Battle of Second Manassas
Late in the evening of August 27th, Irwin McDowell was in a farm house near Buckland Mills, thinking through the meaning of General Lee's maneuver which had sent Stonewall Jackson’s command around by Salem to Manassas Junction. Standing by a piano in the parlor of the farm house, he studied the map of the countryside that he had used during the Battle of Bull Run the year before. Franz Sigel was across the room, asleep on a couch and snoring.
Jackson’s March Around Pope’s Front
August 25-26, 1862
In conformance with Pope's order the morning of the 27th, designed to block Lee from following Jackson through Thoroughfare Gap, McDowell had gained possession of Gainesville by sunset, with the bulk of Sigel's corps, along with Reynolds's division, camped in the vicinity of Buckland Mills. McDowell's two remaining divisions, those under the command of Ricketts and King, were camped several miles behind at New Baltimore. Earlier in the night, McDowell had received a dispatch from John Buford, whose cavalry regiments were scouting the roads on the western side of the Bull Run Mountains: capturing straggling rebel soldiers on the by-ways, Buford had learned that Lee, with four rebel divisions, was at White Plains.
Anticipating that Lee might try to pass east of the mountains by way of Thoroughfare Gap, McDowell was certain the passage could be blocked with the cooperation of the divisions of Reno, Stevens and Kearny, which were then encamped at Greenwich, five miles to his right.
Lee Is Blocked At Thoroughfare Gap
Taking pencil and paper from his blouse pockets, McDowell sat down on the piano stool and wrote the draft of an order detailing the movement he had decided upon. Except for Milroy's brigade which was at Gainesville, Sigel's five remaining brigades were to cross the bridge at Broad Run at dawn and turn to the north, taking the road that leads from Buckland Mills through the mountain spurs to the Manassas Gap Railroad. Intersecting the railroad near the village of Haymarket, Sigel was to move toward the mouth of Thoroughfare Gap three miles to the west of that place. John Reynolds's division of four brigades was to follow Sigel in support, while Ricketts and King marched their divisions—each composed of four strong brigades—to Gainesville. Finishing the draft of the order, McDowell left the farmhouse and went to his headquarters tent and gave it to his chief of staff, Edward Schriver, to supervise the staff work of making copies of the order and delivering them to the subordinate commanders.
While this was happening, McDowell penciled a dispatch to John Pope, informing him of the enemy's four divisions encamped at White Plains, of his plan to meet them at the gap, and asking that Reno and Stevens be moved up to Gainesville. Enclosing a copy of his movement order with the dispatch, McDowell sent it off by courier to Bristoe Station. Returning to the farmhouse, McDowell woke Sigel up and was giving him the details of the planned operation when a trooper from the First Ohio Cavalry regiment, Pope's personal escort, came into the room with an order that directed McDowell to march his whole force toward Bull Run at first light.[i]
At Bristoe Station, watching the amber flickering of the conflagration at Manassas Junction, John Pope had decided to shift his forces in a new direction. From prisoners taken in the field, he had learned that Stonewall Jackson was commanding three divisions in his front—Taliaferro's, Richard Ewell's, and A.P. Hill's. Thinking first of the possibility that Jackson's whole force might materialize in front of Bristoe Station in the morning, he had sent his order to Fitz John Porter at Warrenton Junction to march forward at 1:00 a.m. By daylight, Pope presumed, Porter's two divisions would be close enough to Bristoe to support Hooker in holding the line of Broad Run.
The alternative to an attack by Jackson was a retreat; but which way might he go? With McDowell and Sigel between Buckland Mills and Gainesville, and Reno, Stevens and Kearny at Greenwich, the likelihood that Jackson would attempt to march west toward Thoroughfare Gap was practically nil. And what good would it do Jackson to march east, away from the support of the rebel forces to the west? For the same reason going south seemed out of the question.
Turning his attention to the north, John Pope leapt to a disaterous conclusion: From the moment that they arrived on the Rappahannock, the enemy had been persistent in moving toward Pope's right, and, except for their aborted crossing of the river at Sulpher Springs, they had shown no inclination to take the offensive. Thinking of these circumstances, Pope’s mind became settled in the conviction that Jackson's disruption of the railroad was meant to hamper the ability of the Union army to immediately follow the enemy to the Potomac which gave rise to the assumption that Lee would move continue moving north, rendevouzing with Jackson at Leesburg.
Standing over his camp table, Pope scanned the details of a road map Ruggles had found for him. He drew a cigar from a pocket; pinched a match with his nails, and. lighting it, sucked in a deep breath. As he exhaled the cigar smoke, he found what he was looking for and tapped the map with his finger. From Manassas the map showed a wagon road running due north: crossing the Warrenton Turnpike the road passes over Bull Run at a place called Sudley Springs and, then, five miles beyond the stream crossing, it intersects the Little River Turnpike that runs between Middleburg and Alexandria. From there the road goes directly to Leesburg.
John Pope thought: this must be it. Jackson has destroyed the bridges at Kettle Run and Broad Run, and, no doubt, the railroad bridge at Bull Run, as well as the supply depot at Manassas Junction—and now he must be moving to the north to rendezvous with General Lee at Leesburg.
Roads to Leesburg
This is when, sweeping the map aside, Pope had sat down at the table and scribbled out drafts of new marching orders. To McDowell, he wrote, "At daylight march rapidly on Manassas, resting your right on the Manassas Gap Railroad, throwing your left well to the north. Jackson, Ewell and A.P. Hill are between Gainesville and the Junction." To Reno went a message that he was to march with Stevens directly upon Manassas Junction at dawn, and to Kearny went word to march for Bristoe Station.
Folding the map, John Pope slipped it into a blouse pocket and, picking up his draft orders, he rose from the chair and stepped out of the tent. Walking down the tent line, he went looking for Ruggles. For the moment he felt good, confident that he had divined the right plan of action—with his whole army advancing toward Bull Run on a broad front, from the Gainesville pike across to the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, he might cut off Jackson's retreating column and crush it to death (while Lee was presumedly moving north toward Leesburg).
The next morning John Pope was up before the dawn, striding through his headquarters camp slapping at the canvas of each tent as he passed, calling for his staff officers to rouse themselves fast. He had fourteen hours of daylight in which to catch Stonewall Jackson and wished to waste none of it. At the edge of the camp, he stopped and watched the soldiers of Hooker's brigades rise from their sleeping places in the surrounding fields and saunter through patches of low fog to their mess fires. Suddenly, bright shafts of sunlight broke through the woodland to the east, engulfing the fog-laden fields in a silver gleam, giving promise to the soldiers they would be marching long hours through a sweltering day.
Shading his eyes from the light, John Pope spun on his heel and stalked back through his camp. Everywhere now there was activity: servants, aides, and officers were all busy packing the camp equipment, along with their utensils and personal trunks, into the headquarters wagons. Along the picket line, orderlies were rubbing the evening dew from the horses' coats and throwing blankets and saddles on their backs.
Reaching a birch tree by the side of the road, Pope sat down at a camp table Ruggles had left for him and waited impatiently for Kearny to arrive from Greenwich. Four long hours of daylight burned, Pope counting every minute, before he saw the first of Kearny's brigades tramp into view on the Greenwich road and wheel onto the wagon road that led to Manassas.
As this was happening, Fitz John Porter rode up and dismounted at the tree where Pope was sitting. Porter sat down at the table uninvited and attempted to engage Pope in conversation, but Pope cut him off; rising, he shouted orders to his staff officers to tell Heintzelman to form up Hooker's brigades and get them moving behind Kearny's, then he called for his horse and swung up. Settling in the saddle, he curtly ordered Porter to remain at Bristoe and help Banks rebuild the demolished railroad bridge over Kettle Run (four locomotives with their trains were stranded on the tracks south of the bridge) and in a flash he was spurring away with his entourage in the direction of Manassas.
Three hours later, with the sun at the meridian, John Pope arrived with Kearny's division at the smoldering train yards of Manassas Junction. Walking his horse in the midst of Kearny's skirmish line, Pope came down the main track into the train yards. Everywhere in sight there was utter destruction. A stench hung over the whole place from the burning of 50,000 pounds of salted meat. Long strings of boxcars sitting on sidetracks were burnt down to the wheels. Between the tracks staved in crates and barrels were scattered about, the remnants of their contents covering the ground in a viscid mixture of molasses, sugar, and flour. Sitting on the ground in twos and threes, their backs resting against a train wheel or a barrel, were a dozen filthy-looking rebel soldiers who had abandoned their comrades-in-arms. Picking up the gait, Pope trotted past the trains and reached the block of warehouses, repair shops and the main station house and found them smoking ruins. He continued on into the open fields beyond the Junction and came upon the battle ground where Taylor's New Jersey Brigade was routed earlier. Angry to see vultures tearing at corpses he spurred his horse, and, galloping the battlefield, scattering the squawking carrion-eaters, he came to a hillock overlooking the Bull Run stream and dismounted.
Soon an ambulance wagon rattled up with a cavalcade of his staff and within minutes he was sitting at a camp table taking reports. From both rebel prisoners and paroled Union soldiers he learned that the rear guard of Jackson's army had left Manassas at 8:00 a.m., marching toward the Bull Run railroad bridge, and his cavalry scouts found wide swathes of muddy pockmarks at the bridge crossing and at Blackburn's Ford three miles upstream. Combining the reports of the paroled soldiers and the findings of the cavalry scouts, he concluded that Jackson's command had moved away from Manassas in two columns; one column taking the Sudley Springs Road to the hamlet of New Market where it cut over Bull Run at Blackburn's Ford, the other column crossing Bull Run at the railroad bridge.
In Pope’s mind, this confirmed his belief that Jackson's intent was to march north to the Little River Turnpike and then head west for the Bull Run Mountains to rendezvous with Lee at the Potomac—he couldn't imagine anything else making sense. As far as Pope could see, with Lee still west of Thoroughfare Gap, Jackson had no choice but to run for the mountains before McClellan's troops coming from the east and Pope's in pursuit could cut him off.
John Pope looked at his pocket watch. It was one o'clock. His army had only six hours of daylight left, just enough to march about ten miles. A sinking feeling seared through his body. Jackson, with the head start that he had, would be impossible to catch. Unless. . .
