wheeled the big horse around by the flank. Then, Pope grabbed hold of the pommel of the saddle with both hands and leaped into the seat; his boots finding the stirrups, he jabbed the blunt knobs of his spurs into the horse's flesh and gave a shout of yaaah, and the black stallion lunged and broke from the yard in full stride. Leaning his body forward slightly, he lowered his hands, lessening the pressure on the bit, and the stallion ran at his own will, pounding down the slick wagon road through a dripping green tunnel of trees. Behind him, Ruggles stood watching with a worried expression on his face as the stallion carried his chief out of sight.
As John Pope was riding for the river, the rebel brigadier general, Jubal Early, was seven miles to the north, standing at the edge of a belt of woods, watching a detail of his soldiers at work in the distance. Wielding long-handled axes, in pairs, the soldiers were methodically chopping at the truss beams of a wooden bridge that spanned the stream known as Great Run. During the hard rain that began late the previous day, an order had come down the chain of command to Early that he was to take his brigade across the Rappahannock immediately. Crossing the river by using the spill way of a mill dam, at a point about a mile below the resort grounds of Sulpher Springs, Early had gotten the last of his five regiments over just as the river became so swollen by flood water that the only means of recrossing was by swimming. Directly opposite the springs, operating under similar orders, Lawton's brigade was to cross the river also; but only the 13th Georgia, accompanied by two four gun batteries, was able to ford the river before the crest of flood water came.
Leaving the 13th Georgia and the gun batteries to cover the approach to Sulpher Springs from the direction of Warrenton, Early moved his regiments a mile eastward during the stormy night, reaching the strip of trees in front of the wooden bridge by morning light on the 23rd. Now, unable to see the bridge clearly in the murkish morning light, Jubal Early stepped from the trees and shambled forward along the road for a dozen yards. The clumsy gait with which he moved, and the way he carried his head and shoulders forward in a fixed displacement from the plane of his hips, were habits of necessity—his means of lessening the chronic pain arthritis of the spine and sacroiliac joints had saddled him with. Despite the infirmity, his body was slim and wiry, and his bearded face, long like a mellon on end, with a plug of tobacco bulging one cheek, was ruddy, intelligent and intense.
The son of a slave owning tobacco farmer from Franklin County, Virginia, he had gained an appointment to West Point at the age of sixteen. Graduating from the Point as a second lieutenant of artillery, in 1837, he had briefly participated in the Seminole Wars before resigning his commission, in 1838, and returning to Franklin County to adopt the practice of law. In 1847, he had led a Virginia militia regiment, in the war with Mexico, but he did not handle it in combat. In 1861, as a member of the Virginia Convention, he had voted against secession, yet by the time the Lincoln Government invaded Virginia, he was in command of the Virginia brigade whose appearance at the Chinn House broke McDowell's left at Bull Run. Missing the battles of the Seven Days, because of a wound he received on Joe Johnston's retreat from Yorktown, he returned to duty in early July, taking command of a brigade in Richard Ewell's division. Later in the war he would rise to major-general and command a division and, then, in the summer of 1864, as a lieutenant-general, he would march a corps down Washington's Seventh Street to within five miles of the Capitol. Indicted for treason by the Union government after the surrender, he fled Virginia for the Caribbean, eventually reaching Canada where he remained until President's Johnson's proclamation of amnesty, in 1868. In 1869, he returned to Franklin County, an unreconstructed rebel who went to his grave, in 1894, dreaming of giving the god damn Yankees one more battle.
Irascible, arbitrary, sarcastic, profane, he had, in the highest degree, that mental faculty whereby a man is able to live solitary, aloof from family and without real friends—and yet, Virginia and its inhabitants were not to him mere names and abstractions, but a real country and a real people. The burning summer sun, the strange vegetation of the Dismal Swamp, the tidal river, the mist-covered valley, the forested mountain, the tobacco field, the huge oak tree, older than the Union, the clapboard slave cottage, the farmhouse and the mansion, the graceful lady with the bell-shaped dress descending the casement stairs, the horses with their carriage in the lane, the high spire of the church where black cassocked pastor prays with his face to heaven, the drums and banners, the village crowd in the courthouse square, all these things were the markings of sweet home to him.
