Major General John Pope, commanding the Federal Army of Virginia, sent a report to his superiors regarding the battle of August 29 near the old Bull Run battlefield:
“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.”
Previously, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had only consisted of Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s wing, which was in a line facing south. But by this time, the other wing under Major General James Longstreet had come up to bolster Jackson’s right (i.e., western) flank. According to Longstreet, Pope “construed the operations of the night of the 29th and the reports of the morning of the 30th as indications of retreat of the Confederates. Prisoners captured during the night, paroled and returning to him, so reported on the morning of the 30th, and his general officers had impressions of the Confederate left that confirmed the other accounts, and convinced him that we were in retreat.”
Pope was in good spirits that morning as he ordered a pursuit of the supposedly retreating enemy. Major General Irvin McDowell would command the pursuit, with Major General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps leading the way against what was believed to be Jackson’s right flank. To Porter’s right would be the divisions of Major Generals John Hatch and John Reynolds, with the divisions of Major Generals Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny going against Jackson’s left. Pope was still unaware that Longstreet was on Jackson’s right with 30,000 Confederates.
The “retreat” that Pope believed to have taken place was just a temporary fall back to regroup and reform before coming up to give battle again. 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.” As the Federal advance began that afternoon, Pope wired Washington declaring complete victory. The War Department waived censorship regulations and released the message to the public.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, 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 men fired deadly volleys into the Federals. The first wave reached the railroad embankment that Jackson held but could not stay there. According to a Wisconsin soldier:
“Our lines were in the open fields in front of a strip of woods. The Rebel musketry fire was pouring from the woods upon our men who were closing together and rallying under the attack. Regiments would sweep splendidly forward into the front line, fire a crashing volley into the woods, and then work with great energy. But they quickly withered away until there would appear to be a mere company crowding around the colors.”
Jackson’s line began wavering, with some Confederates throwing rocks at the third wave when their ammunition ran out. But the line ultimately held, and the Federals fell back.
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 Porter’s exposed flank. Then, around 4 p.m., Longstreet ordered his five divisions forward in the largest mass assault of the war.
Longstreet’s overwhelming attack crushed the Federal left. Many regiments were thrown back in confusion and nearly destroyed. The 5th 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. Among the many killed was the commander of the 12th Massachusetts, Colonel Fletcher Webster, son of statesman Daniel Webster.
This shocking development 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. 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 the onset of 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. McDowell placed Gibbon in charge of the rear guard, with orders to be the last man to cross the bridge. Kearny, furious about the turn of events, yelled to Gibbon, “I suppose you appreciate the condition of affairs here, sir? It’s another Bull Run, sir, it’s another Bull Run!” When Gibbon assured him that things were not that bad, Kearny fumed, “Perhaps not… 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, and their morale plummeted. Many agreed with a soldier of the 3rd Wisconsin, who wrote that “the feeling was strong in the army against Pope and McDowell… All knew and felt that as soldiers we had not had a fair chance.” Brigadier General George G. Meade, commanding a brigade in McDowell’s corps, wrote his wife, “In a few words we have been as usual out-maneuvered & out-numbered and tho not actually defeated yet compelled to fall back on Washington for its defense & our own safety.”
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 his army 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.
Pope wrote Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. 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.
The Federals formed a new line at Centreville, where they were joined by Major General William B. Franklin’s Sixth Corps from Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. Halleck had been pleading McClellan for days to send Franklin to Pope’s aid, and now he was too late. To make matters worse, Franklin’s men openly viewed the troops in Pope’s army as inferior. One of Pope’s men wrote, “To them we were only a part of Pope’s beaten army, and as they lined the road they greeted us with mocking laughter, taunts and jeers on the advantages of the new route to Richmond; while many of them in plain English expressed their joy at the downfall of the braggart rival of the great soldier of the peninsula.”
Charges of insubordination and dereliction of duty immediately began circulating throughout Pope’s army and extending over to McClellan. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton had asked Halleck if McClellan had obeyed orders promptly enough to leave the Virginia Peninsula and reinforce Pope’s army. Halleck replied that orders were “not obeyed with the promptness I expected and the national safety… required,” and he “should have acted more promptly” in sending Franklin’s corps to reinforce Pope.
In Washington, the mood quickly shifted from elation to panic as reports of a great victory were being replaced by reports of a terrible defeat. Defeated troops began filtering into the capital in such droves that the provost marshal reported “we are being overrun with straggling officers and men.” John Hay, secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, wrote:
“Everything seemed to be going well and hilarious on Saturday, and we went to bed expecting glad tidings at sunrise. But about eight o’clock the President came to my room as I was dressing and calling me out said: ‘Well, John, we are whipped again, I am afraid. The enemy reinforced on Pope and drove back his left wing, and he has retired to Centreville where he says he will be able to hold his men. I don’t like that expression. I don’t like to hear him admit that his men need holding.’”
Stanton confronted Lincoln regarding Halleck’s assessment of McClellan’s conduct, saying “nothing but foul play could lose us this battle & that it rested with McC. and his friends.” Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase met with Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and urged him to sign a petition drawn up by Stanton and Chase demanding that Lincoln dismiss McClellan immediately. Welles refused, later writing that “I did not choose to denounce McC. for incapacity, or to pronounce him a traitor, as declared in this paper, but I would say, and perhaps it was my duty to say, that I believed his removal from command was demanded by public sentiment and the best interest of the country.”
Despite the gloominess and intrigue, 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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