On July 2, 1862, Union general George B. McClellan pulled his Army of the Potomac down the Virginia Peninsula to Harrison’s Landing, on the James River. Although Robert E. Lee had managed to push the largest Union field army back from Richmond, circumstances still looked grim. While McClellan had been momentarily stalled, he could renew his advance at any time, or use Union naval superiority to withdraw his army and land it elsewhere in Virginia. Thus, while Lee had blunted the immediate Union threat, the vast effusion of Confederate blood had only restored the status quo. Even as Lee threw back McClellan from the gates of Richmond, Union movements threatened to overwhelm the Confederates.
As the Army of the Potomac sequestered itself at Harrison’s Landing, Union forces gathered in northern Virginia. General John Pope, who had been appointed to command a new force named the Army of Virginia on June 26, led three corps strung out across the north of the state, with a total of around 57,000 troops. This new field command had been created from three smaller Union armies that had been defeated in the Shenandoah Valley by Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson during the Valley Campaign—the commands of Nathaniel P. Banks, Irvin McDowell, and Franz Sigel. Ominously, Pope only managed to maintain cordial and professional relations with McDowell. He openly antagonized Sigel by mocking the German native’s accent, and alienated Banks with his abrasive behavior. Thus, as Pope moved his dispersed forces southward to Culpeper County on July 12, he possessed an unreliable command structure, ill-suited for operations against Lee.
To meet these new Union deployments, Lee contracted his lines back toward Richmond. He shifted troops to the left of his army, and although McClellan remained docile at Harrison’s Landing, the chance that he might bestir himself required that Confederate troops remain watchful. On July 13, Lee dispatched Jackson north toward Pope’s Army of Virginia. Of primary importance was the defense of the railroad junction at Gordonsville. James Longstreet’s divisions remained east of Richmond, warily watching Harrison’s Landing. Jackson also looked for a way to strike at a portion of Pope’s army before the Union forces could concentrate against him.
Part of Pope’s purpose in Virginia was to institute a harsher form of war, viewed by many Republicans, and by U.S. president Abraham Lincoln, as a necessity. In their eyes, McClellan’s conciliatory policies toward civilians had been counterproductive. In line with these policy objectives, Pope issued several orders that portended a harder war in Virginia. On July 18, he issued General Orders No. 5, telling to his troops to subsist on the countryside, and later he issued General Orders No. 7, which promised draconian punishment in response to guerrilla attacks. These orders also enraged Lee, who viewed them as contrary to the laws of warfare and fumed that Pope “must be suppressed.” General Orders No. 5, in particular, lent extra urgency to Lee’s efforts to expel Pope. The Army of Virginia posed a concrete strategic threat, but its destruction of crops, forage, and provisions denied food to the Confederate armies and left central Virginia devastated.
Adding to Lee’s troubles, and also impelling quick action, was the arrival of Union general Ambrose E. Burnside‘s division in the Chesapeake. The bewhiskered Rhode Islander had been in command of an expedition in North Carolina, but he and his men were now recalled to Virginia. They arrived near Fort Monroe late in July, and by August 5 they had begun to disembark in Fredericksburg.
Jackson, noting that Banks’s corps lay isolated, attacked at Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862. Although the battle ended in a stalemate, Banks withdrew northward, leaving the way open for a Confederate advance.
With Banks subdued, Lee determined to act upon a bold course of action: he would send Stonewall Jackson around Pope’s left flank, cutting the Army of Virginia off from any potential reinforcements by disembarking at Aquia Creek near Fredericksburg. Lee also hoped that Jackson would disrupt Pope’s supply lines, forcing Pope to confront Lee’s army. On August 13, he sent Jackson the orders to begin moving, and also began to shift Longstreet’s wing of the army north from Richmond, with the intention that it would follow Jackson’s maneuver.
