Wherein the end of the war is imminent
On May 6, 1862 nowhere was the imminent Union victory in the Civil War more apparent than in Northern Virginia, and no one in Northern Virginia was working harder to put the final nail in the Confederacy than the man who had botched up the whole thing ten months earlier. Maj. General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Department of the Rappahannock was working night and day to repair both the historic Potomac Path [U.S. 1] and the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad to allow a full advance towards Richmond.
McDowell can be forgiven for being swept up into the prevailing opinion that the end of the war was months away. In the West, several armies had been united under the command of Maj. General Henry Halleck in what we would call an "Army Group" today, with the purpose of capturing Confederate strongholds on the Mississippi and, by controlling the continent's great river, slicing the Southern nation in half and crushing their internal economy. Halleck's armies were drawing tight around Corinth, the key to defending Memphis, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, in command by accident after the death of the preferred Albert Sidney Johnston, appeared out-manned, out-gunned, and out-generaled.
At the other end of the Mississippi, Tennessee native and loyal Unionist Commodore David Farragut had completed a daring operation in cooperation with Maj. General Benjamin Butler and captured New Orleans, providing an ideal harbor for the Gulf Blockade Squadron as well as closing the best blockade-running port for cotton transited south from the cotton-growing Confederate heartland. With major Northern armies present in Pensacola, Port Royal, and Roanoke, too, the South was being dissected.
And in Virginia, McClellan was finally on the move. By May 6, word had arrived that the siege at Yorktown on the Virginia Peninsula was over, and McClellan was on the heels of Joe Johnston's army as it bolted back towards Richmond. Lincoln and his Secretaries of War, Navy, and the Treasury had taken the revenue cutter Miami the evening of May 5 to Fort Monroe to view the collapse of the major army defending Richmond personally. While they did so, Johnston had made a stand at Williamsburg, where after a brutal day of fighting for Joe Hooker's division, the Army of the Potomac had triumphed [Johnston's army had belatedly and at last assumed its famous name, the Army of Northern Virginia].
It would take McDowell another day before reports from Williamsburg began drifting in (and weeks more before the extent of McClellan's exaggerations and misinformation became clear), but it all added up to a last ditch defense of Richmond, followed by the long-expected political settlement. And even without the news reports and War Department reports, McDowell could see the evidence right in front of him in Northern Virginia.
View Dept of Rappahannock, May 6, 1862 in a zoomable map
Confederate presence in the Potomac watershed was nonexistent, other than some guerrillas imagined by Colonel John Geary heading the defense of the Manassas Gap Railroad from Front Royal to White Plains [The Plains]--and no amount of patrolling was ever able to make them real. The cavalry attached to McDowell's department were skirmishing in Culpeper Court-House [City of Culpeper] and well south of Fredericksburg.
McDowell estimated there were about 5,000 men in two brigades between him and Richmond (almost right on the money). His scouts had revealed that the division of Confederate Maj. General Richard Ewell had abandoned Culpeper, but where it had gone to he couldn't be sure. He may have moved to reinforce the all-but-conquered Stonewall Jackson, dug in just to the east of Port Royal, but he probably had taken the railroad at Gordonsville to Hanover Junction, in order to add his 8,000 to 10,000 men to the forces between McDowell and Richmond.
In the adjacent Department of the Shenandoah, Maj. General Nathaniel P. Banks was ready to declare victory too. "The enemy is in no condition for offensive movements, and nothing can prevent our troops from joining the main body in safety if attacked," he had written Secretary of War Edwin Stanton from Harrisonburg as earlier on April 28.
A negro employed in Jackson's tent came in this morning and reports preparation for retreat of Jackson today. [Confederate] General [Edward "Allegheny"] Johnson is reported to have passed Staunton and General [Robert] Milroy [of the Mountain Department] to be 4 miles west of Staunton...You need have no apprehensions for our safety. I think we are now just in condition to do all you can desire of us in this valley--clear out the enemy permanently.Despite Banks' inexplicably bad intelligence about Johnson and Milroy (both were across the mountain from Staunton [the town]), his general point about Jackson's imminent departure was correct, and was in stark contrast to Stanton [the Secretary]'s paranoid missive to McDowell of the morning that "the enemy will amuse McClellan at Yorktown and make a sudden dash with their main force against you or Banks."
Banks had barely sealed his letter to Stanton before he sat down to write another, even more drastic one on the same day.
If Jackson retreats from his present position there is no reason for our remaining longer in this valley. If he does not, we can compel him to retreat or destroy him. Then a small force, two or three regiments, falling back to Strasburg, which has been fortified for this purpose, will safely hold all that is important to the Government in this valley. General Fremont's forces will, in a like manner, cover Staunton.The bulk of Banks' two divisions would then exit the Valley, and occupy Culpeper Court-House, and the Union hold on the Upper Valley and Northern Virginia would be impregnable.
George Meade explained the logic of how a Confederate retreat was the result of a strong Union move towards Fredericksburg to his wife, while griping about his division's detour through the old battlefield.
