Confusion and Denial Lead to Defeat at Second Manassas

August 30, 1862 (Saturday)

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee’s line at Manassas was silent and waiting. Over the night, he had contemplated an attack by James Longstreet’s men on the right, but decided to let his adversary, General John Pope, commanding the Union Army of Virginia, to make the first move.

Like Lee, Pope was inactive, but for very different reasons. A division of Rebel reinforcements came up in the early dawn, but without a guide, they came within a few hundred yards of the Union lines. Before they were detected, they were warned by comrades and began to withdraw to Longstreet’s position. Their advance had not been seen by the Yankees, but their withdrawal had been. When the report reached Pope, he, like the previous day, believed the entire Rebel force was retreating towards the mountains.

This waiting and mistaken idea of victory stretched on all through the morning. If he had been waiting for reinforcements from Washington, he had been waiting in vain. Rumors that Lee’s army of 120,000 (double its actual size) was storming towards Washington had caused General-in-Chief Henry Halleck to hold the troops under Generals Sumner, Tyler and Cox around the city for protection. As for William Franklin’s Corps of 11,000, they were allowed to go on a probing mission to find the Rebel army. In Washington, everyone seemed to be acting like Pope’s army of over 60,000 simply disappeared.

General Lee’s Confederates were well aware that Pope hadn’t disappeared. All morning, Pope had been shifting troops around, causing small clashes and artillery fire – all of which should have clued him in to the fact that the Rebels had not retreated. In the late morning, reports from up and down his line, from commanders such as Isaac Stevens, Philip Kearny, John Reynolds, and Fitz John Porter, insisted that the Confederates were still in the woods to their front, still huddled behind the unfinished railroad embankment.

General John Pope

The news froze Pope. He locked up, unable to wrap his head around the notion that Stonewall Jackson had not retreated. And so, at 11am, he simply decided that the Rebels were in fact in full retreat. Word from an escaped prisoner, probably fed misinformation by the Confederates, further convinced him that his task was now a mop up job. Adding to this were the reports coming from Irvin McDowell and Samuel Heintzelman on the Union right. They reconnoitered the ground themselves and found no trace of the Rebels. In reality, Jackson had pulled back a bit in front of the Union right and the Federal officers took it as a retreat.

Fitz John Porter, under orders from Pope, had sent two brigades to probe where Jackson’s right flank had been. They became embroiled in a hot debate between skirmishers and couldn’t easily be extracted. It was during this scuffle that Pope finally released his orders.

At noon, General Pope called for a two-pronged attack to drive the retreating Rebels. General McDowell would command the assault, which would throw Porter at the Rebel right to get behind the fleeing Confederates and cut off their line of retreat. Meanwhile, Heintzelman would hold the Rebel left. To Pope, however, the Rebel line was just in the woods before him. He finally realized that Longstreet had arrived, but didn’t believe he extended the enemy’s lines – Longstreet merely filed in behind Jackson. In truth, Longstreet rested on Jackson’s right, a position that would wind up on the right flank of Porter’s ordered attack.

At 3pm, the Union attack began amidst complaints by Pope’s subordinates who knew better. By this time even McDowell was convinced that Pope was horribly mistaken. And yet, all went forward. While Pope’s orders for the right prong of his attack could have met with some success, the orders for his left, under Porter, stood no chance at all. Porter’s 10,000 would be up against Longstreet’s 25,000, lying in wait and more or less officially undetected.

Porter’s command was confused, with brigades and divisions scattered about and in no shape for an assault that involved a turning movement to get around the supposed enemy flank. Before it stepped off, McDowell wrestled John Reynolds Division from him, promising Franz Sigel’s entire corps in return should he need it. However, McDowell had no command over Sigel and never passed along the deal to General Pope. Though Porter soon called for Sigel, McDowell ignored it.

