Maneuvers and battles in Virginia prior to the Battle of First Manassas were centered around control of major waterways. Virginia had three main waterways that defined its antebellum borders: the Ohio, Potomac, and Chesapeake rivers. Whoever controlled these rivers could rapidly transport troops and supplies and prevent the enemy from crossing over into friendly territory.
The Union quickly grasped the importance of controlling these waterways, while the Virginia militia and Confederate military did not. It was a costly mistake. With a broad mission to protect the Ohio River, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan struck deep into northwestern Virginia in early summer 1861, scattering Confederate forces there. From Fort Monroe in southeastern Virginia, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler sought to control the Chesapeake Bay, and in the north, Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell crossed the Potomac to seize a foothold and protect Washington, DC.
So far, I’ve identified 27 separate engagements in Virginia prior to the Battle of First Manassas (this includes territory that became West Virginia), and have separated them into three general geographic fronts, named after these principal waterways. This helps clarify the broader role each engagement played in early Civil War Virginia. The following chart lists the engagements, their dates, and locations on the Chesapeake Front.
|Engagement at Gloucester Point||Tuesday, May 7, 1861||Gloucester County, VA|
|Engagement at Sewell’s Point||Sat., May 18 and Sun. May 19, 1861||Norfolk, VA|
|Engagement at Pig Point||Wednesday, June 5, 1861||Suffolk, VA|
|Battle of Big Bethel||Monday, June 10, 1861||Hampton, VA|
|Skirmish at Curtis’ Farm||Friday, July 5, 1861||Newport News, VA|
|Skirmish at Cedar Lane||Friday, July 12, 1861||Newport News, VA|