JOHN POPE AND HIS SOLDIERS WERE CAUGHT IN AN IRONIC TWIST. For most of the month of August 1862 Confederate President Davis and General Lee on one side, and General McClellan on the other, were equally eager to see John Pope defeated and discredited. Behind that irony was a tangle of military and political conflicts with the potential to wreck the war for the Union.

The cleanest thread in the knot was the determination of Davis and Lee to smash Pope’s army before McClellan’s troops could reinforce it. While their main purpose was to shift the cockpit of war to northern Virginia and throw the Federals onto the defensive, they were also moved by the desire to rebuke the Radical political program Pope had openly espoused.1

On the Federal side matters were more complex. For Lincoln and Stanton, Pope represented a potential replacement for McClellan. They saw him as the kind of general the new strategy required: one who was offense-minded and in tune with the administration’s hard-war line. General in Chief Halleck partly shared their investment in Pope, who had been his protégé. But Halleck was more bureaucrat than general. His willingness to run the risks of military decision making was hedged by his need to protect the prestige that had won him his high position. He preferred to foist the responsibility for dangerous decisions onto subordinates, reserving the right to blame them for any setbacks. That same self-protective caution affected his decision not to relieve McClellan but to temporarily disempower him by transferring his corps piecemeal to northern Virginia. By so doing he believed he had demonstrated his power over McClellan without entirely estranging McClellan’s political and military partisans. He also left himself an alternative if Pope should fail.

From McClellan’s perspective Pope was an enemy whose destruction was (at the moment) more desirable than the defeat of Lee’s army. McClellan’s was a two-front war, and in August the Washington front was the more critical. McClellan had already decided that an early and decisive victory for Federal forces would benefit the Radicals. If Pope won that victory, McClellan would no longer be indispensable to the Lincoln administration, and his dismissal would leave Radicalism in total control of the war effort. Victory and a restored Union would become impossible, because the South would never submit to an openly abolitionist regime. However, if Pope were defeated, Halleck and Lincoln would have no choice but to recall McClellan to command. Such a result might give McClellan the leverage he needed to reestablish his primacy in the government’s military councils, to reduce Halleck to subordination, and to force Stanton’s dismissal from the cabinet.


With McClellan’s army in the limbo of transshipment to Alexandria and Aquia Creek, Lee was free to move against Pope. In mid-August Pope’s Army of Virginia, now some fifty-five thousand strong, was posted near the Cedar Mountain battlefield on the north bank of the Rapidan River. Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate force had been blocking Pope’s advance by holding a position south of the Rapidan at Gordonsville, some seventy miles north and west of Richmond. Gordonsville was a critical transportation hub, where the railroad from the Federal base at Alexandria crossed the Virginia Central, the line connecting Richmond with the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederate capital’s major source of food supplies. Pope’s campaign had been intended to cut that supply line as a prelude to the drive against Richmond.

When Lee arrived at Gordonsville with Longstreet’s command, his force was roughly equal to Pope’s, and he immediately took the offensive. On August 17 he tried to get around Pope’s left, or eastern, flank by pushing troops across a ford of the Rapidan. The move was delayed by high water, and Pope adroitly avoided it by retreating some fifteen miles north, to the far side of the Rappahannock River. This put his army in a more defensible position, where it was better placed to receive the approaching reinforcements. Over the next three days Pope would be joined by elements of the IX Corps, marching cross-country from Fredericksburg, and McClellan’s III Corps (under Heintzelman), which came by train from Alexandria. Porter’s V Corps, marching overland from Aquia Creek, took longer to join up, but by August 24 Pope had about sixty-five thousand troops in hand behind the defensive moat of the Rappahannock, facing fifty-five thousand Confederates.

Lee still held to the strategic objectives that had led him to leave the Richmond front: to shift the theater of operations away from Richmond, to recover the productive region of northern Virginia, and to forestall the opening of a new Federal offensive. To achieve those objectives he had to maintain the initiative, force Pope to retreat, inflict a defeat heavy enough to render Pope’s army ineffective, and do it all before the rest of McClellan’s army arrived. Pope’s numbers and the strength of the river line precluded anything like a direct approach. He therefore planned a grand “turning” movement, a strike at Pope’s communications that would force him into a long and difficult retreat. A retreating army would be vulnerable to disruption if properly attacked, so it was conceivable that Pope’s army could be decisively defeated before its junction with the rest of McClellan’s force. To achieve this Lee would divide his already out­numbered army in half, sending Stonewall Jackson with twenty-five thousand infantry and nearly all his cavalry on a wide swing to the west and north behind the screen of the Bull Run Mountains, then east through Thoroughfare Gap to come in behind Pope’s front and seize his supply base at Manassas Junction. Longstreet’s troops would fire artillery and stage limited attacks against the Rappahannock line to hold Pope in place until Jackson could strike. When Pope retreated or turned to deal with Jackson, Lee and Longstreet would follow Jackson’s route around the hills and through the gap. Then the reunited army would pursue and attack the Federal army while it was still disorganized by its retreat.2