Standing alone in the hanging grey fog, watching the silhouettes of his soldiers at work on the bridge, General Early's countenance projected rancorous discontent—his pale blue eyes narrowing to a squint as he tried to fathom what enemy force might lurk behind the swollen waters of Great Run. Rising from the western slopes of the Bull Run Mountains—the base of which begins five miles north from where Early stood—the main channel of Great Run meanders southeastward for several miles in a shallow basin; after passing between Waterloo Bridge and Warrenton, however, it enters a progressively deepening ravine that cuts through the countryside to empty its waters into the Rappahannock, a mile past the bridge. Ordinarily, the depth of the water flowing in the Great Run channel is hardly more than a foot or two; but, as with the Rappahannock’s, the Great Run channel becomes a flood after a storm, impossible to cross without a bridge.
Unable to see anything but fog beyond the bridge, Jube Early cocked his head slightly, straining to listen over the thump-a-thump of the soldiers' axes. Two good roads run close to the Rappahannock between Warrenton and the railroad: the river road, after crossing Great Run on the bridge spanning the ravine, intersects the road from Jeffersonton that bridges the Rappahannock at Sulpher Springs and then runs northeast to the village green of Warrenton; the other—the turnpike that carries the old Fredericksburg road through Bealton to Warrenton—skirts Great Run on a long ridge at two miles distance. Streamlets rise from the long ridge at intervals, and flow through the slightly rolling ground, emptying into Great Run. In the process the streamlets create several mile-wide cul-de-sacs along the stream's left bank. At the northern end of the sector of cul-de-sacs is the segment of Great Run's channel that is shallow basin: here, the road from Sulpher Springs passes east to Warrenton.
With the images of these features of ground flashing through his mind, Jube Early was listening for the sound of wheels rumbling—the signal that Pope's great host was moving north behind the cul-de-sacs to cut off escape across the Rappahannock. The heavy rains having fallen off several hours before, he knew that by the late afternoon, or the next morning at the latest, Pope's great host of infantry would be massing in the cul de sacs and beyond, gathering their strength to force their way over the stream channel and annihilate his tiny force as soon as the swollen condition of the stream lessened.
Suddenly a great cracking sound came from the direction of the bridge: the middle section of the bridge's framework of girders and struts that held the plank flooring were breaking into splintered chunks and pieces and falling. As the black fragments of the bridge members plunged into the white waste of water and were swept—bobbing and thrashing—away, Early curled his lip and spit a stream of tobacco juice on the ground. Then, he drew a watch on a chain from his vest pocket and checked the time. It was 10:00 a.m. A look of calm softened momentarily the hard features of his face. He was certain now that his brigade was safe from the blue-butts for a day.
Two miles farther up the road leading from the bridge Jubal Early's troops had destroyed, a squadron of cavalry horses were picketed among the trees of an apple orchard. Standing with long curved scabbards hanging from chains attached to their saddles, the horses were snipping apples from the branches of the trees. In the mist of the apple orchard, in a grassy track between the trees, two Negroes were riding a flat-bed wagon piled high with hay and pulled by a team of mules. The Negroes were dressed alike; wearing homespun cotton blouses and breeches, each had a straw hat cocked back on his burry head. One Negro was standing at the front end of the hay wagon, slapping at the backs of the mule team with long ribbons of rein. At the tail gate of the wagon, the other Negro was stabbing a pitchfork into the mound of hay and flinging clumps of it in front of the horses. Here and there, his chin against his chest, a trooper was sprawled fast asleep on a wet blanket at the base of a tree.
In a field next to the apple orchard, a one room meeting house belonging to the Brethren stood at the bottom of a muddy lane. Grey clad men were standing about in front of the meeting house: some were couriers waiting for the reply to dispatches; others were staff officers waiting for orders. Horsemen were riding to and fro in the lane—scouts coming in with reports of the enemy's movements, or prisoners in the custody of troopers. A rebel battle flag on a staff stuck in the ground at the base of the lane, curled lazily in a puff of humid breeze. From deep within the meeting house the faint tinkling of a banjo's strings could be heard. The sound of the banjo, as well as the sight of the flag, gave herald to the fact that the meeting house was, for the moment, the Headquarters of Jeb Stuart.
