The Federal Confusion and Denial at Second Manassas

August 29, 1862 (Friday)

Union General John Pope had misjudged his enemy. His objective was to keep two Confederate forces under Generals James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson from combining. While Longstreet was ten miles to the west, Jackson was to Pope’s front, held up in an abandoned railroad cut upon the old Bull Run battlefield. Pope wanted to crush Jackson completely before Longstreet arrived. Throughout the previous day, Pope thought Jackson to be in retreat, and on the morning of this day, wanted to act quickly before his immediate foe could make an escape.

But Stonewall Jackson, though greatly outnumbered, had no plans to escape. He could very easily have retreated to Thoroughfare Gap, uniting with Longstreet, but instead, General Robert E. Lee’s plans were for Longstreet to come to Jackson.

At 8am, Jackson received a message from Lee informing him that Longstreet was en route. All Jackson had to do was hold on. All Pope had to do was attack. Jackson was isolated and, if Pope swiftly advanced, the Union numbers should have been able to outflank and dismantle Jackson.

As Pope did not understand Jackson’s intentions, he failed to understand his own army’s limitations. Jackson’s men were relatively well-fed and rested, while Pope’s were anything but. They were exhausted and he didn’t seem to realize that.

Through the early morning, the only troops facing Jackson were those under Franz Sigel. The divisions under Joe Hooker and Philip Kearny (of Heintzelman’s Corps) were close at hand, and all tried here and there to break Jackson’s supposedly retreating line. Both sides ebbed and flowed, but for the most part, Jackson’s Rebels held their ground. All Sigel managed to do was suss out Jackson’s line. Around 10am, determining that the weakest spot was the Rebel left, he threw Kearny’s Division upon it. The maneuvering took several hours, and by 1pm only one brigade was ready to join Sigel’s half-hearted attack, but by then, things had drastically changed.

Meanwhile, the entire Union army was in confusion. General McDowell, commanding the largest corps, was missing. He had set off late the previous night to find Pope. Unable to find him, he turned around to find his corps. Pope lost control of his temper when he couldn’t find McDowell and handed his (McDowell’s) divisions out like candy to other commanders. Reynolds went to Sigel, Ricketts was sent to Bristoe Station, and King was given to Fitz John Porter. McDowell was left without a single man to command. Porter, on the other hand, was left with too many men and conflicting orders. One set told him to march to Centreville at the earliest dawn. The other ordered him in the opposite direction, towards Gainesville.

McDowell found Porter and requested his men back, believing that since he was the senior officer, he commanded not only King’s division, but Porter’s men as well. He held up Porter’s entire force, set to fall upon Jackson’s right flank, until Pope could sort it out.

Pope could not. He was hesitant to move King’s men from Gainesville (where they were soon to be joined by Porter’s), as it might allow Jackson to escape. McDowell finally relented and allowed Porter to progress towards Jackson’s right. But it was all too late.

Had Hooker and Kearny joined Sigel’s attack on Jackson’s left, and had Porter been allowed to hit Jackson’s right, it all would have happened before the rest of General Lee’s Rebel army could arrive. Pope had numbers on his side, but failed to use them.

From his headquarters near Centreville, Pope and his staff could see huge columns of dust in the west. He seemed to completely dismiss the possibility that it could be General Longstreet’s force coming from Thoroughfare Gap. Some believed it to be Rickett’s Division, that (they wrongly believed) bested Longstreet the previous day. Others thought it was Jackson’s supply wagons in full retreat. With opinions divided, Pope waited. Finally, Pope was convinced that the dust clouds were from Longstreet, but somehow conjectured that the Rebel force wouldn’t arrive until late in the evening.

But instead of attacking upon this faulty information, Pope accidentally did the right thing. Sort of. Pope issued his “Joint Order,” a tangled mass of contradictory ideas thrust upon his poor army. Essentially, Pope’s army was ordered to unite at Gainesville. Once they did, they would fall back behind Bull Run to Centreville and wait for the rest of General Lee’s army to attack him the next day.

Porter received the order around noon, stopping his entire column well to the left of Sigel, to figure out just what the hell Pope was going on about. While he was trying to extract some meaning from the order, McDowell rode up, yelling that he (Porter) was too far front. McDowell was carrying a different message, received from John Buford’s cavalry, that would throw Pope’s timetable out the window. The rest of Lee’s army, under General Longstreet, wasn’t at Thoroughfare Gap. They weren’t, as suspected, due to arrive late in the evening or sometime the next day. They were here. Now. And they blocked the road to Gainesville.

McDowell decided to take two divisions and backtrack towards Sigel’s immediate left. Porter was to stay put and fight like hell, falling back only if he had to.

Pope was blissfully unaware. As Sigel called time and again for reinforcements, Pope declined, telling him that McDowell and Porter would soon crash into Jackson’s right. This statement, written after the “Joint Order,” seemed to ignore the “Joint Order” completely.

Around 3pm, having thoroughly confused himself and his subordinates, Pope ordered John Reynold’s Division to attack Jackson’s right. Reynolds had been watching Longstreet’s men link up with Jackson, and though he didn’t know exactly what was going on, he knew that Jackson’s right was no longer the Confederate right. Still, he followed the orders, caused quite a bit of damage to Jackson’s troops, and got a good look at Longstreet’s Corps before beating a quick retreat. He reported Longstreet’s arrival to Pope, but Pope ignored it, calling for more attacks up and down the line.

At 4:30, tired of waiting for Porter to attack (even though he wasn’t order to do so), Pope demanded that Porter begin his assault. The order took well over an hour to reach Porter. He had been informed that Jackson was in retreat and, because of this order, sent one of his divisions forward. However, when word came back that not only was Jackson still there, but that Longstreet’s Corps had joined him, Porter, unlike Pope, listened and responded. The attack was called off.

As all this was happening, McDowell showed up at Pope’s headquarters, but for some reason never showed him the note from Buford that explained the situation playing out in front of everybody. He did, however, share a message from Porter, relaying the same news. Longstreet was here. Again Pope dismissed it and McDowell apparently believed him.

The sun was setting, and still Pope was waiting for Porter to make an attack. He even offered a distraction, sending a division under Philip Kearny against Jackson’s left. Kearny got cut up pretty bad, and Pope ordered Jesse Reno’s Division to help out. But Reno had seen the several failed assaults made over the same ground throughout the day and impolitely refused to obey the order.

Pope then tried the Confederate right, which he believed to be in full retreat. He ordered the excited McDowell, now fallen in line with Pope’s thinking, forward. McDowell sent John Hatch’s Division forward to chase down the fleeing Rebels.

What Hatch received was the deadly fire of John Bell Hood’s Division under General Longstreet. There was, and never had been, any Confederate retreat. Hatch discovered this the hard way.

By the time the remnants of Hatch’s bloody command returned, it was dark. Pope still clung to the insane belief that he had Jackson exactly where he wanted him. The next day, he would surround and destroy the Rebels before they could escape.

This is when McDowell finally showed Pope Buford’s message about Longstreet’s men being on the field. Now Pope had to face the facts. Longstreet was before him. The entire Army of Northern Virginia was before him. But again Pope ignored the obvious. Fine, Longstreet was here, but he wasn’t where everyone said he was. Clearly, if Longstreet was on the field, he was at the center of Jackson’s line, replacing the battered Rebels, rather than making an entirely new line on the Confederate right.

Pope blamed everyone but himself and the Rebels for his incredibly bad day. Hatch and Porter ended up catching the lion’s share of it. With that, he decided to wait until dawn to figure out what to do.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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The Federal Confusion and Denial at Second Manassas by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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