Friday, August 10, 2012

Rebels resurgent: Lee’s bold gamble at Second Manassas

By 1st Lt. William Carraway
Media Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office
July 12, 2012

With Maj. Gen. George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac retreating from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s attacks on the Peninsula, a number of disparate Union commands in northern Virginia were consolidated as the Army of Virginia. Major Gen. John Pope was Lincoln’s choice to command the newly-formed Army. Pope had built a reputation as a hard fighter in the west having captured New Madrid Missouri in March 1862 and Island Number 10 on the Mississippi River the following month.

Desperate for aggressive commanders, Lincoln brought Pope east hoping that the move would change the Union’s prospects in Virginia. Pope immediately made a bad impression by boasting of his western exploits, permitting his men to requisition food from Virginia farms, and holding civilians responsible for damage caused by Confederate actions. These pronouncements not only upset his subordinates but caused the unflappable Gen. Robert E. Lee to regard him with unusually strong language. Lee described Pope as “a miscreant who needs to be suppressed.”

With McClellan no longer a threat to Richmond, Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson’s corps north to begin the suppression of the miscreant Pope. Lee would have to act fast. With McClellan withdrawing by water from the Peninsula there was great risk that he would join Pope in northern Virginia and confront Lee with a united Union army.

By August 9, 1862, Jackson’s men had arrived in the vicinity of Culpeper, Va. where they defeated Union forces at the Battle of Cedar Mountain. By this time, Lee had confirmed McClellan’s intent to reinforce Pope. Lee therefore ordered Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s corps to march to Jackson’s support. With the Confederate Army again reunited, the Army of Virginia and the Army of Northern Virginia faced off in series of indecisive clashes as both armies jostled for tactical advantage. 

Then, on August 25, scouts from Jackson’s Corps discovered an unguarded route around the Union right flank. On receiving the intelligence, Lee ordered Jackson to make a dramatic march around the Union flank to place himself between Pope and Washington in the hope that Pope might react rashly and give him battle on terms favorable to the South. Jackson, whose men had achieved legendary status as “foot cavalry” marched more than 50 miles in 36 hours to Manassas Junction in the rear of Pope’s army. There, Jackson’s men seized Pope’s supply depot. 

After two-days forced marching Jackson’s men feasted on the spoils before burning what could not be carried. His men flush with victory, Jackson took up positions near Manassas, Va.

The attack had the desired effect. Pope abandoned his position on the Rappahannock River and marched north hoping to catch Jackson’s isolated corps. Unbeknownst to Pope, Lee was simultaneously marching north with Longstreet’s Corps

On August 28th, Pope’s elements were furiously searching for Jackson who had by then taken up a strong defensive position in an unfinished railroad cut. From his concealed position, Jackson observed Union troops moving on the Warrenton Turnpike to his front. Seizing the opportunity Jackson attacked. 

The engagement was to be a bloody stalemate as the Union Soldiers Jackson faced were excellent Wisconsin and Indiana troops who would go on to earn the nickname The Iron Brigade. Despite the setback, Southern forces were poised for success. Lee and Longstreet had pushed aside resistance at Thoroughfare Gap and were within miles of reinforcing Jackson. Pope, meanwhile, had no idea of Lee’s whereabouts.

Having discovered Jackson’s corps, Pope ordered his army to converge and destroy it. On August 29th he pitched his united forces in a series of uncoordinated attacks. Though successful in breaching the Southern lines, the Union was unable to exploit the breaches and was driven back by stubborn resistance.

While the battle raged at the unfinished railroad, Longstreet’s Corps arrived on the outskirts of Manassas and deployed on Jackson’s right flank. Longstreet was perfectly positioned to crush the Union left.
On the morning of August 30, 1862, believing Jackson was in retreat, Pope ordered an assault. Two Union corps attacked and were pushed back. As the Union corps attempted to reorganize, Longstreet launched a massive assault directly into their left flank.

The 18th Georgia was among the first of Longstreet’s regiments to meet the enemy. The Georgians drove the skirmishers of the 10th New York from their positions and inflicted 300 casualties on the 500 Soldiers of the 5th New York. This regiment suffered the highest percentage of Soldiers killed of any regiment in the Civil War.

Five Confederate divisions were barreling down on two undersized Union brigades. Their objective was Henry House Hill, a prominent feature that had been the scene of fighting at the first Battle of Manassas one year earlier. From Henry House Hill the Confederates would be able to shell retreating Union columns with impunity. Pope, belatedly recognizing the danger, dispatched troops to defend Henry House Hill. A division under the improbably named Maj. Gen Zealous B. Tower was the first to arrive. 

In the engagement that followed Tower was wounded and Colonel Fletcher Webster, son of Daniel Webster was killed. The Union resistance crumbled before the Confederate vanguard led by the brigades of Col. George Anderson and Col. Henry Benning for whom Fort Benning is named. Despite this success, the Confederate assault sputtered for want of ammunition and exhaustion.

By darkness Pope ordered a general withdrawal from the field. Of the 62,000 Union Soldiers engaged 10,000 were casualties. In September, Pope’s career became the final casualty of Second Manassas as he was relieved of command and exiled to a post in Minnesota.

The Confederates had lost 8,000 out of 50,000 engaged. With Pope’s men streaming for the safety of Washington’s defense network no army stood between Lee and his bold plan to take the war to Northern soil. With Pope’s army wrecked, Lee turned north on a march that could culminate near Sharpsburg, Md. along the banks of the Antietam Creek on the single bloodiest day of the war.

Next month:  The Bloodiest Day.

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