Lee’s plan worked well, as Pope remained south of the Rappahannock River largely unconcerned with the concentrating Confederates. The chance existed for Lee to catch Pope with his back to the river. All this changed early on August 18, when Pope’s cavalry surprised Confederate J. E. B. Stuart and his staff. The Confederates fled, escaping capture, but Stuart left behind both his ostrich-plumed hat and important military dispatches. The dispatches revealed to Pope that Lee had begun a movement northward. Pope reacted by pulling the Army of Virginia north across the Rappahannock. For the moment, Pope remained safe from Lee. But Lee would not give up the initiative.
On August 22, Jackson began to feel out Union positions at the fords along the Rappahannock River. Chastened by the loss of his hat, Stuart wanted revenge. On August 22–23, he launched a raid in an attempt to redeem himself. His raid netted John Pope’s dress uniform coat and dispatches from Pope. These dispatches emboldened Lee, because they revealed the disposition of Pope’s men, as well as their relative strength.
Pope, too, had reason to feel emboldened—the first troops from McClellan’s army were finally arriving. On August 22, Fitz-John Porter and the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac began arriving at Pope’s position. On August 24, Samuel Heintzelman’s Third Corps would arrive from Alexandria. Although these corps provided additional men, their commanders presented problems for Pope. Porter hated Pope and had dubbed him “an ass.” Heintzelman, while more amenable to Pope, had compiled a fairly undistinguished record during the Peninsula Campaign and Seven Days’ Battles.
On August 24, with Pope ensconced behind the Rappahannock and the first reinforcements from the Army of the Potomac arriving to bolster his numbers, Lee made a characteristically bold decision—he would split his army. Lee decided to detach Jackson and send him far around Pope’s right flank to cut off the Army of Virginia’s main supply line, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Jackson, on the other hand, was ordered to march to the west, and then follow the Manassas Gap Railroad through the Bull Run Mountains to strike at Pope’s rear. Longstreet and Lee would keep Pope occupied and then follow Jackson’s flanking column.
Pope received news from his men on August 25 that a large Confederate force had been seen in motion. Much as Joseph Hooker would do at Chancellorsville (1863) when confronted with a similar sight of Stonewall Jackson vanishing beyond his flank, Pope decided that the large Confederate force was retiring to the Shenandoah Valley and harbored no aggressive intentions. He left his men around Warrenton, largely as they had been the day before. On August 26, Jackson had marched far enough to make his way through Thoroughfare Gap, emerging behind Pope’s lines.
By four o’clock in the afternoon, Jackson had marched to Bristoe Station astride the Manassas Gap Railroad. There, his men cut the rail line and destroyed several locomotives—most famously the one named “The President,” complete with a portrait of Lincoln. Jackson also dispatched several regiments north, to Manassas Junction, to probe Union defenses. They quickly brushed away Union defenders and captured the vast stockpile, but not before a warning went out over the telegraphs.
Early the next day, Pope ordered his troops to begin to concentrate around Gainesville, slightly west of Jackson’s suspected position. If his men could pull off the maneuver, they would sit astride the Manassas Gap Railroad, isolating Jackson from Longstreet, who still remained west of Thoroughfare Gap. Jackson, for his part, moved the bulk of his force to Manassas Junction, leaving Richard S. Ewell to hold off any Union troops that might advance from the south. At Manassas Junction, Confederate troops helped themselves to Union supplies. They also appropriated a plethora of delicacies—from French mustard to lobster—before burning the depot in the evening. Ewell successfully deflected Union probes to the south, and then withdrew north to join Jackson’s main force.
