August 28-30, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). From today until Thursday, I will cover what happened this day 150 years ago on the fields of Manassas.
After the failure of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign during the summer of 1862, President Lincoln formed the Army of Virginia commanded by the cocky John Pope. Forces scattered around the northern part of Virginia and the eastern part of West Virginia were condensed into three corps, numbering 51,000 men. At the time of the nearing battle, units from McClellan’s army strengthened Pope’s numbers to 77,000. The mission of the Army of Virginia was to protect Washington and the Shenandoah Valley and to move south to engage the Confederates around Richmond, drawing them away from McClellan.
Gambling that McClellan would seek no further action around the peninsula, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided that there was no need to use his entire army towards the defense of Richmond and that it was more efficient use of Jackson’s wing to send him to Gordonsville to combat Pope and protect the Virginia Central Railroad. He also sent A. P. Hill’s division to join Jackson. Lee saw an opportunity to destroy Pope before refocusing on McClellan’s army.
On August 9, 1862, Nathaniel P. Banks’s corps from the Army of Virginia attacked Jackson at the battle of Cedar Mountain. They had the upper hand initially, but A. P. Hill came up just in time to lead a counterattack and sent Banks scurrying back across Cedar Creek. As Jackson followed in quick pursuit, he was stopped by James B. Ricketts’s Union division. Soon all of Pope’s corps were united, killing Jackson’s plans to isolate each corps and fight them.
Lee ordered Jackson on a flanking march around Pope’s right to destroy the Orange & Alexandria Railroad and raid the Union stockpile at Manassas Junction. By now it was August 27. That night, Jackson moved his corps north of the First Manassas battlefield, behind an unfinished railroad south of Stony Ridge. Meanwhile, Lee dispatched Longstreet to reinforce Jackson.
The Second Battle of Manassas commenced when Rufus King’s federal division was marching eastward towards Centerville via the Warrenton Turnpike, to unite with the rest of the army in scouting around for Jackson’s Confederates. (King was not with his division at the time, he had suffered an epileptic attack earlier on the 28th.) In reality, Jackson was watching through field glasses only a few hundred yards north of the column.
Stonewall Jackson was eager to attack. He returned to his troops under cover from the forest and famously told his subordinates, “Bring out your men, gentlemen.” Rebel artillery pieces started firing on the Union troops. John Gibbon, commander of the 4th Brigade, deployed Battery B, 4th U. S. Artillery to respond. John Hatch’s brigade, the lead of the column, continued on and Marsena Patrick’s brigade stayed in the rear and hid, leaving only Gibbon and the brigade of Abner Doubleday to respond to Jackson.
Gibbon, thinking that it was simply Jeb Stuart’s horse artillery, dispatched the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry to capture the guns. Arriving near the home of John Brawner, the 2nd Wisconsin deployed in a skirmish line and was met by a heavy volley from the famed Stonewall Brigade, under the command of William S. Baylor. The Wisconsiners absorbed the fire and returned with a devastating volley which struck the Virginians across the Brawner orchard.
The exchange of fire continued for two hours, with both sides feeding the fire with more men. Gibbon sent in the 19th Indiana, and Jackson ordered Alexander R. Lawton’s Georgia brigade to deploy in response. Gibbon answered with another regiment, the 7th Wisconsin. Jackson added Isaac R. Trimble’s brigade in support of Baylor and Lawton, and they were countered with the last of Gibbon’s regiments, the 6th Wisconsin.
Not soon after Trimble’s brigade entered the fight, a gap appeared between the 6th Wisconsin and the rest of the 4th Brigade. Gibbon requested reinforcements, and Doubleday sent in the 76th New York and the 56th Pennsylvania to fill the gap and drive the Confederates back. Meanwhile, both Trimble and Lawton were launching piecemeal, uncoordinated attacks against Gibbon’s brigade which were easily pushed back. Jackson ordered horse artillery under Capt. John Pelham to add to the fight, sending lead at the 19th Indiana from less than 100 yards away.
Finally, at around 9:00 PM, the fight ended with Gibbon’s men slowly falling back towards the edge of the woods still firing their rifles. Doubleday’s men fell back to the turnpike and turned in for the night.
The fight around Brawner’s Farm was a bloody stalemate, with 1,150 Federal casualties and 1,250 Confederate casualties. Many regiments lost more than 50% of their men. In total, of the troops which were engaged on both sides, one in three soldiers were hit. Confederate Gen. William B. Taliaferro wrote that “It was a question of endurance and both endured.”