Courageous, but sometimes—like Lee and Jackson—seemingly reckless to a fault, Jeb Stuart was full of himself with warranted pride. After graduating from West Point, in 1854, at the age of 21, he had spent seven years as a cavalryman roaming the Western plains. First, as a regimental quartermaster and commissary officer, and then, as commander of Company G, First U.S. Cavalry Regiment, James Ewell Brown Stuart had operated in the land of the Cheyenne and the Comanche. During these years of patrolling the prairie, he gained strong experience in the art of moving large numbers of horseman long distances surreptitiously. Trekking by horseback hundreds of miles, he sometimes rode as much as eighty miles in less than twenty-four hours. On several occasions he rode from Fort Leavenworth near the Missouri River, across Kansas Territory into southwestern Wyoming on the Oregon Trail; then he went down the prairie along the east face of the Rocky Mountains—past the rivers of the Platte, the Republican, the Solomon and the Blue—to Bent's Fort at the headwaters of the Arkansas River before returning to Missouri through Oklahoma on the Santa Fe trail. In the course of these patrols the mettle of his spirit was proved. Not far from Bent's Fort, in the summer of 1857, he was shot in the chest by an Indian in a melee that occurred at the end of a fifty mile pursuit. In the company of five other wounded men, he led the group on foot, by reference to the sun and the stars, across a hundred miles of prairie wilderness to Fort Kearny on the Platte River.
Despite his exemplar seven year performance of courage and endurance in shadowing the best horsemen on the American plains, promotion in rank did not come easily to him—at the start of his seven years of prairie experience, his rank was that of a lieutenant; at the end of it, he was still a lieutenant. But, then, came the war between the States, and with it, in a matter of a few months, came skyrocketing rank.
In December 1860, Jeb immediately began making plans to come back to Virginia. When news reached him that South Carolina had seceded from the Union, he wrote to Virginia Governor Letcher, his mother's first cousin, telling him that he was available to serve Virginia. In January 1861, as the Gulf States were beginning to secede, he wrote Jefferson Davis, offering to serve in the Confederate Army. Then, in March 1861, as Abraham Lincoln was being sworn in as President of the United States, he sought a leave of absence from his post at Fort Riley, Kansas; leaving his wife, Flora Cooke, in Kansas, he went to St. Louis and took passage on a steamboat bound for Memphis. On May 3rd, as the steamboat was embarking from Cario, Illinois, he mailed to the Adjutant General's Office in Washington a one line letter of resignation from the United States Army. Six days later, going by train from Memphis, he arrived at Richmond. The next day he was commissioned an officer in the Provisional Army of Virginia. By July, 1861, at the Battle of Bull Run, he was a lieutenant-colonel leading a cavalry charge of the 1st Virginia Regiment against McDowell's left flank near the Chinn House, as Jubal Early's brigade of Virginians was advancing.
One thing only pained Jeb about the breakup of the Union. In marrying Flora Cooke, he had married into what he believed was a solid Virginia family; but he soon found himself embarrassed by the conduct of Flora's father. Lieutenant Colonel Phillip St. George Cooke, commander of a United States regiment of dragoons stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, did not share Jeb's sense of duty to his native state of Virginia. Writing Flora from Richmond, in May 1861, Jeb said: "The greatest anxiety is manifested for your Pa to arrive. he is regarded as a superior cavalry officer—why doesn't he come?" When news came in November that Flora's father had taken a commission as brigadier general in the Army of the Potomac, Jeb wrote his wife again. "My dear wife, let us bear with the mistake of your father and not attempt to justify what must be condemned." A few days later he responded to a letter received from Flora—she had balked at his insistence that the name of their four year old son be changed. "As for my boy's name (he had been named Philip St. George Cooke) do not my dear wife ask me to do what I consider would be an injury to our only son and will embitter me. He must not keep any part of his previous Christian name." And still later, when his wife referred to the son in a letter as Philip, Jeb wrote her, "My Darling don't call our boy by his old name if you please. We settled that when together. It is not right to revive it in our letters." Fifty years after these letters were written, Jeb's son, Jimmy, retired a captain from the United States Army, and Jeb’s wife, Flora, was still wearing black crepe dresses—first donned when she got the news of Jeb's death at Yellow Tavern.
