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The Perfect Cover Story

Most accounts of the Second Manassas campaign rely heavily on Major General John Pope’s report from the Official Records. Many historians, in fact, have looked no further. Their trust has not been well-placed. Several clues within Pope’s version of events suggest falsehood, even without additional accounts.

The key portion of Pope’s report on the actions at Clark’s Mountain is given here: “From the 12th to the 18th of August reports were constantly reaching me of large forces of the enemy re-enforcing Jackson from the direction of Richmond and by the morning of the 18th I became satisfied that nearly the whole force of the enemy from Richmond was assembling in my front along the south side of the Rapidan, and extending from Raccoon Ford to Liberty Mills. The cavalry expeditions sent out on the 16th in the direction of Louisa Court House captured the adjutant-general of General Stuart, and was very near capturing that officer himself. Among the papers was an autograph letter of General Robert E. Lee to General Stuart, dated Gordonsville, August 13, which made manifest to me the position and force of the enemy and their determination to overwhelm the army under my command before it could be re-enforced by any portion of the Army of the Potomac. I held on to my position thus far to the front for the purpose of affording all time possible for the arrival of the Army of the Potomac at Aquia Creek and Alexandria and to embarrass and delay the movements of the enemy as far as practicable.

“On the 18th of August it became apparent to me that this advanced position, with the small force under my command, was no longer tenable in the face of the overwhelming forces of the enemy. I determined, accordingly, to withdraw behind the Rappahannock with all speed, and… defend, as far as practicable, the line of the river. I directed Major General Reno to send back his trains on the morning of the 18th, by the way of Stevensburg, to Kelly’s or Barnette’s [sic] Ford, and…then follow with his whole corps, and take post behind the Rappahannock.”

Although the report seems to be straightforward, several reasons suggest it is not. First, Pope noted that he was “constantly receiving reports” of the enemy troops headed his way, yet he failed to mention the report of Thomas Harter, the Union spy who reported to him in person, or the 2nd Maryland’s action that was reported to his headquarters.

Second, Pope incorrectly gave the date and place of Lee’s original order. Lee did not meet with Jackson and Longstreet until the 15th. The report also stated that “cavalry expeditions” left camp August 16. In fact, only one expedition moved out on the 17th, and they did not capture the order until the morning of the 18th.

Lee’s order indicated his plan for the attack and the nature of the forces he hoped to commit to the attack, but only suggested what would occur if all of his troops made it to their assigned position. They had not, and so the attack was postponed. If they had reached their positions, the attack on the Union forces would already have been underway on the morning of August 18.

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