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Tempest At Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly, Part 4

Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly
by David A. Welker


Chapter 4 - Stuart's Salutation - Sunday, August 31, 1862; Midday to Nightfall
1. Stonewall Jackson and his vaunted Foot Cavalry began their flanking march from Sudley Church around noon on August 31. However, on this particular day, Jackson's men weren't marching at the usual rapid pace. The men had been marching for weeks and had just fought intense battles over the last three days. To make matters worse, food was scarce with no prospect for relief any time this day. And to add icing to the cake, it rained all day and turned the roads to quagmires. A.P. Hill's Light Division led the way, followed by Lawton's and Starke's Divisions. Fitz Lee's Cavalry Brigade was even farther out front and protected Jackson's right flank once he turned to the southeast and marched down the Little River Turnpike. The Confederate Cavalry managed to capture parts of two Union Cavalry Regiments out guarding Pope's right flank that day, but enough men escaped to warn Pope later that night of the massive threat building on his flank. As Jackson began his march, Pope was detailing troops to guard his massive wagon train as it retreated east to Washington. Incredibly, he pulled two regiments and a two guns from his defensive force under Torbert at Jermantown. Part of Marsena Patrick's Brigade was also sent with the train as it slowly made its way east along Warrenton Turnpike. Stuart and two other Cavalry Brigades joined Fitz Lee's men later that day and together they tested the Union defenses west of Jermantown along Difficult Run. Stuart believed this line too tough to crack with cavalry. Instead, he brought up some artillery and shelled the massive Union wagon train to the south on Warrenton Turnpike as night came on. Welker believes this was a major mistake.

2. Incredibly, though Pope even mentioned in a dispatch to Halleck that it was likely Lee would try to turn his flank, he seemed pretty unconcerned about that possibility and did little to make sure it wouldn't happen, at least on this day anyway. He did have parts of two cavalry regiments patrolling the area north and northeast of Centreville beyond his right flank, but they were both gobbled up by the much larger forces of Stuart. Torbert, guarding the key town of Jermantown (just west of the all-important intersection of Little River Turnpike and Warrenton Turnpike), was left with just two infantry regiments and four cannon after Pope had detached some of his force to escort the wagon train. This is nothing short of criminal neglect of probably THE most important point in Pope's defensive line. Centreville's frowning works could take care of themselves. Yet out of a force of over 90,000 men PFD on August 31, Pope detached barely over 1% to guard a spot he absolutely could not afford to lose. Instead, he was considering an attack of all things so that he could continue as commander of the main Eastern Army (whatever it would have been called had Pope retained command). Welker asserts that Pope truly believed Lee was still sitting quietly on the Manassas battlefield as August 31 drew to a close.

3. Another major blunder occurred on August 31, only this time it belonged to a Confederate commander. That man was Stuart, who made not one but two critical mistakes that night according to Welker. First, Stuart should not have shelled the Federal wagon train as it passed south of Ox Hill. Welker rightly says that this artillery fire alerted Pope of the possibility of a major force on his flank. Had Stuart resisted the temptation placed before him, the Northern commander might have just written off the activity on his flank as the usual scouting activity of cavalry. I agree with this to an extent. But one has to remember that several members of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and 10th NY Cavalry (both surrounded and captured that day) escaped to report to Pope that night. Surely they had some inkling of the size of Stuart's force. Scouting parties do not normally have the force necessary to completely surround and capture parts of not one but two enemy units. Surely these reports would have clued Pope in that something big was up over on his right. The second major blunder Stuart made that night was one of omission. After the firing from the artillery bombardment died down, Stuart and members of his staff rode to the house of one of Stuart's friends located nearby. There, the Rebel officers whiled the night away. Welker believes that Stuart should have immediately reported back to Jackson northwest up the Little River Turnpike. Welker believes that Jackson would have been furious had Stuart mentioned the bombardment. I agree that Stuart erred here. His job was twofold. First, he needed to scout ahead to see what lay before the Confederate flanking movement. Second, he needed to keep Jackson informed of what he saw. In any event, Stuart did meet with Jackson the next morning, but a record of that meeting has not survived.

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Comments

Pope seems to have made something of a habit of ignoring bad news from his cavalry. As I understand the tangled mess surrounding Second Manassas, he basically blew off reports from cavalry about the immediate proximity of Longstreet's command.

I seem to remember that Cozzens in the new Pope biography blames McDowell for not forwarding the news from Ricketts and Buford about the rapid passage of Thoroughfare Gap, so I'm not sure whether it's valid to lay that at Pope's door as well, but it surely seems to have been a pattern of behaviour in the Army of Virginia to ignore one's own cavalry scouts. Wonder if there was a history of squirrely reports from the cavalry in the Rapidan-Gordonville portion of the summer campaign?

Mitch,

I've gotta tell you, my eyes have certainly been opened. I wouldn't doubt the possibility of the exact same behavior earlier as you mention. The end result of a flanking march happening without much contestr was certainly much the same except for the aggression of Stevens at Ox Hill. Pope just couldn't seem to comprehend a bad thing was happening until it got REALLY bad (i.e. his depot at Manassas Junction getting burned or Longstreet's entire Corps sweeping down on his unprotected left flank). I need to go back and re-read Hennessy's take on Pope in _Return to Bull Run_. I literally haven't read it since I was in 8th grade (1993 or thereabouts).