Inside the meeting house of the Brethren, Jeb Stuart sat straddling a bench in a shaft of light that beamed into the windowless room through the open entrance doors; hunched over a wooden crate that he had taken from John Pope's personal wagon at Catlett's Station, he was thumbing through packets of paper wrapped with string. Now, little more than a year after entering into the service of Virginia, at the age of twenty nine, he was a major-general and commander of the cavalry division of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Mulatto Bob, Stuart's servant, was standing at his shoulder; tall and lithe, with the face of a patrician, the Negro was watching him sift the packets of paper. Sitting on a parson's table at the forefront of the room, Sweeny, the banjo player, was lightly picking the riff of one of Stuart's anthems—Carry me back to old Virginny, back to my old sweet home on the sunny Blue Ridge mountain side . . . .
Illuminated by the shaft of sunlight, Jeb's face showed a hairline receding deeply to the left, a wide forehead, a long nose that flared at the nostrils, and piercing blue-grey eyes. A thick brown mustache over the upper lip swept up to points at the ends. Under it, a heavy beard covered the bottom half of his face, like a bandit's black bandanna mask. His hard body was dressed in a blue woolen shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, exposing thick-veined forearms. A soiled yellow cravat was tied carelessly at the frayed collar of the neck. A black leather belt cinched a pair of dirty brown pantaloons at his waist, the bottoms of which were stuffed in mud-crusted boots. A .40 caliber French-made double barreled revolver was holstered on his right hip. Packed in leather pouches on the opposite side of the gun belt were several small gauge shotgun shells and an extra cylinder loaded with cap and ball.
“Hello, what is this?" Jeb said, as he was scanning the markings on the packets in the box. Removing one of the packets, he opened it and pulled out a sheaf of telegrams and began reading leisurely through the script scribbled on them. He had the time, he knew. On the east side of Great Run, a string of his cavalry patrols were posted in a ten mile convex arc, watching the enemy's movements on the roads between Warrenton and the railroad. Every half hour or so, a courier from one of them had been coming in to headquarters with a current report on the progress of the enemy's columns. At the moment, Jeb knew that Franz Sigel's corps, in one long column, was marching deliberately up the river road, the van guard approaching the demolished bridge near the mouth of Great Run. With the stream too deep for men to wade, Sigel would have no choice but to keep marching another five miles up the left bank of the stream, where he would reach the road that runs to the Springs from Warrenton. To get there, Sigel's infantry and artillery would have to traverse the swamp of fields in the cul de sacs along the stream, or work their way eastward and get on the old turnpike road between Warrenton and Bealton. Either way, it would be late afternoon at the earliest before Sigel would be able to deploy his infantry brigades in battle lines and attempt to penetrate into the space behind Great Run.
Suddenly, as he was reading, Jeb stiffened: a paper, with columns full of numbers, was attached to one of the telegrams Pope had addressed to Halleck. Raising the paper at an angle to catch the shaft of sunlight beaming into the room, he waved a hand impatiently toward Sweeny, who abruptly stopped the tinkling of the banjo. Dated August 20th, the paper was an abstract of a muster report showing that, as of three days before, Pope had an aggregate of 45,000 men present for duty. Reading the numbers, Jeb opened his mouth in a grim smile; he knew he had good news for General Lee.