Pope looked closely at his map; racking his brain for some way to stop Jackson's escape, he spotted a road running from Gainesville north to a village called Gum Springs on the Little River Turnpike. McDowell's corps was marching through Gainesville on its way to Manassas at this time; if it was turned north on this road there was a good chance of intercepting Jackson's march by dark. Making up his mind to do it, Pope sent a cavalry trooper galloping toward Gainesville to tell McDowell Jackson was retreating toward Leesburg by the Little River Turnpike and to pursue him in the direction of Gum Springs. But no sooner had he hurried the courier away than the strategic situation radically changed.
First, a courier rode up with a note from McDowell: he had stopped the march of his corps at Gainesville. Cavalry scouts reported the rebel column with General Lee was approaching the eastern end of the Thoroughfare Gap defile. Ricketts's division was now at Haymarket blocking passage of the Gap, and Reynolds's and King's divisions were encamped in the vicinity of Gainesville as Ricketts's support. Assuming, like Pope, that Jackson was already a considerable distance to the north of Manassas heading back toward the Bull Run Mountains, McDowell wanted Pope to concentrate the entire army at Gainesville. Then, as Pope was pondering doing this, more troopers came galloping in with startling news that changed the whole complexion of the thing: contrary to all rational expectation, Jackson's column was not out of reach, it was less than five miles away apparently waiting for him at Centreville.
Pope stared at his map in disbelief; rubbing his forehead with the palms of his hands he struggled to think the thing through. Lee moving east instead of west or north; Jackson standing still, making no effort to get back to Lee. Were they inviting him to spilt his army into wings like theirs and fight them where they were, head on? Or were they feinting as all along the Rappahannock they had done before? It made no sense to him—they had to know he would soon have all of McClellan's corps in hand, making his army three times as large as theirs.
Shaking his head in perplexion Pope mopped his brow with a handkerchief and looked away at the fluttering flags planted in the fields around the hillock he was on. Reno's command was bivouacked in the fields north of Manassas Station. Heintzelman's corps was in camp on the south side. The vanguard of Sigel's corps, Milroy's brigade, was approaching Manassas Junction on the rock road from Gainesville—the rest of the corps strung out in a long line behind. With these troops in hand he had to outnumber Jackson at least two to one. With McClellan's troops sure to soon arrive how could he lose a fight with Jackson? But what to do about Lee's column coming through Thoroughfare Gap? Support McDowell's corps with Porter's and have them engage Lee in battle? Then, when Jackson is finished off, join McDowell at Gainesville? But how long would this take, finishing Jackson?
Here Pope thought about his soldiers: Marching for ten days now, from the Rapidan to the Rappahannock to Manassas, their clothes were in tatters, for many the soles of their shoes were worn through; for the last forty-eight hours few of them had had more than a few ounces of food to eat. Some of the brigades were down to twenty rounds per rifle. The artillery horses were stumbling in their traces and the cavalry horses were dropping because of lack of forage. And everywhere along the roads, from Bristoe Station and Gainesville to Bull Run, there were company-size clusters of worn out soldiers straggling. And what about their officers? Heintzelman seemed befuddled, his division commanders—Kearny and Hooker—insolent and insubordinate; Sigel, arrogant and noncompliant, his troops undisciplined, prone to hysteria; Reno and Stevens handling divisions not much larger than brigades.
For a moment Pope thought of avoiding an immediate battle; he thought of drawing the whole army to the east side of Bull Run by the morning and move on Centreville. Jackson would have no choice but to move toward Lee, and the army could replenish itself with supplies brought up by the railroad and wait for McClellan's troops to arrive. Delaying battle for just twenty-four hours, the army would be refreshed and strengthened, and, with this advantage, could easily bring the enemy to ruin.
Almost deciding this, Pope thought about himself: he thought of his career, his future, of McClellan in the wings, of the glory he would miss, and what Lincoln would think. He thought of Halleck's persistent order to fight for every inch of ground and of the ridicule he would receive from the country if he lost the army trains stuck now at Kettle Run. If he were to draw back from the verge of battle now the enemy might annihilate Banks and capture the trains. Looking out across the camps toward Bull Run, Pope's face slowly took on the cast of stone, his cheeks tightened and his mouth became a hard line. He had made up his mind—all elements of his army would converge on Jackson's column as soon as possible and destroy it where found.
Twenty-four hours later his soldiers had paid a terrible price for pride. Through twelve hours of daylight, first Sigel's, then Heintzelman's, Reno's, and finally McDowell's corps, had been thrown, blue wave after wave, upon the unfinished railroad excavation near Groveton where Stonewall made his stand. Hour after hour, in the midst of the surrounding forest, the two sides fought each other in isolated, disorganized, savage struggles; the men of the contesting regiments, deployed in depth by companies, receding and advancing as their numbers gave them local advantages. At some points the Union men pressed forward and fired point blank into the faces of the enemy, while, at other points, the rebels made vicious dashes which threw the attackers back in confusion. In still other places, the fight was made body to body; the men, depending on their physical strength to overthrow their foes, clubbed with their rifles, hacked and stabbed with their knives, and plummeted with their fists and feet. In the darkest reaches of the forest, the men fought each other like bears; growling, chest pressed against chest, they stood on tip toes, hands gripped on each other's throats, straining to the limit of their strength to strangle their enemy to death.
The Battle Space
In their many melees, bullets spun and whirled into soldiers from every direction. Mortar rounds crashed through the tree canopy, exploded, and showered the soldiers with metal debris. Dense smoke filled the forest and, in places, the carpet of leaves on the forest floor combusted, sending patches of the underbrush roaring into flames. Everywhere contorted bodies were on the ground, some growing rigid and bloated by death, others crawling about, moaning in pain; and, on both sides, men trickling to the rear, quivering, shaken and demoralized by fear.
Here and there, again and again, where the units of men were fighting their separate little battles, stalemates were formed and broken by the side with the fresh reserves, the reserves pouring volley after volley into the momentarily ascendant enemy, crumbling their front like paper. Under the stress of these sudden reversals, the men taking the fire heard orders that were never given and ran pell mell to save their lives, crashing back into the dense underbrush of the forest. At these moments, the transit victors would stand still, their chests heaving from their exertions, gaping expectantly at their officers, as panting setters do with their masters. Somewhere in the smoke, an officer waving his sword would appear, shouting "Go on, Boys! Catch the devils." And, like a gigantic pack of wolves, the men would leap into motion and, with wild yells, in a crouching run, lope after those momentarily defeated.
At the end of these rages, at one point or another along the fringes of the forest, cannoneers stepped to the muzzles of their cannon and rammed down the tube powder bag and shot, and, with the gunners touching matches to the vents and pulling lanyards, the guns flamed and bucked and sent clumps of iron balls sailing across a few yards of space and finished the enemy's mad pursuits. In an instant there were jumbles of bleeding men on the ground and those still standing, yelling curses, backed grudgingly away like disgruntled animals and faded into the forest.
Then the rifle volleying and cannon fire would die away and the gruesome battlefield, stretching along the Warrenton Pike, from the Groveton crossroads to the Sudley Springs Road, would fall silent for a while, both sides hurrying to carry away their wounded and bring up new combinations. Then, like the Red Sea closing, two tides of men went rushing at each other again. Over there, now here, living bulwarks of men collided and, in a frenzy of fury, massacred each other. There was a great roaring clamor as they mauled each other in the grapples; body to body, looking each other in the eyes, their chests heaving, their feet sliding against the strain in the leaves, they were brutes gone wild with the terror of the moment and, with knives and bayonets, they slashed, gutted and butchered—all human sense in them, of patriotism and religion, gone in the thrill of the kill.
Suddenly, again and again, like a dike's rupturing, the battered wreakage of the awful struggles flooded the forest. The men streaming away from the vortex of the fighting showed in their faces traits of every class of citizen; from the countryside, dull-witted farm boys and ignorant town boys; from the cities, riff raff of the streets and the cream of the avenues. A few months before, most of these people had been leading their different lives, in indifference or antagonism to each other, as alien as enemies across a frontier. Now, battered, shattered and spent, they shared an instinctive community of emotion—they meant to come yet again and avenge their loss. They were all absorbed now with the arithmetic of war. No one knew how long the battle would last, but they knew by now the unrelenting sacrifice it would necessitate and that perseverance made the winner. And, though it might slay them, still they meant to trust in it to make them victors.
From his post on Buck Hill John Pope had watched the carnage all day. He had gone to Centreville that morning and, finding Jackson had slipped away down the Pike in the night, to an unfinished railroad cut that runs along the bottom of Stony Ridge, he had brought his army to the point from two directions. Now, shaken by the devastation he had seen—Sigel's corps, divisions, brigades and regiments torn, shattered, mangled, now skeletons of their former selves, the strength of Hooker's division cut in half, Reno's and Stevens's slaughtered, the survivors, running out of the woods like sheep, chased by rebels howling like rabid wolves—Pope was wavering in his grip on things. He thought of abandoning the battlefield and falling back on Centreville. But, then, again, the black image of Lincoln's gnarled face flickered in his mind and he knew that retreat from Bull Run would ruin him. Lincoln had given him the supreme command because he had promised he would attack the enemy where they were found. If he lost his backbone now, he knew Lincoln would abandon him in a heartbeat. Somehow he had to find the means to at least force Jackson to retreat.
Just then, from behind him, he heard someone shout and he spun around. Colonel Elliott, one of his aides, had one hand cupped around his mouth and, with the other, was pointing to the south. Pope took several paces toward him looking to the distance across the pike. He saw it! There, on the Sudley Road, the blue front of an infantry column—the spangled flags of King's division streaming overhead—was spilling over the saddle between the Bald and Henry Hills. Finally McDowell's corps was arriving on the field.
Since Pope had send him orders the day before to march with haste for Bull Run, McDowell, along with his staff, had disappeared from sight, his three divisions, scattering across the landscape, surfacing one by one at Manassas. But now all that was forgotten, what mattered was that McDowell had his corps back in hand and was coming in time for the coup de grace!
Breaking into a jog, Pope ran past Elliott to where a pack of orderlies was seated in their saddles. Singling out a courier from among them, Pope pulled him down by the arm and shouted in his ear—"There is General McDowell coming; go and tell him I said he is just in time; tell him I say he must hurry straight forward on the Sudley Road and support Kearny's attack with his corps." Pope slapped hard at the glossy flank of the trooper's horse and it bolted away.
Returning to the summit of the ridge, John Pope found George Ruggles and several of his staff officers assembled around a field telescope on a tripod and he stood with them; taking reports and giving orders, he waited anxiously for his new blows to fall. On the west side of Dogan's Ridge, Hooker's renewed effort at attack would keep Jackson's reserves fixed on his right wing, thereby leaving the rebel left wing to fend for itself against Kearny's attack and the rushing onslaught after, of McDowell's force pouring into its rear.
