August 29: Attack on the Unfinished Railroad
While Longstreet’s 25,000-man corps was slowly making his way towards the battlefield from a fight at Thoroughfare Gap the day before, Stonewall Jackson prepared his corps for the defense of the unfinished railroad north of Manassas Junction and the small village of Groveton. He placed A. P. Hill’s division on the left near Bull Run, Alexander Lawton’s division in the center, and William Starke’s division on the right, positioned on Stony Ridge.
John Pope wanted to strike Jackson on both his flanks. He sent Fitz John Porter’s V Corps towards the vicinity of Gainesville to attack what he thought was Jackson’s right. He also ordered Franz Sigel’s I Corps to strike the Confederate left. Sigel was cautious and didn’t know exactly where Jackson’s troops were located, so he advanced his troops along a wide front. He put Robert Schenck’s division on the left, Robert Milroy’s independent brigade in the center, Carl Schurz’s division on the right, and John Reynolds’s division from the III Corps in reserve.
Schurz was first in the fight, with his two brigades making contact with the enemy at around 7 on the morning of the 29th near the Sudley Church. Hill’s veteran brigades absorbed the fire and responded with strong counterattacks. Milroy dispatched two of his regiments to assist Schurz. They were successful at first, but were ultimately driven back. Meanwhile, Schenck and Reynolds were busy fending off an artillery barrage and did not add their troops to the fight.
By now, Longstreet’s units were filing onto the field to the right of Jackson. Lee wanted to order a general attack on Pope’s left flank, but Longstreet deemed it unwise at the time – Reynolds’s and Schenck’s divisions were blocking his direct front, being a great big road bump.
Pope, unaware of the growing threat to the west, ordered four further assaults all along Jackson’s line, intended to be a diversion to the Confederates while Porter made the flank attack. (In reality, Longstreet’s fresh troops stood in the way of Porter, who was actually stalling south of the battlefield. Pope, however, did not know this.) General Cuvier Grover attacked the center of Jackson’s line at around 3 pm, and charged through a gap in the Confederate line between the brigades of Thomas and Gregg. The bayonet charge drove the Confederates into confusion, and had Grover been supported by Kearny, the attack would have succeeded. But once again, Kearny did not advance. Dorsey Pender’s reserve brigade plugged the hole in the line and forced Grover back. Jesse L. Reno sent forward James Nagle’s IX Corps brigade to attack the center yet again. He drove back Isaac Trimble’s confederates, but once again, Confederate counterattacks restored their line and actually followed Nagle’s brigade all the way to the open field on the other side of the woods in quick pursuit, until Federal artillery sent them back to their own line.
Meanwhile, Longstreet discovered that Irvin McDowell was shifting troops away from his immediate front, moving towards Henry House Hill in support of Reynolds. Lee jumped on this information, suggesting Longstreet to give the attack a go. But Longstreet objected once again, his excuse being that it was too late to do any good. Instead, he wanted to send John Hood’s division to conduct a reconnaissance in force along the Warrenton Turnpike and to give a clear image of the Union position to prepare for the next day’s attack. Hood’s and John Hatch’s division skirmished for a while near Groveton, but darkness closed the fight and both sides returned to their own line.