I believe our movement to this place [Falmouth] has been magnified, and they saw the danger to their rear and got away before it was too late. I think I wrote you, when in Alexandria, that this was the place for us to come to, and never could understand what we were sent to Manassas for, except because the enemy had been there before us. Great efforts are being made to repair the railroad, so as to bring up supplies, and I think we will be pushed on as fast as the road is completed.McDowell was thinking along similar lines as Banks and Meade in the last days of April, but McDowell had the benefit of steamer from his Aquia Creek headquarters to Washington to confer with Stanton directly. He knew that Fremont was bound with his command for Knoxville, to secure loyalist East Tennessee. He had persuaded Lincoln and Stanton that Banks' claims about only a small force at Strasburg was correct, but because the Confederates would concentrate to oppose him along the Fredericksburg and Richmond Railroad at Hanover Junction. Therefore, McDowell successfully argued, the bulk of Banks' force should be transferred to his Department of the Rappahannock for an advance on Hanover Junction.
For the man who had lost the Battle of Bull Run, it was the conclusion of a triumphant return. From his low point the day his tattered army slunk back to the Potomac, McDowell had convinced Winfield Scott, Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln, George McClellan, the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and Edwin Stanton, in his dry, professional manner that his plans had been ruined by jealous equivalents (chiefly Robert Patterson) and incompetent subordinates (led by Daniel Tyler). He had been made one of only a handful of major generals, been openly talked about to replace McClellan as general-in-chief, and still been imagined as the key subordinate by McClellan in his Peninsula Campaign, a plan only derailed when the president himself declared McDowell too valuable to defense of the nation's capital.
Banks' Second Division under Brig. General James Shields at Woodstock was given to McDowell as his new First Division, to replace the one poached by McClellan for the Peninsula Campaign. The Second Brigade of his First Division (still located at Warrenton Junction from the long-ago aborted plan to have Banks relieve Sumner) was also ordered to report to McDowell, to be the nucleus of a new division being formed by adding a brigade's worth of green troops from the Military District of Washington and a few more regiments to Geary's railroad-defense brigade (which had been transferred to McDowell a days earlier).
McDowell had also spent a great deal of time lobbying Stanton to have Blenker's Division, which had very slowly, and with great disorder, crossed over to Winchester and towards Romney (one brigade commander operating in an area where they had been stationed observed that he had only just begun to repair the Northern army's reputation with the locals from the looting and general bad behavior of the Eastern European immigrants). But on that Stanton would not budge. Blenker's Division was going to Radical Republican darling John C. Fremont. Still, McDowell would have four divisions, about 40,000 men, or 10,000 more than his army at Manassas.
On May 3, two days before they left for Fort Monroe, Stanton and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, as well as Secretary of State William Seward, had traveled to Aquia Creek Landing for another meeting and inspection. During it, McDowell again pressed for Blenker, probably awkwardly considering Chase was a close ally of the Radical Republicans that had got it transferred to Fremont in the first place. McDowell had taken them to Falmouth to see the preparation of his forces already assembled for a movement across the Rappahannock.
As part of their inspection, they met with George Meade:
Day before yesterday General McDowell invited me to meet at his quarters the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and War, all of whom had come on a trip from Washington, and whom he very judiciously put into a wagon and drove them over the fifteen miles of road from Acquia [sic] Creek to this place, during which ride they were almost jolted to death and their lives endangered, owing to the dreadful condition of the road.McDowell's life-threatening ride had had a point, Meade related.
He said to them: "Gentlemen, you can see for yourselves the character of the roads we have to draw our artillery and supplies over, and I assure you they are infinitely better now than they have been at any previous period of our operations since the frost began to leave the ground.Meade, who was a particular enemy of Chase's good friend Senator Zachariah Chandler, had an awkward moment with the Secretary when the latter hinted at the general's conservative politics, using the French word that would later be best rendered in English as "unreconstructed.": "I did not recall to Mr. Chase's recollection that I was a ci-devant pupil of his, not knowing how such reminiscences might be taken."
McDowell led the party to the ground he hoped to receive permission to occupy. Given that the Colonel George Bayard's Pennsylvania Reserve Cavalry was across the river almost every day, Meade accompanied, but none of the conversation survives in the account he wrote to his wife.
After lunch we all crossed the river on a boat-bridge we have built, and took a turn through Fredericksburg. The place seemed deserted by all who could get away, there being but few white people, and they mostly old women and children. There are some very pretty residences in the town, though we only saw the outside of them.With only five brigades of infantry and the supporting artillery and cavalry actually present at Falmouth, McDowell's bottom line was that he needed the War Department to send him laborers and equipment to complete infrastructure improvements and supply his army, once it was assembled. He had already repaired the railroad from Aquia Creek to Falmouth and landed locomotives and rolling stock at the creek, but completion of the bridge into Fredericksburg was a must before operations could begin.
And it had to be done quickly before McClellan reached Richmond without any assistance from McDowell.
On May 7, McDowell would get the long-awaited order telegraphed from Fort Monroe to fix the Rappahannock Bridge and begin moving south towards Richmond. While he relished his triumph, Stonewall Jackson would not be retreating to Hanover Junction (as he should), but instead concentrating against Milroy in the mountains of a town called McDowell (as he could) and beginning the fabled Valley Campaign that put an end to the dreams of the man called McDowell.