Wherein Dumfries is of strategic importance
With winter coming, General Joe Johnston, commanding the Department of Northern Virginia from his headquarters at Centreville, had two priorities: first, was to provide clothing, food, and dwellings for his men so they could survive the coming winter; second, was to make sure their defensive position was strong enough to defend against an attack by the Northern forces venturing further and further out from their defenses. Neither priority was close to being accomplished, but today we'll focus on defense.
By fiat from Richmond, Johnston's unified command had become three parts. His left-most flank was the Valley District, commanded by Maj. General Thomas Jackson, who people had taken to calling "Stonewall." Jackson, who Johnston had come to rely upon in their pre-Manassas days in the Shenandoah Valley and who he had high hopes for as a division commander, left the Army of the Potomac the first week of July to take over the rowdy militia of the Valley. Not surprisingly, a few days later his old brigade followed him, depriving Johnston of one of his best units. Richmond had also sent Jackson two brigades from across the Alleghenies along with their division commander William Loring, underscoring the importance of the Valley.
On his right-most flank was the second carve-out from Johnston's command, the Aquia District under Maj. General Theophilus Holmes. Stretching from Powell's Creek [Lake Montclair] to the Potomac to the Rappahannock, the district had resulted from the desire to keep Holmes in an important position. But it meant that Johnston's right-wing was effectively an independent force from his main body, the Army of the Potomac. Richmond intended that army to be the District of the Potomac, commanded by General G.T. Beauregard, but Johnston intended to command that army himself in battle, and had long-ago agreed to Beauregard's preference that he command the army's First Corps, with the Second led by Maj. General G.W. Smith.
All this mattered especially in the beginning of the third week of November because the Confederates had become well-aware that the Union Army of the Potomac had moved a division of soldiers opposite the Aquia District's batteries at Evansport [Quantico]. Though Holmes had known about the movement for several days already, it was a subordinate of G.W. Smith's who touched off the powder keg on November 16.
William Henry Chase Whiting was a brigadier general from Mississippi, with only 16 years previous experience in the U.S. Army as an engineer. But he had strengthened the defenses of Charleston Harbor for Beauregard, then become Johnston's chief engineer in the Shenandoah. As more troops arrived to northern Virginia after Manassas, both Beauregard and Johnston had agreed to give Whiting a chance to lead a brigade.
Now stationed at Dumfries (well within Holmes' Aquia District, though not reporting to him), Whiting had become frustrated at the lack of response to the sudden Union presence across the river. On November 15 he had sent his first missive to Johnston (directly):
Private Hanan of Andrews battery has just returned from Maryland where he has been since October 24. He reports very much the same as all others as to force and intention of the enemy. They will attack by the flotilla above and below and attempt throwing a very large force across. He landed at Holland Point and informs me that he learned above Occoquan that they were building a pontoon bridge to cross the Occoquan, and the reconnaissance the other day was to select a place for it. This is important.Whiting and others, apparently, agreed with Hooker about the effectiveness of the Confederate batteries on the Potomac:
I have seen [Brig. General] French. He pronounces the batteries untenable against fire from the opposite side and the fleets; in fact, expresses himself just as I did, you recollect, when I saw them. He is very much disgusted and he goes in for my plan of changing to Cockpit [Point]. I have written to Richmond for permission. If they cross the Occoquan in heavy force, I shall probably fight at the Neabsco crossing."You must look out on the right," he warned in conclusion. "We have tremendous odds against us, and if they cross the run we shall have a heavy fight."
