150 Years Ago: Lee’s First Lost Order

On this morning of August 18, 150 years ago, General J.E.B. Stuart received an abrupt awakening outside Verdiersville, Virginia:

… I was aroused from the porch where I lay by the noise of horsemen and wagons, and walking out bareheaded to the fence near by, found that they were coming from the very direction indicated for General F. Lee. I was not left long in this delusion, however, for two officers, Captain Mosby and Lieutenant Gibson, whom I sent to ascertain the truth, were fired upon and rapidly pursued. I had barely time to leap upon my horse just as I was, and, with Major Von Borcke and Lieutenant Dabney, of my staff, escaped by leaping a high fence. The major, who took the road, was fired at as long as in sight, but none of us were hurt. There was no assistance for 10 miles. Having stopped at the nearest woods, I observed the party approach and leave in great haste, but not without my hat and the cloak which had formed my bed. Major Fitzhugh, in his searches for General Lee, was caught by this party and borne off as a prisoner of war…. (OR, Series I, Volume 12, Part II, Serial 16, page 726)

A marker, in Orange County just off Virginia Highway 20, bear witness to this small cavalry fight. Not much compared to the larger battles to come in the following weeks. But with some important implications. The marker, like many accounts of this event, focuses upon Stuart’s lost hat and his revenge.

Orange  Jan 5 08 144

The “hat story” is one of those pleasing stories of the war that seem to charm us away from the horror of the times. I’ll retell it here, as it becomes somewhat obligatory… but will be brief…

Meeting on the Cedar Mountain battlefield under a truce after the battle, Stuart bet Federal General Samuel Crawford that the northern press would bill the fight as a Union victory. True to his word, Crawford forwarded after the Yankee newspaper headlines ran. As indicated in his official report, Stuart lost the hat during the confusion on the morning of August 18. Somewhat embarrassed by this loss, particularly with the reaction of his troopers, Stuart vowed revenge. On August 22, he got that revenge when leading a raid on Catlett Station. Among the spoils was General John Pope’s dress uniform. Appeals for a trade fell on deaf ears. So Stuart was content to simply send the uniform to Richmond for display.

Nice story, but distracts us from the more important loss to the Confederates – papers carried by Major Norman Fitzhugh. Included in the documents were orders outlining General Robert E. Lee’s plan to cut off and defeat Pope’s Army of Virginia between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers. With this information and intelligence from other sources, Pope hastily withdrew from the advance position. He fell back to positions on the north bank of the Rappahannock. Good, defensible terrain.

One might argue the withdrawal only delayed the inevitable clash of armies, within a series of cause-and-effect events leading back to Manassas. But the withdrawal did mean Pope’s command was not beaten at a point deep in Virginia where retreat into the Washington defense perimeter was impossible. Like the more famous one lost less than a month later outside Frederick, Maryland, the orders lost at Verdiersville changed the nature of a campaign.

Another point that is also often overlooked is the Federal perspective on the action. Colonel Thornton F. Brodhead accomplished this raid, nearly capturing Stuart and Mosby mind you, with the 1st Michigan and 5th New York Cavalry. Both units the southerners would meet on other battlefields. And the man who’d dispatched them on the raid was General John Buford. The Union cavalry was, even at this early stage of the war, showing signs of competence. The blue troopers could equal, and some times best, their gray counterparts when well lead. And those Yankee horse soldiers would only get better with age.