As John Pope thought this, George Ruggles exclaimed, "What's this?" And he stirred from Pope's side. Ruggles stepped forward and, swiveling the telescope to face west, put his eye to the piece. Sensing something wrong, Pope stepped forward also and, cupping his hands over the brows of his eyes, he squinted against the glare of the late afternoon sun. From a clump of trees on the west side of the Groveton hamlet, he saw tiny blurred figures, like army ants, spreading into the fields, heading toward Dogan's Ridge. Interspersed at different points among them were red-crossed blazons swelling in the breeze.
Reflexively, Pope shoved Ruggles aside and brought the telescope into focus on the Groveton wagon road. Some remmants of Sigel's soldiers were lying down in the road, firing their rifles from behind the berm, while, across the road in their rear, Milroy's Ohio light artillery—an ensemble of six brass Napoleons—was discharging canister rounds over their heads. Swinging the telescope up the line of the road, Pope saw that, from where Fitz John Porter's brown stone monument now stands, another enemy horde was filling the flower fields on the north side of the hamlet and, wheeling their front to the east, they were entering the woods where Hooker's soldiers were. Instantly, John Pope knew the danger—his center might be overrun—and he grabbed Ruggles by the arm and shouted orders in his ear.
"Tell Sigel his corps must hold!" He said. "Tell Hooker the same." Then, still gripping Ruggles's arm, he hesitated. He could not believe it. This he had not expected: Jackson's whole right wing seemed to be counterattacking, and brigade-size blocks of fresh troops, probably from General Lee's force, were joining in. "God damn it to hell," he shouted. "What's happened to Porter's corps? It should be attacking!" At Pope's earlier orders, Porter had brought his corps up from Bristoe Station and was now three miles to the south, at Dawkins Branch, opposing the approach of Lee's column arriving from Thoroughfare Gap.
Pope looked east over his shoulder at the dust cloud spiraling up from the Sudley Road. The thought of how combat oscillates, ebbs and flows, swells and disperses, flashed in his mind. Would Sigel and Hooker be enough to keep the enemy back from Dogan's Ridge? If they could, Kearny and McDowell might still overwhelm the enemy's left and drive it back on the center; surely the pressure would make the rebels fall back from Dogan's Ridge. A long moment went by as, again, Pope wrestled with his dilemma: should he stick to the attack or switch to the defensive? Finally, losing grip of his nerves, he pushed Ruggles into a run. "Tell McDowell he must divert his force down the pike."
During this time, Hookers' soldiers began streaming out of the forest, pursued by three rebel brigades. At the same time, Law's brigade of John Hood's division—the first to arrive from General Lee's force—stormed against Sigel's front and, with curdling yells, overran the wagon road, spilled out of the forest and forced the Union troops back toward Dogan's Ridge. Pressed by the counterattacking rebel force, the whole mass of Union men became entangled in a jam and panic ensued. Now, ten thousand men, the front runners the prey, those in the rear the predators, broke out into the open in front of Dogan's Ridge. But quick action by Pope stemmed the invigorated brown tide. Galloping to the ridge, he took personal charge of the few regiments standing in reserve and put them, with a line of cannon, at the base. At the same time McDowell brought batteries from King's division onto Chinn Ridge, on the south side of the pike, and cannonaded the rebels' closing front. On Sigel's right, Hooker reformed his men and, supported by Durell's battery and one of Reno's brigades, brought the rebel charge to a standstill at the edge of the woods.
As soon as he saw that the rebel attack on his center had been checked, John Pope turned his attention back to Kearny's sector and the Union attack on Jackson's left. Two of King's brigades—Doubleday's and Gibbon's—had turned off the Sudley Road and were closing on the rear of Dogan's Ridge, but the remaining two brigades—Sullivan's and Patrick's—were standing on the Sudley Road near the Henry Hill. Calling for an orderly, Pope scribbled a message to McDowell—"The enemy has been stopped in the center; get King's reserve brigades moving to Kearny's support on the Sudley Road." Standing on the Dogan summit, Pope watched as the courier sped off the ridge and across the intersection and went up the side of the Henry Hill, where he stopped in the midst of a crowd of horsemen. A long moment passed as Pope watched impatiently; then, he saw a rider spilt from the group and come headlong down the hill, with stirrups flapping, heading for Dogan's Ridge.
As the rider came at the gallop across the intervening ground, George Ruggles and Colonel Elliott appeared at Pope's side with reports of Kearny's progress on the Union right. John Robinson's brigade of three regiments had gained the railroad excavation at the point it passes the Sudley Road, supported by Poe's and Birney's brigades. Behind them, in an arc, traversing the Sudley Road, Kearny had three artillery batteries going into action: McGilvery's, Graham's, and Randolph's. Nodding in satisfaction, Pope told Elliott to ride to Kearny and tell him to commence the attack; then, stepping down from the hillock, he walked forward a few paces on the ridge's tabletop to meet the oncoming rider.
The message the rider relayed from Irwin McDowell made Pope's face flush: "Tell General Pope that Sullivan and Patrick cannot move from here as they are the only support John Reynolds has." (Reynolds's division at this time was standing alone, far out on the left of the pike toward the Lewis Lane.) Turning to George Ruggles, who had followed him down from the summit, Pope angrily exclaimed, "God Damn McDowell;" and he stomped off several paces with his hands balled up in fists, his narrowed eyes focused on the Sudley Road where Kearny's brigades were inside the band of forest. A minute passed, then another. Gradually his frame relaxed and, turning to look at Ruggles, he jerked his head in a "come here" gesture. When Ruggles came to his side, Pope said, "Write out this order for Fitz John Porter—"Push forward into action at once against the enemy's right flank, keeping your right in communication with General Reynolds." As Pope was speaking, Ruggles pulled a pad of paper from his pocket and began writing.
When Ruggles finished, Pope took the paper from him and strode a few paces toward where his staff officers were congregated at the base of the summit; waving his hand, he signaled for his young nephew, Douglas Pope, to come to him. Trailing his horse by the reins Douglas Pope walked quickly to his uncle's side. "You will find General McDowell over there," he said, pointing in the direction of the Henry Hill. "Show him this order and then deliver it to General Porter, who is somewhere on the Gainesville Road. Tell General McDowell that he must order General Reynolds to attack the enemy in his front immediately." Then, turning to the east, he pointed toward Buck Hill and continued, "Say to General McDowell that he must advance King's brigades on the Sudley Road to support Kearny's attack against the rebel left; and, as the brigades move up the road, I want him to bring General King and meet me over there."
After his nephew galloped off, John Pope rode toward Buck Hill with the rest of his staff officers. Arriving at the base of the hill, just as the sun was going down behind the Blue Ridge Mountains, Pope heard the spattering sounds of skirmish fire, which had been echoing from the forest in front, become a rattling crash of massed volleys, and, abruptly changing direction, he galloped north across the grassland to Philip Kearny's headquarters near Matthews Hill, a lesser hill that rises in the grassland north of Buck Hill. Riding to the top, he found Kearny pacing back and forth in a state of high excitement. Kearny, seeing Pope crest the hill and ride toward him, immediately exclaimed over the noise of the battle: "For God's sake, General, if you can quickly get me two fresh brigades I can make the rebels' left wing collapse; Robinson and Birney are pushing it back, but they're running out of ammunition and losing momentum."
Hearing Kearny's words, John Pope whirled his stallion around; he sensed that his time was now—just another hour's struggle and victory would shine her golden light on him. Rising, he stood on his stirrups and looked in the direction of the intersection, expecting to see it congested with King's troops marching. But he saw nothing but emptiness. Reaching back to his saddle bag, he ripped loose his field glasses and scanned the ground. South of Henry Hill, he saw blue blocks of troops wheeling off the road at the saddle and taking position on the Bald Hill. His cry—"Damn McDowell, he is never where he is supposed to be,"—was drowned out in the thunderous battle noise around him.
Seething with a frantic fury, he shifted his scan with the glasses toward Dogan's Ridge and the grassland between it and the band of forest. Picking out the location of Jesse Reno's brigades from their flags, he looked around him and saw a group of mounted cavalryman casually seated on their horses watching him from a distance. Spurring his horse toward them, he shouted for two of them to carry messages: one, he sent riding to tell Reno to move his brigades up to the woods and join Birney and Robinson in their attack on the rebel left; the other one, he sent to find McDowell and repeat again his previous order.
As the two troopers went racing away on their missions, the front line brigades of Stonewall Jackson's left wing were on the verge of crumbling. Fighting side by side since dawn, the brigades of Gregg's South Carolinians and Thomas's Georgians were pulverized, smashed to pieces. The pressure of Sigel's morning skirmishing, the aggressive persistence of Hooker's, the deep Union penetrations in the afternoon, the carnage in the ranks made by the incessant explosion of artillery shells, the smoking brush fires that raged along the front—all of this had reduced the two rebel brigades to shadows of themselves; their regiments reduced to companies, companies reduced to squads, most of their officers dead or wounded, the brave remnants of young men clung to little islands of ground as the surging tide of fresh Union regiments converged on them from two sides.
First came Robinson's throng of men, throwing themselves with a headlong fury against the exposed left flank of the South Carolina Brigade, pushing its soldiers back across the Sudley Road and the farm fields and scraping them off the ledge of the rocky ridge where they sought refuge. Next, Birney's regiments came out of the forest in front of the Georgia Brigade and drove it back from the railroad excavation. Then, to Birney's left, one of Isaac Steven's brigades dashed out of the trees, a mass of bristling bayonets, and slammed into Archer's brigade coming too slow from the rear to fill the sector vacated by Pender's brigade. Fired upon from front and flank now, from behind the trunks and roots of trees, from logs, from high up in the branches, from every bush and thicket, the whole left side of Jackson's line was buckling under the weight of force Pope had thrown on the scale. But, then, just as the Union rush slowed to a crawl, the soldiers running out of ammunition and out of breath, Branch's North Carolina Brigade came from across the Sudley Road and stormed against Robinson's flank, which all of a sudden began to crack, float and fall away. And, to Robinson's left, Birney's and Steven's brigades were abruptly reeled back to the railroad excavation by the crashing fire of Jubal Early's Virginia Brigade. Twenty-five hundred young Virginians, a disciplined and terrible array, horrible and sublime, hurled themselves fearlessly against the Union front quavering in the railroad cut and tore it to shreds.