On August 28, Jackson gathered his troops north of Manassas Junction. Pope spent the same day chasing phantoms, first sending troops to Manassas, then to Centreville. Jackson calmly waited in the woods near Groveton along the Warrenton Pike. Around six o’clock that evening, Rufus King’s division of McDowell’s corps marched along the turnpike in the front of the woods. As they passed, Jackson ordered an assault, and Confederate artillery began shelling the Union troops. The cannonade threw the Union column into disarray, but soon the Union troops mounted a counteroffensive to clear Confederate batteries from the Brawner Farm. Little did Union commanders know that their one division had just encountered the entirety of Jackson’s corps-size force. As the Union troops moved to attack the Confederate artillery, the Confederate battle line emerged from the woods, led by the Stonewall Brigade. A general engagement ensued, centering around the Brawner Farm, and despite his numerical superiority, Jackson failed to rout King, largely due to the hard fighting put in by John Gibbon’s brigade. Gibbon’s men—Midwesterners from Wisconsin and Indiana—gained a reputation for iron resolve as they slugged it out with the Stonewall Brigade in a vicious test of endurance, which in part led to their receiving the appellation of the “Iron Brigade” (a regiment from Michigan would later join the brigade). Ewell—Jackson’s chief lieutenant from the Valley Campaign—fell wounded. A musket ball had lodged in his leg, which necessitated amputation. Both sides bashed away at each other until nightfall, when King’s division withdrew toward Manassas at one o’clock on the morning of August 29.
Observing the fighting at Groveton, Pope drew up his plans for the next day. He ordered an attack by Franz Sigel, to be supported by men from McDowell’s corps. McDowell, however, was nowhere to be found, with orders finally reaching him on the morning of August 29. Accompanied by Porter, McDowell responded with a studied indifference, convinced that their men needed rest. He finally began to move his men from Manassas Junction around ten o’clock that morning.
Pope’s cantankerous subordinates ruined his plans, and in the end, it was only Sigel who advanced against Jackson. Jackson had re-formed his lines since the fight at Brawner Farm, and had posted his men along the railroad cut of the Manassas Gap Railroad. Confederate general A. P. Hill‘s division anchored his left flank, Ewell’s former division held the center, and the Stonewall division held the right. On the morning of August 29, Sigel advanced against Jackson. Fighting erupted shortly after eight o’clock, when the first of Sigel’s men encountered the Confederates posted in the woods. An inelegant brawl erupted, with Sigel marching straight towards Jackson. By ten o’clock, Samuel Heintzelman’s division had finally arrived on the field, and Sigel fed it into action in an attempt to turn Jackson’s left flank. Even as Sigel duked it out with Jackson, the Union tide turned as Robert E. Lee and the first units from Longstreet’s wing of the army arrived along the Warrenton Pike. Longstreet began to deploy his men along Jackson’s right, including artillery batteries. Jackson’s artillery had largely been unable to deploy due to the heavy forestation around the railroad cut, with only the Rockbridge Artillery and Shumaker’s Battalion in action.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, John Pope himself arrived on the field to superintend the battle. After taking in the situation, he decided that an attack against Jackson’s right flank might allow him to destroy the Confederate forces. By two o’clock, Pope launched a series of attacks along the Confederate line, designed to pin Jackson in place and prevent him from turning back the planned flank attack. These diversionary attacks, first along Jackson’s left and then along his entire line, came close to breaking his entire position. Pope, however, failed to reinforce his men’s isolated attacks, so while several Union brigades came close to penetrating the Confederate lines, none of them were given the support necessary to enjoy true success. The arrival of Longstreet’s men, who took up positions along Jackson’s right flank, secured the Confederate position. Yet Porter menaced the Confederate right, setting the stage for the actions the next day.
On August 30, Pope spent the morning believing that the Confederates were retreating and failed to press the Confederates. Finally, he ordered Porter to launch an attack against Jackson’s right. Porter attempted to inform Pope that a large Confederate force overlapped his flanks, but Pope ignored him. By three in the afternoon, Porter had organized his attack. Jackson’s men waited eagerly as the Union corps marched into the apex of the Confederate line, striking at Jackson’s right flank. Longstreet’s men stood ready beyond Porter’s left flank, but waited for the right moment to strike. The weight of Union numbers bore on Jackson’s men, including the Stonewall Brigade, who began to buckle. Jackson sent to Lee for help, a plea that Lee relayed to Longstreet. Longstreet had already taken action to relieve Jackson, and his artillery batteries poured a horrendous enfilade into the advancing Union ranks. By four o’clock, Porter’s attack had petered out, although he had nearly broken Jackson’s lines. At one point the Stonewall Brigade, out of ammunition, flung stones at the advancing Union troops from the railroad grade.