By dividing his army in the face of superior numbers, Lee was taking the most extreme risks, which only the prospect of strategic victory could justify. While Jackson was making his flank march Pope had the option of throwing most of his sixty-five thousand men against Longstreet’s twenty-eight thousand on the Rappahannock. Or if Jackson reached the rear of Pope’s army, the Federal general could send a strong detachment to block Longstreet at Thoroughfare Gap, then turn on Jackson’s twenty-five thousand with nearly his whole force.

IT IS HARD TO BE entirely certain of Lee’s intentions. Unlike McClellan, who paraded his strategic genius in lengthy position papers, Lee wrote sparingly about his plans and hardly at all about his theories of war. Difference in personality partly accounts for this, but equally significant is the fact that mutual mistrust led McClellan to belabor Lincoln and Halleck with the polemics of military professionalism, and leak his ideas to the press to build public support for his positions. Lee and Davis had hashed out their differences face-to-face and were now in substantial agreement on most critical strategic questions. One side effect of this mutual understanding is that the documentary record of Lee’s and Davis’s strategic planning and decision making is thin. The same is true of the records of Lee’s operational planning. Lee’s command system depended on close contact and mutual understanding among Lee, his wing commanders Jackson and Longstreet, and his cavalry chief, J. E. B. (“Jeb”) Stuart. The objectives and general design of a given operation were usually presented and worked out in face-to-face meetings. Once his plan was well understood, Lee trusted his subordinates to use their own discretion and initiative to achieve its objectives.

Historians have therefore had to deduce Lee’s strategic thinking by correlating his actions with the scanty written record. The traditional view sees Lee as a genius in both theater and battlefield tactics, and the campaign against Pope as a masterpiece executed according to a brilliant plan. A revisionist view, developed by military historians Grady McWhiney, Alan Nolan, Russell Weigley, and others, sees Lee as a general imbued with a Napoleonic concept of decisive battle, which led him to stage costly attacks that entailed casualty rates the South could not afford. The revisionists also fault Lee as a strategic thinker whose understanding of larger issues was limited by his intense personal investment in the defense of Virginia and his distaste for politics. A more balanced view emerges from historian Joseph Harsh’s close studies of Confederate strategic thinking in 1862. Harsh sees Lee’s determination to seize the initiative through a strategic offensive as a rational response to the strategic threat posed by the concentration of Federal armies in northern Virginia, and not as merely the expression of a combative temperament. His analysis of Lee’s dispatches shows that Lee’s plans developed in stages, responsive to the changing strength and position of Pope’s army; and allowed for the possibility of a maneuver campaign that would force Pope to retreat without bringing on a general engagement.3

However, the benefits of a pure maneuver campaign would be as limited as the risks. The premise of Lee’s move against Pope was the conviction that Confederate forces in Virginia were inadequate to check an advance by the united forces of McClellan and Pope. The only way to forestall such a campaign, or reduce the odds of its success, was for Lee to seriously damage or destroy Pope’s force before McClellan’s arrived. The strategic dilemma did not absolutely require Lee to accept battle and seek decisive victory if his maneuvers failed to bring about a favorable situation. But it did impel him to follow a plan that would make a decisive battle possible. Although battle entailed the risk of heavy casualties, if Pope’s army could be caught at a disadvantage, attacked while its elements were disorganized by a hurried retreat, Lee might cripple the Federal army and force it to undergo a lengthy reorganization. While that army stood on the defensive northern Virginia was safe, and Lee was free to strike other blows that might further derange the Union war effort.4

