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
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
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
(click on image for a PDF version)
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.
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
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
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
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
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
yellthe 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 hithe 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.
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 woundedall 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.
(click on image for a PDF version)
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.
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 myselfGod 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)|