John Pope, operating under erroneous reports that the enemy was retreating, held a council of war at his headquarters with his subordinates, discussing plans to attack and pursue the allegedly retreating Confederates. In reality, Richard Anderson’s division from Longstreet’s corps had camped too far out from the main line and had simply returned to the rest of the corps. Pope sent out troops to probe Jackson’s line near the unfinished railroad – they returned, reporting that the situation was the same as the day before, that Jackson was still in place. John Reynolds confirmed that Longstreet was on the field in strong numbers.
Bypassing these reports, John Pope went on to order Porter, Hatch, and Reynolds to move west to attack Jackson’s left in his “retreat.” Lee was actually expecting an attack and preparing for one. Pope also ordered Ricketts, Hooker, and Kearny to make an attack on the right, to destroy the Confederates in a dual advance.
Fitz John Porter and his corps were not yet ready to attack west down the turnpike, as they were located in the Groveton Woods north of the crossroads in the turnpike. After two hours of organization and preparation, all 10,000 of his men were ready to assault William E. Starke’s Confederate division on the unfinished railroad. Spearheading the attack was Daniel Butterfield’s division, with Hatch’s division on the right of him, with George Sykes’s division of regulars in reserve.
They faced a daunting task – Butterfield’s men had to cross 600 yards of open ground, with the last 150 yards uphill and 36 guns raining lead down on them as well as a strong defense behind the “Deep Cut”, a depression in the earth caused by erosion and the railroad. Hatch’s Division only had 300 yards to cross under cover of trees, they had to perform the difficult task of wheeling the entire division to the right to meet the Confederates straight on.
The two divisions received heavy fire from Stephen D. Lee’s batteries and unending volleys from the infantry behind the railroad. At one point towards the left of the line, overwhelming Union forces finally broke through the line and routed the 48th Virginia. The Stonewall Brigade hurried to close the gap and suffered heavy losses in the process including their commander, William Baylor. Another sector of Jackson’s line was out of ammunition and resorted to throwing rocks at the 24th New York, who were surprised at this new weapon but quickly threw them back. Jackson desperately called for reinforcements (something that he hardly ever did) but Lee and Longstreet decided against sending infantry support because it would take too much time. Instead, Longstreet dispatched four cannon to add to the battle while in the meantime preparing his own men for his upcoming counterattack.
Seeing the destruction happening to his men, Porter, in a decision that would cost him his career, decided not to send in Sykes’s division and left Hatch and Butterfield to fend for themselves – he didn’t want to risk another bloodbath if he could avoid it. This left the soldiers on the front lines in a desperate situation – stranded, receiving fire from three sides, and needing to cross all 600 yards of open pasture once again with no cover. After a long while, the Federals managed to return to the Groveton woods – if they were lucky. Jackson’s corps was too exhausted to pursue, and this allowed Porter time to stabilize the situation. Irvin McDowell, posted south of the turnpike, dispatched Reynolds’s division to assist Porter. Although he had good intentions, this was one of the biggest mistakes of the entire day – with Reynolds gone, only 2,200 soldiers stood in the way of Longstreet claiming complete and utter victory over Pope.
Speaking of which, Lee and Longstreet now decided that this was the time to finally carry out the assault against the Union with Longstreet’s entire corps, whose objective would be Henry House Hill, behind the Manassas-Sudley Road and the site of Stonewall Jackson’s famous defense a year earlier. If the Confederates seized that hill, they would be blocking the Union line of retreat and holding the Army of Virginia in a trap.
Longstreet’s battle line consisted of 25,000 soldiers and encompassed a mile and a half of land from Brawner’s Farm all the way down to the Manassas Gap Railroad down south of the battlefield. These troops would have to march from one and a half to two miles of terrain which was at points heavily wooded, and contained streams, ridges, and of course Federals. Longstreet knew this wasn’t an easy task and it would be impossible to keep his beautiful battle line in form over this ground, so he left it up to his division commander’s inertia and skill to maneuver their troops across the land.
Longstreet’s line consisted of John Hood’s Texas division on the left, which was going to be the lead division, with Nathan Evans’s division supporting Hood. On the right were the division of Kemper and Jones. Anderson and his division were held in reserve. The Union defense was comprised of only two brigades, commanded by Colonels Nathaniel C. McLean and Gouverneur K. Warren. Warren was at Groveton, and McLean was 800 yards east, stationed at Chinn Ridge. Just before the attack, Lee signaled Jackson to “look out and protect [Longstreet’s] left flank.”
The attack commenced at around 4 pm, with Hood’s men quickly overwhelming Warren’s brigade at Groveton. But the 5th New York put up a good fight and paid dearly, losing 60% in casualties. Out of 500 men, 300 were casualties with 120 of those killed. No other regiment in the entire war lost so many men in one single battle. Soon, Pope finally realized the grave danger of the situation and he sent troops to defend Henry House Hill on the double. It was a race against Longstreet’s corps to see who could get there first. And the only blue troops standing in the way of disaster were the 1,200 Ohioans of McLean’s brigade.
These troops, supported by a battery of artillery, fended off two separate assaults first by Hood, and then by Evans’s brigade from Kemper’s division. A third attack by Montgomery D. Corse’s brigade succeeded, however, because McLean’s men held their fire thinking Corse’s men were friendly. When they finally realized that these were Rebels, not Yankees, they managed to engage them for ten minutes at point-blank range. But when an additional Louisiana battery was added to the fight, McLean was forced to yield to the growing pressure. Although the Ohio brigade sustained over 33% casualties, they gave the army blessed time – 30 minutes to bring up reinforcements to Chinn Ridge and Henry House Hill.
Two brigades arrived on the scene, commanded by Zealous B. Tower and John W. Stiles, both from Ricketts’s division, and they were not as successful as McLean’s men. Tower’s brigade was surrounded on three sides and could not deal with fire from both flanks and their front, so they gave way. Tower was wounded and his artillery battery was captured. Stiles’s brigade rushed in but were hit even harder, with two new Confederate brigades commanded by Micah Jenkins and Eppa Hunton from Kemper’s division arriving on the scene. Two more Union brigades were added to the fight – those of Krzyzanowski and Koltes, but neither fared well. John Koltes was mortally wounded and both brigades were routed.
By 6 pm, the Confederates firmly held Chinn Ridge. Although they had been halfway successful, they still needed to complete the task: Henry House Hill was still a quarter of a mile away and there was only one hour left before the sun went down. To add to that, both Hood’s and Kemper’s divisions were so beaten up that neither could contribute to further actions. Four brigades were now on Henry House Hill, and Lee knew that it was time to engage the reserve. Anderson’s division was called up. While the reserves were moving up, Jones’s division attacked Henry House Hill with two brigades totaling 3,000 men. Although this was the largest offensive operation that afternoon, it was not coordinated well and the Federals held their ground. Reinforcements by nature of two brigades from Anderson came up and struck the Union line on the flank. That drove them back some, but Anderson for some reason decided not to push through this gap – most probably because of the darkness. The Union held the hill.
Meanwhile, Jackson finally got his weary troops moving by 6:00, but by then they were too late to do much damage. They captured a few artillery pieces, but by the time they got to the vicinity of Henry House Hill, Pope had already established a strong defensive line. Pope finally started issuing orders for retreat towards Centerville that night. Unlike the year before, this retreat was not a chaotic rout all the way back to Washington, instead it was an orderly and quiet withdrawal. Lee had not destroyed Pope’s army like he wanted to, but he nevertheless won an amazing victory.
THE STORY CONTINUES with the Maryland Campaign in September 1862!