Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas): The Fight Begins
In the summer of 1862 the Confederacy unleashed its greatest weapon against the U.S. forces confronting it: the military prowess of General Robert E. Lee. His appointment as head of the Army of Northern Virginia was the result of a Southern misfortune: that army’s leader, General Joseph E. Johnston, was wounded and had to be relieved of command. Confederate President Jefferson Davis promoted his military advisor, Lee, to field command of the Virginia army, and Lee soon showed his aggressive, bold nature by taking the offensive.
Johnston was wounded on June 1, 1862, trying to hold off Union General George B. McClellan and the massive Army of the Potomac bearing down on the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia. After assuming command Lee spent a few weeks reorganizing the Army of Northern Virginia then, facing the larger, 90,000-man Union army confronting him, Lee made the audacious decision to attack his numerically superior, and better equipped, foe.
In the Seven Days Battles from June 25 to July 1 Lee drove McClellan and his army away from Richmond and back down the Virginia Peninsula where McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign had started back in March. Lee understood this victory was only temporary, however. McClellan’s defeated army remained powerful, and was still on Virginia soil east of Richmond. Equally worrisome, another strong force, the Union Army of Virginia led by General John Pope, was north of Richmond near Manassas Junction. Lee knew that if these two Union armies combined, they would outnumber his men by nearly 3-1.
What to do? Time-honored military strategy dictated that when confronted by a numerically superior enemy, you should concentrate your forces and dig in for a prolonged defensive engagement.
Robert E. Lee did just the opposite. Rather than concentrating his forces, he divided his army in two. Then he went on the offensive, planning a bold attack that carried the risk of complete annihilation for his army.
Confederate scouts had informed Lee that McClellan was retreating all the way east to the end of the Peninsula, and was in fact shipping his troops up north to reinforce Pope. Lee realized he had one, slim chance at success: quickly launch a surprise attack against Pope’s army before McClellan’s reinforcements arrived.
On August 25 Lee sent famed Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and 24,000 of his battle-hardened troops north to attack the rear of Pope’s army, at his main supply base at Manassas Junction. It was terrain the Southern troops knew well: Jackson had earned his famous nickname rallying his men at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) the summer before, a smashing Confederate victory at the Civil War’s first major land battle, on July 21, 1861.
Jackson’s men were known as “foot cavalry” for their astonishing ability to conduct punishing forced marches, and this time was no exception. In two grueling days they covered 50 miles, attacking the small Union supply depot Bristoe Station, in Pope’s rear, on August 26. On their march north they had moved behind the Bull Run Mountains for cover, then rushed through the Thoroughfare Gap to launch their attack. Pope had foolishly left the important Gap undefended, a mistake he would make twice.
The next day, August 27, Jackson’s men captured the huge Union supply base at Manassas Junction, gorging themselves on provisions their famished army lacked, and loading up on precious medical supplies and ordnance before burning everything else and marching northwest into a defensive position on Stony Ridge. There they waited, convinced Pope would fall into their trap. They were not disappointed. The Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was about to begin.
After dispatching Jackson north on August 25, Lee remained in front of Pope’s army with a force of 30,000 men commanded by General James Longstreet. These men moved about making a great deal of noise, confusing Pope and convincing him the entire Confederate army remained in front of him. When Union scouts reported the movement of Jackson’s troops, Pope mistakenly assumed it was a small force retreating into the Shenandoah Valley and did not move troops to defend the Thoroughfare Gap.
Once Manassas Junction was attacked, Pope made another mistake: he was convinced Jackson was alone and desperately trying to retreat, and Pope sent out a series of conflicting orders scurrying his men all over the countryside trying to ambush Jackson.
But Jackson was not retreating. He secured his position, using an unfinished railroad bed as ready-made rifle pits, and awaited the Union assault—secure in knowing that Lee was coming north, bringing along Longstreet and his men for the surprise attack they hoped would rout Pope’s army.
The three-day Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) began the evening of Aug. 28, 1862. Jackson’s men had been lying about all day in their defensive position, munching on goods taken from Manassas Junction the day before while waiting for action. Around 2,800 Union troops came marching up the nearby Warrenton Pike road around 6:30 that evening and Jackson ordered an attack by men stationed at the southern end of his line.
What happened next was some of the fiercest fighting of an incredibly savage war. For more than two hours the Confederate and Union troops stood toe-to-toe, less than 100 years apart without benefit of any cover, and poured volleys of bullets into one another. Although the Union troops were inexperienced and outnumbered nearly 2-1, and facing some of the toughest fighters in the Confederate army, they held their ground and continued fighting. The firing slackened around 8:30, and by 9:00, with darkness settling in, the two sides ended the engagement. Roughly a third of all the men involved in the fighting were shot in that short, intense engagement.
Another significant development occurred on August 28. Not only did the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) begin, but on that day Longstreet’s men marched through the Thoroughfare Gap, reaching Jackson’s position by noon the next day. Pope had twice failed to close the door at the Gap, and compounded that error by remaining convinced that Jackson was alone and trying to retreat.
The Union army pounded Jackson’s strong position all day on August 29 while Longstreet moved his men into position south of Jackson, and on the battle’s third day, August 30, 25,000 of Longstreet’s men smashed into the Union army’s left flank. Thanks to some brave rearguard action this Union retreat did not turn into a complete route, as it had at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) a year earlier, but it was a retreat and defeat all the same.
