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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Second Battle of Manassas

   

"I SHALL NOT SPARE MYSELF—"

Chinn Ridge, August 30, 1862, the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry was engaged in the heat of their first substantial battle. Their colonel, brandishing his sword and riding along his line of men, shouted encouragement in an effort to keep them in formation. Suddenly, a bullet pierced his wrist and entered his right breast, causing the colonel to fall from his horse. His adjutant was able to drag the colonel under some bushes nearby. Remaining hidden, they were able to avoid detection by lead elements of the Confederate army. Caught in the maelstrom of battle, their pleas for help went unanswered by Union soldiers engrossed in the fight.

Finally having been discovered by the Confederates, the adjutant begged his captors to take the colonel with them. When they refused, he pleaded to be allowed to remain with the colonel until medical help could arrive. Being denied, the adjutant was forced by the Confederates to leave at gun point but was promised that an ambulance would be sent back for the colonel.

FLETCHER WEBSTER (LC)

Left on the field, the colonel received assistance from several different Confederate soldiers. Knowing that he would soon die, the colonel gave one of these soldiers, Ludwell Hutchison of the Eighth Virginia Infantry, his wallet and asked that it be returned to his family. Hutchison did so after the war had ended.

Two days after the battle, a party was sent out under a flag of truce to retrieve the Union dead and wounded. Among them were two officers of the Twelfth Massachusetts whose purpose it was to locate and retrieve the colonel's body. With the guidance of a Confederate soldier, they found and exhumed the body, discovering that it had been stripped and robbed of a gold watch and over a hundred dollars. The body was sent to Alexandria and embalmed. From there it was sent to the colonel's home and on September 9, 1862, ten days after his death, the colonel was laid to final rest in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Thus was the fate of Colonel Fletcher Webster, the only surviving son of the famous New England orator and statesman Daniel Webster. He resigned his position as surveyor of the Port of Boston in 1861 to raise and organize the Twelfth Massachusetts. The regiment titled itself the "Webster Regiment" and elected Fletcher as colonel despite his limited military experience.

During his preparation for the coming of his first real battle, Fletcher, in a letter written to his wife on the morning of August 30 stated: "This may be my last letter, dear love; for I shall not spare myself—God bless and protect you and the dear, darling children." His zeal in battle that afternoon proved his letter to be correct.

In 1914 the survivors of the "Webster Regiment" wanted to mark the spot where Colonel Fletcher Webster had died. However, after several failed attempts to locate the site, they sought aid from other sources. Finally, Ludwell Hutchison, upon being contacted, was able to pinpoint the general site of the colonel's demise. Today, a boulder, taken from the Webster family home in Marshfield occupies the solemn locale.

—Terri Bard

Lee realized that Longstreet would need help if he expected to wrest Henry Hill from the stubborn Federals. He therefore dispatched Dick Anderson's three brigades with a portion of Wilcox's division from the Brawner farm about 5:00 P.M but Anderson would require time to reach the rest of Longstreet's wing on Chinn Ridge. With Hood's and Kemper's commands hors de combat, responsibility for maintaining the pressure devolved upon Neighbor Jones. Jones shifted Benning's and G. T. Anderson's Georgians toward Henry Hill and launched them on another attack.


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THE CONFEDERATE TIDE CRESTS, 5:00 P.M. AUGUST 30, 1862
After sweeping the Federal troops off of Chinn Ridge, Longstreet's men surged toward the Union line along the Manassas-Sudley Road. Saving the Union army from complete disaster were several Federal brigades stubbornly holding the slopes of Henry Hill. As dusk fell, the Confederate attack was blunted, and Pope's army was able to reach safety across Bull Run.

