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Civil War Series

The Second Battle of Manassas

   

Porter struggled with the wooded terrain east of Groveton and required nearly two hours to arrange his 10,000 troops for the assault. Henry Weeks and Charles Roberts placed their brigades on the left and in the center of Porter's formation. Hatch's division assumed responsibility for Porter's right. Two brigades of regular United States Army troops under George Sykes filed into a reserve line poised to exploit any local advantage earned by the initial attackers. On his own initiative after Reynolds's departure, Gouverneur K. Warren shifted his tiny brigade of two New York regiments to a position south of the turnpike. Warren joined Battery D of the Fifth United States Artillery under young Charles Hazlett, who had emplaced his six guns on a prominent knoll overlooking Groveton. Only a handful of additional Union artillery could find locations from which to strengthen the infantry attack. Porter's foot soldiers would have to carry the burden virtually alone.

The Confederates targeted by Porter's assault belonged to Starke's division, which formed in parallel lines concealed by the unfinished railroad and the woods beyond. Louisiana planter Leroy A. Stafford commanded Starke's old brigade of Bayou Staters who defended the line near The Dump. To Stafford's right, Bradley Johnson's Virginians occupied a pronounced portion of the railroad bed known as the Deep Cut. Brawner farm veterans from A. G. Taliaferro's command and the Stonewall Brigade crouched in the forest on Johnson's right. A Maryland battery provided direct support to the Confederate battle line, which fronted an open field varying in depth from 300 to 600 yards, the last 150 yards of which pitched sharply uphill.

At 2:30 P.M. members of Hiram Berdan's colorful Union sharpshooters scaled the fence along the Groveton-Sudley Road and entered the pasture owned by a widow named Lucinda Dogan, whose substantial holdings surrounded the village of Groveton. Joined by two New York regiments, the green-uniformed marksmen found slight shelter in a dry streambed (now called Schoolhouse Branch) and skirmished with Starke's Confederates for nearly thirty minutes. Then Porter's lead ranks emerged from the woods and began their long trek across the killing fields of the Dogan farm.

Hatch's men on the Union right faced the shortest exposure in the open ground. The soldiers of the Twenty-fourth and Thirtieth New York toppled the fence paralleling the road and hastened for the Confederate positions under an intense fire from cannon and muskets. "The shouts and yells from both sides were indescribably savage," remembered one New Yorker. "It seemed like the popular idea of pandemonium made real, and . . . it is scarcely too much to say that we were really transformed for the time, from a lot of good-natured boys to the most blood-thirsty of demoniacs."

SKETCH OF PORTER'S ATTACK AS SEEN FROM HENRY HILL. (LC)

The Federals managed to reach the edge of the railroad bed separated from their gray-clad opponents by the width of the embankment. Several particularly brave Union officers entered the fight on horseback, making themselves conspicuous targets and attracting grudging admiration from nearby Confederates. After a momentary debate, the Southerners decided that this Yankee gallantry did not warrant a reprieve from the hazards of war, and Rebel rifles tumbled the courageous New Yorkers from their saddles. The surviving Federals clutched the ground below the embankment and formed a rough line within whispering distance of the Louisianians.

To Hatch's left, Roberts and Weeks appeared on the naked tract opposite Bradley Johnson's waiting Virginians. "The advance began in magnificent style, lines as straight as an arrow, all fringed with glittering bayonets and fluttering with flags," wrote a Confederate observer. "But the march had scarce begun when little puffs of smoke appeared, dotting the field in rapid succession just over the heads of the men, and as the lines moved on, where each little puff had been, lay a pile of bodies, and half a dozen or more staggering figures standing around leaning on their muskets and then slowly limping back to the rear." These Unionists had to traverse nearly a quarter-mile of shelterless terrain before gaining the unfinished railroad, and they paid dearly for the achievement. As they reached Johnson's position, the Confederates leveled their rifles and unleashed a withering volley. "The first line of the attacking column looked as if it had been struck by a blast from a tempest, and had been blown away," marveled one Southerner.