At sundown, from the crest of Matthews Hill, John Pope watched Kearny's troops spill out of the darkening forest; their wounded comrades left behind bayoneted, slashed, gutted, butchered, shot and burned, the survivors a multitude wild with terror streaming across the grassland and filling the Sudley Road. The color of Pope's face paled and his lip curled with bitterness at the thought that once more the enemy's fresh reserve had balanced the bloody scales. Just then, his mind washing black with the sense of waste and ruin, he heard his name called out and, turning his mount around, he found Irwin McDowell, in the company of several officers, riding up to him. Suddenly blood rushed to his temples: his face reddening with excitement and his heart rate pounding faster, he shouted out—"Hurry, you must hurry forward General King on the Sudley Road, we are but a step from victory."
Irwin McDowell reined in his tired horse a few paces short of Pope and stared at him. Since Pope left him at Warrenton, four days before, he had been thinking of this meeting, where it would be and the circumstances under which it would occur. It was as he expected: one moment in the advance, the next in retreat, the army was exhausted, its regiments and brigades cut up and in disarray; famished, thirsty, craving sleep, the gloomy masses were standing in their ranks, dumb and motionless, waiting like steers in the packing yard for what was coming next. One year before it had been his command that unraveled at this spot, now it was Pope's. Slouching over his saddle, McDowell slowly looked to the officers on his right and left. Then, squaring his thick bulk in the saddle, he said to Pope matter-of-factly—"General King is no longer with us; due to illness, he has gone in an ambulance to Centreville." Nodding to an officer at his right side, he continued, "General Hatch is the senior brigadier, he has command of King's division now."
John Pope kicked his stallion forward, and, stopping at Hatch's side, he locked eyes with him. Since the days of the army's advance to the Rapidan, Hatch was not a favorite of his. Hatch had been in command of a cavalry brigade then; failing to execute orders to raid to the suburbs of Richmond, Pope had him transferred to the infantry.
"General Hatch," Pope said, pointing up the Sudley Road, "you must get your brigades at the double quick into the forest there and attack the enemy with as much force as you can muster. The enemy has thrown in their last reserves and will break and run, sir, if you do it."
John Hatch looked Pope straight in the eyes; for a long moment he said nothing. Graduated from West Point three years after Pope, he had served, like Pope, in the war with Mexico; but he had engaged in many more battles—besides Palo Alto, he fought at Cerdo Gordo, Contreras, Churubuscho, Chapultepec and in the capture of the causeways at the gates of Mexico City. After that, in garrison duty on the frontier, he had skirmished with Comanche in Texas and Apaches in New Mexico. Steeled by the experience, his soul was hardened to the fear of death. But, from the scene around him, he smelled catastrophe and thought it imprudent to throw his division into the abyss. "General Pope," he finally said. "Look there, the sun is setting and the Sudley Road is clogged with Kearny's men. It is not possible to clear the road and deploy the men for battle before night falls."
John Pope's eyes blazed with reproof, and sensing his agitation his mount shied and jostled Hatch's. "General," he exclaimed sharply as he settled the stallion, "we don't have a moment to lose. You must go in now!"
Hatch glanced at McDowell again. Pope saw this and exploded: "Yes, what does General McDowell say?"
McDowell shifted his seat in the saddle and opened his mouth to speak. But, before he could utter a word, a cavalcade of horsemen came clamoring up with Jesse Reno at the head. Reining his horse to a stop in front of Pope, Reno pointed to the west and said, "Look there, General! Look there! The enemy is coming against our center again."
Looking in the direction Reno was pointing, John Pope saw dark masses emerging from the wooded ridge where the turnpike passes near the Brawner Farm. Shooting McDowell an accusatory look, he cried: "God damn it. Why has not Porter and Reynolds attacked the enemy's right as I ordered?"
McDowell stiffened in his seat as if he had been slapped. "Pardon me, General," he snapped in an aggravated voice. "I am not responsible for General Porter; he is operating on his own. And, if you look, you will see General Reynolds is engaged with the enemy in the woods on your far left, and falling back. That is why I found it necessary to halt the two brigades still on the Sudley Road and place them in position to support our left."
Hot words jumped to John Pope's lips, but he suppressed them; turning the head of his horse to the north, he abruptly moved a few strides away from the crowd of officers. Get a grip; this is no time for a quarrel he told himself. For a moment, watching Kearny's men reforming their ranks on the grassland in front of the forest, he felt his moral strength shriveling and his confidence wavering. He grimaced, his face turning pale again, as he absorbed the pain of knowing all the sacrifice of his soldiers during the long day was wasted. Quickly, though, he was able to block these emotions by forcing himself to think like General Lee: Lee knows that another Union attack might demolish Jackson's left, settling the fate of the battle, so he is moving his forces forward in the center to distract my attention. Well, then, God damn it, he thought: I won't let McDowell dodge the action any longer.
Back to McDowell he turned, and said coldly: "General, you are in command of driving the enemy back from our center. Look to it." Then, without waiting for McDowell to reply, he spurred his horse into a canter and loped toward the heights of Buck Hill.
Irwin McDowell watched Pope go with a smirking look on his face. At the outset of the war he was a brigadier general in the Regular army, Pope a mere captain. For the moment, caught up in the political structure of the volunteer army, Pope topped him as major general—but once the war was over and the status of volunteer rank was gone, McDowell knew Pope would never rank him again.
Turning to John Hatch, McDowell said, "The day is almost over, but General Pope expects more work to be done. Gibbon's brigade is too much cut up by yesterday's fight to be of use today. Patrick's brigade must remain on the Bald Hill as Reynolds's reserve. That leaves you with Sullivan's and Doubleday's brigades. Take them down the pike and drive the enemy back."
Hatch looked away to the west for a moment, his face showing he was reflecting. Then, looking back at McDowell, he replied: "Doubleday's brigade took almost as many casualties as Gibbon's did yesterday. Should I not take Patrick's instead?"
McDowell's eye brows lifted in a show of mock incredulity. "What! General Hatch hesitates?"
An expression of anger flared on Hatch's face. "Where can I find you?" He said, as he led his horse into a fast walk and then spurred him into a lunging gallop.
"The stone house, there, by the intersection," McDowell shouted after him.
In the waning dusk, the darkness descending layer by layer, the three regiments of Abner Doubleday's brigade, in a line of column, appeared in the swale of grassland between Dogan's Ridge and the Groveton crossroads and began to deploy a skirmish line. Instantly, from behind the wagon road three hundred yards in the distance, a mass of brown shirts rose up and gave Doubleday's unfolding formation a rattling volley; and then they came slowly across the Dogan rose field. It was Law's brigade, lanky men from North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, moving forward toward Dogan's Ridge. As they came, a section of Hampton's battery attempted to unlimber in the space between the ridge and the wagon road, but before the cannoneers could get in action, one of their guns was overrun and they turned the others round and fled. In the midst of the turn-around, Doubleday shifted the Ninety-fifth New York regiment to the south side of the pike; thinking he could stop the rebel advance with enfilading fire on their flank, he only succeeded in entangling his men with Sullivan's, who were arriving from behind. In the milling confusion that ensued, Hood's Texas Brigade, followed by Evan's and Wilcox's brigades—all of General Lee's force—came out of the trees on the south side of the pike, crossed Lewis Lane, advanced to the top of the low ridge in front of Young's Branch, where it passes the base of Chinn Ridge, and began pouring hot volleys of lead into the disorganized ranks of the Union men.
By the time thick night enveloped the Manassas plain, Pope's front was everywhere on the defensive. A line of Law's soldiers came within a street's width of Dogan's Ridge. The colors of the Fifty-sixth Pennsylvania were captured by the Sixth North Carolina. Two of Garrish's guns, which had followed Hampton's down the pike, were in the hands of the Second Mississippi, and two hundred Union soldiers were going as prisoners to the rebel rear. On the south side of the pike, the Texans had bulled their way up to the crest of Chinn Ridge, as Doubleday and Sullivan, joined by John Reynolds, retreated over it to the sector of the Bald Hill.
But even the fall of night did not arrest this last spasm of the long day's bloody struggle. It went on almost to midnight before finally sputtering to a close: the hollering Texans on Chinn Ridge, the Union men kneeling in the dust of the Sudley Road, with the crimson flashes of their rifles illuminating for an instant their wild-eyed determined faces, each side blindly sped waves of bullets at the other, while the cannoneers serving the Napoleons—from the pike's intersection with the Sudley Road to the fire-tongued woods behind Lewis Lane—lofted short-fused spheres filled with shrapnel into the intervening sky, their bursts of brilliant white and red flashes lighting its black vault as fireworks do on the Fourth of July.
That night, unable to sleep, John Pope sat on a stool by his camp fire and pondered what to do in the morning. The insubordination of his general officers, the haphazard attacks made by the brigades, the shortages of sustenance supplies, the appearance of General Lee, the losing of Dogan's Ridge in the evening, these factors made him think of ordering the army to retreat across Bull Run; it was the prudent thing to do—a retreat now would guarantee the safety of the army—but he knew it would ruin him with Lincoln. Pope leaned forward and stared sullenly into the fire. For almost thirty days he had been induced by the enemy's actions to give up ground Lincoln thought it was essential to hold. Falling back further, when it was still within the power of the army to fight, was simply not an acceptable option.
In the shadowy fire light, Pope's countenance slowly brightened as his thoughts shifted to the positive aspects of his situation: The Union Army still held a two mile front stretching along the Sudley Road, between the rocky ridge to the north and Bald Hill to the south. McDowell's three divisions were finally together again, encamped now behind the Henry Hill. Herman Haupt had the trains running again from Alexandria and supplies were arriving at Sangster's Station, a point only five miles from Bull Run. The advance guard of Nat Banks's corps was now at Manassas Junction, bringing with it the army's wagon trains. He thought: If I do nothing else I can at least stand here long enough for McClellan's troops to come up, at which point Lincoln will recognize me as in command of the whole; and then the battle can be pressed.
Then, just as Pope's thinking had settled on standing on the defensive at Bull Run, George Ruggles stepped into the circle of fire light; a paroled Union soldier, captured by the rebels during the day, had just came into Pope's picket line behind Dogan's Ridge. The soldier said the rebels had withdrawn from the meadowland in front of the ridge, and the pickets, by creeping forward almost as far as the Groveton crossroads, had confirmed it.
Instantly, Porter's mood wildly swung again. Leaping to the assumption that the enemy's withdrawal from the vicinity of Dogan's Ridge meant that they intended to retreat, he changed his plan of action from defense to attack.