Lee had done it again. Twice in the summer of 1862 he won significant victories over larger Union armies, relying on aggressive tactics and the hard fighting spirit of his men. An exasperated President Abraham Lincoln relieved Pope of command on Sept. 12, 1862.
The following three newspaper articles are about the opening fighting of the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). This first article reports on the battle’s opening engagement the evening of August 28, and also describes the Confederates’ capture of Manassas Junction the day before. The article ominously concludes that Pope’s leaving Thoroughfare Gap undefended “is a blunder, and ought to cost him his command.” It was—and it did.
This article was published by the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) on Aug. 30, 1862:
The Rebel Movements near Manassas
It should be borne in mind that the accounts which came yesterday were mainly through letters of correspondents of New York papers, who, from necessity, received their information from unofficial quarters; but it is not doubted that the rebels have made a sudden dash in considerable force upon Manassas; that they held that point on Thursday and had pushed on to Fairfax and Vienna, the latter place being only some twelve miles from Washington. Of the number of rebel troops engaged in this raid, we have no certain knowledge. The Washington Star speaks of the enemy being 20,000 or 30,000 strong at Gainesville, near Manassas Junction. They appear to have been strong enough to make sad havoc of our stores and supply trains, and it may be counted very good fortune, if communication with General Pope has not been cut off. The following is from the Alexandria correspondent of the Tribune, under date of 28th:
On Thursday night, about 8 o’clock, the pickets at Manassas Junction were driven in, and two companies of the 105th Pennsylvania infantry, one company of the Pennsylvania cavalry, and some artillery stationed there, were surprised and attacked by General Ewell’s entire division, numbering from 7,000 to 10,000 infantry, cavalry and artillery. After a short skirmish the handful of men at the Junction fled, and the rebels, turning upon them nine of our guns, kept up a brisk fire until the Union troops were taken prisoners, a few escaping across Bull Run.
Here at Union Mills two regiments of General Cox’s division, the 11th and 12th Ohio, under Col. Scammon, were stationed, and they immediately advanced to meet the approaching body of rebels. A conflict ensued in the early morning between the Junction and Bull Run, lasting three hours, when the Union troops, being largely outnumbered and flanked on the right, retired across Bull Run bridge. Here a vigorous attempt was made by Col. Scammon to hold the bridge.
At 11 o’clock two rebel regiments forded the Run above the bridge, when the 12th Ohio charged them and drove them across the river with heavy loss. The regiment lost in killed, wounded and missing 40 men.
At 12 o’clock, Col. Scammon was obliged to retire, moving along the railroad in the direction of Alexandria. The rebels advanced across Bull Run, and yesterday afternoon their advance cavalry were at Fairfax and Burtis’ stations.
On taking possession of Manassas Junction, the rebels captured seven trains loaded with provisions, ammunition, &c., and ten locomotives, all of which they destroyed. Of the 84 men of the 105th Pennsylvania regiment on guard, all were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners, as only three were known to have escaped.
After the first car with the wounded was run into Alexandria, yesterday, another train was dispatched to bring in another load, but was fired into and driven back about four miles from Bull Run.
Our loss has been immense in government stores, and large in killed, wounded and missing.
Telegraphic communication with Gen. Pope, yesterday, was held via Fredericksburg, but none whatever direct.
A captain, just in from Centreville, says that firing was heard early this morning beyond Manassas, and it is believed that Gen. Pope has attacked Gen. Ewell in the rear.
If the thoroughfare of the Gap was left open to the rebels by Gen. Pope, it is a blunder, and ought to cost him his command, for it is the plain, conspicuous avenue for the entrance of an enemy, bold and prompt enough for a movement on his flank or rear.
When Pope took command of the Union Army of Virginia, he gave a vigorous speech to his men, demanding they fight with spirit and always in a forward direction, boasting that his headquarters would be the saddle of his war horse and claiming that they would triumphantly see the backsides of their enemy in retreat. When news that Jackson had slipped through the Thoroughfare Gap and taken Manassas Junction reached the South, there was much rejoicing.
This Southern newspaper gleefully took a swipe at Pope’s proud boasts. It was published by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on the front page of its Aug. 29, 1862, issue:
We think they [the Union army] have had a worrisome and losing time of it. Thus ends the first essay of the immortal Pope, who boasted in his first address to his army of the Potomac, that he always saw the backs of his foe, and instead of seeking a strong place for his own protection, his headquarters would be in his saddle and his business to seek the enemy wherever he is strongest. That rooster’s comb is cut before he is two months old. He has not even been a sixty day hero; and if the Federals have not got through their list of young Napoleons, it is an interesting question who they will start next. Pope is the worst failure yet.
After receiving reports of the battle’s opening engagement the night of August 28, Pope sat down and wrote a report to his superior, General Henry Halleck. The conclusion of that report (excerpted below) reveals his colossal mistake: the assumption that Jackson was trying to escape, when in fact he was lying in wait as part of Lee’s clever ambush.
Pope’s report was published by the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) on Aug. 30, 1862:
Manassas Junction, Aug. 28, 10 P.M.
Maj. Gen. H. W. Halleck:
…A serious fight took place which was terminated by the darkness. The enemy was driven back at all points, and thus the affair rests. Heintzelman will move on him at daylight from Centreville, and I do not see how the enemy is to escape without heavy loss. We have captured 1000 prisoners, many arms and one piece of artillery.
—John Pope, Maj. Gen.
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