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PORTER'S ATTACK, 3:00 P. M. AUGUST 30, 1862
Like an avalanche the men of Porter's corps descended into the fields of the Dogan farm. Hatch's brigade on the Union right faced the shortest stretch of exposed ground and quickly reached the railroad embankment, only to be pinned down. Butterfield's division on the Union left had the farthest distance to cover in order to reach the Confederate line. The Union ranks on the left were constantly raked by S. D. Lee's guns on the heights north of the Brawner farm. With their ammunition running low, some Confederates along the unfinished railroad were reduced to fighting with rocks. As Southern reinforcements arrived on the front, Porter's men fell back from the railroad, their attack in shambles.

But the Federal momentum penetrated Johnson's line, routing the Forty-eighth Virginia and compromising the rest of the unit. In rushed the Stonewall Brigade led by its intrepid commander, William S. H. Baylor. The Valley veterans restored the Confederate battlefront at heavy cost, including Colonel Baylor, who died with the flag of the Thirty-third Virginia wrapped around his body. As was the case on Hatch's sector, the Federals near the Deep Cut retained their advanced positions exchanging a ceaseless fire with their well-sheltered opponents behind the railroad excavation just a few yards away.

ROBERT E. LEE AND HIS STAFF ON THE BATTLEFIELD AT MANASSAS. (LC)

S. D. LEE'S WELL-PLACED ARTILLERY DECIMATED THE RANKS OF PORTER'S CORPS. (LC)

Jackson clearly needed help. Stonewall's three divisions had marched more than fifty miles in thirty-four hours, destroyed the Union supply base, fought delaying actions at Bristoe and Manassas, engaged Pope's army at the Brawner farm, and fought along Stony Ridge for two days. His bloodied and battered brigades had thus far carried the campaign virtually alone, and the time had come for Longstreet to contribute. Jackson dispatched the future memoirist Henry Kyd Douglas to ask Old Pete for assistance.

Longstreet also recognized that the moment had arrived for his divisions to uncoil. But he reasoned that sending infantry to Jackson would consume too much time. Instead he ordered additional batteries to drop trail in support of S. D. Lee's guns at the Brawner farm. These artillerists enjoyed an unobstructed view of the pastureland across which any Union reinforcements must move to reach their comrades huddled along the embankment. This same fire would inflict appalling casualties on any Northerners who attempted to retreat from their toeholds to the safety of the Groveton Woods. Within twenty minutes of the commencement of Porter's attack, the ground between the Groveton-Sudley Road and the unfinished railroad exploded from the effect of Lee's cannonade.

When fresh Union troops attempted to run this gauntlet, iron missiles from Confederate guns cut them to pieces. "Longstreet's batteries . . . were enfilading the approaching troops with solid shot, shell, and sections . . . of railroad iron, which tore up the earth frightfully, and was death to any living thing that they might touch on their passage." Porter opted not to commit Sykes to the relief of Roberts and Weeks, but he did allow additional units from Hatch's division to attempt to rescue the two regiments clinging to the unfinished railroad on the Union right. As these Federals raced across the fields absorbing a brutal enfilading artillery fire, they encountered the cataclysmic presence of fresh Confederate infantry released by Lawton's division to support Stafford's hard-pressed left flank. "They were so thick it was just impossible to miss them," said one Southerner. "What a slaughter of men that was."

By this time, Porter had surrendered the initiative. He chose not to reinforce failure any longer and essentially abandoned to their fates the four Union brigades who had clawed their way to the front. Had he known, however, how severely his assaults had stressed Jackson's line, he might have continued the offensive. Stafford's and Johnson's brigades had completely expended their ammunition and relied on hurling large rocks across the embankment to defend their position. The rest of Stonewall's wing had nearly reached its capacity to sustain combat. But the appearance of Charles Field's Virginia brigade of A. P. Hill's division ultimately tipped the balance in favor of the Confederates. "At last physical strength and moral endurance alike gave way before the terrible effect of our fire," boasted a Rebel officer, "and the whole [Union] force fled in disorderly rout to the rear."

UNION TROOPS OF PORTER'S CORPS FELL LIKE TENPINS BEFORE AN EXPERT PLAYER. (LC)

SOLDIERS OF PORTER'S CORPS CHARGED FORWARD AGAINST JACKSON'S LINE. THE CONFEDERATES, PROTECTED BY THE UNFINISHED RAILROAD, SHATTERED THIS ATTACK IN LESS THAN THIRTY MINUTES. (LC)

Porter's advanced brigades lost heavily during their retreat from the unfinished railroad. Some of Starke's men, caught up in the passion of victory, began a spontaneous pursuit that met a decided repulse from Union reserves posted along the Groveton-Sudley Road. The Confederates returned to their original positions and witnessed an unspeakable scene of horror. "The Yankees in front of the RR . . . were lying in heaps," recalled a Louisianian, "Some with their brains oozing out; some with the face shot off; others with their bowels protruding; others with shattered limbs."

