Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas): Fierce Fighting on Day 2
While battles can be won by the bold strategy of a gifted general, they can just as easily be lost by a general’s incompetence. This contrast was starkly demonstrated during the Civil War’s Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) from Aug. 28-30, 1862, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s daring leadership overcame the arrogant and inept Union General John Pope. This was especially true on the battle’s second day of fighting, August 29, when Pope ignored the pleadings of his subordinates and the urgency of the field reports he was receiving, stubbornly clinging to his fantasy that he had Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson cut off and ripe for destruction.
Lee had taken over command of the Confederacy’s recently-renamed Army of Northern Virginia (it was originally called the Army of the Potomac) on June 1, 1862. He promptly stopped the advance upon the Confederate capital of Richmond by a huge 90,000-man Union army led by General George B. McClellan. Once he was convinced that McClellan was preparing to retreat back north, Lee showed he was willing to take gambles with a bold strategy: he abandoned Richmond and moved his army north to attack a second Union army, the Army of Virginia led by Pope, before McClellan’s retreating army could reinforce Pope.
As a first step, Lee ordered Jackson to race ahead with his 24,000-man force, slip through a gap in the mountains called Thoroughfare Gap, and attack Pope’s army in the rear near Manassas, Virginia, site of the first major land battle of the war (First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), a Confederate victory on July 21, 1861). Lee would follow with the second half of his army, a 30,000-man force led by General James Longstreet.
Pope had 62,000 men under his command and could have easily overwhelmed Jackson’s much-smaller force—and because the gap through the mountains was so narrow, he could have easily plugged Thoroughfare Gap and prevented Longstreet’s 30,000 men from coming to Jackson’s aid. But he did neither, resulting in the second Union defeat at Bull Run.
Pope mistakenly believed Jackson had only made a quick hit-and-run attack, and was now desperately retreating. He became obsessed with his plan to cut Jackson off and destroy him, despite plenty of evidence that Jackson was not running; his men were dug in behind an unfinished railroad bed, awaiting Lee and Longstreet’s arrival. Pope’s subordinates were astonished and infuriated by Pope’s complete focus on Jackson and disregard of Longstreet. He moved all his men to his right flank to attack Jackson, leaving his left flank wide open.
Jackson initiated the fighting on the battle’s first day, August 28, while Lee and Longstreet were still a day and a half away. On August 29, the battle’s second day, Jackson’s men held off the sporadic and uncoordinated attacks by Pope’s men while the second half of the Confederate army drew near, finally taking its positions around noon. Pope continued to focus solely on Jackson on the 29th, not realizing an even larger foe was now positioned to his left.
Pope’s astonishing incompetence played exactly into Lee’s plans, and when Longstreet’s men suddenly attacked the Union army on August 30 the Northern defeat was assured. Pope’s army was forced to retreat having suffered more than 10,000 casualties during the three days’ fighting. Though he lost 8,300 casualties himself, Lee’s triumph left him in a position to seize the offensive, and he promptly decided to carry the war to the North by invading Maryland. A dismayed President Abraham Lincoln relieved Pope of his command on Sept. 12, 1862.
The following newspaper articles show that it was not only Pope’s subordinates who suspected him of incompetence; many members of the press were well aware of his shortcomings. For example, the following article bluntly states that Pope’s failure to plug Thoroughfare Gap was “a blunder that ought to cost him his command.” This article was published by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on the front page of its Aug. 29, 1862, issue, the very day that Longstreet’s reinforcements arrived on the battlefield:
New York, August 29th.
It seems incredible that the Rebels [i.e., Jackson’s men] should have ventured to send infantry so far to the rear and beyond even the centre of our lines. Advancing from Thoroughfare Gap on the line of the Manassas railway, they are exposed to attack in their own rear by overwhelming forces, nor is it evident how they can escape. If Thoroughfare Gap was left open by Gen. Pope, it is a blunder that ought to cost him his command, for it is the plain, conspicuous avenue for the entrance of an army bold and prompt enough for a movement on his flank or rear. It was suggested in a letter two days ago as the probable path of the force that surprised Cattrell’s. Can it be that the Rebels have been permitted to seize and are still permitted to hold such a position as that, vital to the security of our forces? With an army of irresistible strength and our undoubtedly superior numbers at the Warrenton end of the railway, and with a heavy force at this end, the Rebels are and for almost two days have been in possession of the road which is the only means of communication between the Capital and the national army.
