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Civil War Series

The Second Battle of Manassas

   

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KEARNY'S ATTACK, 5:00 P. M. AUGUST 29, 1862
Having been hard-pressed all day, the men of A. P. Hill's division had to endure one final Union onslaught. This time Phil Kearny surged against the Confederate line with nearly 3,000 men. Kearny's men hit the unfinished railroad and swept everything before them. The Confederates regrouped and pushed the Federals back in a vicious hand-to-hand fight that marked the final Union attack on Jackson's front that day.

Phil Kearny arrived at Manassas with a reputation as solid as any officer's in the Union army. "He ... was the finest specimen of the fighting soldier I had ever seen," gushed an admirer, while Pope praised him as one who "never seemed so much at home and so cheerful and confident as in battle." Thus far on August 29, however, Kearny had done nothing but disappoint those who depended on him. The assault that began at 5:00 P.M. did something to redeem Kearny's earlier failures.

The Confederates who would meet Kearny's assault, the men of Hill's Light Division, had suffered more that day than any of Jackson's commands. Four of Hill's six brigades had sustained significant casualties or disorganization as a result of repulsing Sigel's, Grover's, and Nagle's offensives. Maxcy Gregg's Palmetto Staters, anchoring Hill's (and Jackson's) far left, had nearly exhausted their ammunition and had absorbed heavy losses. Hill sent a courier to Jackson to report his division's predicament, to which Jackson replied, "Tell him if they attack him again he must beat them." Stonewall decided to ride back with the messenger and speak directly to Hill. Jackson met his subordinate partway down the line and told the red-shirted Virginian that "if you are attacked again you will beat the enemy back." Just then the crash of musketry announced the inauguration of Kearny's assault. "Here it comes," shouted Hill. "I'll expect you to beat them," thundered Jackson in reply.

PHIL KEARNEY (USAMHI)

Kearny had orchestrated an effective envelopment which encountered Gregg's weary regiments and a reserve brigade under James J. Archer. Kearny told a regimental officer to adjust his unit in a particular alignment, then "charge, and the day is ours, I will support you handsomely." Gregg's brigade absorbed additional losses as their fire-eating commander waved his oversized sword and advised the survivors to "let us die here, my men, let us die here."

Kearny called on Daniel Leasure's brigade of Reno's corps to move in on his left. "That is your line of advance," Kearny barked. "Sweep everything before you." Leasure's Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers pushed ahead to the unfinished railroad, and Hill's line faced imminent dissolution. But typical of Confederate leadership that day, reinforcements appeared at the right place and in the nick of time. The last of Hill's untested brigades, North Carolinians under Lawrence O'B. Branch, piled into Kearny and Leasure halting the Federal advance but unable to expel the attacking bluecoats. That job belonged to Jubal Early, who had moved from Jackson's far right in the morning to a reserve position in Lawton's line in mid-afternoon and now to the critical point of danger. According to a soldier in Gregg's brigade, Early's troops "came rushing up, comparatively fresh for the work, and cheering us as they advanced . . . with a wild Confederate yell, rushed upon [the Northerners]. The Federals halted, turned, and fled."

On the Union side, one enervated Yankee remembered that "our guns had become so fouled with burnt powder that we had to jam the rammer against a tree to drive the ball home." A Confederate recalled that "all the sounds of Babel roared about us. There was a perfect death storm all around." This vicious fighting, the most serious of the entire day, ended like the rest of Pope's August 29 offensives—in ultimate Union repulse. Gregg's brigade had completely emptied its cartridge boxes and lost fully half its men while the rest of the Light Division suffered severely as well, but Kearny's threat had ended. When Hill sent word to Jackson that the enemy had retired, Stonewall allowed a rare smile to brighten his countenance. "Tell him I knew he would do it."

Meanwhile, on the Confederate right, Lee and Longstreet continued to fret about Porter's looming presence and shifted Longstreet's troops to prevent the Federals from turning the Rebel right flank. But by 4:00 P.M. Old Pete had spied the dust clouds raised by McDowell's divisions as they tramped away from Porter toward the Manassas-Sudley Road. Longstreet recognized this as a signal that the Yankees had partially withdrawn from his front and so reported to Lee. Marse Robert immediately revived the attack scenario he had so reluctantly postponed a few hours before, but once again Longstreet tempered his commander's aggressiveness. The sun was too low, argued Longstreet, to undertake a major offensive. Why not conduct a reconnaissance in force and move into position to begin the assault in the morning? "After a moment's hesitation" Lee assented to this plan and Longstreet selected Hood's brigades supported by portions of Wilcox's and Kemper's divisions to make the probe. The advance south of the turnpike began about sunset.