On the morning of August 23rd, General Lee had about 45,000 soldiers concentrated on the Rappahannock. With no Union reinforcements having yet arrived at Catlett's, and with no Union forces building up at Manassas, General Lee's army was in no immediate danger of being overpowered by a superior enemy force. Racing the numbers through his mind, Jeb calculated the strength of the opposing sides would remain evenly balanced for at least forty-eight more hours. Operating at maximum power, the locomotives used by the Orange & Alexandria Railroad could pull only ten railroad carriages. The maximum seating capacity of the standard carriage was about sixty passengers. Therefore, it would take perhaps as many as eight trains to transport 6,000 soldiers from Alexandria to the vicinity of the Rappahannock in one day. But, since there were almost as many empty trains already bunched up at the west end of the track, it would take at least a second day to double the number of troops transported and only then would Pope gain a substantial numerical advantage.
Assuming that the trains Stuart had seen standing on the sidetracks at Catlett's Station when he raided Pope's car, were returned to Manassas during the morning of the 23rd, and the enemy began moving eight troop trains west from Alexandria to Manassas at the same time, the westbound trains would have to stand on side tracks at Manassas until the eastbound trains from Catlett's passed the junction. Once the eastbound trains had passed Manassas, the westbound trains could then proceed. Accounting for the time involved in loading and unloading trains at both ends of the track, and the time involved for the locomotives to pull their carriages from one end of the line to the other, it would be the evening of the 25th or the morning of the 26th before the aggregate fighting strength of Pope's army might rise high enough to seriously threaten General Lee's position on the left bank of the Rappahannock. Unless. . . .
Jeb was remembering now that Pope had another means of getting reinforcements. Switching his attention to the telegram the abstract was attached to, Stuart read over the text quickly; and then, more deliberately, he reread the lines of the text that referred to the route from Falmouth. In his wire Pope had told Halleck: "I presume my position here is regulated by the arrival of McClellan's forces on the lower Rappahannock. . . I suggest that General Porter's corps be pushed up at once to the fork of the rivers."
Jeb dropped Pope's telegram with the abstract to his lap, and turned his head full to look through the doorway, his mind thinking of the numbers. Looking out the meeting house doors, he saw that above the green spires of pine trees that stood at the end of the lane, breaks were appearing in the cloud cover and a brilliant orange was filtering through. As he looked, gauging sunset time, a movement at the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he twisted around in his seat. Mulatto Bob was holding out a cup of coffee in his hand. Waving off the offer, Jeb thought he saw a smirking glint in the Negro's black eyes. Scenes from the past flashed in his mind—in their early teenage years, Jeb and Mulatto Bob had ran together at Laural Hill, Stuart's mother's farm located in a remote section of the Blue Ridge Mountains close to the North Carolina border. Mulatto Bob's father was white. Jeb was never sure who the father was, but there had always been about Mulatto Bob a faint air of arrogance he had never liked. As if he knew there was a secret between them. Jeb thought for an instant that it was time he sold the Negro off, but then he remembered the trouble he was having getting rid of old George, another of his mother's slaves she had sent to him. No, once old George was gone, he would have to count on Bob taking care of everything—the grooming and feeding of his horses, the pitching of his tents, the washing of his clothes, the cooking of his dinners. Well, at least he should be thankful that Bob would never run to the Yankees; he was proud to serve the Stuart family, a loyal servant to the core. No, Jeb decided, as he drained the cup and handed it back; it was just the streak of sunlight gleaming across Bob's copper face.
Mulatto Bob sauntered across the plank floor of the meeting house toward the entrance doors. When he reached the threshold, Jeb, who had been watching him the while, called out curtly, "Bring me Skylark, Robert; it's time to ride." For a moment, the Negro stood like a statute at the threshold of the doors, his tall powerful body backlit by the streaming sunlight. Then, as he moved to go out, he replied to Stuart in a slightly mocking tone of voice, "Yas suh, Marster James, I'll fotch dat hoss right up."
