Monday, May 2, 2011

The Rebels Evacuate Alexandria for the First Time (Part 1)

Last week, I wrote about the Virginia state forces converging on Alexandria towards the end of April 1861.  Troops in the Potomac Department, including those based in Alexandria, were under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cocke.  The general, an 1832 graduate of West Point, had become a wealthy planter in Virginia and Mississippi before the war.  Now he shouldered the tremendous responsibility of organizing the defense of Northern Virginia as the Union Army watched menancingly from across the Potomac.  At the start of May, Cocke suddenly found himself thrust into the middle of a controversy involving one of his subordinates.

Philip St. George Cocke (courtesy of Encyclopedia Virginia)
On May 5, Cocke drafted an order from his headquarters in Culpeper Court House and had it delivered by messenger to Lt. Col. Algernon S. Taylor, commander of the Virginia forces in Alexandria:
You will not move the troops out of Alexandria unless pressed by overwhelming and irresistible numbers; and even then you should retire to Manassas Junction, to hold that point, assist in obstructing and breaking up the road between that point and Alexandria, harassing the enemy should he attempt to use the road, and not retire farther in the interior unless overpowered and forced, as a last extremity, to so retire.
According to Cocke's correspondence in the Official Records, Taylor received the order on the fifth and was well aware of its contents.  Although Alexandria was not under attack, Taylor decided to disregard Cocke's order and abandon the town. He gathered his command, including the 6th Battalion of Virginia Volunteers, and left Alexandria that evening.  The volunteers got as far as Springfield on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  

Cocke was furious upon learning that Taylor had abandonded Alexandria.  Around 10 p.m. on May 6, he dashed off a note to Col. R.S. Garnett, adjutant-general to Maj. Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander-in-chief of Virginia forces:
. . . [S]o far as I am informed up to this moment, there was no proper or justifiable cause whatsoever for any such movement. After waiting for further intelligence and receiving none, and duly considering and weighing all the circumstances and bearing of that movement with the information before me, I have ordered the return of the troops . . . . 
Cocke eventually ascertained that no military personnel were left in Alexandria to receive his telegrams containing the order to Taylor.  (Presumably the telegram office would have arranged for the order to be delivered to Taylor at his field headquarters.)  In the early morning hours, Cocke scrambled to send his aide, Giles B. Cooke, to Springfield with a copy of the order.  Arriving at his destination by rail, Cooke handed the order to Col. George Terrett, who had left Alexandria to join Taylor.  Cocke wrote to Terrett:
I am not informed of any circumstance whatsoever that could have furnished just and sufficient cause . . . of the movement of the troops out of Alexandria . . . .  I must therefore now order that the troops return to Alexandria, . . . .  If, however, there has been any new and treating movement by the enemy unknown to me, and which in your judgment may render it impracticable of imprudent to return to Alexandria, communicate the fact to me, and, in the mean time, exercise a sound discretion as to your acting.
Taylor, under order to return and facing no real threat, had little choice but to lead his men back to Alexandria. They arrived around noon on the seventh.  Cocke was incensed by the entire episode.  He asked General Lee:
Shall I arrest Colonel Taylor for disobedience of order and unsoldier-like conduct, in having evacuated Alexandria, under the circumstances. . . ? I shall await your orders in this particular connection.
Cocke was in no mood to hear excuses.  His subordinate had disobeyed orders and left Alexandria exposed.  Taylor's fate was now in Lee's hands.


Greg Taylor said...

Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Thanks! I should be posting something in the next few days.