He repeated the same points, with slightly more detail, again on November 16, but this time Beauregard chimed in (apparently having been sent copies of the correspondence):
My Dear General: I believe in all that Whiting says. As to that new battery at Cockpit Point, I fear it is entirely too late. Either we must be prepared to fight them there with some force, or withdraw our forces and guns within the line of the Upper Occoquan, and then should they attempt to move along the Potomac we must attack them in flank and rear.And he added some very characteristic advice for Johnston:
I advise you to send an express to Richmond with a copy of General Whiting's letter to the President, calling his attention to the fact that the intrenched camps and hills in rear of the Evansport batteries have never been constructed, notwithstanding your repeated instructions or advice on the subject.But Johnston was already composing his own letter to acting Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin:
Sir: I respectfully inclose herewith copies of two letters just received from Brigadier General Whiting. This officer with his own brigade and three Texan regiments of [Louis] Wigfall's brigade is in the neighborhood of Dumfries. I have directed that the three new regiments shall be added to this force those coming via Fredericksburg. My object in laying these letters before you is to show the importance of additional reinforcements to enable Brigadier General Whiting to defeat such attempts of the enemy as he expects. If you have any disposable troops I venture to assert that no more important object can be found for their employment.It was so urgent because "should the enemy establish a new base on the river below the Occoquan, in the manner indicated above it would be impossible to hold this position" around Centreville and Manassas Junction. "The superiority of numbers against us makes it impracticable to divide this army." Johnston suggested that Loring's troops bound for Jackson's district might be of better service at Dumfries.
Just to underscore it, Johnston included a post-script: "McC. regards the division of this army as his best chance of success."
Meanwhile, G.W. Smith had been drawn into the situation, probably under instructions from Johnston to provide support for Whiting (though Johnston was also sending replies directly to the Mississippian). Smith's advice is both considerably more practical and more level-headed than Beauregard's and Johnston (who is uncharacteristically wound up). But it also includes a little bit of rhetoric intended to screw-up Whiting's resolve, while offering little in the way of material support:
It is believed here upon the best evidence that McClellan bases his only hope of success in putting down the rebellion upon dividing and materially diminishing the strength of this army. The loss of Jackson's brigade was a great disadvantage to us, and was but the beginning of what McClellan is trying to accomplish. I think it will go no further; but that if he ventures from his fortifications on the bank of the Potomac he will have to fight us united, Keep us well advised. A bright eye, clear head, and resolute hand will beat them in spite of their numbers organization and equipment. We will do everything we can towards getting information of their movements in your direction from Alexandria and give you the earliest possible advices.Meanwhile, outgoing Evansport battery commander, Brig. General Isaac Trimble (who Whiting had mentioned he was happy to see go), sent an exit-memo on the same subject (with some different mechanics) to Johnston, also on November 16, only adding to the scare:
What you have now to meet is a severe bombardment from the other side [of the Potomac], combined with heavy ships from above and below our batteries. I do not think the enemy will attempt to land before this, but I believe he will at the same time the attack is made march down on the Occoquan, attempt to cross and fall on our forces at Dumfries.But Whiting had also been in touch with Richmond directly, making use of his political ties and those of the politician turned general Louis Wigfall. And he had already received a carte blanche from the Confederate army's adjutant general, Samuel Cooper, via a telegraph sent to Theophilus Holmes: "General Whiting has been authorized by telegraph to exercise his discretion. So inform him."
By the afternoon, things had crossed into the ridiculous. In Richmond, Cooper was writing out another order to Johnston on how to organize the army into four divisions with brigades by state, the favorite obsession of Confederate wartime leadership. It would group Whiting's brigade with brigades as far away as Leesburg, a patently absurd idea when expecting an enemy attack.
Whiting, meanwhile, after spending the previous few days calling for reinforcements, was objecting to Johnston's plan of sending him the new regiments from Fredericksburg by sending a message directly to Cooper:
What are they sending me unarmed and new regiments for? Don't want them. They will only be in my way. Can't feed them nor use them. I want re-enforcements not recruits. Please put those new regiments somewhere else. They can do no good here and will only seriously embarrass all operations.So Cooper countermanded Johnston's order to reinforce Whiting, explaining to Holmes by telegraph on the morning of November 17:
The regiment that left here yesterday for Evansport had better remain at Fredericksburg for the present, on account of General Whiting's dispatch. No more unarmed regiments will be sent in that direction.The upshot was that Dumfries remained insufficiently defended.