A portion of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson descended on Manassas Junction, one of the largest Federal supply depots in Virginia. This put Jackson’s men between the rear of Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Jackson left a force under Major General Richard Ewell at Bristoe Station and took the rest of his infantry and Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry to Manassas. They arrived after midnight on August 27. Jackson’s “Foot Cavalry” had marched an amazing 60 miles in two days, and they found the vital railroad supply depot barely defended. The Confederates captured over 300 prisoners, 200 fugitive slaves, eight guns, hundreds of horses and tents, and enormous quantities of commissary and quartermaster’s stores such as bacon, corned beef, salt pork, pickled oysters, flour, oats, and corn.
As the hungry Confederates gorged themselves on cakes, canned goods, meats, and candies, Jackson ordered the wine and liquor kegs destroyed, saying, “I fear that whiskey more than I do Pope’s army.” Brigadier General George Taylor, commanding a Federal brigade in the Army of the Potomac, believed that only Confederate cavalry were raiding Manassas Junction and led his men to take the depot back.
The Confederates overwhelmed Taylor’s men with cannon fire and then with cavalry attacks on their flanks. The Federals withdrew after sustaining heavy casualties; Taylor himself was mortally wounded and would die five days later. Jackson reported on Taylor’s effort: “The advance was made with great spirit and determination, and under a leader worthy of a better cause.”
Meanwhile, Pope ordered Major General Joseph Hooker’s division (from the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac) to advance from Warrenton Junction to Bristoe Station. Hooker knocked back Ewell’s skirmishers, and the rest of the Confederates took cover in the railroad embankment. The Confederate guns held the Federals in check while Ewell’s troops fell back in accordance with orders to go to Manassas Junction if attacked. The Confederates cut telegraph wires as they went, disrupting communication among the Federal high command.
This same day, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, took up headquarters at Alexandria. His forces were still coming up from the Virginia Peninsula, and McClellan seemed in no hurry to send them to reinforce Pope’s army. The Third and Fifth corps of the Potomac army were currently aiding Pope, but when the telegraph line was restored, McClellan balked at General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck’s message urging him to send in Major General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps “by forced marches.”
McClellan argued that Franklin’s men were not equipped for offensive operations. Besides, he asserted, the Confederates were targeting Washington, not Pope, so the bulk of the Potomac army should stay back to defend the capital. McClellan wrote, “I think our policy now is to make these works perfectly safe, & mobilize a couple of Corps as soon as possible, but not to advance them until they can have their Artillery & Cavalry.”
With the telegraph line back up, Halleck was being bombarded with messages and finally told McClellan, “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. I have no time for details.” Halleck directed McClellan to coordinate the efforts of the two armies “as you deem best.” McClellan deemed it best to send no further help to Pope.
Pope ordered more Federals to go to Bristoe Station, but when he learned that the Confederates there had been driven off, he changed his mind and decided to concentrate at Manassas Junction. He ordered two corps under Major Generals Franz Sigel and Irvin McDowell to turn east from the Gainesville area and head that way.
Moving Sigel and McDowell left Thoroughfare Gap undefended, which was the path that Jackson had used to get into Pope’s rear. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, now planned to send the rest of his men that way to link with Jackson. Lee learned that Jackson was positioned perfectly, and he received a response for reinforcements from President Jefferson Davis: “Confidence in you overcomes the view which would otherwise be taken of the exposed condition of Richmond, and the troops retained for the defense of the capital are surrendered to you on a new request.”
At Manassas Junction, the Confederates burned what they could not take with them, including several thousand pounds of food and other supplies. As Federal forces closed in that evening, Jackson’s men began assembling at Stony Ridge, a wooded hill along the Warrenton Turnpike about seven miles away, on the northern edge of the 1861 Bull Run battlefield. Pope continued to concentrate his army, but he was still largely unaware of Confederate intentions.
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