…This news is gathered from the best sources accessible to the press. From the War Department, where the whole truth is known, nothing can be learned; but that the account of the attack on Manassas, its possession by the Rebels and their advance along the road toward Alexandria, are, in substance, correct, I have no doubt whatever. Though it may be difficult for the North to believe that Rebel cavalry have shown themselves within twenty miles of Alexandria, and that the Rebels have again been victorious near the old battlefield of Manassas, the facts seem beyond question. I write in greatest haste for the morning mail. Fuller details by next letter.
Reporters for the New York World also criticized Pope’s leadership. Their remarks were reprinted by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) on Aug. 29, 1862:
The army correspondents of the N.Y. World continue to speak in the severest terms of Gen. Pope, and especially complain of what they call his “ill-advised orders,” which they say have done more mischief to his own army than to the Confederates; the National Intelligencer also seems to think Gen. Pope’s strategy is not what it should be.
A correspondent for the Baltimore American was sharply critical as well. His comments were reprinted by the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia) on Sept. 4, 1862:
(Correspondence of the Baltimore American.)
Washington, Sept. 3, A.M.—Washington was last night in a state of great excitement, and not without substantial cause. Crowds gathered at all the hotels discussing and speculating on the future, and the announcement that Gen. McClellan had been assigned to the command of all the troops assembled for the defense of Washington was generally predicted to mean that before twenty-four hours shall elapse the whole Army of Virginia would be within the area of the territory under his jurisdiction.
The facts are that the Army of Virginia has been outgeneraled, outflanked and so disheartened by the daily and hourly evidences of superior generalship on the part of the Confederates, that it is now on the way to Alexandria, mourning the loss of many gallant officers and men who have lost their lives, or are suffering from wounds and exhaustion, many of them in the hands of the Confederates. By the time this letter reaches you the whole command of General Pope will have fallen back upon the entrenchments and works for the defense of Washington, under the command of General McClellan.
As far as I can learn here the history of the past three days has been a succession of small disasters both in the front and rear.
The whole number of killed and wounded in all the battles up to the present time does not exceed 11,000. In the first battle on Friday at Bull Run the loss on the Federal side did not exceed 4,000, although Gen. Pope announced it 8,000. What the loss of the enemy has been or whether any of their prominent officers have suffered, is not known. It is, however, believed to be equal if not greater than ours.
In conversation with the wounded who are constantly arriving here I find that they have no faith in General Pope’s capacity to command a great army, and ridicule the pretentious announcements he put forth at the commencement of the campaign, with “headquarters in the saddle,” &c. They complain of bad generalship, and say that the whole campaign has been without plan or strategy, and that he has walked into every trap they set for him, without foresight or common prudence.
…This state of affairs has of course caused considerable excitement here, and has doubtless led to the order which virtually places Gen. McClellan in command. To the great mass of our citizens there is safety in this change of commanders, and by the military it is hailed as an omen of success. All begin to feel that the time for trifling has passed, and that there can be no success to our arms unless the men who are to do the fighting have confidence in their commander.
…The return of the army to Washington is a great mortification in military circles, and it will doubtless be one of equal mortification to the whole country. After fifteen months of toil and bloodshed we have now returned to the starting point, and the whole work has to be commenced over again. The Confederates may now again reiterate their assertion with some show of plausibility “that the South cannot be conquered.” There cannot be said to be any panic here, but the mortification is great and the disappointment so deep that every man seems to carry his feelings in his countenance.
Pope’s reputation with his peers is reflected in this article, published by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Sept. 3, 1862:
Gen. Pope’s Dilemma
A Yankee correspondent, writing from Washington, says:
Gen. Pope is, just now, in a manner between two fires. I do not believe that the utter rout of his army and the capture of himself would give greater pleasure to the Rebels than it would to a large number of his friends. By his friends I mean those military gentlemen who felt themselves aggrieved by his allusions to “backs of enemies” and “bases of operations,” and, in short, his opening announcement that clubs should be trumps instead of spades. To them, a rout of his army would be a matter of more joy than the capture of Richmond; and hence a disaster on the part of Pope would not be received with a particle of either sympathy or regret. I hope that our Pope will handle himself deftly, for, if it should so happen in the mutable course of events that the enemy should catch sight of his back, there will be no end to the sneers and rejoicings with which such result would be greeted.
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