Orlean, Virginia: Witness to History

Civil War histories invariably point to Gettysburg, and the famous battle fought there, as the high tide of the Confederacy.  The point at which the American South came closest to seizing its independence.

Only, those accounts are wrong.  By July 1863, notwithstanding the string of battlefield victories that Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had put together, the prospects of the Confederacy were already quickly waning.  The west was nearing collapse.  Food and forage – never abundant – were in critically short supply… enough so that that spring had already seen bread riots in Richmond and Lee dispatching half his army (Longstreet’s corps) into North Carolina to find sustenance.  And Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s battlefield soul mate, lay fresh in his grave.

No one understood those quickly narrowing odds better than Lee.  When he began crossing the Potomac in the summer of 1863, with destiny pulling him towards the sleepy, crossroads town of Gettysburg, it was more out of a sense of desperation than because it was an obvious denouement to the then two-year-long struggle.  Yes, Lee wished to give battle, as he knew the sands of time were working against him.  But more than that, he needed supplies… and he knew where they could be found.

A year earlier though?  1862 began with the Confederacy on the ropes in every theater.  It’s prospects seemed dim.  The Union was ascendant everywhere.  Confederate morale was at its nadir.  And by the time McClellan landed his huge Army of the Potomac at Fort Monroe and began the Peninsula campaign, the growing feeling everywhere – North and South – was that the war would soon be over.  In a few weeks time McClellan would be at the very gates of Richmond… and there seemed nothing the Confederacy could do to prevent its fall.

But, then, two things happened.  In March, even as McClellan embarked on his half-sea, half-land end-run to seize the Confederate capital, Stonewall Jackson – the selfsame young VMI professor who had gained a bit of minor fame in the first major battle of the war a year earlier… along with the moniker which would forever be attached to it – initiated what would later be known as the Valley Campaign.  Over in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Jackson and his small force again and again attacked and defeated much larger Union forces.  Marching what seemed impossible distances and shocking his foes by seemingly appearing out of nowhere, Jackson’s exploits electrified the entire Confederacy… even as they brought dismay to the North.  By spring’s end, the strange professor with the little bit of fame… was little-known no more.  The name “Jackson” was spoken in hushed whispers, with either excitement or dread appended depending upon one’s allegiance.

The second thing was the wounding of Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, on the afternoon of May 31st, outside Richmond.  This led Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, to appoint Robert E. Lee, his senior military advisor, as commander of that army.

It’s important to realize that in June of 1862 Robert E. Lee was not viewed anything like he is today.  As a career U.S. army officer – one who had spent some years as commandant of West Point – he was well-known amongst that small cadre of professional army officers, of course.  But the common soldier tended to a derisive scorn for their new commander.  His first nickname was “Granny Lee” because they thought he was too cautious and afraid to fight.  And that was soon followed by “King of Spades” because of his penchant for breastworks and “digging in.”  Even among the professional officer class Lee was often viewed as distant and staid and by-the-book.

They – and the world – would soon see the real Lee.  And nothing in the Civil War would ever again be quite the same.

Lee faced an extraordinary quandary.  Significantly outnumbered by McClellan in his front; his capital at risk; short of food, forage, and armaments; and another three-corps Union army quickly forming under John Pope a few days march to his north… what to do?

Lee’s answer wasn’t long in coming.  He first initiated the Seven Days’ battles, which drove McClellan from Richmond and prompted that Union commander to abandon his idea of seizing Richmond from its eastern approaches.  Retreating to the protection of his gunboats, McClellan suddenly decided that he had had enough of Bobby Lee.  He punted.

Then, the first of many times he would do so while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee divided that army, sending Jackson northwestward first to Gordonsville, and then to a place called Cedar Mountain.  There, Jackson defeated elements of Pope’s new army.

Soon, once he was confident McClellan was indeed disembarking for Northern Virginia, Lee moved swiftly to reunite his army.  By mid-August Richmond no longer faced imminent threat, the vast Union army that had come to seize it were on boats headed back in the direction of Washington, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was… back in northern Virginia.  Rarely in history have military fortunes changed so completely and so profoundly, as they did during those ten weeks from June to August, 1862.

And thus was the die cast and the stage set for the true high tide of the Confederacy.  A lone, narrow chance that wound its way through the late summer of 1862.  A singular Southern hope that marched through the village of Orlean, on its way to destiny.

Despite his recent victories, Lee still faced a grave challenge…  McClellan’s grand Army of the Potomac was moving rapidly to combine with Pope’s Army of Virginia.  Lee knew that if that happened the already-difficult odds he faced would become impossible.  Engaging Pope, before McClellan and his army could unite with him, was his only hope.  But how to accomplish that?  Pope’s forces were aligned in a wide arc, along the northern bank of the Rappahannock River, and Lee’s initial efforts at crossing that river were repulsed.

The western anchor of Pope’s line held fast at Waterloo… a few miles south of Orlean on Leeds Manor, and a mile or so above present-day rt. 211… there was a different (wooden) bridge there then, but it was at the same location as the present Waterloo Bridge… down off Old Bridge Road (rt. 613) – the very bridge that has been closed to traffic for the last year or so.  (The present, closed-to-traffic, metal bridge was built in 1879).