SINCE IT WAS APPARENT that any new offensive would require an increase of force, between August 21 and 24 Lee sent several dispatches to Davis urging that more troops be sent to him from Richmond. Lee’s dispatch of the twenty-fourth has seemed to some historians an effort to prod or pressure a reluctant president to endorse a high-risk campaign: instead of asking Davis for reinforcement, he informed the president that he would order five brigades now at Richmond to come north, unless Davis explicitly countermanded the order. In fact, Davis was not at all reluctant. Two weeks earlier he had hesitated to accept the risks entailed by Lee’s plan to strike Pope, and Lee had not only labored to persuade him but may have fudged his account of troop strengths to reassure the president about the strength of Richmond’s defenses. Even so, these were disagreements about the size, timing, and feasibility of operations, not about the strategic problem before them. Whatever doubts Davis had had, they had seemingly been resolved. He abandoned his earlier insistence that thirty thousand troops be left at Richmond and offered to send Lee twice the number of troops he had requested. They would not arrive in time for the fight against Pope, but knowing they were on the way gave Lee a wider margin of risk when considering battle.5

Lee prepared for action by completing the reorganization of the army’s command system that he had begun just after the Seven Days. Several ineffective division commanders had been replaced. The old organization, in which fifteen or so division commanders reported to army headquarters, had been replaced by a structure in which two wing commanders were responsible for the divisions grouped under them. In Jackson and Longstreet, Lee had a complementary pair of battle-tested ­subordinates—Jackson superb at independent action, Longstreet an aggressive and competent combat commander.

Longstreet, born in South Carolina and raised in Georgia, the son of a plantation owner, graduated near the bottom of the West Point Class of 1842 and won promotions for gallantry as an infantry commander in the Mexican War. He was not an ardent secessionist but resigned his commission as major in the Regular Army when Georgia left the Union. His reputation in the army led Jefferson Davis to commission him as one of the Confederacy’s first cadre of brigadier generals, which gave him the advantage of seniority in the Southern military system for the rest of the war. During the Seven Days he had been in effective command of half the army; and though Lee was dissatisfied with the coordination of his attacks at Glendale, he valued Longstreet’s aggressiveness. Lee judged correctly that with more experience and a better-organized army behind him, Longstreet would prove a capable corps commander. His nickname was “Old Pete,” and Lee called him “My Old War Horse”—names suggesting the solidity and reliability that were his best characteristics.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson was a unique character and an eccentric military genius. His uniforms were worn and rumpled, his shaggy black beard often unkempt, and he often sucked fresh lemons as he rode. His most striking feature were pale blue eyes that had earned him the nickname “Old Blue Light.” Their glare expressed his fierce combativeness and a commitment to his cause that could be merciless to friend as well as foe. Jackson was a ferocious disciplinarian who did not hesitate to rebuke general officers and arrest them even for minor infractions.

In 1862 he was thirty-eight years old, the orphaned son of a farmer from western Virginia, raised by relatives who owned a mill in the hill country. He won admission to West Point in 1842 and graduated in 1846, in the same class as George McClellan. In Mexico his gallantry earned him more promotions than any officer in the army. In 1851 he took leave from the army to accept a professorship at Virginia Military Institute in the Shenandoah Valley, and he made his home there for the rest of his life. Jackson was an extremely pious and devoted Christian, a member of the Presbyterian Church, and Christianity shaped his complex relation to slavery. He had no ties to the plantation South and was not among those who advocated slavery as a positive good for both races. However, his reading of Scripture convinced him that slavery had divine sanction, and he therefore accepted it. As a Christian he also felt he had a duty to enlighten and educate the slaves in his charge. Jackson violated the legal and ethical codes of the slave states by teaching Negroes to read and write—first as a young schoolteacher in the hills, and later as the owner of six slaves acquired through his first marriage.

In 1861 Jackson left his professorship and his Regular commission to serve Virginia after his state’s secession. As a longtime inhabitant of the Shenandoah Valley he was chosen to command Confederate troops in that region, and his familiarity with the people and the terrain of the Valley and the western mountains would enable him to conceive and conduct his brilliant Valley campaign from March through May of 1862. With an army of fifteen thousand troops he had marched up and down the Valley, forcing Lincoln to withhold reinforcements from McClellan on the Peninsula, defeating in detail three different Federal armies that piled into the Valley from different directions in an effort to corner him. The campaign earned Jackson international fame, but he followed with a fumbling performance in the Seven Days—perhaps because he was physically and mentally exhausted by his efforts in the Valley. As with Longstreet, Lee appreciated Jackson’s potential, and he would favor Jackson for any mission requiring action independent of Lee’s own command.

