American Civil War
|First Posted Mar 13, 2007|
Aug 3, 2010
Second Battle of Manassas
by Frank Harrell
Permission Given for Use on this site
Last update Jul 13, 2005
In August 1862, Union and Confederate armies converged for a second time on the plains of Manassas. The naive enthusiasm that preceded the earlier encounter was gone. War was not the holiday outing or grand adventure envisioned by the young recruits of 1861. The contending forces, now made up of seasoned veterans, knew well the reality of war. The Battle of Second Manassas, covering three days, produced far greater carnage, 3,399 killed, and brought the Confederacy to the height of its power. Still the battle did not weaken Northern resolve. The war's final outcome was yet unknown, and it would be left to other battles to decide whether the sacrifice at Manassas was part of the price of Southern independence, or the cost of one country again united under the national standard.
After the Union defeat at Manassas in July 1861, General George B. McClellan took command of the Federal forces in and around Washington and organized them into a formidable fighting machine, the Army of the Potomac. In March 1862, leaving a strong force to cover the capital, McClellan shifted his Army by water to Fort Monroe on the tip of the York - James River peninsula, only 75 miles southeast of Richmond. Early in April, he advanced toward the Confederate capital. Anticipating such a move, the Southerners abandoned the Manassas area and marched to meet the Federals. By the end of May, McClellan's troops were within sight of Richmond. Here General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate Army assailed the Federals in the bloody but inconclusive Battle of Seven Pines. Johnston was wounded and President Jefferson Davis placed General Robert E. Lee in command. Seizing the offensive, Lee sent his force (now called the Army of Northern Virginia) across the Chickahominy River and, in a series of savage battles, pushed McClellan back from the edge of Richmond to a position on the James River.
At the same time, the scattered Federal forces in northern Virginia were organized into the Army of Virginia under the command of General John Pope, who arrived with a reputation freshly won in the war's western theater. Gambling that McClellen would cause no further trouble around Richmond, Lee sent Stonewall Jackson's wing northward to "suppress" Pope. Jackson clashed indecisively with part of Pope's troops at Cedar Mountain on August 9. Meanwhile, learning that the Army of the Potomac was withdrawing by water to join Pope, Lee marched with General James Longstreet's wing to bolster Jackson. Pope withdrew to the north side of the Rappahannock River and successfully blocked Lee's attempts to gain a tactical advantage. Lee knew that if he was to defeat Pope he would have to strike before McClellan's Army arrived in northern Virginia. On August 25 Lee boldly started Jackson's Wing on a march of over 50 miles, around the Union's right flank to strike at Pope's rear.
Two days later, Jackson's veterans seized Pope's supply depot at Manassas Junction. After a day of wild feasting, Jackson burned what Federal supplies could not be carried off and moved to a position in the woods north of Groveton near the old Manassas battlefield.
Pope, stung by the attack on his supply base, abandoned the line of the Rappahannock and headed toward Manassas to "bag" Jackson. At the same time, Lee was moving northward with Longstreet's wing to reunite his Army. On the afternoon of August 28, to prevent the Federal commander's efforts to concentrate at Centreville and bring Pope to battle, Jackson ordered his troops to attack a Union column as it marched on the Warrenton Turnpike. This savage fight at Brawner's Farm lasted until dark.
Convinced that Jackson was isolated, Pope ordered his columns to converge on Groveton. He was sure that he could destroy Jackson before Lee and Longstreet could intervene. On the 29th Pope's Army found Jackson's men posted along an unfinished railroad grade, north of the turnpike. All afternoon, in a series of uncoordinated attacks, Pope hurled his men against the Confederate position. In several places, the Northerners momentarily breached Jackson's line, but each time were forced back. That day Longstreet's troops arrived on the battlefield and, unknown to Pope, deployed on Jackson's right, overlapping the exposed Union left. Lee urged Longstreet to attack, but "Old Pete" demurred. The time was just not right, he said.
The morning of August 30 passed quietly. Just before noon, erroneously concluding the Confederates were retreating, Pope ordered his Army forward "in pursuit."The pursuit, however, was short-lived. Pope found that Lee had gone nowhere. Amazingly, Pope ordered yet another attack against Jackson's line. Major General Fitz John Porter's corps, along with part of McDowell's, struck Brigadier General W. E. Starke's division at the unfinished railroad's "Deep Cut." The Southerners held firm, and Porter's column was hurled back in a bloody repulse.
Seeing the Union lines in disarray, Longstreet pushed his massive columns forward and staggered the Union left. Pope's Army was faced with annihilation. Only a heroic stand by the northern troops, first on Chinn Ridge and then once again on Henry Hill, bought time for Pope's hard-pressed Union forces. Finally, under cover of darkness the defeated Union Army withdrew across Bull Run toward the defenses of Washington. Lee's bold and brilliant Second Battle of Manassas campaign opened the way for the South's first invasion of the North, and a bid for foreign intervention.