What Lee conceived was startling both in its audacity and its risk.  He proposed dividing his army once again, sending Stonewall Jackson with half the army, and most the cavalry, on a long march around Pope’s right flank, forcing Pope to abandon the Rappahannock in order to deal with the Confederates in his rear.  He (Lee) would follow by a day or so and would reunite with Jackson before Pope could concentrate his forces.

Jackson always performed best, his eyes alight with excitement, when given broad autonomy and command discretion… and so this mission suited him to a tee.

The Confederate army was spread out in the fields around Jeffersonton, not far from where present-day rt. 229 joins rt. 211.  If you stand at the gas pumps at the Exxon station there at that intersection and gaze southwards, you can see where some of the brigades were encamped.

Jackson’s unit commanders were ordered to prepare three days rations and be ready to move at first light.  But the troops had hardly had time to light the fires to cook those rations before they were ordered to form up and move out.  Daylight of Monday, August 25 would find Jackson’s three divisions of 24,000 men already well on the march.

A word about the roads… western Fauquier County in 1862 was remarkably similar to what it is today.  It had the same rural character.  The same rolling hills.  The same interspersing mix of forest and field.  A person going back in time would be unsurprised by nearly everything… except for the roads.  The roads were generally pretty awful.

Although many of the roads we have today existed back then, they were of a very different character.  Think narrow, one-lane dirt tracts – dirt, not gravel – and you’ll be on the right track.  They were dusty when it was dry.  And quickly turned into difficult tracks of mud when it was wet.

The one exception were “macadamized” roads.  Macadam roads were invented in the early 19th century and were that era’s “hardtop” road.  They consisted of several layers of interlocking rock and gravel, graded and rolled to create a solid, stable surface. 

Macadam roads do not have any modern parallel.  Tarred, blacktop roads such as we have today did not come into existence until the automobile made its appearance in the early 20th century.  But macadam roads were much closer to the asphalt roads of today than they were to the otherwise dismal roads that existed during the Civil War era.  They were wide enough for easy two-way traffic, they featured engineered drainage, and they were little affected by weather. 

Alas, they were few and far between.  In 1862, the Valley Turnpike (present-day rt. 11) over in the Shenandoah Valley was macadamized; the Warrenton-to-New Market Turnpike (present-day rt. 211) was macadamized; and the Warrenton-Alexandria Turnpike (present-day rt. 29) was macadamized.  Pretty much everything else in the area was dirt.

The general lack of major, reliable roads in Virginia (and throughout the South) was one reason that railroads figured so prominently during the Civil War.  Sustaining armies of that era took prodigious quantities of material and the roads were simply not up to the task.

As if that wasn’t enough, maps were also almost non-existent.  Army cartographers and engineers on both sides largely documented their theaters of operations as they proceeded, based upon whatever scant intelligence they could find.

Speed was of the essence, so Jackson was travelling light.  From Jeffersonton, turning westward on present-day rt. 211, the long, snaking Confederate column had an advantage on this day.  They were led by Captain J. K. Boswell, Jackson’s 24-year-old Chief Engineer, along with members of Warrenton’s famed Black Horse Cavalry.  Boswell had a brother and two cousins in the Black Horse Troop and these young men all knew the local roads and countryside.

Within hours of dawn, Pope had reports that accurately sized the Confederate column moving west.  What he did not see or hear was that on the western outskirts of Amissville… that column suddenly turned north on Hinsons Ford Road (present-day rt. 643).  Then, as now, that road wends back towards the Rappahannock River.  Today the road dead-ends just below the river, with a private residence blocking passage.  In 1862, though, the road continued down to the water’s edge.  Along with the ford, there was a working mill and a post office there. 

Having already marched for several hours in the hot summer sun, one can imagine the Confederates were happy to wet their feet as they splashed across the cool waters of the Rappahannock.

But their relief was brief.  Once on the northern bank, their path was a long, hard pull, mostly uphill.  Their track put them largely on what is today Bear’s Den Road (rt. 743).

At Leeds Manor Road (rt. 688) they turned left, marching the mile north to where the citizens of Orlean were ready to be amazed.

Then, like today, war and rumors of war was usually a distant thing.  The people of western Fauquier County heard what was happening slowly, as newspapers and travelers made their way through the area.  Other than the occasional cavalry patrol, they had not personally witnessed much.

Pope’s General Orders 5 and 7, issued several weeks prior, had certainly made an impression, however.  Virginia’s citizens were outraged by his dictate that Union troops should “subsist upon the country” – a mantra that many Union troops took to mean they were free to steal and pillage; that Southern civilians living within five miles of guerilla attacks would be responsible for the damage from those attacks; and requiring oaths of allegiance to the United States.