A. P. HILL (MC)

In the meantime, Pope continued to operate in a strategic fantasy land. Reacting to Kearny's initial success and misinterpreting the incidental movement of Confederate ambulances west on the turnpike, the Union chieftain concluded that the Confederates were once again on the retreat. He assigned Hatch's division, the veterans of the previous evening's fight at the Brawner farm, to pursue along the turnpike. Hatch sent two brigades forward, and as they crested the hill overlooking Groveton they ran headlong into Hood's approaching Confederates.


Hood's line overlapped the narrow Union front and forced the Northerners to melt backward into the night.

"The enemy ... were rather more combative than we presumed retreating forces usually to be," one Federal noted wryly. Hood's line overlapped the narrow Union front and forced the Northerners to melt backward into the night. It became "so dark that one flag could not be distinguished from another, nor the Yankee troops from Southern soldiers," complained a Texan, but before the firing died away the Confederates had captured a Union artillery piece and seized the ground needed to launch an attack at dawn.

But Longstreet's subordinates, Hood, Wilcox, and brigade commander Evander M. Law, strongly recommended that no such assault take place. The Federals apparently held the area in force so a forward movement might jeopardize the security of the Confederate flanks. They persuaded the cautious Longstreet, who in turn convinced Lee to cancel the offensive for a third time. Shortly after midnight the Southerners withdrew from their advanced positions and resumed the defensive posture they had occupied during the afternoon.

McDowell had not accompanied Hatch on the ill-fated "pursuit" that night. Instead he rode to Pope's headquarters and, among other things, told the Union commander of Buford's morning observation of heavy Confederate reinforcements at Gainesville. Pope at last acknowledged that Longstreet had arrived but wrongly assumed that Old Pete would merely reinforce Jackson's battered lines until the Confederates could execute a wholesale skedaddle in the morning. Once again, John Pope had misread the strategic picture.


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HOOD'S TWILIGHT CLASH, 7:00 P.M. AUGUST 29, 1862
Uncertain about the Union army's position, John Bell Hood's division probed eastward along the Warrenton Turnpike. Meanwhile, Pope ordered John Hatch's division westward along the turnpike in the mistaken belief that the Confederates were retreating. Approaching the Groveton crossroads, Hatch's troops clashed with Hood's force in a brief but violent encounter.

He did understand that Fitz John Porter had utterly failed to undertake the major offensive of the day. Angrily denouncing Porter as incompetent at best and traitorous at worst, at 8:50 P.M. Pope forwarded peremptory orders for Porter to join the rest of the army by morning. The Fifth Corps would participate in Pope's plans to destroy Lee on August 30 whether the Confederates opted to stay and fight or, more likely, attempted to escape. In a campaign defined by Pope's misguided generalship, this decision stands out. The prudent course on the night of August 29 dictated that Pope fall back behind Bull Run and unite with the rest of McClellan's army, the campaign's primary objective. No longer did Pope enjoy numerical superiority over Lee nor did his army's position provide him any compelling geographical advantage. Moreover, Pope had every reason to believe that melding his army with McClellan's would require a retrograde movement because Little Mac had done nothing to suggest that he planned to reinforce Pope any time soon.

THE NOW SILENT FIELDS OF HENRY HILL (NPS)

William Franklin's corps of the Army of the Potomac had arrived in Alexandria on August 26, and Edwin V. Sumner's appeared two days later. Together these units numbered 25,000 men, a potentially decisive force if they could join Pope at Manassas. But despite General Halleck's renewed instructions on August 28 to rush Franklin and Sumner to Pope's aid, McClellan explained that his artillery, cavalry, and transportation were all inadequate to justify an advance. On August 29 the "Young Napoleon" at last permitted Franklin to leave the Washington defenses but halted him at Annandale, barely seven miles from his starting point and nowhere near a position to influence affairs on the battlefield. Franklin's men listened passively to the distant rumble of combat while McClellan wrote an unreserved letter to his wife in which he called Pope a fool. That night Franklin corresponded with Pope under orders from McClellan offering to send supply wagons forward to the Army of Virginia if Pope would kindly provide a cavalry escort!


The temptation is great to accuse George McClellan of treacherously withholding assistance from his brother officer at a time of crisis.