When Mulatto Bob had gone, Jeb turned his attention back to Pope's telegram. Like the abstract the telegram was dated August 20th. Stroking absently at his beard with his thumb and index finger, he read the text again. In it, Pope spoke of his position centered on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad as being regulated by McClellan's forces arriving on the lower Rappahannock. Did this mean that the Union high command intended to position all of the corps of McClellan's army at Falmouth, linking McClellan's to Pope's position at the railroad, by placing Porter's corps at the fork of the rivers? If so, it would explain why no reinforcements had yet arrived in Pope's rear by way of the railroad. Or did Pope's language mean that, in addition to reinforcements probably coming to Pope by the available route of the railroad, reinforcements would also be coming to him from Falmouth? If Porter's corps was marching north from Falmouth and troop trains were now in motion on the railroad, the number of reinforcements reaching Pope by the 25th might easily be as much as 35,000! Enough for Pope to take the offensive in an effort to throw the weaker rebel army back from the Rappahannock. Certainly enough, if Pope stood on the defensive behind Great Run, to keep the rebel army at bay until the rest of McClellan's forces came up.
Jeb looked up from the telegram and shook his head. His face had the drawn expression of a gambler who sees his hand filling with the wrong cards. He put the abstract and the telegram together deliberately; turning the pages lengthwise, he cupped them in his hands and folded them over with his thumbs to make the pages crease in the format of a letter. Then, he tucked the folded papers into his shirt pocket and rose abruptly from his seat. Glancing at Sweeny as he stepped away from the bench, he saw that the banjo player was sitting on the parson's table watching him. "I'm going back across the river," he said as he went out-of-doors. In a bound Sweeny came off the table and hurried after him.
When Jeb emerged from the Brethren's meeting house, Mulatto Bob was standing at the head of a thick-chested bay stallion, gripping the strap of the horse's halter with a hand. At intervals now there came on the breeze a crack of sound from cannon booming in the distance, and the horse was nervously capering. Passing the reins to Stuart as he came to the horse's side, Mulatto Bob stepped back and joined Sweeny who was standing at the base of the lane. "Be good now Skylark!" Jeb said, as he rose to his seat in the saddle and led the horse, ears pricked and nostrils snorting, into a fast trot down to the end of the lane; wheeling right on to the river road, he went galloping off toward the Rappahannock.
A gallop of several minutes in the deepening twilight brought Jeb over the grounds of the Sulpher Springs' old resort to a wagon road that led into the hollow of the Rappahannock’s little valley, and to the bridge Stonewall Jackson's pioneers had spent the day rebuilding. At the shoulder of the road next to the entrance to the bridge, a roaring bonfire was showering sparks high into a now black sky. Several wagons were parked in a semicircle around it. At the side of the center wagon, their shadows dancing in the firelight against its hoop of canvas crown, a crowd of men were standing in a circle around a large boxlike object on the ground as the biggest one among them swung a sledge hammer down with a resounding clang.
Jeb recognized the big man immediately; raising his left leg over the pommel of his saddle, he slid down Skylark's off side with ease, and, leaving the horse to trail, strolled into the midst of the crowd. With a shout of "Here's Stuart," at once the crowd of men gave way and watched him with smiles on their faces as he stepped into the glow of fire light and saw the black iron safe. Fixed by a link to the handle of the safe was a copper-colored padlock shaped like an hour glass, with "US" etched in deep marks on its surface. "Well, gentlemen," he said in a imperious voice, "I see you have left it to Major Strong Arm here, to investigate John Pope's treasury."
Resting the sledge hammer against his thighs with both hands for a moment, Heros Von Brocke bellowed Jeb a welcome. The scion of one of old Prussia's greatest families, Von Brocke was twenty six in 1862. Carrying two hundred and fifty pounds on a solid six foot, four inch frame, he had a huge handlebar mustache that projected several inches from his cheeks, and sported the sharp point of a Van Dyke beard on his chin. Under a satin waistcoat he kept closed at the neck and open at the waist, he wore a collarless shirt with a silk cummerbund wrapped at the waist over pantaloons stuck in floppy boots that came to his knees. Like Jeb, his hat had a black feather stuck in the band. A revolver and a long sword with a basket hilt were on his hips. Resigning his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the Prussian regiment of Cuirassier Guards, in April 1862, he had taken passage on a blockade runner that carried him into Charleston Harbor. Reaching Richmond in May, just as McClellan's army was advancing on the Yorktown Peninsula, he gained a commission as a major from the Confederate government and joined Stuart's headquarters staff as a charter member of his clique of friends.