And here began his most flagrant blunder; he told Ruggles to send a courier immediately to Fitz John Porter whose corps was far out to the left, holding a defensive position at Dawkins Branch, to march it to the battle field by dawn. With McDowell's and Porter's corps joining the main body of the army, there would be eight Union divisions packed inside a mile radius of the turnpike intersection with the Sudley Road. They would all be thrown against Jackson's front and somewhere, he said to Ruggles through clenched teeth, there would be a decisive breakthrough.
Pope’s Left Flank at Dawkins Branch
As the first streaks of light cracked the blackness of the eastern sky, Pope encountered Irwin McDowell on the crown of the Henry Hill and ordered him to move his three divisions—Reynolds, King, and Ricketts—up the Sudley Road and advance into the sector where Kearny's division had penetrated the left flank of the enemy the evening before. McDowell protested; he wanted to position his corps on Chinn Ridge, arguing that no one could tell what was happening behind the screen of woods west of Lewis Lane. Pope exploded with angry sarcasm: McDowell had nothing to be afraid about; when his corps reached Sudley Springs it would find the enemy retreating, moving west on the wagon road that runs from Sudley Springs through the woods toward Groveton. So sure of this, Pope announced his new plan: McDowell's corps to pursue Jackson's retreat down the wagon road while Porter's corps moved down the pike toward the Groveton crossroads, pushing the enemy back toward the Bull Run Mountains.
McDowell shook his head defiantly; in a blustering voice he vehemently resisted the idea. Heinzelman's corps was encamped on the north side of the pike and thus could reach Sudley Springs quicker that McDowell could. Assign the movement to Heintzelman's corps and McDowell would assume supervision of the forces Pope selected to move along the pike. Anxious that the movement be executed quickly, Pope gave in to McDowell, on condition that Ricketts's division be detached from McDowell and, placed under Heintzelman's command, lead the column moving to Sudley Springs and into the woods.
Almost two hours later, the first of Ricketts's brigades came within several hundred yards of the point the Sudley Road intersects the Groveton wagon road. At 7:00 a.m., with Ricketts's other three brigades still in line of column on the Sudley Road, the lead brigade formed a battle line on the west side of the road and, passing through the forest, approached the railroad excavation where it came under fire from rebel infantry and artillery. Ricketts immediately pulled the brigade back to the Sudley Road and send McDowell a message at Buck Hill: the rebels were still holding their position, if Pope insisted he would advance the whole division but he didn't expect to gain any ground.
John Pope was in a heated discussion with McDowell about Ricketts's foot-dragging when Fitz John Porter walked up. Pope stopped speaking as Porter joined the group; turning to face him directly, Pope folded his arms across his chest and, taking a slouching stance, fixed his eyes on Porter with a piercing glare. "Well, General, are you ready now to fight?" Porter's cheeks flushed; embarrassed by his failure to attack the enemy at Dawkin's Branch the day before, he began to offer an explanation—Pope's attack order arrived as the sun went down, making its execution impossible; but Pope gave him a cutting look and turned his attention back to McDowell who kept talking, insisting that the advance on the right should stop.
Framing his face in a scowl as he listened, Pope felt himself oscillating between fear and bravado: his first reaction to the report of the enemy's retreat in the center had been to assume the initiative, but, now, with Ricketts reporting the enemy still in force in the north woods, he was uncertain what was happening. If the enemy was not retreating, Pope questioned himself, was he taking a reckless chance not waiting for Franklin and Sumner to arrive? Wait for Franklin and Sumner to arrive? It would mean the fame to be won by defeating General Lee would be snatched from his hands by McClellan.
Rejecting the thought Pope slammed a fist into his cupped hand and shot an angry glance at McDowell. "There must be no further delay," he said emphatically. "Heintzelman, using Ricketts's division as the lead, must push the enemy from the north woods. You will command the pursuit along the pike." Pope paused and looked hard at Porter again; then he continued in a precise voice. "The force you will use is Porter's corps and the divisions of King and Reynolds. How you organize their advance is your affair."
For a moment, McDowell and Porter stared at him, their faces showing they thought his orders absurd; then, casting wary glances at each other, they swaggered away toward the picket line to find their horses.
When they were gone, Pope stooped under his tent fly and retrieved from his camp desk a folded piece of paper that contained a dispatch he had written earlier in the morning. Taking up a pencil, he scribbled Henry Halleck's name on the flap and stepped outside again. Across the way he saw one of his aides, Colonel Elliott, and he beckoned him. When Elliott came to his side, his horse trailing by the reins, Pope handed him the dispatch and told him to take it to Sangster's Station and have it telegraphed to Halleck's office at the War Department. Nodding that he understood, Elliott stepped into the saddle and spurred his horse into motion. Slapping the horse's flank as it broke past him, John Pope watched for a moment as horse and rider splashed through the meadow stream and crossed the fields toward Bull Run. Then, calling for George Ruggles to follow him, he mounted his stallion and rode toward Dogan's Ridge.
Arriving there, Pope found Irwin McDowell waiting for him with more unwelcome news: the Union pickets were now reporting the forest west of the ridge was filling with rebel soldiers. As Pope was digesting this, McDowell handed him a pair of field glasses. Raising the glasses to his eyes, he focused his sight on the terrain beyond the Groveton crossroads and caught a glimpse through the trees of files of brown clad men moving across the open fields, disappearing in the dog-leg of forest that stretches down toward the crossroads. Pope rose in the stirrups and looked around him; taking in the ridge, the open fields around it, the thick forest in front, he changed his mind again.
Settling in the saddle, he passed the glasses back to McDowell and said, matter-of-factly: "They mean to turn our right if they can and we must prepare to meet them." Telling McDowell to get ready to repulse an attack from the rebels' center, he turned his stallion and galloped away from Dogan's Ridge to where Ricketts was deploying his division at the top of the Sudley Road. Reaching there, he told Ricketts to draw his troops back from the edge of the woods and stand on the defensive.
During the next several hours Porter and McDowell put ten Union brigades into a formation extending from the meadowland in front of Dogan's Ridge to the Sudley Road where Heinzelman had the divisions of Hooker, Kearny, and Ricketts facing the woods in front of Sudley Springs. While the regiments of these brigades were moving into position, a battery line made up of eighteen field pieces, Napoleon, howitzers, and a few rifled pieces, was assembled on the crest of the ridge; and in the meadowland between the brigades another ten guns were placed. With a range of 2,000 yards, the cannon could easily barrage the tree line with fire. Packed in reserve, in the low ground behind Dogan's Ridge, were Sigel's corps, with Kolts's and Milroy's brigades straddling the intersection. Behind them, McDowell's third division, commanded by John Reynolds, was positioned by the Henry Hill. In front of Buck Hill, to Reynolds's right, McDowell had King's division in place, commanded now by the senior brigadier, John Hatch.
Riding back to Dogan's Ridge near noon, John Pope dismounted and climbed to the top knob of the ridge; in the company of his staff officers who had gathered with him there, he waited impatiently for the enemy to attack from the forest. Overhead, the sun, hung in a blazing blue sky, pouring white light down on the meadow and sending the temperature soaring into the nineties. All along the dense Union front, the men in the ranks leaned on their rifles and stared at the forest—not serious or sad, their stare was stoical like that of cattle. Some swiped at their brows with shirt sleeves, some raised canteens to their lips, some suddenly fell in a faint in the grass. All these lads were waiting out the endless minutes, thinking of the shrieking fury to come; and each, in an instinctive community of emotion, foreseeing his death and that of his pals.
Toward one o'clock, off to the northwest in Porter's sector, some one shouted—"Here they come!" as a thick mass of yelling rebel soldiers with bristling rifles rushed from the forest into the meadowland. Fifty yards out into the open the men in the front ranks stopped and leveled their rifles in unison, the bright sun flashing on the dropping barrels. A crackling, crashing volley of lead swept over the meadow and bodies toppled and fell in the front ranks of the Union men. Almost simultaneously the Union cannoneers manning the batteries pulled lanyards. The guns bucked and recoiled on their carriages as canisters blasted from their muzzles, hurling whirling clumps of iron balls at the rebels, and a thunderous rumbling sound, mixed with the crackling of the rifles, reverberated across the meadow. A second later, the iron balls whipped through the rebel ranks, tearing gaping holes. Then, one by one, the tier of guns rimming the crest of the ridge came into action, deluging the meadowland in a iron storm of death. With geysers of earth heaving rebel soldiers bodily into the air, those still standing turned on their heels and, holding their rifles behind them like shields, stumbled back into the forest. Seeing this, the Union side of the meadow erupted with a great hurrahing and the men pumped their rifles in the air and the color guards of their regiments stepped forward several paces waving and twirling their flags.
Pope Leaves his Left Flank Exposed
Up on Dogan's Ridge John Pope stood frozen in place, expecting the enemy to burst forth from the forest again at any moment. But, instead, no movement disturbed the dark curtain of forest. As the minutes passed, the captains of the batteries posted along the Union front restrained their cannoneers from firing, the occasional popping of rifles stopped, and an acute apprehensiveness overcame Pope's army: everyone—soldiers, artillerymen, field officers, generals—stood still as one huge audience, their mouths agape, squinting to see the glimmering of sunlight on metal among the distant trees and straining to hear the trampling hum of footfalls.
The minutes of silence stretched into a half hour, then another and another, and John Pope, standing on his perch, began to swell with the thought that the enemy found his position too formidable and was now stealthily slipping away, leaving him a laughing stock for standing on the defensive like a fool. For a time, his mind wavered between this exhilarating thought and the nagging cautious thought that he should do nothing but wait for reinforcements, but soon his ambition overcame his prudence; thinking the enemy's half-hearted attack in the meadow had been a diversion designed to cover their retreat, he decided to seize the initiative again.
Calling Ruggles to his side he took from him his dispatch box and opened the lid; removing a blank piece of paper, he used the box lid as a writing table and wrote Irwin McDowell a message: General Porter is to push his corps rapidly down the pike in pursuit of the enemy and attack as soon as he contacts them; the divisions of King and Reynolds will reinforce the attack. You command the advance.