The temptation is great to accuse George McClellan of treacherously withholding assistance from his brother officer at a time of crisis. McClellan undeniably abhorred Pope and saw the Illinoisan as a rival who threatened to supplant him as Union commander in the east. But Little Mac's reluctance to hasten toward Bull Run stemmed more from his natural inclination for overcaution than from bad faith. He believed that Washington's security depended on keeping the remainder of his army intact and that to hurry reinforcements to Pope would entail too great a risk. When McClellan told Lincoln on August 29 that it might be wise "to leave Pope to get out of his scrape, and at once use all our means to make the capital perfectly safe," he reflected his sincere if tragically misguided vision of the proper course of action.

While McClellan agonized in a paralyzing sea of pessimism, John Pope saw nothing but opportunity on the morning of August 30. Richard H. Anderson's Confederate division, the missing element of Longstreet's wing, had arrived at 3:00 A.M. after a seventeen-mile march and halted on the ridge east of Groveton. Recognizing their isolated position, Anderson's men fell back at dawn, a movement spotted by one of Hatch's brigadiers. Of course, the rest of Longstreet's troops had also withdrawn after dark in accordance with Lee's decision to cancel his morning offensive. When combined with credulous intelligence from paroled Union prisoners that the Rebels planned a wholesale retreat, Anderson's pullout convinced Pope that his prediction had come true.

JOHN BELL HOOD (MC)

FITZ JOHN PORTER (USAMHI)

The Union commander called an 8:00 A.M. council of war at his headquarters above the Stone House on Buck Hill to finalize the army's plans. Pope's subordinates did not share their general's rosy interpretation of the strategic situation and persuaded him to poke and jab against the unfinished railroad to test his conviction that the Rebels were on the run. By 10:00 A.M. both Ricketts and Stevens had located Jackson's men as firmly ensconced in their defensive lairs as they had been the previous day. Reynolds confirmed that the Confederates remained in great strength and threatening posture south of the turnpike. But when McDowell and Heintzelman somehow failed to discover Jackson's battle lines during a personal reconnaissance late in the morning and an escaped Union prisoner reiterated earlier tales of impending Confederate retreat, Pope equivocated no longer. The Union commander issued orders for Porter's divisions, supported by Hatch and Reynolds, to advance west along the turnpike, while Ricketts, in the company of Kearny and Hooker, would go forward on the Union right to execute what Pope envisioned as the grand pursuit of a desperate enemy.

The Confederates, of course, cherished no desire to escape Pope. In fact, "when Saturday [August 30] broke, we were a little apprehensive that Pope was going to get away from us," admitted James Longstreet. Jackson believed that there would be no battle that day, but at his own council of war, Lee expressed the hope that Pope would renew his attacks and create an opportunity for Longstreet to counterpunch against the Union left. Absent a Federal offensive, Lee instructed Jackson to abandon the unfinished railroad after dark and conduct another far-reaching movement around the Union right flank, interposing his wing between Pope and Washington. Longstreet would create a diversion with a late afternoon demonstration. In the meantime, Lee sent eighteen pieces of artillery under Stephen D. Lee (no relation) to the high ground northeast of the Brawner farm in perfect position to take the open fields in front of Jackson's right. Neither Jackson nor Longstreet made any significant changes in the deployment of their troops, both officers being content to wait for Pope to begin the ball or idle away the day until the Confederate initiative could begin in the evening.

SKIRMISHERS FRDM BERDAN'S SHARPSHOOTERS MOVED FORWARD BEFORE PORTER'S ATTACK. (CO. D SHARPSHOOTER BY DON TROIANI, COURTESY OF HISTORICAL ART PRINTS LIMITED, SOUTHBURY, CONNECTICUT)

Pope had no inkling of either the Confederates' plans or dispositions, and the pursuit he ordered shortly after noon never materialized. Porter's corps, minus one brigade which lost its way during the march to the battlefield before dawn, had shifted to the woods north of the turnpike near Groveton and could not easily maneuver back to the highway to commence the chase. Ricketts did move forward but met an instant repulse from Jackson's line. Reynolds then reported to Pope that the Confederates south of the turnpike presented a greater danger than ever. Reluctantly Pope conceded that Lee had not abandoned the field but saw no reason to surrender his cherished desire to thrash the Confederates.

At 1:00 P.M. he sent orders to Porter to use his two divisions plus Hatch's to assault the Confederates in his front. Like his offensives of the previous day, Pope provided no support for Porter's attack, prepared no distractions elsewhere along the line, and issued no directives for what to do should the charge be successful. He did grant Reynolds permission to retire eastward to Chinn Ridge from his vulnerable position at Groveton and authorized one additional brigade under Nathaniel McLean of Schenk's division to reinforce Reynolds. This meant that the Federals posted 8,000 men south of the turnpike to oppose Longstreet's 30,000.

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