As Jeb came through the crowd Von Brocke bowed his head to his waist, and then rising to his full height again he hefted the sledge hammer over his shoulder and delivered another blow upon the safe which this time burst the padlock open. Jeb stepped forward and clasping Von Brocke's arm, he raised it in a mock victory pose as the circle of men closed round them with a cheer. Then, squatting down with Von Brocke beside the safe, Jeb removed the padlock's pivoted link from the eyelet welded to the frame of the door and pulled on the handle as Von Brocke slipped his hands under the edge and lifted. The two men raised the thick door and let it fall open against the side of the safe. Amidst the cheers of the men, Jeb reached inside and removed a fistful of greenbacks and held them up to the firelight. "Look at this, boys!" he cried, shaking his fist over his head. "Old Abe must have sent Pope here to bribe us." Pressing close to him the men took turns handling the Union government's paper money, scrutinizing the design front and back as each took a bill from Stuart and fingered it with their hands.
Still squatting by the open safe, Von Brocke sunk his arm in greenbacks up to the elbow and fished around. "Well, hello, it seems we've captured somebody's special reserve," he exclaimed as he raised over his head a flat box, the lid of which was sealed with the stamp of the Spanish Crown. Agile as a cat, he sprang to his feet and, breaking the seal, released a latch and opened the lid. Looking inside, he gave a whistle as he saw that the box contained twenty Havana cigars. Coming to his side, Jeb extracted a handful of them and passed them around the circle of men. In a flash, the men had lit the tips with burning brands from the fire and were exhaling plumes of smoke into the air. What do you say, men," Jeb called, his cheeks aglow with gaiety in the firelight. "Shall we give Major Strong Arm here what's left in the box as his share of the spoils?"
"Let Heros have them," several of the men shouted. "Aye, go ahead," another chimed in, laughing.
"All right then," Jeb said, with a mock sigh; taking three cigars for himself, he handed the box back to Von Brocke. Holding the box at his waist, Von Brocke looked down, and slowly, as the fact the box was empty was registering in his brain, the crowd saw the jovial expression on his face drain away and he began to voice guttural sounds of feigned indignation.
Just then, the sound of clattering hoofs came from the direction of the road and the throng around the captured safe fell silent, some of the men walking forward a few paces to listen. Suddenly, Mulatto Bob appeared out of the darkness on a mule; trailing behind him by a tether he held in his hand, were Stuart's three back up mounts—Star, Lady Margaret and Lily of the Valley. Following the string of horses was the banjo-player, Sweeny, and most of Stuart's staff: John Farley, the scout, Redmond Burke, Channing Price and Dr. John Fontaine; all of them would be dead by 1863. Following these four into the fire light came Captain Bob White, from Frederick, Maryland, and Theodore Garnett, aide-de-camp, who would carry Stuart, mortally wounded, in his arms off the field at Yellow Tavern three years later.
Calling to Mulatto Bob to switch Skylark's saddle to the middle-sized mare, Lady Margaret, Jeb opened the tail gate of the nearest wagon and, rummaging among the contents, he extracted a canvas sack and returned to the iron safe. Scooping up Pope's money, he stuffed the bag full of it and tied it closed with a piece of rope. When he was finished, he carried the bag to the road where Mulatto Bob was holding Lady Margaret saddled and ready for him. Handing the Negro the money bag, Jeb said: "Bring this along when you come Robert." Then, taking Lady Margaret's reins, he grabbed a handful of her mane and raised himself to the saddle. Walking the mare forward he led her onto the bridge, her hoofs clip-clopping on the boards, and disappeared in the darkness.
Hours later, operating under new orders received by courier from General Lee, the soldiers of Jubal Early's brigade, followed by Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry brigade, abandoned their defensive positions behind Great Run and recrossed the Rappahannock on the Sulphur Springs bridge. That night Jackson was moving north toward Salem.
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.
Battle of Gettysburg
General Robert E. Lee
General JEB Stuart
General Jubal Early
General Joseph Hooker
American Civil War Exhibits
State Battle Maps
Civil War Timeline
Women in the Civil War