150 Years Ago This Week: Armies on the move

August 1862

Elements of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia left Rappahannock County on Saturday, Aug. 2, leaving behind a populace devastated by the occupation and oppression of thousands of Union soldiers and their hated pompous commander. The soldiers in blue were headed towards Orange Courthouse. Their ultimate destination was to threaten Richmond from the west, with Gen. George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac threatening the capital from the east.

On the way, Gen. Pope received word that Gen. McClellan had been ordered on Aug. 3 by Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington to evacuate the Peninsula and proceed by boat to Alexandria. Their mission, which Gen. McClellan vehemently opposed and said so, was to protect Washington from Maj. Gen. Thomas Jackson’s Confederates now moving towards the Virginia Central Railroad at Gordonsville. Gen. Pope’s orders from Washington were now to prepare to defend Washington from the southwest, and to destroy Gen. Jackson’s command.

In a clash between Confederate cavalry and the vanguard of Gen. Pope’s troops on the Rapidan River in southern Culpeper County, the Federals sustained five casualties while the Confederate casualties numbered 11 dead and 52 captured.

In London, the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain received instructions from Secretary of State William Seward not to receive nor discuss any offers of mediation by Britain on the conflict between North and South. On Aug. 4, President Lincoln ordered a draft of 300,000 men to serve for nine months to suppress the rebellion, unless discharged sooner. This draft was never put into effect, although some recruiting did take place. The President also ordered the military to get rid of incompetent persons and to promote worthy officers.

At Aquia Creek, near Fredericksburg, Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and his troops from eastern North Carolina arrived to assist Gen. Pope against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s advance into northern Virginia. In New Orleans, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler issued another oppressive order against the Southern population of the city. He assessed “secessionists” $314,916 to provide for the poor of the city. Also on Aug. 4 in Washington, President Lincoln told a delegation of “western gentlemen” offering two regiments of black soldiers from Indiana that he was not prepared to enlist black soldiers but suggested that they be employed as laborers.

On Aug. 5, in an attempt to regain control of the state of Louisiana, some 2,600 Confederates under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge launched an attack to recapture the capital at Baton Rouge and drive out the 2,500 Federals occupying the city under command of Brig. Gen. Thomas Williams. The Confederate attack, starting in dense fog, included the Confederate ironclad ram CSS Arkansas, ordered down the Mississippi River from Vicksburg.

In the initial attack, Williams was killed; his command devolved on Col. Thomas Cahill, who ordered a coordinated attack with Federal gunboats on the river from New Orleans The day could have been carried for the Confederates by the Arkansas, but the ram’s engines failed repeatedly; the ironclad arrived late and was of no help.

By midmorning, the Confederate attacks against the Federals were blunted and the Southerners failed to recapture Baton Rouge. The next day, the Arkansas was attacked by the Union gunboat Essex and four other vessels. Again the engines failed on the Confederate ram, making her an easy target; badly damaged, her crew fought valiantly despite a raging fire on board. Finally, the crew abandoned ship and she was blown up and scuttled. The Confederates never again attempted to put formidable warships on the Mississippi. In 23 days, the Arkansas had carved a career that became a legend in the river war.

As the week closed, Union troops under Maj. Gen. Edward Canby at Fort Fillmore in the New Mexico Territory near the Texas border attacked and defeated Confederates moving south out of Santa Fe.

At Blackburn in England, a public meeting advocated recognition of the Confederate States because “it was impossible for the North to vanquish the South.” In Alabama, after a series of attacks on trains by Confederate guerrillas, Federal authorities at Huntsville ordered ministers and leading churchmen who had been active secessionists be arrested and one each day be placed on trains to thwart further railroad attacks.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.