As Porter’s advance ground to a halt, James Longstreet arrayed his men for one of the largest flank attacks of the Civil War. He had massed along Porter’s flank nearly 25,000 infantry. Longstreet’s men stepped off at four o’clock, rolling forward and smashing Porter’s corps. Union troops gathered around Chinn Ridge, in an effort to create a position where Porter’s men could rally and stabilize Pope’s entire position. By six, the Confederates had dislodged the Union troops and completed their destruction of Pope’s entire left. They next turned their attention to another Union position on Henry House Hill, where Pope had arranged men from the right flank of the army to cover the retreat to Washington. Confederates failed to take Henry House Hill until after seven o’clock, by which time the setting sun had rendered pursuit impossible.
Pursuit and Chantilly / Ox Hill
Despite the crushing blow delivered by Longstreet on August 30, Pope managed to re-form most of his army at Centreville overnight on August 30–31. Lee ordered pursuit and once again sent Jackson, who set out on the morning of August 31 along the Little River Turnpike, which led to a crucial intersection at Germantown (Jermantown). If Jackson could move quickly enough and reach the intersection of the Little River and Warrenton turnpikes, he could interpose himself between Centreville and reinforcements arriving from Washington. Unfortunately for the Confederates, Jackson’s men, exhausted from their long marches early in the campaign and worn out from nearly three days of fighting, failed to live up to their reputation as foot cavalry. Pope remained at Centreville, restoring order to his army.
As the Confederates pursued Pope’s men and sent out cavalry to round up Union prisoners and stragglers on the morning of August 31, Lee ventured to the front to inspect the situation personally. As Lee stood, dismounted, holding the reins of Traveller, the cavalrymen were herding prisoners into Confederate lines. Their sudden appearance spooked Lee’s mount, and in grabbing the reins, Lee tripped and fell. He bruised his wrists and hands so badly that they required splints. In the coming weeks, Lee would have to ride uncomfortably in an ambulance wagon, unable to control a horse himself. As a result, he was able to exercise far less control over his men during the Antietam Campaign than he might have preferred.
Overnight on August 31–September 1, J. E. B. Stuart led a cavalry reconnaissance along the Little River Turnpike to gather intelligence for Jackson about Union troop deployments. Stuart found the way clear to Germantown, where he decided to shell passing Union wagon trains. As usual, Stuart’s tendency to show off only alerted Union commanders to an overlooked threat, much as had occurred at Evelington Heights after the Seven Days’ Battles. Pope accordingly dispatched reinforcements to Germantown that set out shortly after dawn on September 1. Union general Isaac I. Stevens’s division encountered Jackson’s men at around five o’clock, in the vicinity of Ox Hill, close to the intersection of the Little River and Warrenton turnpikes. As they began to form into a line of battle, a tremendous thunderstorm erupted, making Chantilly one of the few Civil War battles, aside from New Market (1864), fought in the rain. Stevens’s men put in a good performance, but the weight of Confederate numbers slowly turned the tide. Stevens himself was killed by Confederate fire during the advance. Philip Kearny Jr.’s New Jersey division joined the fight and, like Stevens, Kearny was killed in the battle. The storm rendered the fight a confused affair, and Jackson’s tired men failed to press their advantage after turning back the two Union divisions. The next day, September 2, Pope began a full-scale retreat to Washington, D.C.
With Pope suppressed, Lee examined his options. Most of central and northern Virginia had been cleared of Union forces. Rather than surrender the initiative, Lee decided to head north and invade Maryland. On September 3, Confederate troops splashed across the Potomac, beginning Lee’s first incursion into the North.
While the fighting at Chantilly had taken the lives of Union generals Stevens and Kearney, the Second Battle of Manassas claimed the careers of Pope and Porter. Lincoln and his General in Chief, Henry W. Halleck, shuffled Pope off to Minnesota, to fight the Sioux Uprising. Pope blamed Porter for the debacle at Second Manassas and ordered him court-martialed. Found guilty, Porter left the army in 1863, although a later investigation, in 1878, exonerated him from any wrongdoing.