Jackson Sacks the Railroad While Pope Does Nothing

August 26, 1862 (Tuesday)

John Pope a bit after the war.

General John Pope, commander of the Union Army of Virginia, wasn’t going to move. He knew that over 20,000 Confederates under Stonewall Jackson had left his front and moved around his right flank and rear towards Salem along the Manassas Gap Railroad. And still, he had no plans to leave the Rappahannock River. Washington was not even calling for him to do so. Quite the opposite, actually. General-in-Chief Henry Halleck told him on the 24th that he should hold all fords and expect orders to cross the river and restart the offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

For twenty-four hours, Halleck had known that a large Confederate force was moving west (and possibly northwest), around Pope’s right flank. Still, at 11:45am of this morning, Halleck complimented Pope on his handling of affairs along the Rappahannock. The only thing he said about the force believed headed towards the Shenandoah Valley was that Pope should send some cavalry to watch Front Royal.1

Pope could not, however, send cavalry – at least not in any force. Somehow or another, though they had not really been engaged in days, the brigades under Generals George Bayard and John Buford were basically useless. When told to have his command ready to move out, Buford agreed, but with a warning: “If the enemy advances, I can do very little. My command is almost disorganized.” Bayard reported Stonewall’s column the previous day, but was never urged to pursue.2

As the sun rose higher, Buford was moved towards Waterloo Bridge (General James Longstreet’s left flank), and told to send scouts towards the Blue Ridge Mountains to ascertain just where that column of Confederates was headed. Elsewhere in the Union army, everyone was abuzz. The rumor had swept through that the Rebels were moving to the Valley, yet before them, across the Rappahannock, was the Rebel Army.3

But then, sometime in the afternoon, a message from one of the scouts arrived at Pope’s headquarters. It placed the large Rebel force moving east through Thoroughfare Gap. Pope didn’t quite snap to attention. Instead, he ordered one of General Irvin McDowell’s divisions (Ricketts) to move in the direction the next morning. General Ricketts was ordered to place his division between White Plains and Thoroughfare Gap.4

The Confederate column under Stonewall Jackson, however, was past White Plains by mid-morning and through Thoroughfare Gap by mid-afternoon. Ricketts’ Division stood no chance at all of catching up. Jackson’s march had been a hard one, covering twenty-six miles the previous day and cautiously moving forward on this day. Scouting to his front was an over-taxed regiment of cavalry, who would probe ridges, side roads, and any possible hiding spot the Federals might use. So far, they had captured a couple dozen, but had come up against no resistance.

At 3pm, Stonewall was delighted to find that two brigades of cavalry under Jeb Stuart had caught up to him. They were here to protect his flanks and screen his movements. They met at Gainesville, where Jackson had to make a decision. He could move on either Manassas Junction or Bristoe Station (to the south). He decided upon the latter.5

Back along the Rappahannock, and completely unknown to Pope, General Lee had decided to reunited his army. In the mid-afternoon, he started Longstreet’s wing across the same route taken by Stonewall’s the day before. He left behind a rear guard to act as decoys and it worked. Pope, completely in over his head, was beaten without a fight.6

Sometime around when Longstreet was moving out, General George Meade, commanding a brigade in the Pennsylvania Reserves, stormed into Pope’s headquarters. They had been friends before the war and Meade used this familiarity to candidly vent his frustration. “What are you doing out here?” exploded Meade. “This is no place for this army. It should at once fall back so as to meet the rest of the Army of the Potomac coming up and by superior force overwhelm Lee.”7

General George Meade

Meanwhile, Stonewall Jackson sent General Richard Ewell’s Division with some cavalry to take the railroad, while he rested the other two divisions. Before nightfall, Ewell reached Bristoe and the busy Union line. The accompanying cavalry dashed into the village to take the station, but tangled with some Federal infantry. This allowed a train to slip by.8

Soon enough, night had fallen and the Federals were sent running. During this melee, a switch had been thrown that would cause the next train to exit the mainline and sidle right up to the station, where it couldn’t be stopped before running over an embankment. The Louisiana Brigade had orders to fire upon the train if it contained Federal troops. They were, however, a bit over-anxious. As soon as the engine pulled into view, the entire brigade opened upon it, splintering the empty boxcars and sending the few wounded Federals on board scurrying helplessly for cover.

Map showing approximate positions, etc.

The engineer believed he was being attacked by only bushwackers. He opened the throttle and attempted to speed past the station at around 50mph. But with the switch thrown, the train instead hit the siding at speed, which threw it off the tracks. “Down the embankment rushed the engine, screaming and hissing,” remembered William Blackford of Stuart’s staff, “and down upon it rushed the cars, piling up one upon another until the pile reached higher than the embankment, checking further additions to its confused heap, and arresting the rear half of the train upon the track.”

A few moments later, another train appeared. The scenario repeated itself as the engineer tried to speed through the station. The engine made it through the first three boxcars still on the mainline, hurling them off the tracks and up onto the locomotive and tender. The entire consist was derailed, as more sick and wounded Union soldiers met their end.

When another train appeared, the engineer could see the mass of wreckage before him and managed to halt his train and reverse throttle. With this, the Rebels knew that Pope would soon learn that they were well beyond Thoroughfare Gap.9

Stonewall’s work was not yet finished. After setting fire to the rolling stock, he turned his attention to Manassas Junction, a huge Federal depot seven miles up the line. For this task, he sent 600 or so men under General Isaac Trimble. With Stuart’s Cavalry, they reached the junction around midnight.

The true and very unfortunate roll of black men in the Confederate army. Notice, there's not a firearm to be seen on this poor fellow.

Like with Bristoe, a small Union force put up an unenthusiastic resistance. Within minutes, they were either captured or sent scurrying into the night. The bounty was unbelievable. Along with more supplies than they had imagined, they captured 300 Federals, 175 horses, eight pieces of artillery, and 200 runaway slaves. They had been deemed free by the Federal Confiscation Act, but, in the eyes of the Confederacy, were merely runaway property to be put back to work as soon as possible.10

Pope had actually gotten wind of this when Jackson’s men cut the telegraph lines. He believed that it was only some Rebel cavalry and that perhaps only 10,000 infantry were in Thoroughfare Gap. The only thing he did at this point was to urge Halleck to send more troops from Washington. He also began to cover his tracks. Pope began to lie to his subordinates, telling them that he had made specific plans to counter whatever it was that the Rebels were doing up there.11

With some time falsely bought, Pope had the chance to catch his breath. Before him lay two options. He could either retreat towards Fredericksburg or to throw his entire force upon Manassas Junction. Before the dawning of the next day, he chose the latter.12

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p666. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p657. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p669. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p669, 671. []
  5. “Jackson’s Raid Around Pope” by General William Taliaferro, as appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Volume II, The Century Publishing, 1914. []
  6. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
  7. Personal Recollections of the Civil War by John Gibbon, 1928. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p747-748. []
  9. War Years with Jeb Stuart by William Willis Blackford, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945. []
  10. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, as well as Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p70. []
  12. “The Second Battle of Bull Run” by General John Pope, as appearing in Battles & Leaders of the Civil War Volume II, The Century Publishing, 1914. []
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Jackson Sacks the Railroad While Pope Does Nothing by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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