Lee consolidated his cavalry in a single division of three brigades under a superb leader, Jeb Stuart. His West Point nickname of “Beauty” was a sarcasm that referred to Stuart’s homeliness, which in 1862 was concealed behind a luxuriant full beard. He had graduated in 1854 and seen some active service on the Indian frontier, but his most notable prewar exploit was serving in the force commanded by Robert E. Lee that captured John Brown during his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Stuart had led a cavalry brigade on the Peninsula and performed a notable and gallant exploit in riding all around McClellan’s army, brushing aside the scattered cavalry units sent against him. He was a skilled organizer of cavalry, an arm that requires more extensive training than infantry and is more difficult to manage and maintain. Cavalry have to act with dash and vigor, and Stuart modeled the kind of élan required with his cavalier dress of plumed hat and scarlet-lined cloak. The primary duties of his cavalry were scouting and screening, and at these tasks Stuart excelled. He knew how to get information and how to make intelligent use of it. In the coming campaigns he would generally give Lee better information about enemy movements than any Union general could procure, and his aggressive patrols would keep Yankee cavalry in check and screen the army’s movements.

The week spent sparring with Pope gave this new organization a useful shakedown. Lee’s army was far more mobile, as Jackson’s infantry would show by marching 120 miles in two days. The Federals could not yet match the quality of Stuart’s cavalry, which was also more familiar with the terrain. By using those advantages Lee expected to set the terms of any engagement, attacking Pope under conditions that would minimize the federal advantage in numbers and artillery. Jackson’s end run and surprise descent on Manassas should shock Pope, and induce him to retreat in some haste. If Lee and Longstreet could swiftly reunite their forces, they would be in position to attack an army strung out along its line of retreat.

The plan of campaign was brilliant and daring. The secret of its success was not the perfect execution of a brilliant plan but rather the flexibility with which Lee and his generals responded to the unanticipated consequences of their maneuvers. Although Lee was not able to attack Pope’s retreating army as he had planned, his maneuvers would succeed in creating a confusion so complete that the bewildered Pope made a catastrophic botch of the ultimate battle.6


Pope’s scouts actually spotted Jackson’s march around their flank on August 26, but Pope and his officers were unable to make use of the information. At first they ignored the report because it came from Major General Franz Sigel’s infantry wing. Sigel had been a professional soldier in the German state of Baden. He had participated in the liberal revolution of 1848 and fled to the United States after its suppression. As a veteran soldier and a leader of the German American community he had won a general’s commission early in the war. He had seen extensive action in Missouri, sometimes successful and sometimes not, but overall he had earned a reputation for being skittish in the face of the enemy. Halleck, who had commanded him out west, remarked that Sigel “will do nothing but run: never did anything else.” True to form, Sigel let Jackson pass unmolested, then retreated without orders, which opened the path for Lee and Longstreet to follow in Jackson’s wake without being discovered. Pope did not learn where Jackson was until his corps materialized out of Thoroughfare Gap, swooped down on Pope’s undefended base at Manassas Junction on August 27, and cut his communication with Washington.

Jackson’s Confederates looted the supply dumps for food, shoes, uniforms, and ammunition, then burned what they could not carry off and destroyed the railroad yards and the trains. Jackson then moved his wing to a strong defensive position on a wooded ridge seven miles northwest of Manassas. His divisions used several different routes to reach the position, a maneuver designed to keep Pope guessing as to where they were going and what they intended to do.

Pope responded more quickly than Lee expected. He marched his army north—not in retreat, but as an offensive maneuver to trap and destroy Jackson’s force. He was not in time to prevent Jackson’s capture of Manassas, but now Pope’s army was between Jackson’s force and Lee’s. Pope believed he could turn disaster into victory by hitting Jackson’s twenty-five thousand with overwhelming force while it was still isolated. If he had managed the movement properly he might well have succeeded. However, his scouts completely lost track of Jackson’s command—it was as if twenty-five thousand men, with horses, wagons, and artillery in due proportion, had simply vanished. Pope marched his troops hither and yon in the stifling August heat for more than twenty-four hours, searching in vain for Jackson. He might never have found him had Jackson not wanted to be found and have Pope concentrate against him. At that point Jackson wanted to hold Pope in place till Lee and Longstreet could come up to damage or destroy him in battle, although his situation was precarious. Longstreet’s troops were just breaking through the cavalry outposts that held the Bull Run Mountain gaps, fifteen miles away, while Pope had nearly all of his army in or around Manassas Junction, from which it could move against Jackson. With the force in hand Pope outnumbered Jackson two to one. A successful attack on Jackson on August 29 was not out of the question, if properly and promptly organized.