The Union line stretched for over a mile – a beautiful and deadly sight. With Longstreet’s hidden men not the object of the attack, Porter’s command swung right to hit what was hoped to be Jackson’s flank. In fact, it was Jackson’s front along the abandoned railroad embankment. Porter’s men rolled on through destructive volleys and killing artillery. When wide holes opened, they were quickly filled. Nothing seemed able to stop them and Jackson’s lines began to crumble.

Officers, including Col. William Baylor of the Stonewall Brigade fell, leaving their commands headless. The struggle became an intense street fight. When some of the Confederate regiments ran out of ammunition, they hurled rocks down upon their attackers. All of Jackson’s reserves had been called forward and General Lee ordered Longstreet to send an entire division to bolster Stonewall’s lines.

He also ordered Longstreet to attack. First, Longstreet ordered his artillery to batter Pope’s exposed left flank. At once, a dozen or more guns played hell upon the Union left, tearing it to shreds and sending bodies flying like sticks. This completely devastated the Union attack. And that is when Longstreet unleashed his 25,000.

Seeing his comrades move forward, Jackson ordered his tattered command to attack, but they were understandably so disorganized that little could be done right away. Nevertheless, the Rebels seemed to come from every direction, swallowing whole the fleeing Yankees.

Back at the original Union position, anchored upon Henry Hill, the rise where the Rebels made their stand over a year before, the Confederate counterattack was quickly coming. Pope was at first in complete denial. But all of a sudden, it made sense. It was as if something clicked in his mind. His left wing was completely crushed and he quickly shuffled six brigades from his right to hold the hill. Had Jackson’s men been able to join, he would have had no such luxuries.

At 6pm, with the sun dipping ever closer to the horizon, the ridge between Henry Hill and the Rebel position fell. Pope grabbed every brigade he could to defend his line. Having done all he could, he began to issue orders for retreat. But first, Henry Hill must be saved. If it fell, his army would be routed.

Pope mounted up and rode the main lines of battle himself, showing a decisive bravery completely missing thus far in since coming east from Mississippi. The Rebel attack was brutal, but the Federals held. General Lee had nothing else to throw at Henry Hill. If he had, the position may very well have been carried.

With darkness came rain, and Pope, leaving the details of the withdrawal to General McDowell, moved his headquarters to Centreville, several miles on the other side of Bull Run. Over the next few hours, with the fighting at an end, Pope’s army safely dislodged itself and marched across Bull Run to the fortifications at Centreville. By midnight, almost all of the Federals were away from the field of battle.

During the night, General Lee penned a missive to Richmond, telling them of the great triumph.

“This army achieved today on the plains of Manassas a signal victory over the combined forces of Genls McClellan and Pope. On the 28th and 29th each wing under Gensl Longstreet and Jackson repulsed with valour attacks made on them separately. We mourn the loss of our gallant dead, in every conflict yet our gratitude to almighty God for His mercies rises higher and higher each day, to Him and the valour of our troops a nation’s gratitude is due.”

The battle was over, but the campaign would continue. Lee was not ready to rest upon his laurels and Pope, though defeated, was not to be taken lightly. Adding to this, General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was still gathering. Some units, like General Porter’s, had joined the fray at Manassas, but soon, Lee would have many, many more before him.1

  1. For this post, specifically about a battle, I decided to draw from several trusted secondary sources. You cannot fully learn about a battle from a blog post. You need books (both secondary and primary) and you need to visit the battlefield. Anyway, the books that I used were: Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy; Counter-Thrust by Benjamin Franklin Cooling; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; General John Pope by Peter Cozzens. []
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Confusion and Denial Lead to Defeat at Second Manassas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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One thought on “Confusion and Denial Lead to Defeat at Second Manassas

  1. Fully realizing the impossibility of mentioning everything, I feel it necessary to also include the battle of Richmond, Kentucky on this date. The Army of Kentucky (USA) was essentially wiped out by the Army of Kentucky (CSA), losing 206 killed, 844 wounded, and at least 4,300 captured. Civil War historian Shelby Foote would describe it as “the nearest thing to a Cannae ever scored by any general, North or South, in the course of the whole war.”

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