The survivors of Porter's attack found welcome refuge in the Groveton Woods east of the Groveton-Sudley Road. Sigel's corps, Milroy's brigade, and Federal cavalry units supported Sykes and the reserve regiments of Hatch's division to stem the tide of refugees. Jackson's exhaustion rendered him unable to organize a rapid pursuit, allowing Porter to stabilize the tactical situation north of the turnpike. But to Irvin McDowell the situation appeared grim. Fearing for the safety of Porter's corps, McDowell ordered Reynolds to cross the turnpike from Chinn Ridge. Not only was such a precaution totally unnecessary but Reynolds's departure left only 2,200 men south of the highway, McLean's and Warren's brigades, to oppose more than ten times that many Confederates. McDowell's decision would be the most serious tactical error of the day because those Confederates were about to erupt onto the tactical stage at Second Manassas with dramatic effect.

Lee and Longstreet both concluded that the moment had indisputably arrived to commence the massive Confederate offensive that Lee had hoped to begin the previous day. Its goal, ironically, would be Henry Hill, the key terrain at the First Battle of Manassas. Confederate control of this lofty plateau would confine the Federals to the north side of the turnpike and deny them their retreat routes across Bull Run. The lure of complete victory thus animated Longstreet's five divisions, whose enemy would be the descending sun as well as the Northern army.

Longstreet's wing extended nearly a mile and a half from the Brawner farm on its left to the Manassas Gap Railroad on its right. The distance to Henry Hill varied from one and a half to two miles and the intervening landscape contained numerous small streams, some heavy woods, and intermediate ridges. Old Pete recognized that his troops would find it impossible to maintain an unbroken attack formation so success would depend on speed, good judgment, and hard fighting by his individual subordinate commanders. John Bell Hood's division, led by the Texas Brigade and supported by Nathan G. "Shanks" Evans's South Carolinians, would begin the assault from the left of Longstreet's line, nearest the turnpike. Kemper's division would move on Hood's right with D. R. Jones's brigades in support of Kemper's right. The rest of Longstreet's wing would provide a ready reserve. "The heavy fumes of gunpowder hanging about our ranks, as stimulating as sparkling wine, charged the atmosphere with the light and splendor of battle," recalled Longstreet, and "as the orders were given ... twenty-five thousand braves moved in line as by a single impulse."

At 4:00 P.M. Hood's five regiments (only three of them Texans) stepped out "with all the steadiness and firmness that characterizes war-worn veterans." Their first opposition would come from the Tenth and Fifth New York regiments, Warren's 1,000 men deployed in skirmish formation along Lewis Lane (the southern extension of the Groverton-Sudley Road) and on a partially wooded ridge to the east. Hood's soldiers "yelling all the while like madmen," easily brushed aside the six companies holding Lewis Lane and swept forward against Warren's main position.

In a matter of moments the rest of Warren's brigade disintegrated. "The only hope of saving a man was to fly . . . for in three minutes more there would not have been a man standing," reported a participant. The Fifth New York, a proud unit that would produce eight generals from its ranks, suffered more men killed in ten minutes than any other regiment would lose in a single battle during the entire Civil War. A witness compared the aftermath of this fight to a "posy garden," referring to the corpses of the Fifth New York in their gaudy Zoauve uniforms. Hazlett's battery fired as long as it could then departed with remarkable discipline.

WITH THEIR AMMUNITION EXHAUSTED, CONFEDERATES ALONG THE UNFINISHED RAILROAD HURLED ROCKS AT THE ATTACKING FEDERAL SOLDIERS. (LC)

THE MEN OF THE FIFTH NEW YORK TRIED IN VAIN TO HALT THE TEXANS OF JOHN BELL HOOD'S BRIGADE. (NPS ILLUSTRATION BY ANTHONY RANFON.)

Pope and McDowell now began to understand the magnitude and consequence of their mistaken strategic analysis and took immediate steps to salvage the battle and save their army. Orders went out to occupy Henry Hill, undeniably the right move but an endeavor that would consume considerable time. The Ohioans of Nathaniel McLean's brigade with whatever reinforcements Pope could quickly muster would bear the awful responsibility of purchasing that time.

