THE SECOND BATTLE OF MANASSAS
On September 8, 1862, Michigan general Alpheus S. Williams wrote home
about the recently concluded military events in northern Virginia.
Williams's descriptive language left no doubt that the results had been
unfavorable to the Union cause: "a splendid army almost demoralized,
millions of public property given up or destroyed, thousands of lives of
our best men sacrificed for no purpose." And with equal clarity,
Williams identified the source of the debacle: "I dare not trust myself
to speak of this commander as I feel and believe. Suffice it to say . .
. that more insolence, superciliousness, ignorance, and pretentiousness
were never combined in one man."
That man was John Pope, and the failed campaign over which he
presided has tarnished Pope's reputation for more than 130 years. Known
in the North as Second Bull Run and in the South as Second Manassas, the
actions between August 16 and September 2, 1862, marked the midpoint of
a momentous season that lifted the Confederacy's fortunes from the brink
of disaster to near independence. The gray-clad architects of this
achievement, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Stonewall" Jackson, would earn
widespread renown from their victory at Second Manassas while Pope
vanished into the backwater of history, confused about the cause of his
defeat until his dying day.
JOHN POPE (LC)|
At the outset of the Civil War's second summer, the Union's prospects
appeared bright. Federal armies in the West had penetrated into northern
Mississippi and Alabama, New Orleans had fallen, and the navy threatened
to reduce Vicksburg and reopen the Mississippi River. Along the Atlantic
coast, Yankee forces had captured strong points in the Carolinas, and
the primary Northern weapon, the Army of the Potomac under its
charismatic but cautious leader George B. McClellan, bivouacked within
seven miles of the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.
The principal disappointment amid this sea of encouragement occurred
in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley during May and June. An outnumbered
aggregration of Confederates under Stonewall Jackson had dispatched
portions of three Union commands and then slipped east to reinforce Lee
around Richmond. President Abraham Lincoln recognized that Jackson owed
much of his success to the fragmented nature of his Federal opponents.
On June 26 Lincoln rectified this problem by creating a unified command
out of the wreckage of Jackson's Valley victims, styling the new outfit
the Army of Virginia. To lead this force the president selected a
forty-year-old West Pointer born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois who
brought to the job an impressive portfolio.
John Pope combined family connections, military experience, and the
right politics to merit his appointment. He could trace his roots to
George Washington, but more important, the general's father had served
as an Illinois circuit judge and knew Lincoln well. Pope's father-in-law
represented an Ohio district in Congress and maintained a close
relationship with cabinet member Salmon P. Chase. Mrs. Lincoln's eldest
sister had married a Pope, so it was not surprising that in 1861 the
young officer accompanied the president-elect to Washington for the
WITH AN OUTNUMBERED CONFEDERATE ARMY, "STONEWALL" JACKSON EMBARRASSED
PORTONS OF THREE UNION ARMIES IN THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY. (LC)|
Pope's prewar military career included competent service in Mexico
and on the frontier. He received a commission as brigadier general of
volunteers in 1861 and demonstrated his skill with a series of minor
victories in the West. Pope owed his promotion and transfer east,
however, more to his politics than to his military acumen. The Lincoln
administration had grown weary of McClellan's conservative approach to
the war, a philosophy embraced by the Democratic party and dedicated to
the restoration of the Union with minimal damage to the Southern fabric
of life. Pope had Republican leanings, radical ones at that, and he
offered the administration a counterpoint to the popular McClellan.
While there were those in the army who spoke highly of Pope, by and
large his fellow officers considered him vain, self-righteous, and
obnoxious. Various colleagues commented upon his quick temper and
rudeness in manner and characterized him as a braggart and liar. "We
looked forward with keen delight to see this inflated gas bag punctured
by the keen rapier of our great commander," chuckled one
ROBERT E. LEE (LC)|
Pope exacerbated his unenviable notoriety with a series of orders
issued shortly after his arrival in Virginia. Three of them reflected
the administration's desire to wage a harder war against the rebellious
population. They permitted appropriation of civilian property providing
reimbursement only to loyal citizens, authorized stiff penalities for
guerrilla activities, and required military-aged males within Union
lines to take a loyalty oath or be expelled beyond the limits of Federal
control. These measures, although only sporadically enforced and mild by
late-war standards, secured Pope the particular opprobrium of most
Confederates, including Robert E. Lee, who styled him a "miscreant."