And so with that anger as a backdrop, the citizens of Orlean had thrilled to the news… first from Richmond, and then from Cedar Mountain.  Standing at the intersection of Leeds Manor and John Barton Payne in the middle of the little village on that hot Monday in August, one can imagine the sudden shock of seeing the gray-clad column suddenly heave into view at midday.

The Confederates did not pause, but turned right from Leeds Manor onto John Barton Payne (rt. 732).  If you today stand on the rear deck of the Orlean Market and squinch your eyes, you can see them marching past, mere feet away.  They would have been younger and skinnier than the image we have of them today – Hollywood movies and present-day Civil War reenactors being well-fed middle-aged men, for the most part, while the real Southern soldier was mostly very young and almost always hungry.  But you’d have found them in fine spirits… cracking jokes and easily intuiting that this long march meant that Lee and Jackson were up to something special.

This, ladies and gentlemen – today and tomorrow and the day after – was the real high-tide of the Confederacy.  The singular moment during the Civil War when the South came closest to forcing the issue on the battlefield.  That it failed to do so turned on the narrowest of margins.

It would take a couple hours for Jackson’s corps to pass by the market.  After crossing the Rappahannock at Hinsons Ford, the Southern troops had become spread out in the fields and swales out along Bears Den.  But back on Leeds Manor and, now, John Barton Payne, they tightened up ranks again.  They marched in order, swiftly. 

They passed Thumb Run church on their left.  And when they reached present-day Wilson Road (rt. 738) they turned north once again.  It was just a quick, little dog-leg, before they turned eastward once again on Crest Hill Road (rt. 647).  They would pull up at Marshall (then called Salem), between 8 and 9pm (EST), exhausted, after having marched approximately 26 miles.

The afternoon brought more surprise to the citizens of Orlean.  Hardly had the tramping feet of Jackson’s men faded into the distance when came the sound of horses.  Thousands of them.  They were J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry and they, too, turned up John Barton Payne.

Meanwhile, back in Jeffersonton, where all this started lo those many hours ago… at Waterloo Bridge and various other points along the Rappahannock Lee directed Longstreet to make continued demonstrations – artillery barrages and cavalry feints and infantry movements – to hold Pope’s attention.  The ruse succeeded.  As Jackson’s exhausted Confederates finally fell out into the fields just outside Marshall as darkness fell, Pope believed the morning would see Lee trying to force his line along the Rappahannock.

Tuesday, August 26, 1862 was a remarkable day.  Jackson roused his men early, their exhausted sleep upon the hard ground outside Marshall not nearly enough.  But the fate of an army – of a nascent nation – hung in the balance, and Jackson knew it.

From Marshall, Jackson proceeded west on present-day rt. 55… through The Plains (incorrectly noted in most wartime reports as “White Plains”), through Thoroughfare Gap, through Haymarket, and, finally, to Gainesville.  There, he turned south along present-day rt. 619, to Bristoe Station.  And it was there, at dusk, when the telegraph line was cut and the trains stopped running, that Pope finally learned that Jackson was in his rear.  You can imagine his astonishment. 

Meanwhile, the good citizens of Orlean were not quite done as witnesses.  During the afternoon on this day Lee, with Longstreet and the other half of his army, left their positions south of the Rappahannock and began following the same route Jackson had taken a day earlier.  West on 211, north on Hinsons Ford, splashing across the Rappahannock, and the long walk up along Bears Den to Leeds Manor.  At dark, Longstreet’s men fell out into the fields just south of Orlean.  The residents of Orlean would go to sleep that night with nearly 30,000 sudden visitors.

Morning would see them depart, but not before one last bit of drama unfolded.

Lee, as was often customary at the time, dined that evening at a local home of standing.  In this case, he had dinner and stayed the night at Oak Hill, the home of Mrs. John Marshall, daughter-in-law of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, near Piedmont Station (present-day Delaplane).

Early Wednesday morning, August 27, 1862, Lee and his staff bid adieu to Mrs. Marshall, mounted up, and proceeded on horseback towards Marshall.  They were well in front of Longstreet’s corps, at that moment just arising from their camp at Orlean, when they were discovered by the 9th New York cavalry between Ada and Vernon Mills, who were screening Pope’s left flank.  Lee’s staffers drew up in a line, while Lee hurried towards the safety of Longstreet’s corps.  The Union cavalry, believing the gray-clad horsemen were part of a much larger Confederate cavalry unit, quickly retreated towards Warrenton.  It was probably the closest Lee ever came to being captured or killed during the entire Civil War.

And so ended the little village of Orlean’s witness to the momentous high-tide of the Confederacy.  Events would continue to unfold, of course… Lee’s narrow escape would be followed that day by the continued march of Longstreet to join Jackson.  Late the next day, Thursday, August 28, 1862 would see the Second Battle of Manassas joined.  Lee’s two corps were once again reunited.  And on Friday, August 29, 1862, Longstreet would hammer Pope with the greatest infantry assault ever seen in North America.  It was a crushing defeat for the Union commander.  That he escaped with his army at all was down to darkness… and the heroic, tenacious defense mounted on Chinn’s Ridge by subordinates who were far better at war than he was.

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