Fire with Fire: The Battle of Cedar Mountain

Suffering in the sweltering Virginia sun, the Confederates fell into complete chaos before a general nicknamed “Stonewall” brought the heat.
Cedar Mountain Battlefield, Culpeper County, Va.

Cedar Mountain Battlefield, Culpeper County, Va.

As the Civil War escalated during the spring and summer of 1862, both armies made adjustments in leadership, organization and policies. The August 9, 1862, Battle of Cedar Mountain was impacted by modifications made during the weeks prior to the fight and, in turn, influenced further evolutions, especially in leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The first five months of 1862 saw Union triumphs across the map, with Federal victories recorded in Battles at Mill Springs, Ky., Pea Ridge, Ark., and Glorieta Pass, N.M. In Tennessee, Brig. Gen. Ulysses Grant secured the unconditional surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson and pounded the Confederates at Shiloh, the bloodiest battle of the war, to date. New Orleans and Fort Pulaski fell to the Union navy, among other inroads along the coast.

A bright spot for the Confederates was the spring’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, in which Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s swift-moving 17,000-man army had achieved a series of small but impressive victories and startled some Federal authorities. Jackson then took his troops to Richmond to join the Army of Northern Virginia, newly commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee. In the Seven Days’ Battles in late June and early July 1862, the massive Federal army nearly on the doorstep of the Confederate capitol in Richmond had been repelled.

Lincoln, conversely, was astonished that the Federal success of early 1862 had been seemingly erased in the span of a week. He questioned how long the federal government should continue to offer the seceded states the opportunity to rejoin the Union with slavery intact, and he contemplated an emancipation proclamation and harsh consequences for Southern citizens who refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

To implement such a change in federal policy, Lincoln needed a politically sympathetic army commander and looked to fellow Republican Maj. Gen. John Pope. The President also took the opportunity to address the lack of coordination and cooperation that had created room for Jackson to maneuver so successfully in the Valley. The three former departments totaling 50,000 Federal troops he had so stymied in piecemeal fashion each became a corps in Pope’s new Federal Army of Virginia.

Pope’s proclamations were largely met with moral outrage, and the difficultly of protecting Confederate citizens from Pope’s army and its harsh policies toward civilians would not prevent Lee from trying. He turned to Jackson with the admonition, “I want Pope to be suppressed.”

But Lee was also obviously aware of some deficiencies in Jackson’s leadership style, and he questioned Jackson’s ability to command a larger number of troops than he had directed in the Shenandoah Valley. For example, Lee knew that Jackson chose to share little of his plans with his subordinates. So, reinforcements sent to Jackson prior to the Battle of Cedar Mountain came with some advice: “[B]y advising your division commanders … much trouble can be saved you … as they can act more intelligently.” The battle in the shadow of Cedar Mountain demonstrated Jackson would heed Lee’s sound counsel.

On August 9, 1862, Jackson decided to strike one of Pope’s three isolated corps under Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks before the Federal army consolidated. During a brutally hot day that likely hit the century mark, Jackson first engaged Banks in an artillery duel as the Southerner’s infantry formed for an assault.

Cedar Mountain Battlefield Culpeper County, Va.

Although outnumbered nearly 2-to-1, the Union army received something of an assist from Brig. Gen. Charles Winder, who commanded one of Jackson’s three divisions. Whether because Winder was sick and perhaps not himself on the day of battle, or because the former artilleryman settled into what he was most comfortable doing by giving an inordinate amount of attention to his cannoneers, or perhaps being over-confident in the numerical superiority of the Confederate force, Winder did not attend to the proper alignment of his infantry on the Confederate left. Winder had ordered a brigade commanded by Col. Thomas S. Garnett to attack the right end of the Federal artillery line, clearly visible across farm fields. But Garnett discovered what turned out to be a division of Federal infantry in position in woods protecting that end of the row of cannon, and asked Winder for further instructions. Garnett recalled being told by Winder “to remain where I was for a few moments.” Before Winder could investigate, a shell fragment sliced his abdomen and nearly tore off his arm.

Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro, replacing the mortally wounded Winder as division commander, undertook his own reconnaissance and discovered just how vulnerable Garnett’s alignment was. But before Taliaferro could make any adjustments and undertake the initiative, Banks attacked, causing chaos among the poorly positioned Confederate left. Garnett’s line collapsed and Jackson responded by riding to the point of danger to rally his troops. While attempting to draw his saber, he reportedly found it rusted in his scabbard from non-use, so he unhooked it and used his sheathed sword to stop the rout, calling out, “Rally, brave men, and press forward! Your general will lead you. Jackson will lead you. Follow me!”

With the timely arrival of reinforcements, a Confederate counterattack brought their superior numbers to bear and turned a near-defeat into victory. Federal reinforcements were too little, too late, and the Federal brigade under Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford that had done most of the damage to Jackson’s forces ran out of steam and had to give way. Federal casualties were 2,381, while Confederate losses numbered 1,276.

Though Jackson did not follow Lee’s advice, and it can be argued that Jackson’s army suffered from his subordinates lacking adequate information about the march and the battle plan, Jackson was victorious and was on the road to commanding half the Confederate army – some 35,000 troops.

Federal officers captured during the battle “were not entitled to the privileges of ordinary prisoners of war,” and if Pope executed any Confederate civilians in accord with his proclamations, these officers would be executed in retaliation. In the end, Pope’s army would not be the force to carry out the hard hand of war. The federal government eventually declared Pope’s proclamations be rescinded, Pope himself removed from the Civil War and assigned service fighting Native Americans in the Dakotas, and his former army merged into the Army of the Potomac.


Related Battles

Culpeper County, VA | August 9, 1862
Result: Confederate Victory
Estimated Casualties