Friday, August 22, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: Aug. 17-23, 1862

“One pinch of owl dung”

The Rappahannock stretches for nearly 200 miles across northern Virginia, rising in the western mountains and flowing eastward to empty into Chesapeake Bay a few miles south of the Potomac. The river forms a natural boundary between the North and the South…and during this week, a bloody one.

Day after hot August day, Union Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia clings to the river’s northern shore, fighting a never-ending series of skirmishes with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Both Pope and Lee has been in command their respective armies for less than three months, but, clearly, he is rattling Pope.

To add insult to injury, the Army of Northern Virginia’s newly appointed cavalry commander, James E. B. (“Jeb”) Stuart, is raising havoc with hit-and-run raids on the Union army,. Stuart’s crowning achievement is the capture of Pope’s own baggage…reportedly including his strategy papers, a uniform coat, cash, and personal belongings. Stonewall Jackson raids Pope’s huge supply base at Manassas Junction, generously supplying themselves from the stores there, and burning the rest.

Pope gets little sympathy from his own men. Pope’s loud-mouthed braggadocio has alienated officers and enlisted men alike. One of his generals even sputters, “I don’t care for John Pope one ounce of owl dung!” And the idea is spreading among the men that Pope was a “Jonah”—a bearer of bad luck.

Bad luck is, in fact, heading Pope’s way, but not in the form of yet another hard-hitting Confederate general. It is Pope’s bad luck to be relying for reinforcements on Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who is leading his Army of the Potomac back from his failed campaign on the Virginia Peninsula.

McClellan is sulking because he thinks he should have been allowed to continue the Peninsula Campaign, even though it was apparent to everyone else that it was going nowhere. Moreover, McClellan and Pope don’t like each other. As a result, McClellan’s huge army is moving with leaden feet in Pope’s direction. Later, President Lincoln will suspect McClellan’s slow pace was deliberate.

But that thought will occur only after the Union disaster that is looming now.

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