Yankee Ineptitude Saves the Rebel Army from Destruction

August 27, 1862 (Wednesday)

Tracks torn up by Stonewall's men near Bristoe Station.

Stonewall Jackson was in trouble. He had swung around General John Pope’s right flank and hit both Bristoe Station and Manassas Junction, capturing troops, slaves, supplies, and artillery. With a force of 25,000, plus cavalry under Jeb Stuart, this was no mere raiding party – it was half of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. He couldn’t (and wouldn’t) simply retreat back into Thoroughfare Gap. Quite the opposite was planned. Lee was about to unite his army behind Pope’s force, positioning it between the Federals and Washington.

The hitch was that part of the much larger Army of the Potomac was arriving at Alexandria to join with Pope. Stonewall was caught in the middle. The Federals had been dealt a very fortunate hand. Pope with 60,000 or so troops in his command was marching from Warrenton. General William Franklin was moving west from Alexandria with 10,000. Both forces were heading straight for Gainesville, a small crossroads between Thoroughfare Gap and Manassas Junction. If they made it to Gainesville, it would cut Jackson off from the rest of Lee’s army, under General James Longstreet.

The previous night, Stonewall’s men had disrupted communications between Pope’s force at Warrenton and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck in Washington. That Union troops were about to sandwich Jackson happened completely by coincidence. Neither Pope nor Halleck knew what the other was doing.1

Railroad depot at Warrenton Junction

In Warrenton, General Pope was mistaken about Jackson’s location (as he had been for some time). When he received word that Manassas Junction was captured, he believed only the advance guard of Jackson’s force was there. The rest, he believed, was probably around Thoroughfare Gap. Hitting Gainesville, he believed, would cut off Stonewall’s advance east.((Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p684.))

Meanwhile in Alexandria, General George McClellan had arrived and took command of the troops in the capital. Just as Pope turned to Halleck for advice (and received little), McClellan turned to Halleck to keep his troops out of harm’s way. In a wild spree of telegrams to Halleck in Washington, McClellan argued that Franklin’s Corps, as well as any other Army of the Potomac troops, should be kept near the city. His reasoning was simple. If he reinforced Pope and Pope was defeated, Washington would be left without troops. As time went on, he even petitioned for General Ambrose Burnside to evacuate Fredericksburg to cover Pope’s retreat (even though Pope wasn’t retreating).

When Halleck finally replied, he seemed just as lost at McClellan and Pope. He displayed no signs of leadership and nothing of the organizational cunning for which he had been known. In a final dispatch, Halleck seemed to throw up his hands in disgust and excuse himself of the whole ordeal. “As you must be aware, more than three-quarters of my time is taken up with the raising of new troops and matters in the West,” wrote the exasperated Halleck. “I have no time for details.” He then gave McClellan permission, as ranking officer in the field, to direct affairs “as you deem best.” Halleck wanted only to see the orders McClellan would issue before sending them along to Pope’s army.2

Approximate location/number of troops at the end of the day.

Despite all of this, the Federals managed quite well. While most of Jackson’s force plundered the stores and cars at Manassas, a small guard was forming along Bull Run. General George Taylor, commanding a brigade in the Army of the Potomac, had moved out from Alexandria and positioned his force to take back Manassas Junction, believing the only Rebels there were some cavalry.

Seeing the enemy, Jackson ordered his men into the old fortifications. With artillery booming, he dared Taylor to make a move. Taylor’s men formed line of battle and advanced under a galling deluge of iron. Skirmishers were thrown forward, but soon it was obvious that nothing could be done. As they began to back away, Stuart’s cavalry swooped in on their flanks, threatening to cut them off. While it never became a route, Taylor quickly stepped in the direction of Fairfax, where General Isaac Cox’s 5,000 troops were stationed.3

Seven miles south, at Bristoe Station, General Ewell, commanding the division Jackson left behind to guard the station, encountered the lead elements of Pope’s push forward. While the bulk of Pope’s army, under Generals Sigel and McDowell, marched on Gainesville, General Reno and men from Heintzelman’s Corps (under General Kearny) moved on Greenwich. General Joe Hooker, commanding a division under Heintzelman, marched up the railroad towards Bristoe.4

Hooker deployed his division, pushing back Ewell’s skirmishers as he went. The main Confederate body at Bristoe took cover behind the railroad grade and wherever else they could find it. Artillery was deployed and riddled the coming Yankees with shot and shell. Hooker advanced, but didn’t have much of a chance to fully develop his attack. Ewell was under orders to fall back to Manassas Junction if hard pressed, and so he did, but not before inflicting more than 300 casualties upon the Yankees.5

Pope had made a bold advance, but it wasn’t enough. The closest troops he had to the Rebels were those under Hooker. But Hooker, as he reported to Pope, was in no shape to continue. Pope’s other forces were scattered to the west and probably couldn’t be united until the afternoon of the following day.

Believing that he would probably be attacked by Jackson before that could happen, Pope sent for General Fitz John Porter, commanding about 11,000 in the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Porter had been guarding Kelly’s Ford along the Rappahannock and had been more or less left out of the plans until now. With an entire corps as reinforcement, thought Pope, Hooker should be able to hold his own against Jackson.6

But Jackson had no intension of attacking Pope. The only recourse he could see was to try and convince Pope to attack him before McClellan’s Army of the Potomac could be fully assembled. He decided to make for the old battlefield at Bull Run, and to position his force on the north side of the turnpike. This would give him a fine defensive position, but would also allow him to connect to Longstreet’s wing, which should be coming along shortly. Jackson ordered the Union supply depot to be torched and began to move out well after dark.7

Union camp at Manassas Junction prior to the Rebels arrival.

Though he, no doubt, could see the fires, Pope believed that Jackson would still be at Manassas Junction the following day. With this in mind, he ordered his entire army to envelope Manassas Junction and bag Jackson’s men. Though he knew that the rest of Lee’s army was somewhere out there, he gave no orders to anyone to cover them. Focusing only upon Jackson at Manassas Junction, he laid his trap.8

While Pope focused upon Jackson, General McDowell, commanding Pope’s left flank, worried about Longstreet. He planned to send Sigel’s Corps to slow down the Rebel advance through Thoroughfare Gap, but just as he was about to issue the order, Pope’s orders came through. McDowell and Sigel were to march in the opposite direction, toward Manassas Junction. The only thing standing between Longstreet and what was quickly becoming the rear of Pope’s army was a brigade of cavalry under General John Buford. For now, that would have to do.9

  1. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p689-691. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p541-542; 644. []
  4. Return to Bull Run by John J. Hennessy, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p444. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p35-36. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p644. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p70-71. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 2, p335; 360. []
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Yankee Ineptitude Saves the Rebel Army from Destruction by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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