Pope intended to inspire his troops with a formula for victory.
"Succes and glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the
rear," he exhorted his men.
Equally significant would be his proclamation of July 14 addressed to
the "Officers and Soldiers of the Army of Virginia" in which Pope
intended to inspire his troops with a formula for victory. "Success and
glory are in the advance, disaster and shame lurk in the rear," he
exhorted his men. Pope's rallying cry found favor with many of the rank
and file but rubbed the officer corps, who felt targeted by their new
commander's criticisms, the wrong way. It especially infuriated
McClellan and the Army of the Potomac, a result neither unintended nor
unanticipated by the administration. Pope's insistence that his new army
discard overconcern about lines of supply and possible retreat routes
(hallmarks of McClellan's timid generalship) would possess a humiliating
irony at the campaign's conclusion.
While Pope spent the first month of his tenure ruffling feathers from
Washington, his three leading subordinates assumed responsibility for
activities in the field. The German-American idol, Franz Sigel, led
Pope's First Corps. Sigel had replaced the dashing but modestly gifted
John C. Fremont, who refused to serve under Pope. Sigel's qualifications
for command rested with his ethnicity rather than his martial prowess.
One Federal officer aptly described him as "altogether excitable,
helter-skelter, and unreliable as a military leader."
FRANZ SIGEL (USAMHI)|
Nathaniel P. Banks commanded the Second Corps, previously known as
the Department of the Shenandoah. This prominent Massachusetts
politician had served as Speaker of the House of Representatives and
left the statehouse in Boston to accept an appointment as major general
of volunteers. Jackson had dominated the hapless Banks during the Valley
Campaign earning the New Englander ridicule beyond even what his
incompetency deserved. One observer noted that had Banks entered the
service as a line officer under a strict colonel, "he would, probably,
eventually, have become a good regimental commander."
NATHANIEL BANKS (USAMHI)|
DURING THE SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES, LEE TURNED BACK MCCLELLAN FROM THE GATES
OF RICHMOND. (LC)|
Pope's favorite underling led the Third
Corps, although Irvin McDowell enjoyed far less popularity among his men
than did Sigel or Banks. McDowell graduated from the United States
Military Academy and following a respectable prewar career presided over
the Union defeat at First Manassas in July 1861. This unfortunate legacy
translated into groundless rumors of McDowell's alleged duplicity,
symbolized by a ridiculous straw hat which some soldiers considered to
be a signal to protect him from Confederate fire. False reports about
McDowell's excessive drinking combined with factual depictions of the
general's gargantuan appetite to paint an unflattering and uninspiring
Poor leadership compromised the army's enthusiasm that summer, but so
did the discouraging strategic circumstances confronting Pope. His
original mission included protecting Washington and the Shenandoah
Valley, operating against the Virginia Central Railroad, and, in concert
with McClellan's offensive, threatening Richmond from the west. By July
2, however, Lee had driven McClellan from the Confederate capital
during the Seven Days' Battles, and a month later the Army of the
Potomac received orders to board ships and return to northern Virginia
to unite with Pope. Thus Pope faced the challenge of opposing any
Confederate push to the north until McClellan's men could arrive,
preferably via Fredericksburg and up the line of the Rappahannock River.
Achieving all these goals with a dispirited army of barely 55,000 troops
presented Pope and his men with a daunting assignment.
Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia well understood the
strategic situation and its potential rewards. The fifty-five-year-old
Virginian had assembled a collection of disparate commands to defeat
McClellan during the Seven Days and in July detached three divisions
under Stonewall Jackson to keep an eye on Pope. As long as McClellan
remained within striking distance of Richmond, however, Lee could not
afford to deprive the capital of its mobile defenses.