McLean, the distinguished son of a congressman and Supreme Court justice, aligned his four regiments facing west on the narrow open crest of Chinn Ridge, about one-half mile east of where Warren met disaster. A battery of artillery unlimbered in the center of McLean's 1,200 men, who girded themselves to receive Hood's impending assault. "As soon as our retreating troops got out of the way, I opened upon the enemy with my artillery and as they came nearer, with a heavy fire from my infantry," reported McLean. Combined with a barrage launched from Federal guns north of the turnpike, McLean's fusillade "drove them back more rapidly than they had advanced."

Now Hood summoned Evans's troops to recapture the temporarily stalled Confederate momentum. Evans shifted his regiments toward the south and charged up the slope of Chinn Ridge against the Federals' left flank. But McLean responded by redeploying two of his units to the point of danger and Evans receded into a patch of piney woods to regroup. The Union line had held, at least until the next Rebel onslaught.

That threat would come from the dark-uniformed Virginia brigade of Montgomery Corse, a portion of Kemper's division. Corse, a forty-six-year-old banker and former militia officer from nearby Alexandria, wheeled his regiments into line nearly at right angles to Evans, facing north rather than east. As Corse's Confederates approached the Buckeyes, the Ohioans initially mistook them for friends, allowing the Virginians to close the distance without opposition. Soon enough, however, the Unionists corrected their error and unleashed a crashing volley from behind a rail fence near the Chinn house. A soldier in the Seventeenth Virginia reported that the Northern blast "came upon us with the suddenness of a thunderbolt. We all sprang forward with one ringing yell—the officers waving their swords and the men standing still only long enough to fire off their guns." The ensuing battle raged for ten minutes at point-blank range, but when a Louisiana artillery battery added its voice to Corse's determined attackers, McLean's line at last collapsed. The Ohioans suffered 33 percent casualties but with their blood earned Pope thirty precious minutes to rush reinforcements to Chinn Ridge.


"OH THIS IS A DREADFUL WAR"

Alfred Davenport was a member of the Fifth New York Infantry. On the afternoon of August 30, his regiment would suffer the highest number killed and mortally wounded of any Union regiment during the Second Battle of Manassas. He described the destruction of his unit in a letter to his father on September 3, 1862.

"It was not long before a company of the skirmishers came in on our left all much excited, huddled together in a heap and much scared and said that the enemy were coming in and were right on top of us, on the left flank, but before any orders could be given to change position, the balls began to fly from the woods like hail. It was a continual hiss, snap, whizz and slug.

Private Brady, who used to live opposite us in Newington Avenue, in the wooden house was the first one hit—he stood a few files from me. He fell without saying a word, struck in the body. . . . Only the companies on the left could fire. We commenced, but the Rebels' fire was now murderous, our men falling on all sides.

The order had been given to retreat and save ourselves, every man for himself, but we did not here the order. The recruits began to give way and then the whole regiment, broke and ran for their lives. . . . There was no hope but in flight.

While running down the hill towards the small stream at its foot, I saw the men dropping on all sides, canteens struck and flying to pieces, haversacks cut off, rifles knocked to pieces, it was a perfect hail of bullets. I was expecting to get it every second, but on, on, I went, the balls hissing by my head.

How I escaped I don't know but I thank God for it. There are now only eight or ten two-year men left in our company who were at Fort Schuyler when the regiment was first formed. We had then 101 men in our company and I can hardly expect to survive another such engagement; if we should be unfortunate enough to get into another, it will wipe us out as a thing of the past. Oh this is a dreadful war!"

Davenport survived the war and went on to author the history of his regiment published in 1879. He died in 1899 in his native New York.

—Chris Bryce

DESTRUCTION OF THE FIFTH NEW YORK BY HOOD'S TEXAS BRIGADE. (LC)

The first of these troops belonged to Zealous B. Tower's brigade of Ricketts's division. Galloping up beside Tower came the Fifth Battery of Maine Light Artillery under George Leppien. "The confusion among the troops on the hill was great," admitted one Unionist. "Officers and men shouting, shells tearing through and exploding, the incessant rattle of muskets, the cries of the wounded—all combined made up a scene that was anything but encouraging." Despite the chaos, most of Tower's units efficiently deployed, facing south toward the Chinn house some 300 yards away as Leppien's guns roared into action. Now the focus of fighting revolved around Leppien's battery as Hood, Evans, and Corse converged from three sides on the desperate Union resistance. "Nothing could be seen but the flash of the guns," remembered a Confederate as the battle lines melted into a caldron of death in the center of Chinn Ridge.