Irwin McDowell was at the pike intersection with the Sudley Road, lounging on the porch of Henry Matthews' red house, when Pope's message was brought; reading it, he felt a chill of foreboding run through him. Almost to the day, the year before, he had been in supreme command of the army and from near the spot he was now standing on, he had watched the attack of his army collapse as a fresh rebel force suddenly struck its flank. Thinking of the snare, he sent a messenger riding to John Reynolds with the order to move his division to Chinn Ridge. Then, calling for his horse, he rode west to Porter's position at the foot of Dogan's Ridge. Finding Porter standing next to the pike, chatting with several of his staff officers, McDowell directed him to advance his corps directly down the pike toward the Groveton crossroads. He told Porter that he could use King's division to support his advance as he saw fit and that Reynolds's division was moving to Chinn Ridge to guard his left. Then, he turned his stallion with a jerk of the reins and trotted away, leaving Porter staring after him with an incredulous expression on his face.
Watching McDowell depart, Porter said to no one in particular: "We should be getting behind Bull Run." Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, he walked to a telescope mounted on a tri-pod by the side of the pike. Taking hold of the tube with both hands, he brought his eye to the glass and slowly panned the ground beyond the scattered cabins of the Groveton hamlet. Down by the Brawner Farm, the belt of woods that covers the ridge the pike runs over made it impossible for him to see whether the enemy were there in force or not. He moved the telescope to bring the Brawner Farm into view; panning past it to the north, he saw a long line of rebel guns wedged together at the end of the rocky ridge. Situated as they were the guns commanded the half mile of open ground between Groveton and the wooded ridge. If Porter were to organize his allotted force in successive battle lines and move them west with their center on the pike, the men in the ranks would be marching directly into the field of fire of these guns. And, if, in doing so, they contacted a force in their front which was heavy enough to resist their attack, the fire of these guns would wreak havoc on their lines. This is suicide, he thought.
Stepping back from the telescope, his face showing his intense concentration, Porter stood for a moment looking west at the distant strip of forest. From McDowell's terse statement of Pope's order, he understood that the general commanding expected him to lead a force directly west—the five available brigades of his corps and King's four. His eyes narrowed, signaling his rising discomfort. Thoughts of his experience at Gaines Mill flashed in his mind. There he had been the defender, his force positioned in a concave arc along the crest of a plateau, with a water-filled ditch bordering the base. Here, he was designated as the attacker, with orders to move forward over open ground into what he suspected would be a storm of cannon fire and who knows what strength of infantry force would be encountered. Considering this he stroked his neat beard slowly, remembering the sight at Gaines Mill, of the horde of rebel infantry breaking down his front and swarming over the plateau in the deepening dusk. General Lee had paid a terrible price for the breakthrough—was he ready to pay the same?
He put his hands on his hips and, for a second, stared glumly down at his boots. I hope Mac is at work to get us out of this, he thought. Then, jerking his head up, he looked across the meadowland in front of Dogan's Ridge, his gaze falling on the file of Union batteries ranged along its front; and, in a flash, he decided to change the direction of attack specified by Pope's order. Striding to Colonel Locke, who was standing by with several staff officers, Porter told him to ride to McDowell's headquarters at the Matthews house and convey the message that the advance against the enemy would be made to the northwest, with the troops going through the woods in front of the Groveton wagon road; once they were across the road and past the railroad excavation, Porter's force would wheel to the southwest, sweeping the rebel artillery off the rocky ridge and take possession of the pike near the Brawner Farm.
The Railroad Cut
An hour later, as the time was closing on three o'clock, Porter brought his front line brigades—Butterfield's and Roberts's—through the dog-leg of forest that bordered the meadow in front of Dogan's Ridge; kicking the enemy's skirmishers out of the forest as they advanced, he stopped the brigades at the Groveton wagon road and had them dress their ranks into battle lines. Here, Porter placed Butterfield in command of the two brigades and ordered them to go forward. Side by side, the two brigades—Roberts leading his and a colonel of one of Butterfield's regiments leading the other—came out of the trees, crossed the wagon road and, entering the open field on the west side, they made for the fringe of woodland that screened the railroad excavation from view.
The Hill Crest at the Railroad Cut
To reinforce Butterfield's men, Porter had directed John Hatch, who was now commanding Rufus King's division, to organize King's four brigades into battle lines one behind the other, and move them through the waist of the boomerang-shaped woods and join with Butterfield's right near the bend in the wagon road. Porter's idea, here, was that the combined forces of Butterfield and Hatch would be strong enough to punch a deep hole in the enemy's defenses, but in this he was mistaken. No sooner had Porter signaled that his troops move out but Hatch was knocked from his horse by a piece of shrapnel and carried unconscious from the field. In the ensuing confusion, Hatch's men were rocked by a deluge of fierce fire from the railroad excavation and they went running back toward the meadow and stumbled into the oncoming ranks of Patrick's brigade, infecting these men with their terror of flight so that in a matter of seconds Patrick's men were running too. Now, the middle of the thick woods was filled with two thousand terrified Union soldiers: the wounded ones hobbling, falling down on their knees and stumbling back to their feet; the rest flaying their way through the brambles, hurtling fallen logs and corpses—all rushing to reach the safety of the meadowland.
Approaching the eastern fringe of the forest, the mob careened headlong into the regiments of John Gibbon's brigade which had hardly advanced at all. Gibbon, struggling to control his spooked horse, waved his sword over his head and shouted dire curses, trying by force of personality to stem the onrushing flood of men; but, diverting their faces from him, the men brushed against the flanks of his stallion and thronged on like water whipping past a boulder in a stream. A minute later, with nothing remaining in their path to impede them (Doubleday's brigade having inexplicably vanished from the scene altogether), the unscathed ones burst from the forest, followed by the slightly wounded ones who danced across the meadowland, laughing and calling to their pals that their flesh wounds were furlough tickets to Alexandria; behind them, came more slowly the serious wounded, some clinging to the shoulder of a friend, some staggering along alone—each one, either blinded, or holding a shattered arm, or clutching hands against a blood-soaked blouse.
Back near the bend in the Groveton wagon road, at the edge of the forest, Fitz John Porter was trying to hold Butterfield's men from running. At the brim of the long slope in front of him, Butterfield's battle lines were disintegrating into a rabble under the combined effect of converging blasts of rebel rifle fire and artillery explosions. In the wake of the collapse of King's division, support for Butterfield was critically necessary, and Porter had brought up to the wagon road Buchanan's brigade of Sykes's division to provide it. But, just as he was about to release the brigade, off to the west he caught sight of a gleam—in the afternoon light, he saw serried ranks of brown-clad men spilling into the open from the wooded ridge by the Brawner Farm. Immediately, sensing the stirring of a hurricane, he ordered Buchanan to prepare his regiments to receive the rebel attack and sent a staff officer galloping back through the woods to find Chapman's brigade and bring it up.
As the deep array of rebel ranks, like surging waves in a sea of bronze, were tramping on toward Groveton, John Reynolds, who had moved his division over Chinn Ridge to Lewis Lane, came galloping back to Bald Hill, reporting to McDowell that the enemy was in force on the south side of the pike, preparing to come on. Hearing this, McDowell sent a message to Ricketts, whose attack against the rebel left had already fizzled out, to detach two of his four brigades—Tower's and Stiles'—and send them south on the Sudley Road to take position on Bald Hill. At the same time, he sent Pope a message, advising him of Reynolds's report and suggesting that he shift some of his force to the south side of the pike. Then he mounted up and rode with Reynolds west into the middle ground of Chinn Ridge, intending to supervise the troop build-up there.
No sooner did McDowell arrive out there than he was startled to see Porter's fugitive mob emerging from the forest on the north side of the pike, and, in the distance behind them, the brown tide of rebel soldiers rolling across the fields toward Groveton—and his mind leapt to a decision that would seal the fate of the battle.
He shouted at Reynolds: "General Reynolds, look there! The enemy is advancing to attack Dogan's Ridge. Quick! Move your division across the pike and support Porter." At this, Reynolds pulled his mount up and watched Porter's men stream from the woods. Then, turning his mount around, he pointed at the woods behind the Lewis Lane. "But, General, if my division moves from here the enemy will advance on our rear."
McDowell's face reddened; gripping the pommel of his saddle with one hand, he lunged his stallion forward, bumping flanks with Reynolds: "Will you obey the order, sir?" His seat in the saddle displaced for a moment as his mount shied from the contact, he righted himself, and pulling the reins against his chest with one hand he pointed with the other toward the rebel masses swarming over the open field north of Groveton. "There is the attack, sir. there!"
Forty-five minutes later, John Reynolds had Meade's and Seymour's brigades in front of Dogan's Ridge, settling them into position next to Hooker's division. Reynolds's third brigade, commanded by the colonel of the 12th Pennsylvania, Martin Hardin, was still on the south side of the pike, tramping down the long swale in the north face of Chinn's Ridge. At the same time the battered wreckage of Butterfield's brigades was passing through the breaks in Reynolds's troops. Porter had diverted them down the pike to take position behind Sigel's corps. Marching behind them were Buchanan’s and Chapman's brigades, which Porter had held back from the fighting at the railroad excavation; and Porter's rear guard—two regiments under Warren's command—were waiting for the pike to clear on a rise of ground south of Groveton.
A quarter mile behind Dogan's Ridge, John Pope stood apart from his entourage on a ledge of rock atop the knoll of Buck Hill oblivious yet to the impending doom. He had observed the commotion caused by the cross-tides of troop movements on the pike, and he was aware of Porter's retreat from the Groveton crossroads, but his thoughts were locked on the dispatch he had just received from Henry Halleck: Franklin's corps to arrive at Centreville with Sumner's corps close behind, to be followed by Couch's division of Keyes Corps, and, by order of Stanton's war department, George McClellan had been refused permission to accompany them. Overnight, the size of the Army of Virginia would swell from twenty-nine brigades to forty-one—and all the ropes of their command would be in John Pope's hands.
With the dropping sun gliding his face bronze, John Pope raised his hat to shade his eyes against the sharp gold light, and his gaze wandered over the landscape outspread before him, past the lush bloom of the meadow grass and the smoldering woods, to the green ridge across the pike fringed in the molten blue of Young's Branch. Remembering his experience of the last days, a sneer parted his lips. At Cedar Mountain the enemy had attacked, but only because they caught Banks alone. At the Rappahannock, they made a show of boldly crossing the river, but as soon as the way forward was blocked by McDowell and Sigel they scurried back over it. Now, for two days here at Bull Run, they had held their ground tenaciously but after each repulse of a Union attack their counterattacks had been brief and localized. Recounting this history in his mind, and despite the obvious disarray he saw around him, John Pope was thinking that the enemy would not make a general attack on him now. He squinted at the sun; just three more hours and blessed night will come, he thought. Closing his eyes an instant, he thought of ordering Franklin to march to Bull Run in the night—with twelve fresh brigades coming under his command, he was anxious to roll the enemy back from Bull Run, back to the Rappahannock, back to the Rapidan and beyond.