AT THE BATTLE OF CEDAR MOUNTAIN ON AUGUST 9, JACKSON EARNED A HARD WON
VICTORY OVER NATHANIEL BANKS. (LC)|
THOMAS J. "STONEWALL" JACKSON (LC)|
Early in August, Lee had accumulated a variety of evidence that
foretold the departure of the Army of the Potomac from its position
below Richmond. Then on August 9 Jackson thrashed Banks in a convincing
if imperfectly fought engagement at Cedar Mountain north of the Rapidan
River, intimidating Pope and seizing the initiative from the Federals.
McClellan's imminent flight and Banks's defeat offered Lee the
opportunity he coveted. He ordered the right wing of his army under
James Longstreet (the Confederate government had not yet authorized the
formation of corps) to march northwest and join Jackson near
Gordonsville, a vital rail junction linking Richmond with the Shenandoah
Valley and northern Virginia. Lee's job would be to "suppress" Pope
before McClellan could reinforce him.
Jackson and Longstreet brought some 55,000 soldiers to the task, most
of them veterans of the victories around Richmond, and Lee's lieutenants
suffered from none of the shortcomings that handicapped Pope's corps
commanders. James Longstreet, a classmate of Pope's at West Point, was a
forty-two-year-old transplanted Georgian. He distinguished himself as
Lee's most effective subordinate during the Seven Days and would remain
a trusted, if occasionally controversial, member of Lee's inner circle
throughout the entire war. Jackson's fame exceeded Lee's at this stage
in history. The Virginian's reputation earned at First Manassas and in
the Valley made him the most admired (and feared) figure in Confederate
Indeed, it was Stonewall who urged Lee that the united Rebel army
should strike Pope immediately. Two small divisions under Jesse L. Reno,
a portion of Ambrose E. Burnside's North Carolina command, had already
arrived via Fredericksburg augmenting Pope's strength along the Rapidan.
If the Confederates moved quickly against the Federal left flank, they
could sever the reinforcement pipeline from Fredericksburg and catch
Pope's whole army with the Rappahannock River at its back, possibly
crushing it in the process.
J.E.B. STUART (LC)|
Lee agreed but opted to delay the attack until Southern cavalry under
his nephew, Fitzhugh Lee, could execute a raid to destroy the Orange
& Alexandria Railroad bridge across the Rappahannock in Pope's rear.
By August 17 both Longstreet and Jackson poised in concealed positions
south of the Rapidan waiting for Fitz Lee and the signal to launch the
offensive scheduled for the next day.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, no one had told the young
cavalryman that Lee's plan depended upon his prompt appearance. Fitz Lee
tarried en route to collect supplies, forcing his uncle Robert to
postpone the advance. Even these revised plans came to grief when on the
night of the seventeenth a mounted Union patrol splashed across an
unguarded ford on the Rapidan and surprised Confederate cavalry
chieftain J.E.B. Stuart at his headquarters early the next morning.
Stuart barely made good an escape which cost him his cape, a new plumed
hat, and a great deal of pride. One of Stuart's aides did fall captive
to the Union intruders, surrendering two satchels of dispatches he
carried containing Lee's orders for Pope's undoing.
Thus warned of his impending demise, Pope began a hasty withdrawal to
the Rappahannock, crossing that watery barrier on the night of the
nineteenth to twentieth. "We little thought that the enemy would turn
his back upon us this early in the campaign," Lee told Longstreet in a
feeble attempt to joke about the disappointing turn of events. The
Confederates pursued, many of them fording the Rapidan "guiltless of any
clothing below the waist" but could not prevent Pope from placing the
Rappahannock between them and their quarry. The Federals thus scored the
first strategic point of the new campaign.
As the armies glared at one another from opposite banks of the
Rappahannock, each commander confronted a quandary. Pope had to provide
a secure corridor for reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac. Those
fresh troops might arrive from Fredericksburg, requiring Pope to protect
his left flank downstream on the Rappahannock. McClellan's units could
also disembark on the Potomac at Alexandria and employ Pope's direct
supply line, the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, to reach the front.
Pope knew that this avenue might be breached by skirting his right flank
and gaining his rear, necessitating Federal vigilance along the upper
Rappahannock. The man in charge of coordinating the rendezvous between
Pope and McClellan, General in Chief Henry W. Halleck, found his task
overwhelming and provided Pope little guidance. Halleck did encourage
McClellan to hasten the movement of his army to northern Virginia, but
"Little Mac" pursued his assignment with glacial speed, a function both
of his natural inclination and his loathing for the arrogant Pope.
