The Battle of Second Bull Run: Longstreet

August 30, 1862 – The right wing of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia ripped into Major General John Pope’s Federals and nearly destroyed his Army of Virginia.

Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps to move north and join an all-out attack on Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate lines. Porter’s Federals began moving around 3 a.m., leaving only a single division to face about 30,000 Confederates under Major General James Longstreet on the Confederate right. Pope wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“We fought a terrific battle here yesterday… which lasted with continuous fury from daybreak until dark, by which time the enemy was driven from the field, which we now occupy. Our troops are too much exhausted yet to push matters, but I shall do so in the course of the morning… The enemy is still in our front, but badly used up. We have lost not less than 8,000 men killed and wounded, but from the appearance on the field the enemy lost at least two to one. He stood strictly on the defensive, and every assault was made by ourselves. Our troops behaved splendidly. The battle was fought on the identical battlefield of Bull Run, which greatly increased the enthusiasm of our men. The news just reaches me from the front that the enemy is retreating toward the mountains. I go forward at once to see.”

But the Confederates had only fallen back temporarily to reform their lines, not to retreat. The morning edition of the Washington Star stated that according to a recent dispatch, firing had stopped and “we trust the fact means a surrender of the rebels, and do not see how it can mean aught else.” Later that afternoon, Pope wired Washington declaring complete victory. The War Department waived censorship regulations and released the message to the public.

Lee learned that Federals were massing in Jackson’s front around 12 p.m. Pope’s “pursuit” began two hours later, with Federals advancing in three waves along a two mile-front. Combat opened at 3 p.m. and soon became a desperate struggle as Jackson’s line wavered along the embankment of the unfinished rail line. Some Confederates threw rocks at the third wave when their ammunition ran out. Jackson’s men ultimately held.

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit:

As Pope concentrated on Jackson, he hardly acknowledged Longstreet on his undermanned left. Longstreet waited for Pope to commit his reserves against Jackson, then opened artillery fire on the unsuspecting Federal flank. After halting the Federals in Jackson’s front, Longstreet ordered five divisions of 25,000 men forward in the largest mass assault of the war.

Longstreet’s overwhelming attack crushed the Federal left and suddenly shifted Pope’s stance from offense to defense. Pushing ahead on the old Bull Run battlefield, the Confederates captured Bald Hill and routed Federal brigades on Chinn Ridge. Many Federals fled in retreat, but some stayed and resisted Longstreet’s advance. A New York Zouave regiment suffered the highest percentage of killed in action of any Federal regiment in any battle–124 out of 490, or over 25 percent.

As some Federals (led by Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Iron Brigade) formed a defensive line on Henry House Hill, Jackson’s Confederates counterattacked north of the turnpike, pushing east toward Bull Run and driving back the Federal right. The joint assaults by Longstreet and Jackson bent the Federal line into a U-shape. Only the Federals putting up a brave resistance at Henry House Hill and heavy rain prevented a complete rout.

The makeshift Federal defense enabled the rest of Pope’s army to escape destruction by retreating on the Stone Bridge to Centreville. Federal Major General Philip Kearny, furious about the turn of events, yelled to Gibbon, “I am not stampeded. You are not stampeded. That is about all, sir, my God, that’s about all!” The Federals were in full retreat by nightfall.

Lee telegraphed President Jefferson Davis from Groveton at 10 p.m.:

“This Army today achieved on the plains of Manassas a signal victory over combined forces of Genls. McClellan and Pope. On the 28th and 29th each wing under Genls. 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 to the valour of our troops a nation’s gratitude is due.”

Lee failed to achieve his ultimate goal of destroying Pope’s army. But the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia achieved every other goal and won a tremendous victory, as Lee had masterfully defied military logic by dividing his force against a numerically superior enemy. Two months ago, the Federals had been on the verge of capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. Now they were almost entirely cleared out of Virginia and retreating toward Washington. Lee directed Jackson to head to Chantilly to cut Pope’s line of retreat.

Pope wrote Halleck from Centreville:

“We have had a terrific battle again today… I thought it best to draw back to this place at dark. The movement has been made in perfect order and without loss. The troops are in good heart, and marched off the field without the least hurry or confusion… Do not be uneasy. We will hold our own here… P.S. We have lost nothing; neither guns nor wagons.”

Despite Pope’s spin, there was no way to interpret this battle as anything but a complete Federal defeat. Having guaranteed total victory since taking command of the Army of Virginia, Pope was especially humiliated by this loss. It also severely damaged morale among the troops, many of whom had already thought little of Pope’s leadership.

Charges of insubordination and dereliction of duty immediately began circulating throughout Pope’s army and extending into Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Halleck had repeatedly ordered McClellan to rush his troops to the battlefield, but McClellan failed to do so. Halleck finally pleaded, “I beg of you to assist me in this crisis with your ability and experience. I am utterly tired out.” Some accused McClellan of treason for failing to help while sitting nearby in Alexandria. Others blamed Halleck for not doing enough to coordinate the two armies.

In Washington, the mood quickly shifted from elation to panic as defeated troops began filtering into the capital. President Abraham Lincoln had been told by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “that nothing but foul play could lose us this battle.” But when Lincoln received news of Pope’s retreat at 8 p.m. he told his secretary, John Hay, “Well, John, we are whipped again, I am afraid.” Nevertheless, Lincoln still looked for his commanders to resume the offensive in Virginia: “We must hurt this enemy before it gets away… we must whip these people now.”



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