Action continued in northern Virginia following the battle at Groveton on August 28. Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, commanding the Confederates on the field, reformed his line so that it extended along the unfinished Manassas Gap Railroad line from behind Groveton on the left (east) to the Bull Run battlefield from last year on the right (west). Many of the dead and wounded from yesterday’s fight had not yet been collected, and as Confederate Major General J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart observed:
“The lines were well marked by the dark rows of bodies stretched out on the broomsedge field, lying just where they had fallen, with their heels on a well-defined line. The bodies lay in so straight a line that they looked like troops lying down to rest. On each front the edge was sharply defined, which towards the rear it was less so. Showing how men had staggered backward after receiving their death blow.”
Major General John Pope, commanding the Federal Army of Virginia, planned to envelop Jackson between Major General Irvin McDowell’s corps and the rest of his army, but McDowell got lost on the way to the battlefield. Enraged by this blunder, Pope reassigned each of McDowell’s divisions to different commanders, leaving McDowell without his corps.
By this time, Major General James Longstreet’s 30,000-man wing of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had marched through Thoroughfare Gap and was moving rapidly eastward to reinforce Jackson’s right flank. Pope was unaware of this development and placed his sole focus on Jackson’s force. Federal artillery opened on Jackson’s right around 10 a.m., and Longstreet’s men advanced toward the sound of the guns. The vanguard reached Jackson’s flank about a half hour later.
Pope thought he had Jackson cornered, and after vowing to “bag the whole crowd,” he ordered an attack. He had about 62,000 troops against less than 23,000 Confederates (most of Longstreet’s force was not up yet), but many of the Federals were exhausted from constant marching in the summer heat. Also, Pope deployed them in sporadic, disjointed attacks that proved ineffective against Jackson’s strong defenses.
Major General Franz Sigel sent in his divisions led by Brigadier Generals Adolph von Steinwehr, Carl Schurz, and Robert H. Milroy. The Confederates repeatedly repulsed their assaults. Next came Major General Joseph Hooker’s division against the Confederate center. Fighting devolved into hand-to-hand combat in the railroad embankment, but the Federals could not break the enemy line. Other Federal assaults along the line had the same result.
The Federals in Longstreet’s front withdrew before Longstreet could attack, so he spent the day forming a strong supporting line. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, requested that Longstreet attack, but Longstreet declined because there was an unknown number of enemy troops in the woods to his front. Meanwhile, Pope ignored indications that Longstreet had arrived and directed his Federals to focus their efforts on the Confederate left.
In the afternoon, parts of the Federal Third and Ninth corps attacked Jackson’s men behind the railroad embankment at Sudley Springs. Major General Philip Kearny’s division finally broke Major General A.P. Hill’s line along Stony Ridge, but Confederate reserves under Brigadier General Jubal A. Early quickly moved up to fill the gap. The battle raged back and forth until the Federals retired around 9 p.m. Jackson expressed confidence that he had “the blessing and protection of Providence.”
For much of the day, Pope had concentrated most of his energy on the Confederate left. In the afternoon, he ordered an assault on Jackson’s right. This sector of the Federal line was held by Major General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac. Porter received the order and discovered that his path was blocked by Longstreet with a force three times larger than his own.
Pope refused to believe this, and at 4:30 p.m., he again ordered Porter to “press forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible, on his rear.” As Longstreet recalled, Pope “was still away from the active part of the field, and in consequence failed to have correct advice of the time of my arrival, and quite ignored the column… approaching on the Warrenton turnpike.” Although Porter’s refusal to obey orders would have serious consequences on his career, he may have saved Pope’s army. Pope would have none of this, however, as he wrote in his official report:
“I believe, in fact I am positive, that at five o’clock in the afternoon of the 29th, General Porter had in his front no considerable body of the enemy. I believed then, as I am very sure now, that it was easily practicable for him to have turned the right flank of Jackson and to have fallen upon his rear; that if he had done so, we should have gained a decisive victory over the army under Jackson before he could have been joined by any of the forces of Longstreet.”
Pope fell back at nightfall, ignoring reports of Longstreet’s arrival. The Confederates also fell back to compact their lines in preparation for a renewed attack the next morning. Interpreting this as a retreat, Pope informed Washington that he had won a great victory and promised to relentlessly pursue the enemy the next day.
Meanwhile, Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck ordered Major General George B. McClellan to hurry the remainder of his Army of the Potomac to reinforce Pope. Halleck specifically wanted McClellan to send Major General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps, stationed at nearby Alexandria. McClellan finally directed Franklin to move out, adding a sentence that epitomized the animosity he had for Pope and his army: “Whatever may happen, don’t allow it to be said that the Army of the Potomac failed to do its utmost for the country.”
Franklin’s men moved out, but McClellan ordered them to stop at Annandale, just seven miles out, and then told Halleck that Franklin could not be of much use so there was no need for him to join Pope’s force. When President Abraham Lincoln asked him what he could spare for the fight going on less than 30 miles away, McClellan replied: “I am clear that one of two courses should be adopted–1st To concentrate all our available force to open communications with Pope–2nd To leave Pope to get out of his scrape & at once use all our means to make the Capital perfectly safe. No middle course will now answer.”
This response shocked many in the Lincoln administration because it implied that McClellan would rather see his comrades in Pope’s army defeated than do anything to help them. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase wrote that McClellan had displayed “disobedience of orders & subsequent delay of support of Army of Va.” Lincoln was livid; a reporter wrote, “The President was never so wrathful as last night against George.” Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, wrote, “It really seemed to him that McC wanted Pope defeated… The President seemed to think him a little crazy.”
As August 29 ended, Pope was confident that he would finish off the Confederate army the next day. He was unaware that the Confederates had lured him into a trap, from which he would get no help from his idle comrades to escape.
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