These 3,000 Confederates represented the largest single assault force of Longstreet's whole offensive. Unfortunately, the Georgians' advance lacked cohesion and discipline. The entire four-brigade Union line punished Jones with a destructive fire that halted the Confederates in their tracks. But just as the Southerners' propulsion seemed spent, William Mahone's and Ambrose R. Wright's brigades of Anderson's division materialized on the Confederate right. The portion of the Union defense line opposite them enjoyed few natural advantages, and the outnumbered Regulars posted there fought tenaciously to hold their ground. McDowell committed his only reserves to the bitter battle on the Union left, but Mahone and Wright outflanked these reinforcements and sent them reeling toward the Henry house. As a result, a Rebel assault from the south could now jeopardize the entire Federal position on Henry Hill and potentially achieve Lee's ultimate goal.

UNION SOLDIERS SURVEYING THE RUINS OF THE HENRY HOUSE. (NA)

THE RETREATING ARMY OF VIRGINIA. (LC)

But Anderson declined to exploit the opening. For reasons that remain unclear, the Confederates held fast on the southern end of Henry Hill. Perhaps the growing darkness intimidated Anderson or the lack of direct guidance from Longstreet and Lee left him hesitant to act. Whatever the cause, Anderson's timidity squandered the opportunity earned by three hours of the most intense fighting of the battle.

North of the turnpike, Stonewall Jackson also failed to apply timely pressure against Pope's reeling legions, but his inactivity is easier to explain. Greatly worn by their three days of incessant fighting and facing, at least initially, the bulk of the Federal army, Jackson's divisions did not begin their portion of the counterattack until 6:00 P.M. But when they did assault, "they came on like demons emerging from the earth." Jackson overran a substantial number of Union artillery and infantry units, but his advance coincided with Pope's orchestrated withdrawal, contributing to the ease with which Jackson achieved his captures. Despite mounting losses, by 7:00 P.M. Pope managed to establish an unbroken line north of the turnpike aligning with the Federal position on Henry Hill. Thus Jackson, like Longstreet, had no choice but to remain content with a substantial tactical victory and the attendant spoils of war while a defeated but intact Union army prepared to leave the field.

Pope issued orders to retreat at 8:00 P.M. as the sounds of battle ebbed away in the darkness. Thanks to its successful defense of Henry Hill, most of the army could use the turnpike and its stone bridge across Bull Run to effect its withdrawal. The gloom of the night and his men's sheer exhaustion extinguished any notion Lee may have nurtured to pursue or harass the Federal flight. By 11:00 P.M. Pope's troops had left the field "with perfect coolness and in good order" and begun to enter the relative safety of the Centreville defenses. Here Franklin's pristine brigades cruelly taunted Pope's veterans as they trudged toward waiting bivoaucs and a well-deserved night's rest.

Robert E. Lee spent the evening contemplating the outcome of the battle. Although he informed President Jefferson Davis in Richmond that "this army achieved today on the Plains of Manassas a signal victory over the combined forces of Genls. McClellan and Pope," Lee knew that his Federal opponents had escaped to fight another day. Should Lee's new strategy succeed, that day would arrive soon.

THE STONE HOUSE NOW STANDS AS A SILENT REMINDER OF THE FIGHTING AT MANASSAS. (PHOTO BY RAY HELLER)

The gray chieftain resurrected the morning's contingency plan to send Jackson on another flank march around the Union right. Stonewall would depart on August 31, gain the Little River Turnpike, and use that highway to reach the Warrenton Turnpike at Germantown, seven miles east of Centreville and between Pope and Washington. Longstreet would skirmish with the Federals as he had done a week earlier along the Rappahannock, pin them in place, then follow Jackson's route of march. With luck Lee might achieve the knockout blow he failed to land at Manassas. Should the stratagem founder, Lee could safely retreat in several directions.

Pope and Halleck unwittingly played right into Lee's hands. Although on the morning of August 31 Pope's officers voted to retire into the Washington fortifications, a message from Halleck suggested that they stay at Centreville. Pope concurred, thus setting the stage for another one of Stonewall's immortal flanking maneuvers. But Jackson's troops had reached their physical limits. They covered barely ten miles on August 31, encamping at Pleasant Valley Church on the Little River Turnpike.

