By August 28, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s plan had been successful thus far. One wing of his Army of Northern Virginia under Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had destroyed the Federal supply depot at Manassas Junction and positioned itself between Major General John Pope’s Federal Army of Virginia and Washington, D.C. The other wing under Major General James Longstreet was hurrying through the Bull Run Mountains to join Jackson and give battle.
Pope’s Federals descended on Manassas Junction around noon, only to find Jackson’s men already gone. Pope then spent most of the rest of the day on a frustrating chase, sending his troops in various directions in search of the elusive Confederates. As Jackson moved west and Pope moved east and north, the two forces briefly clashed before the Confederates pulled back and disappeared into the woods. Federal Major General Irvin McDowell reported the enemy force as “some rear guard or cavalry party, with artillery.” The maneuvering on both sides resumed.
Meanwhile, Longstreet’s wing advanced to within 22 miles of Jackson’s position en route to linking with his force. Accompanying Longstreet, Lee received a message that morning stating that Jackson’s men had taken positions at Groveton, seven miles northwest of Manassas Junction, where they rested unnoticed by the enemy.
As Jackson’s Confederates evaded Federal pursuers and assembled at Groveton, Pope received information that they had entered Centreville. This was essentially true, as one of Jackson’s divisions under Major General A.P. Hill had been there. But Hill’s men had gone there by mistake, and they quickly retraced their steps to rejoin Jackson’s main force at Groveton. Unaware of this, Pope ordered his army to concentrate at Centreville, only to find that the Confederates were gone. Pope’s exhausted troops marched and countermarched all day in the summer heat, often under confusing and contradictory orders.
To the west, Lee planned to rest his men so they could cross the mountains and join Jackson the next morning. But Confederates advancing to Thoroughfare Gap between the mountains found their path blocked by Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry. They drove the cavalry off, but then Brigadier General James B. Ricketts’s Federal division arrived and opened cannon fire. A severe fight ensued as the Confederates tried to turn the enemy’s right. The Federals finally withdrew after dark, allowing the Confederates to pass through the gap in one of the more remarkable operations in northern Virginia.
By mid-afternoon, Jackson had positioned his men in the woods along Stony Ridge and an incomplete railroad embankment north of the Warrenton Turnpike to Centreville. Confederates under Lee and Longstreet were poised to link with Jackson after moving through Thoroughfare Gap. Jackson received a message from Lee around 3 p.m. stating that Longstreet would arrive sometime the next day.
Jackson’s men rested for about five hours before Brigadier General Rufus King’s division of Irvin McDowell’s corps unknowingly crossed their hidden front along the Warrenton Turnpike to join the main army. Jackson, hoping to coax Pope into moving in his direction, ordered his men to attack.
When it seemed that the Confederates would gain an easy victory, they met unexpected resistance from Brigadier General John Gibbon’s Black Hat Brigade of westerners near Brawner’s Farm. Fierce combat ensued, highlighted by the fact that neither side advanced nor retreated; the men simply stood and fired at each other. Brigadier General William Taliaferro, one of Jackson’s division commanders, later recalled that “there was very little maneuvering and very little tactics… it was a question of endurance–and both endured.”
Both sides sustained heavy casualties before the fighting ended at nightfall. The Federals lost about 1,110 of the 2,800 men engaged, with the Black Hat Brigade taking 751 of those losses. Their ferocity earned them the nickname the “Iron Brigade.” A regimental historian later wrote that after this fight at Groveton, the brigade was always ready for combat, “but we were never again eager.”
Jackson lost about 1,300 men, which included the wounding two of his division commanders, Taliaferro and Major General Richard Ewell. Ewell, who had been invaluable to Jackson since his Shenandoah Valley campaign, lost a leg and was out of action for nearly a year. The famed Stonewall Brigade lost a third of its men, and the 21st Georgia lost over 70 percent of its strength. Had McDowell’s entire corps come up to join the fight rather than just King’s division, this engagement could have been disastrous for the Confederates. Jackson reported, “The conflict here was firm and sanguinary.”
The fight at Groveton revealed Jackson’s position to Pope, who received two messages that evening. One stated that Longstreet had been stopped west of the Bull Run Mountains, and the other stated that Jackson had been driven from the Warrenton Turnpike and was now desperately trying to escape destruction. Both were incorrect, but Pope wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that “a severe fight took place, which was terminated by darkness. The enemy was driven back at all points, and thus the affair rests.”
Pope then issued peremptory orders for his five corps commanders to unite on the old Bull Run battlefield. He directed: “Assault him (Jackson) vigorously at daylight in the morning. I see no possibility of his escape.” Major General Philip Kearny’s Federals would lead the attack, but Kearny was among many officers who were unimpressed with Pope’s leadership. When he received the orders, Kearny said, “Tell General Pope to go to hell. We won’t march before morning.”
Pope’s plan was to destroy Jackson’s force before it could escape, not knowing that Jackson had no intention to escape. While Pope was planning to trap Jackson, he was walking into a trap of his own. He paid scant attention to Longstreet, who, contrary to the news that Pope had received, passed Thoroughfare Gap on the night of the 28th and secured the road leading to Jackson’s men.
During this time, Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac from Alexandria, did nothing to aid Pope. He had previously reinforced Pope’s army with two of his corps, but Halleck had been urging him to send in Major General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps. McClellan had resisted, arguing that Franklin’s men were not equipped for such a movement, and that sending his troops to Pope would leave Washington vulnerable.
Halleck sent McClellan a stern message on the night of the 28th: “There must be no further delay in moving Franklin’s corps toward Manassas. They must go to-morrow morning, ready or not ready.” Again McClellan resisted: “The enemy with 120,000 men intend advancing on the forts near Arlington and Chain Bridge, with a view of attacking Washington & Baltimore.” Neither the number of enemy troops nor the enemy’s intention were correct.
McClellan’s refusal to aid Pope enraged Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who asked Halleck what orders he had sent to McClellan and whether they had been followed “as promptly as the national safety required.” McClellan had long been a difficult and uncooperative commander, and now Stanton began recruiting allies within President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet to get rid of him once and for all.
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