RAILROAD BRIDGE ON THE ORANGE & ALEXANDRIA LINE. (USAMHI)|
ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 22, STUART LED A DARING RAID ON POPE'S
HEADQUARTERS LOCATED AT CATLETT STATION. (LC)|
Lee's dilemma centered on the realization that he must find a way to
engage the Federals. But forcing a downstream crossing of the
Rappahannock would expose his army to an attack from the direction of
Fredericksburg while shortening the distance that Union reinforcements
must cover to reach Pope. Thus the Confederate commander looked upstream
to the north and west to find the means of outwitting Pope's
On August 21 a small body of Southerners slipped across the river at
Beverly Ford, but the Federals reacted quickly and Lee recalled his men.
The north side of the Rappahannock physically dominated the south bank,
and Pope skillfully exploited his geographic advantage. Consequently,
Lee shifted even farther upriver, authorizing Jackson to cross at
Sulphur Springs, nine miles above Beverly Ford, and approving "Jeb"
Stuart's suggestion to conduct a cavalry raid behind Pope's lines.
On August 22 Jackson managed to maneuver a reinforced brigade with a
battery of artillery across the river before dark. Heavy downpours that
night swelled the Rappahannock beyond fording stage, however, and
Jackson worked furiously the next day to reestablish contact with his
isolated and vulnerable units.
Meanwhile Stuart led some 1,500 troopers on a daring ride around
Pope's right, descending after dark on Catlett Station along the Orange
& Alexandria Railroad. Not only did Catlett provide a home for most
of Pope's headquarters impedimentia, but the railroad bridge over nearby
Cedar Run offered a tempting target for Stuart's raiders. If the
Confederates could destroy that span, Pope's supply line would he broken
and, perhaps, the Federals would be compelled to relinquish their
tenacious grip along the Rappahannock.
One of the marauders remembered that at 7:30 P.M., in the midst of a
torrential thunderstorm, "the bugles rang out . . . half a note of the
stirring callthe rest was drowned by a roar like Niagara. From two
thousand throats came the dreaded [Rebel] yell, and at full gallop two
thousand horsemen came thundering on." The attack caught the
rear-echelon headquarters staff and their small infantry guard by
complete surprise. "The cavalry rode among the tents and their shock
knocked some of the officers out of bed," said one Union observer.
"Every man, white and black, high and low, fled on his own hook." While
some of Stuart's despoilers pillaged the well-stocked encampment, others
attempted in vain to set fire to the saturated bridge over Cedar Run.
After midnight Stuart rounded up his high-spirited horsemen and headed
back for safe crossings on the upper Rappahannock.
ON AUGUST 24, LEE ISSUED ORDERS THAT WOULD SEND JACKSON AND HIS 24,000
MEN ON THE MARCH AROUND POPE'S ARMY. (I WILL BE MOVING WITHIN THE
HOUR BY MORT KÜNSTLER COPYRIGHT 1993.)|
Stuart's failure to destroy the railroad bridge robbed the Catlett
raid of its primary strategic potential. The beau sabruer did, however,
assauge his bruised ego by avenging the loss of his plumed hat. Among
the prizes gathered at Pope's headquarters tent was the Union general's
full-dress uniform coat. Stuart wrote Pope suggesting "a cartel for the
fair exchange of the prisoners," to which he received no response. As a
result, Stuart had Pope's splendid garment displayed in the picture
window of a Richmond store and elsewhere in the Confederate capital,
where it attracted crowds of "amused spectators."
More meaningfully, Stuart showed Lee captured correspondence
verifying the rapid approach of McClellan's men from both Fredericksburg
and Alexandria. In fact, John F. Reynolds's division had already reached
Kelly's Ford on the Rappahannock while the rest of Fitz John Porter's
Fifth Corps marched a day behind. Samuel P. Heintzelman's Third Corps
had landed in Alexandria and awaited transportation to the front. Clearly
the window for Lee to strike at Pope under numerically favorable
circumstances was closing fast.