Just then, as his mind was at the zenith of this revelry, a trooper riding a foaming chestnut stallion came galloping over the crown of the hill and, dismounting on the run, shouted breathlessly at Pope. "General McDowell sees the enemy advancing towards Chinn Ridge. He requests troops be sent at once."
John Pope heard the trooper's words with an uncomprehending look on his face. Turning toward George Ruggles, who was standing some yards off with a group of staff officers, he called for field glasses, and, as Ruggles came to his side with a pair, he took the glasses and stepped forward on the ledge; Training them across the pike, he focused on the Chinn Ridge plateau and saw there was now a blue mass of men moving up to the rim through the notch in the north face of the ridge. Lowering the glasses, Pope handed them back to Ruggles. "Ruggles, whose men are those?"
Ruggles looked through the glasses. "Must be the last of Reynolds's brigades." He answered. Returning the glasses to Pope, Ruggles pointed toward the confused sprawl of troops on the pike down by Dogan's Ridge. "There's Meade's and Seymour's brigades passing Porter's troops. The troops on Chinn Ridge must belong to Hardin's brigade."
John Pope glassed the terrain again; swinging his focus back and forth across the pike from one ridge to the other, his mind was perplexed now. Something was obviously happening west of Chinn Ridge—why else would Hardin have turned his brigade around?—but the ridge and tree dome looming beyond blocked the sight of it.
For a moment Pope's gaze passed over the brigades in line at Dogan's Ridge. In case of necessity which ones might he pull? Reynolds was still untangling his troops from Porter's disorganized mob, neither were in condition to suddenly countermarch. Hooker's brigades had proven themselves to be the best of the lot, but it would be impossible for them to get by Reynolds and Porter. The rest of the brigades in the line were too far to the right. That left King's brigades and the brigades of Sigel's corps in reserve, but King's brigades were in no better shape than Porter's and the fighting of yesterday had made a shamble of Sigel's.
He shifted his look through the field glasses to the edge of the forest in front of Dogan's Ridge, his mind throbbing with the possibilities. Since reaching the Rappahannock a week ago, General Lee had been moving his army in the direction of the Union right, and, now, with his troops infesting the woods that wrap around the front of Dogan's Ridge, the logical thing Pope expected him to do, was attack the Union right with every brigade available. Yet he sensed there was something definitely amiss.
Swinging his view back to Chinn Ridge, Pope saw that Hardin's column was breaking down at its head into a battle line along the western rim— a sign that a brigade of the enemy must be approaching the ridge. But still he heard no sounds of an engagement. Rubbing his beard with his hand, he reflected pensively: the enemy had occupied the ridge yesterday afternoon, but, then, they chose to abandon it during the night; if, now, they meant to use the ridge to launch an attack in force from their right, surely they would have held the ground through the morning.
Thinking this, John Pope felt the tension in his mind ebbing, and a look of nonchalance came over his face. The advance the enemy had made to the Groveton crossroads, pushing Porter back from the wagon road, as well as the logic of the situation, suggested the enemy had withdrawn from the ridge the night before in order to concentrate their forces for an attack from their left. Therefore, if, as Hardin's reversal of direction suggested, the enemy were then advancing a brigade or two from the woods in front of the ridge, their purpose must be to divert attention from their build-up on their left.
Lowering the field glasses, his mind made up, John Pope turned to the trooper waiting behind him and made an impatient gesture in the direction of the Bald Hill. "Tell General McDowell Hardin's brigade has possession of Chinn Ridge and is no doubt strong enough to hold it. General McDowell is to support Hardin by placing one of Tower's brigades on that hill there. Stiles's brigade he must send back to Ricketts who will need it on the right."
Snapping a salute, the trooper grabbed the pommel of his saddle with both hands, and, swinging on to his horse like a Plains Indian; he loped down the slope of the hill to the Sudley Road and spurred his horse southward.
Leaving Ruggles with the field glasses, Pope sauntered a few paces along the shoulder of the hill and dropped to the ground next to a wizened pine tree; stretching himself, he tilted his hat against the level sun rays and rested his head against the trunk. In this fashion he passed thirty minutes, his mind floating in a lazy sense of satisfaction as it filled with images of newspaper headlines reporting his rise to theater command and McClellan's demise. Then, as the minutes dragged out their half-hour, his distracted consciousness became aware of a muted noise that came to his ear in intervals—it was like the sound of someone methodically tearing a sheet of paper into strips.
Suddenly, he came awake to the possibility of what it was and he scrambled to his feet. Off to his left, Ruggles and his staff officers were standing in a crowd with their backs to him, their attention directed to Chinn Ridge. Making a path for himself through the crowd of officers, he came to the front and saw the western edge of the plateau enveloped in a grayish haze, and he distinctly heard the ripping rattle of rifle fire coming from some distance beyond. Snatching the field glasses from Ruggles's hands, he glassed the ridge and saw, disappearing into the haze, teams of horses pulling artillery carriages and caissons. Scanning south down the length of the ridge, he saw the head of a column of soldiers—Tower's brigade—spreading from the saddle in the Sudley Road onto the crown of the Bald Hill. Then, there came reverberating in the hollows the thudding sounds of cannonading, and the expression of mild surprise on his face changed instantly to the look of a man who sees in a flash all his repressed fears suddenly gathering in a dark throng around him.
His brain tingled with the shock of recognition—he saw now that the enemy meant to use Chinn Ridge as the avenue of attack all along and he set about marshalling brigades from his reserve in an effort to hold it. Taking direct command of Franz Sigel's corps, he sent a staff officer racing to Robert Schenck with orders to get his three brigades—commanded by McLean, Koltes, and Stahel—over to the ridge and support Hardin and Tower. Another staff officer was send to the Sudley Road, to stop Stiles's brigade, which then was marching north to rejoin Ricketts by Pope's previous order, and direct it back toward Chinn Ridge. With less than a mile to march, John Pope assumed that these brigades would establish themselves in a solid defensive position on the ridge before the enemy could possibly organize a superior force to dislodge them. It was a reasonable belief, given his experience of the last two days. But, in that, he was profoundly mistaken; for General Lee, with the experience of Gaines Mill behind him, had finely synchronized the movement of thirteen of his fifteen brigades to capture Chinn Ridge.
The rebel advance against Chinn Ridge began when the Texas Brigade, under the command of John Hood's adjutant, Major William Sellers, burst from the woods that skirt the Lewis Lane and destroyed Warren's tiny brigade of two New York regiments. When Fitz John Porter withdrew his forces from the Groveton wagon road to Dogan's Ridge, Warren's brigade, acting as rear guard, had taken position with a section of Hazelett's battery in the southeast angle of the Groveton crossroads. In a matter of minutes, half of Warren's officers and men were either killed, wounded, or captured; and the rest were running for their lives across Young's Branch and up the slope of Chinn Ridge.
Up on the plateau of Chinn Ridge, Colonel Martin Hardin heard the sounds of the combat between the Texans and the New Yorkers, and he countermarched his brigade, with Kern's battery of Napoleons, to the western rim of the ridge. Forming a battle line with two of his four regiments, he posted a section of Kern's battery on each of his flanks and opened a plunging rifle and canister fire on the Texans as they pursued Warren's men across Young's Branch. Blasted in the face by Hardin's dense fire, the 4th Texas, in the center of the attack, and the 1st Texas on the left, faltered and staggered back a dozen yards, but, on the right, the 5th Texas pressed up to the crest and shot down the cannoneers serving the section of cannon bracing Hardin's left. Waving the 4th Texas out of the way, two regiments from Evans's brigade scrambled up the slope while the rest went to the left behind the 5th Texas; reaching the crest as the Union cannoneers were being overwhelmed by the 4th Texas, they changed their front to face north and began pouring volleys into the rear of Hardin's formation.
Realizing the resistance of his regiments was on the verge of collapsing, Hardin attempted to draw back his left; but, as he was giving the orders for the maneuver, he was shot out of the saddle. Precious minutes passed, with the organization of the regiments teetering into confusion, before the next senior colonel arrived on the scene, but he, too, was shot down before the maneuver could be completed. By the time the last standing colonel took command, Hardin's left flank was decimated by the rebel fire and the front line regiments were streaming away from the rim, with their companies standing for a moment to fire at the enemy, then running a distance to stop and fire again.
Pope’s Left Overrun
As the regiments of Hardin's brigade were fighting their retreating action across the ridge, one of Schenck's brigades, commanded by Colonel John McLean, reached the northern edge of the ridge and advanced toward the bronze tide surging across the waist of the plateau. A graduate of Harvard Law School, and the son of Supreme Court Justice McLean, one of the dissenters in the Dred Scott decision, John McLean lacked the military sense to understand how to command the situation confronting him. He attempted to rally the splintered fragments of men that had been Hardin's brigade, by forming his regiments into a battle line in the middle sector of the ridge. But before he could reestablish the front, the rushing rebels closed upon his flanks like a clamp. Evander Law's brigade had swerved across the pike by this time, and was pressing against McLean's right; Evans's brigade was crashing against the center, and Camus Wilcox's Alabama Brigade was spilling around the left. Realizing his regiments could not stem the tide alone, McLean gave the order to retreat and his men were soon jumbled with Hardin's—the whole mass making for the notch in the north face of the ridge.
The Henry Hill
Just as these two Union brigades were abandoning their positions on the plateau, from the direction of the Bald Hill, Zealous Tower led two of Ricketts's brigades, his own and John Stiles, onto the southern sector of the ridge. Stiles being unaccountably absent from duty, tactical command of his brigade was in the hands of Daniel Webster's only son, Fletcher Webster, colonel of the 12th Massachusetts. Tower, a 1838 graduate of West Point, slammed his lead brigade into the flank of Wilcox's Alabamians, reeling them back toward the west rim of the ridge. But, after advancing two hundred yards into the middle ground, he encountered a swelling wave of fresh rebel troops curling over the south shoulder of the ridge, flowing past his rear in the direction of the Bald Hill—it was Drayton's, Jenkins' and G.T. Anderson's brigades. Seeing these troops come on, Colonel Webster formed Stiles's brigade in a line of battle to meet them; but, just as the first exchange of rifle volleys between the closing forces occurred, he was struck by shrapnel and killed; and, seeing this, the men in the ranks began to waver.
