CRITICAL DECISION: PATTERSON MOVES TO CHARLES TOWN
In early July, Robert Patterson's army rested at Martinsburg while Joseph Johnston's army was at Winchester.
On July 9, Patterson ordered an an order to advance from Martinsburg. Many of Patterson's senior officers objected to the order, and Patterson suspended the movement. Patterson's senior officers worried that Johnston would lure them farther away from their supply depot and then attack them with reinforcements from Beauregard's army at Manassas. They recommended a movement to Charles Town instead. This would keep them closer to their supply base at Harper's Ferry. It would also place Patterson's army in position to advance parallel to the Potomac and take Leesburg. That same day, Winfield Scott sent Patterson a coded message indicating that McDowell would advance on July 16.
On July 13, Patterson opened a dispatch from Scott that seemed to confirm his senior officers fears. The letter summarized information that had reached Scott. This was essentially a garbled version of a grandiose plan concocted by Beauregard and submitted to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and others. According to this information, Johnston planned to lure Patterson up further up the Shenandoah Valley where they would, after receiving reinforcements, destroy Patterson's army and then turn on George McClellan's army in western Virginia, before returning to destroy McDowell's force. This information made Patterson more cautious than he already was.
Patterson responded to Scott, saying that he “would rather lose the chance of accomplishing something brilliant” than risk defeat by an aggressivemaneuver.
Another serious concern for Patterson was that the majority of his army was made up of three-months regiments whose enlistments were due to expire in the coming days. There was no hope that many of these men would stay on after the expiration of their term. Patterson faced the fact that within the week, over half his army would go home.
Scott immediately sent a telegram back to Patterson. If Patterson was not strong enough to defeat Johnston, he should make an aggressive demonstration that would force Johnston to defend himself. If that did not keep Johnston in place, Patterson should move down the Potomac through Leesburg to assist McDowell.
Patterson's subordinates urged an advance toward Bunker Hill, about halfway between Martinsburg and Winchester. On July 15, Patterson ordered an advance toward Bunker Hill, driving a Confederate outpost back toward Winchester. The next day, Major George Thomas of the 2nd U. S. Cavalry led a reconnaissance toward Winchester and there was brief skirmishing between Thomas's force and Jeb Stuart's cavalry.
Rather than press the advance, on July 17 Patterson ordered his army to move east to Charles Town. By this time, he expected McDowell to have already fought his battle. He was wrong. With Patterson sitting at Charles Town, Johnston began transferring his brigades to Manassas on July 18.
Other posts in this series:
Critical Decision #1