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THE FIGHT FOR CHINN RIDGE, 1:00 P.M. AUGUST 30, 1862
Shortly after the repulse of Porter's attack, Longstreet ordered his men toward the left and rear of Pope's army. Rushing to Chinn Ridge the Federal brigades of McLean, Tower, and Stiles stalled the Confederates, enabling Pope's army to establish a final line of defense on the slopes of Henry Hill.

Some of Corse's regiments had worked their way into the shallow valley of Chinn Branch, east of where Tower and Leppien conducted their defense. Their fire against Tower's unprotected left flank when combined with unrelenting pressure against the Federal right and front eventually determined the outcome. "There was a frenzied struggle in the semi-darkness around the guns, so violent and tempestuous, so mad and brain-reeling that to recall it is like fixing the memory of a horrible blood-curdling dream," remembered a Southerner. But when the smoke cleared, Leppien's battery belonged to the Confederates, Tower had fallen with a serious wound, and a new Union brigade had appeared to play its sacrificial role in the contest for Chinn Ridge.

POSTWAR VIEW OF THE CHINN HOUSE, SCENE OF HEAVY FIGHTING ON AUGUST 30. (LC)

That brigade belonged to Robert Stiles and included among its four regiments the Twelfth Massachusetts commanded by Fletcher Webster, son of the celebrated statesman Daniel Webster. "Everything to our hasty glance seemed confusion," confessed one of Stiles's men as the brigade dashed into a rough line behind where Tower had once been positioned. The two other brigades of Kemper's division, Eppa Hunton's and Micab Jenkins's, did nothing to lessen the Federal consternation. They arrived in the Chinn Branch swale and poured fire into the virtually defenseless Federals. "We shot into this mass as fast as we could load until our guns got so hot we had at times to wait for them to cool," reported a South Carolinian. "This mass of Yankees was so near and so thick, every shot took effect."

One of those shots found Fletcher Webster, who tumbled from his horse with wounds in his arm and chest. Webster had written to his wife that very morning explaining that "this may be my last letter, dear love; for I shall not spare myself—God bless and protect you and the dear, darling children." Webster would die within an hour of being hit.

Two more Union brigades arrived on Chinn Ridge, but they experienced even less success than had McLean, Tower, and Stiles. The lead elements of Jones's division George T. "Tige" Anderson's and Henry L. "Rock" Benning's brigades, at last rendered Chinn Ridge untenable and by 6:00 P.M. Longstreet's troops stood alone in triumph atop the crest. But their final goal still lay several hundred yards away. The ninety-minute Federal defense of Chinn Ridge had measurably weakened the Confederate juggernaut, causing such severe losses in Hood's and Kemper's divisions that they could not participate in the push against Henry Hill. The Fifth Texas alone lost 225 men killed and wounded at Manassas (including a handful who had fallen on the twenty-ninth), more than any other regiment in the army. Darkness would fall in about an hour, and although Lee had clearly won the battle, during the next sixty minutes his best chance to destroy Pope would hang in the balance.

Between 4:00 P.M. and 6:00 P.M. the Union commander did everything possible to prevent such a catastrophe. With commendable energy and reasonable efficiency Pope cobbled together a four-brigade defense line along the western slope of Henry Hill, using Milroy's troops and men from Reynolds's and Sykes's divisions. Two additional brigades provided a reserve, so by the time Longstreet gained control of Chinn Ridge, Pope had established a reinforced line of battle stretching nearly half a mile from the ruins of the Henry house to the south end of the plateau. Pope ordered Banks to sacrifice the army's supplies at Bristoe and move to Centreville, where he could join Franklin, who had at last advanced to the proximity of the battlefield.

AFTER NINETY MINUTES OF FIGHTING, THE STUBBORN UNION DEFENSE OF CHINN RIDGE CRUMBLED IN THE FACE OF THE ADVANCING CONFEDERATE INFANTRY. (LC)
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