Robert Schenck was sitting his horse at the pike intersection, when he saw in the gaps of the battle smoke the expanding torrent of rebel troops overwhelming the hodgepodge Union defense. Twenty minutes earlier he had ordered Colonel John Koltes to march his brigade onto the plateau, and now he spurred his horse into a gallop and raced along the column to the front. Going forward with Koltes, Schenck reached Tower's position just as Tower, having been shot from his horse in a fusillade of bullets, was being carried unconscious to the rear. This was the time of a perfect death storm all around—where the ranks are thinning fast from the terrible toll of crossfire and the issue turns on who has the numbers. Now in field command, Schenck was steadying Tower's faltering brigades and bringing Koltes's into the battle line, when he, too, went down in a hail of rifle fire. Next, John Koltes took command but he was struck almost immediately by the fragment of a shell and instantly killed.
At this point, the command of the Union front fell to Colonel Richard Coulter of the 11th Pennsylvania, Stiles's brigade. A thirty-four year old lawyer from Westmoreland County, and a veteran of the Mexican war, Coulter knew the mean business of war. Feeding Koltes's three regiments into the frayed places in the Union line, he was able for a time to keep his dwindling men standing up to the work. But, then, just after sundown, a dark flood of men crested the ridge—this was the arrival of Armistead's, Corse's and Hunton's brigades. Seeing the fresh rebel mass bearing down on them, undulating like a train of waves over the rises of the smoke-covered battlefield, the men in Coulter's thinning ranks lost heart, and they began to peel away from the main line in groups of twos and threes; ignoring the rallying calls of the officers, the men moved from a crouching walk to a jog and then, as they swelled to a throng, they were running with their rifles swinging back and forth in front of them toward the Sudley Road. Behind them, the vast bronze tide of the enemy, drawing after it the unslackened power of General Lee's reserves, lapped over and around the crumbling Union front and rippled eastward toward the Bald Hill.
By this time, two hours into the struggle, John Pope was standing on the crown of the Henry Hill, watching the bronze tide spill from the shrouded ridge, down into the dusk-darkened valley of Chinn’s Branch and swash up against the flanks of the Bald Hill. Mahone's and Wright's brigades now led the crest of the rebel wave. For a moment, an expression of grim admiration flashed on Pope's face. He had tried for two days to coordinate a movement like this and had accomplished nothing but isolated sorties by a brigade or two. He shook his head ruefully—he knew the cause of the failure was not in the courage of his men, but in the character of their general officers. Then, he stiffened, his face going pale, as he realized the enemy's pressure was on the verge of overwhelming his last defenses.
On the south side of the Henry Hill, Chapman's and Buchanan's regular army brigades of Fitz John Porter's corps were retiring in fighting style from the vicinity of the Bald Hill; backing a few yards, stopping, discharging a disciplined volley, then backing again, they crossed the Sudley Road and took up a new position in the ditch that runs along the east shoulder of the road. Close behind them, dark masses of rebel troops followed, and, from round the back side of the Bald Hill, a separate block of enemy troops—Benning's brigade—appeared beyond the Union flank, a quarter mile down the Sudley Road, and swung to the northeast. Filing across the road, Benning's column broke down into a battle line along the left bank of Holkum's Branch, a meadow stream that flows into Bull Run a mile to the east; and his men began to advance toward the rear of the Henry Hill. To the right of the Regulars' position, the Union brigades of Milroy, Meade, and Seymour were spread along the Sudley Road, from the pike intersection down past the front of the Henry Hill. As the Regulars moved back across the Sudley Road, the left flank of their force was exposed to the cross-fire of the enemy masses pressing up to the road from the Chinn Branch basin and they shifted their positions to the lower slopes of the hill.
As he watched the enemy forces thicken along the front of the Sudley Road, John Pope heard a sudden eruption of artillery fire come from the north side of the Henry Hill. Twisting his mount around, he galloped across the crown toward the sound and he saw, near where the Sudley Road passes the base of the Matthews Hill, rebel troops pouring from the crescent of woods, charging across the meadow against the sector of line held by Reno's and Steven's men. At that instant he felt a shiver of cold fear chill his brain, and he pressed a hand to his temples to suppress it. In the space of time that it lasted, he felt the terror of a running rabbit dodging a raptor's talons. He sucked in a deep breath and glanced anxiously to the west; exhaling the breath in a rush, he calculated by the deepening color of the sky that it would take another hour for night to come. He thought: get a grip; everything will be all right if you can keep the stone bridge out of the enemy's artillery range.
Everywhere now, within the circumference of a mile of space encircling the pike's intersection with the Sudley Road, there was a bedlam of noise getting ever louder—wild yelling in the throats of thousands of soldiers mixed with the deep crackling rattle of massed rifle fire, sharp blasts of smoking cannon, and the trampling done by terrorized teams of wild-eyed horses, with cannoneers riding like demons on their backs, as they dragged artillery carriages at the gallop back and forth over the corpse-laden field. All along the Sudley Road, from the Matthews Hill down to the saddle between the Henry Hill and the Bald Hill, brown and blue lines oscillated and swayed in seeming synchronization with the riff of noises. They bulged, spit, became deflated, and bulged again as, over them, the darkening sky flashed red from the effects of the criss-cross of artillery explosions.
Spurring his mount into a fast walk, John Pope came quickly to the Henry farm lane and followed it down through a shallow fissure in the face of the hill and arrived at the pike. The roadway was clogged with the slow moving traffic of ammunition and supply wagons, caissons, limbers and artillery carriages. And, in the fields northwest of the pike, scattered crowds of Union soldiers were streaming across the Sudley Road: some were rushing in the direction of the Bull Run fords, some were limping wounded going slowly, still others—the ones farthest back—were stopping every thirty yards or so and turning around to fire in the direction of Dogan's Ridge. The ridge was swarming now with brown clouds of enemy soldiers, and, on its heights, rebel artillery batteries were in action—their shots arching over the Sudley Road and falling on Buck Hill. From the crown of Buck Hill and the ground around it, Union artillery, flanked by Union regiments in battle lines, were engaged in counterbattery. Thank God, Heintzelman is holding his own over there, Pope thought.
Trotting west along the shoulder of the pike, he saw in the gathering dusk a hundred yards ahead of him, a crowd of horsemen standing in the road and he galloped to them. As he came close to them he saw it was Irwin McDowell and Fitz John Porter with their suites of staff officers. Reining his horse to a jittery stand, he looked keenly first at McDowell and then at Porter. The two general officers stared back, offering no greeting. He thought: these are the worst of the bunch; they have ruined me.
Turning to McDowell, Pope said in a cold flat tone: "Well, General, I see that you anticipate our retiring tonight to Centreville."
McDowell sat rigid in the saddle and gave Pope an affronted look. "I anticipated that you would not want the army to be here in the morning. Having forced us a mile back to the Sudley Road, the enemy will surely press with all their strength against our flanks tomorrow. If we don't get our artillery and wagons east of Bull Run in the dark, do you think we will be able to do it tomorrow?"
John Pope sat silent for a time: gauging the thickening darkness descending layer by layer, his mind toyed with the idea that, during the night, his army might be rallied and Franklin's corps brought up to Bull Run by morning. But he dismissed the idea as soon as it formed. He knew McDowell was right. In the compressed space into which the army had been pushed there was only one way the safety of the army's rolling stock could be guaranteed, and that was to get it over the stone bridge right now.
Thinking this, he gestured with a hook of his thumb toward the Henry Hill and said to McDowell, "We must keep the enemy from getting past that hill. I expect you to look to it."
McDowell nodded his head and he turned to his chief of staff, Colonel Shirver, who was among the lookers-on, and called out to him—"Reno pulled out of the line with Ferrero's brigade still intact. You can find him behind Buck Hill. Tell him to make a break in the wagon traffic on the pike and cross over double quick to the Henry Hill where he can reinforce our left." In acknowledgement of the order, Schriver raised two fingers to his hat and broke away from the group.
After watching Shriver go, McDowell turned back to Pope with a solemn expression on his face. "Well, God bless the Regulars. So far, they have saved us from disaster."
John Pope gave McDowell a hard stare at this; then, after a pause, he called out for a courier, and one of the staff officers crowding around him raised his hand and came forward. "You know my chief of staff, Colonel Ruggles?" Pope asked. The officer nodded as his stallion sidled against Pope's. "I left him on Buck Hill. Tell him I want orders issued that the army is retiring to Centreville tonight." Signing with a salute that he understood, the officer began to gather his horse to go, but Pope took hold of his bridle and paced his horse beside his. "After you find Colonel Ruggles, go across Bull Run and ride to Manassas. Tell General Banks that he must destroy the public property and fall back on Centreville at once." Then Pope slapped the flank of the officer's mount and it broke away in a fast trot.
By now it was finally night and Pope sat still for a moment, watching as streaks of light from the rifle volleying flashed like lightening back and forth along both sides of the Sudley Road, and patches of reddish light from the explosion of shells flared in the pitch blackness. Thinking of the news of his retreat reaching Washington, he felt the gorge rising: none of this was his fault; on the Rappahannock, he had twice ordered McDowell and Sigel to attack the enemy, but they didn't; it was Halleck's duty to guard Manassas and Bristoe Station, but he didn't; the day before it was Porter's duty to advance from Dawkin's Branch against the enemy's flank, but he didn't. John Pope shook his head in a gesture of chagrin and discouragement, thinking to himself that the fault for the retreat was not his; but, no matter, having the title of supreme command, he knew he would be blamed.
Shaking off these thoughts, John Pope wheeled his mount close to the heads of McDowell's and Porter's horses. Looking at Porter, he jerked his head in the direction of the Stone Bridge. "When the enemy's fire dies out, pull back the Regulars from their line and bring them behind the rest of the army to Centreville. I will see you there." Nudging his mount to walk on, he signaled to two orderlies who were lingering on the edge of the crowd of officers that they were to follow him, and he trotted in the direction of Bull Run.
The Pontoon Bridge at Bull Run
[i] This order was Pope’s second mistake in reacting to Lee’s maneveuring. At this point he should have held McDowell and Sigel, supported by Reynolds at Gainesville, to block Lee’s passage of the gap, and proceeded, with Heintzelman and Porter, followed by Banks, to Manassas Junction.
Joe Ryan Original Works @ AmericanCivilWar.com
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About the author:
Joseph J. Ryan is a Los Angeles trial lawyer who has traveled the route of the Army of Northern Virginia, from Richmond to Gettysburg many times.
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