After General George McClellan’s campaign to take Richmond fell flat, he became even more disenchanted with the Lincoln administration but vowed that if provided with 50,000 men, he would mount another attack on the Confederate front.[i] Whether a man who had “lost all regard and respect” for President Lincoln and had called the Lincoln administration “a set of heartless villains” was dedicated to restoring the Union became a question for years to come, and Lincoln recognized that even if he sent 100,000 men, McClellan would find Confederate General Robert E. Lee to have 400,000.[ii] Regardless, a Union general from the Western Theater, John Pope, had come to the Eastern Theater prepared to replace McClellan as the top commander in the East and take on the Confederates with the tenacious and fearless approach to fighting that had characterized the western battles.[iii]
General Lee relished a fight with Pope, certainly aware that as a Kentuckian, Pope could not have been as familiar with the Virginia countryside as Lee. More than that, Lee had General Stonewall Jackson, one of the most formidable generals on either side of the war. Upon learning that Pope had taken a position near the Shenandoah Valley, Lee defied conventional tactics in the face of superior enemy numbers and dispatched Jackson to make a 50-mile movement to Pope’s rear in two days with the purpose of cutting the lines of communication for the Union general.[iv] Shortly, Pope found that he and his men were near the Shenandoah Valley and facing Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, Jackson’s men in the flank, and General James Longstreet’s soldiers.[v] McClellan anticipated that Pope may be beaten, and he predicted to his wife that if that occurred, McClellan would have to “save Washington again.”[vi]
On August 28, 1862, Pope stumbled upon Jackson and fighting broke out near the fields surrounding Manassas, Virginia, the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. During the fighting that day, the Union men pushed hard into Stonewall’s lines and nearly broke through when the Confederates retreated to “ready-made trenches formed by the cuts and fills of an unfinished railroad.”[vii] Stonewall was not broken, however. The second day of fighting brought Pope’s 32,000 soldiers assaulting Stonewall’s 22,000 men. Nearby, Union General Fitz-John Porter had 10,000 men ready to join Pope and push into the Confederate lines, but while Pope may have expected that to occur, it did not: Porter had called Pope “an Ass” perhaps because Pope has come to the East as an acquaintance of Lincoln’s and with an arrogance rooted in the success of the Western Theater as compared to that of the Eastern Theater.[viii] Thus, Porter held his men back, ignoring Pope’s order to attack Stonewall’s right flank—a failure to act that would result in him being court-martialed and discharged from the service not long thereafter.[ix] Nonetheless, the Union men were able to hold their line and appeared to even push back the Confederate line. Colonel Marye exhibited the bravery of the Confederate men, as recounted by one soldier:
Colonel Marye dismounted, drew his sword from the scabbard, and looking the beau ideal of a splendid soldier, placed himself at the head of his men. He stopped for a moment and pointed his sword with an eloquent and vivid gesture toward the battery on the hill. A cheer answered him, and the line instinctively quickened its pace. Though the shells were tearing through the ranks, the men did not falter. One man’s resonant voice was sounding above the din, exercising a magical influence; one man’s figure strode on in front and where he led his men kept close behind. We followed unwaveringly our colonel over the hill, down the declivity, up the slope, straight across the plain toward the battery, with even ranks, though the balls were tearing a way through flesh and blood.[x]
In fact, Confederate brigades had not retreated but readjusted their line with the effect being Pope prematurely wiring Washington that he had achieved and seen “the backs of our enemies” just as he had in the West.[xi] Pope pursued the rebels to their trenches where some units had taken up throwing rocks as they ran out of ammunition.[xii] Exhausted, the Confederates nearly had to cede their ground. But Jackson called on Longstreet for reinforcements, and together, the divisions mounted a “screaming counterattack” on Pope’s men and unleashed a tempest of gunshots and fighting that was only calmed as twilight came, bringing the “rebel juggernaut to a halt.”[xiii]
Pope, taking in the scene around him and considering the fighting of the past several days, decided to retreat toward Washington. Lee wanted to immediately pounce on the retreating divisions and ordered Jackson forward. Jackson caught two Union divisions on September 1 near Chantilly, only 20 miles from Washington, where exhausted rebels took on less fatigued Union men, sending a message that the Confederates were far from finished with fighting.[xiv] The Union men defended themselves and escaped. Then, amidst a thunderstorm, they trudged into Washington drenched and demoralized.
Out of approximately 65,000 Union men involved in the Second Battle of Bull Run, there were 16,000 casualties.[xv] The Confederates fared better under Lee: with 55,000 men, there were fewer than 10,000 casualties.[xvi] Setting aside battle tallies, Lee could take comfort that, with inferior numbers, he had defeated both Pope and McClellan in the space of a few months and pushed them out of the vicinity of Richmond and within 20 miles of Washington. In fact, Lee could find himself so heartened by the reverses that he could contemplate an attack into the North and perhaps put enough pressure on Washington to secure the independence of the Confederacy.
[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 524-25.
[ii] Id. at 525 quoting McClellan to Samuel L. M. Barlow, July 15, 23, 1862, Barlow Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library; McClellan to Ellen McClellan, July 13, 22, 1862, McClellan Papers, Library of Congress; see also Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, eds., The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, 2 vols. (Springfield, Ill., 1927-33), I, 563.
[iii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 524.
[iv] See id. at 526.
[v] Id. at 528.
[vi] See id. quoting McClellan to Ellen McClellan, Aug. 22, 1862, McClellan Papers, Henry E. Huntington Library.
[vii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 529.
[viii] See id. at 528-29.
[ix] Id. at 529.
[x] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and The Gray, Vol. I, 185-86.
[xi] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 531.
[xiv] See id. at 532.