On September 1 Stonewall resumed his march but quickly encountered Union patrols, erasing the vital element of secrecy from his operation. Jackson decided to halt at mid-morning near an old mansion known as Chantilly and await Longstreet's arrival. Pope had indeed learned of Jackson's approach and dispatched Reno's Corps under Isaac Stevens along with Kearny's division to delay the Confederates while the rest of the Federal army moved back from Centreville to protect the crossroads at Germantown.

UNDER THE COVER OF DARKNESS, POPE'S DEFEATED ARMY WITHDREW ACROSS BULL RUN TOWARD CENTREVILLE. (LC)

At noon Jackson resumed his cautious advance, halting two hours later at Ox Hill, where the West Ox Road crossed the Little River Turnpike. Here he deployed to wait for Longstreet and to learn from Lee about the army's next move. But before the Confederates could be reunited, Stevens and Kearny crashed into Jackson's lines about 5:00 P.M. amid a violent thunderstorm. During the next two hours a battle ensued that one Confederate characterized as "a beastly, comfortless conflict." Both Stevens and Kearny were killed (no generals died at Second Manassas), but the wild fighting ended indecisively about dark. That night as Pope's army safely drew back toward the capital's elaborate earthworks, Lee recognized that Pope had slipped his noose and that the Second Manassas Campaign had finally concluded.

THE STONE BRIDGE, OVER WHICH POPE'S ARMY RETREATED ON THE NIGHT OF AUGUST 30. (LC)

The Second Battle of Manassas had been one of the most costly engagements of the Civil War. Lee lost 1,300 killed and more than 7,000 wounded during the three days of major fighting, while Pope suffered nearly 10,000 casualties, not counting those captured or missing. In the woods and fields from the Brawner farm to Henry Hill, along the unfinished railroad and on Chinn Ridge, in unnamed hollows and behind shattered trees, the bodies of the fallen littered the landscape. Unburied corpses "who had been dashing and gallant soldiers only a short week before . . . were swollen, blistered, discolored . . . and emitting odors so thick and powerful that it seemed they might have been felt by the naked hand."

Those who survived the battle faced an uncertain future, particularly Union commander John Pope. On September 2 Halleck informed Pope that Lincoln had named McClellan to assume control of the combined armies and ordered Pope to conduct the troops to the Washington defenses. Little Mac cantered out that afternoon and encountered Pope and his staff near the head of the column. When word of McClellan's ascension filtered through the army, cheers echoed up and down the ranks, One can only imagine Pope's thoughts as he rode almost alone toward the Potomac and the practical termination of his Civil War career.

ISAAC STEVENS (USAMHI)


ENCOUNTER AT LEWIS FORD

The evening of August 30, 1862, saw a struggling Union army preparing to retreat over Bull Run. Reeling from Longstreet's crushing counterattack, the Federals clung tenaciously to the slopes of Henry Hill. Lee saw the chance to strike Pope's route of retreat and administer the final blow to an already battered army. Lee called on the masterful J.E.B. Stuart to administer this maneuver. Promptly, Brigadier General Beverly H. Robertson with Colonel Thomas Rossers's regiment of cavalry were ordered forward. In the hands of these Confederate commanders lay the chance to envelop and destroy the entire Union army.

Having received his orders, Robertson headed for Lewis Ford, south of the Union army's line of retreat. Approaching the ford, Robertson observed a "small squadron" of Union cavalry and ordered the Second Virginia to charge them. Colonel Munford led his command in a race for the enemy and scattered them. However, lurking behind the squadron was General John Buford with his brigade of cavalry. Recognizing each other, the forces charged one another. Numerically superior, the Union cavalry soon had the advantage. Abruptly, the Confederates were reinforced and the tide of battle changed. Federal forces fled toward the retreating army. Having pursued, the Confederates soon found themselves behind the Union army with darkness coming on and so withdrew to a safer position, ending the skirmish.

