In researching any part of history, one tends to learn about important figures from a distance. Take the Civil War for example. You can read about Lee and Jackson, McClellan and Pope, Lincoln and Davis, all day long. You’ll read about what they did, how they did it, and maybe a few quotes scattered here and there. What I love about learning history are the little stories about generals and civilians that humanize them. These stories, often comical, can give the modern scholar a better understanding of their character more than any biography or textbook ever could.
I read such a story when doing my research about the second battle at Manassas Junction/Bull Run.
Before August 17th, General John Pope had gotten himself in a corner. More specifically, a triangle formed by the Rappahannock River, Rapidan River, and Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Robert Lee had gathered his army on the southern side of the Rapidan, mostly concealed behind Clark’s Mountain. The Confederate’s plan? Take out Rappahannock Station just to the north of the river it’s named after. Disrupting supplies and a path of retreat along this section of the railroad would help squish the Union army. With Cedar Mountain and the base of the Blue Ridge to Pope’s west beyond the railroad, and the rebel army to his south, the only way for him to go would be back north toward Washington.
To do this, Lee would dispatch his cavalry to raid the station under cover of dark, and then charge the Federals using the fords over the Rapidan River. J.E.B Stuart and his two brigades, one under Wade Hampton and the other under Fitzhugh Lee (the general’s nephew) were chosen for the task.
A delay occurred as Stuart was waiting for his two brigades to come up. On the night of August 17th, Stuart was still waiting for his cavalry to arrive from Richmond and Hannover Station. He and his staff officers were to meet him to the east of Clark’s Mountain near Raccoon Ford over the Rapidan. When midnight came and there was still no sign, Stuart fell asleep on the front porch of a roadside house. When they woke up to the sound of hoofbeats, they discovered it wasn’t Lee or Hampton, but a detachment of Yankees that had breached their pickets at the ford. Only, there were no pickets there at all. Robert Toombs’ men were supposed to be guarding the access point, but had excused his pickets after a small celebration that rendered him… well, he might very well have been drunk. Or at least tipsy. Who knows?
Either way, Toombs was arrested for his negligence and sent back to Gordonsville. In Stuart’s eyes, this wasn’t the worst part. The greatest tragedy lay in the fact that his famed plumed hat, silk-lined cape, and haversack were stolen from him – along with a bit of his pride. He couldn’t stand when he’d pass by his troops and hear the jibe, “Where’s your hat?” He wrote to his wife, “I intend to make the Yankees pay for that hat.”
And he did, in a manner of speaking.
Pope eventually moved himself out of the triangle, the Rappahannock Station was not raided, and the O & A railroad continued to serve the Union for another day. Now, the armies were facing a stalemate a little farther north, with the Federals on the eastern bank of the Rappahannock and the Confederates on the west bank.
Lee’s new plan was to prod at Pope’s rear to cut off a potential retreat by destroying the railroad bridge that crossed Cedar Run. This resulted in the beneficial raid of Catlett’s Station at the Warrenton Junction with the O & A. Who would lead this raid? Stuart, of course! Crossing Waterloo Bridge, he took his 1500 troops and two guns to Catlett Station. A captured contraband orderly met with Stuart and gave him some vital information about where Pope’s headquarters might have been.
On the night of August 22nd, Stuart’s detachment came upon the camp and ordered the charge through a torrential thunderstorm, which cloaked the area in complete darkness (no stars or moon to see by). The wet state of the bridge the cavalry officer was ordered to burn once more deprived him of achieving his objective. Pope wasn’t at the camp, having taken himself on an inspection tour, but there was plenty more in the camp that the Confederates could use. These included Pope’s personal baggage, a payroll chest with more than $350,000 in greenbacks, and a dispatch book that included all the correspondence between Pope and Washington over the last week or so. This last bit of loot was pivotal in Lee’s upcoming assault, which gave the general some consolation after hearing the Stuart failed to demolish the bridge.
But one thing did some out of this raid that made it all worth it for the flashy cavalry officer. Taken by Fitz Lee – who had been partially to blame for the delay in taking Rappahannock Station – was a cockaded hat and blue dress coat of a Federal major general. On the inside label read “John Pope”. They all had a good laugh about it, including J.E.B Stuart. This was his chance to get back at the Yankees. He had the balls to write to Pope and say, “You have my hat and plume. I have your best coat. I have the honor to propose a cartel for a fair exchange of the prisoners.” Pope didn’t take him up on it and the coat was sent to the State Library in Richmond to be put on display. Still, Stuart wrote to his wife again to tell her of the satisfying incident and said, “I have had my revenge out of Pope.”