Although lasting only a few moments, Lewis Ford was a vicious fight. Confederates and Federals went toe-to-toe armed with only sabers and pistols. Horses and riders were thrown together. One participant stated that "the shooting and running, cursing and cutting that followed cannot be understood except by an eyewitness." Caught in this melee, Confederate Colonel Munford was dismounted and severely slashed across his back. Union Colonel Brodhead was shot point-blank after refusing to surrender. Even General Buford, who led the Union cavalry, was wounded in the knee. In a violent, costly, and desperate battle, the Union achieved much from the sacrifices made at Lewis Ford.

Lewis Ford, besides being one of the largest cavalry conflicts up to that time, had two other important repercussions. First, General Buford managed to withstand and delay the enemy long enough to save the Union army. Had Buford not been there and stood up to the Rebels, Pope and his entire army would have been lost. As Buford charged, a new and valuable player entered the war. Union cavalry had never initiated a stand-up fight until this time. From this point on, the cavalry of the Union was going to make its presence on the battlefield known. The encounter at Lewis Ford saved an army and demonstrated how Federal cavalry in the Civil War was beginning to develop.

—Jason Litchblau

Two other Federal officers saw their reputations ruined at Second Manassas. Although a court of inquiry cleared Irvin McDowell of any wrongdoing, the perception of McDowell's incompetence, disloyalty, and even treason resulted in his banishment to an inconsequential post in California. Fitz John Porter fared even worse. Porter had been the most outspoken of McClellan's officers in his denunciations of Pope, and he cared little about who knew his feelings. Those sentiments added a veneer of credibility to Pope's unfair accusation that Porter caused his defeat at Second Manassas. A court-martial convicted Porter of willfully disobeying Pope's attack orders on August 29, and Porter devoted the next twenty years to restoring his good name.


The Northern populace cringed at the news from Manassas. Not only did the casualty lists bring grief into thousands of homes, but the likelihood of ultimate Union victory seemed dimmer than ever.

The Northern populace cringed at the news from Manassas. Not only did the casualty lists bring grief into thousands of homes, but the likelihood of ultimate Union victory seemed dimmer than ever. "To think that we should be conquered by the bare feet and rags of the South," lamented a New York woman. Some Federal soldiers also lost faith in the outlook for the war. "We had plenty of troops to whip them," protested Robert Milroy, "but McDowell is a traitor and Pope is an incompetent egotist. . . . Lincoln is blinded and under bad advisors and things will go from bad to worse. I see no hope. Our govt. is lost and we must bequeath war misery and anarchy to our children."

Events certainly appeared brighter for the Army of Northern Virginia and the cause it championed. During a two-month period, Lee had moved the war in the East from the doorstep of Richmond to the outskirts of Washington. But he had paid a terrible human price for this achievement. His weakened army lacked the firepower to fight on anything like equal terms with his Union opponents. Moreover, northern Virginia lay ravaged by military occupation and its prostrate farms could not sustain even Lee's depleted numbers. The Confederate commander could either withdraw south closer to reliable sources of supply or risk a raid across the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania, subsisting his army off the bounty of Northern agriculture. The incomparable Virginian chose the bolder of these two options and on September 4 began the march that would result two weeks later in the Battle of Antietam.

A PERIOD LITHOGRAPH TITLED LEE AND HIS GENERALS. THE CONFEDERATE VICTORY AT SECOND MANASSAS ENABLED LEE TO MOVE HIS ARMY NORTHWARD INTO MARYLAND. (LC)

Understood in this context, the Second Manassas Campaign marked the midpoint of Lee's grand summer offensive in 1862—a period that in retrospect would mark the true high tide of Confederate fortunes. Observers in foreign capitals took note of the apparent viability of this new government whose armies could win victories within the shadow of Washington. Voters in the North embraced Democratic candidates for Congress who challenged the management and even advisability of the conflict. And Abraham Lincoln deferred announcing the plan, his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, that would in the end add transcendent meaning to the carnage of the Civil War.


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Manassas National Battlefield Park

Back cover: The Diehards, by Don Troiani. Photograph courtesy of Historical Art Prints, Ltd., Southbury, Connecticut.
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