Thus Lee’s maneuver had failed to achieve its prime objective, which was to catch Pope on the retreat and beat him in detail. But Pope, having avoided the planned disaster, gave Lee the chance to improvise a different one by committing a cascading series of almost unfathomable errors. Some were tactical, while most were products of the deeply flawed organization and command system in the Army of Virginia. In his concentration on the blundering effort to find and destroy Jackson’s wing, Pope lost sight of Lee and Longstreet. Because Pope had dispersed his cavalry, he had no force capable of penetrating the Confederate cavalry screen, and no way of learning how swiftly Lee and Longstreet were approaching the battlefield. What little information did get through was misconstrued by Pope’s inexperienced staff.

Nor was there effective coordination between army headquarters and the staffs of the different corps under Pope’s command. The three corps originally assigned to him had never worked together, and what little combat experience they had was misfortunate—they had been harassed, frustrated, and beaten by Jackson back in May and June during the Valley campaign. Of the three corps commanders, Sigel was, as noted, battle-shy; Major General Nathaniel Banks owed his rank to political influence rather than competence; and McDowell was disliked and distrusted by his own troops. To this ill-assorted mix had been added part of Burnside’s IX Corps and the corps of Heintzelman and Porter from the Army of the Potomac—officers and men aggrieved by their separation from McClellan, and generals who had been taught to think of Pope as an enemy.

Pope’s defects of personality made the situation worse. Although Confederate maneuvers had obviously bewildered him, he refused to compromise his pose of aggressive self-assurance. He issued confused and contradictory orders in a bullying tone. Beneath the guff he was uncertain whether he faced disaster or golden opportunity. He was anxious for Halleck to send reinforcements forward as soon as possible. Yet he also felt it necessary to appear confident of victory, lest his reputation in Washington be diminished. This added to Halleck’s confusion about the real state of affairs at the front and complicated his efforts to bring McClellan’s newly arriving troops into play.

Pope assumed that Jackson was still as isolated and exposed to entrapment on August 29 as he had been on August 27–28. He had failed to discover, let alone block, Lee’s and Longstreet’s movement to Thoroughfare Gap. So on August 29, while Longstreet moved unnoticed toward Pope’s left flank, Pope sent his infantry against Jackson in frontal assaults. The Confederate position was probably too strong to be taken that way even if the assaults had been well coordinated—which they were not. The valor of the Federal infantry strained but could not break the Confederate line.

By evening the tactical situation was transformed. Longstreet’s wing of twenty-five or thirty thousand men was in position, a huge threat hovering over Pope’s left flank. While Lee’s initial impulse was to attack, Longstreet advised against it, and Lee assented. His experience during the Seven Days showed that under prevailing conditions infantry assaults were likely to suffer heavy casualties. It would be less costly, and far more effective, to let Pope persist in his frontal assaults, then strike when the Federals were repulsed and falling back.

Porter tried to tell Pope of the danger to his left, but Pope mistrusted him as the partisan of his rival McClellan, and believed on no evidence that Longstreet must still be a day’s march away. Pope therefore prepared for another day of frontal assaults on Jackson. He also wired Halleck in Washington, claiming that he had won a great victory—but asking that reinforcements be sent immediately.


The crisis exposed Halleck’s weaknesses as a commanding general. It was already clear, to Halleck himself and to the administration that employed him, that he was not a good field general. His strength was supposed to lie in the ability to manage and coordinate the operations of several independent field armies across a wide geographical theater. But the multiple threats posed by the Confederate offensives of Bragg, Van Dorn, and Lee, and the severity of the crisis in Virginia, overtaxed his abilities and shook his confidence. He became increasingly reluctant to take responsibility for critical decisions, and desperately anxious for McClellan to leave the Peninsula and assume personal command of the forces in and around Washington. Yet he balked at giving McClellan actual command of operations in the theater, for reasons that were personal and political as well as military. He was well aware of Stanton’s hatred of McClellan and had no stomach for crossing Stanton. Nor was it in his interest to do so, since McClellan was his chief rival for control of military affairs.

McClellan understood the crisis in terms very different from those that troubled Halleck. Lee’s threat to Pope presented McClellan with a perfect chance to regain command of the Virginia theater and win the Washington half of his two-front war. He had spent the first three weeks of August raging impotently against Halleck, Stanton, and Lincoln, fantasizing about a political “coup” that would restore him to power and allow him to wreak God’s own vengeance on those he considered “the enemies of the country & of the human race.” Now, with his “considerable military family” at hand and Halleck shaking in his boots, he was in position to do just that. To his wife he gloated, “They”—meaning Pope, Halleck and the administration—“will suffer a terrible defeat” if they go on as at present, but “I know that with God’s help I can save them.” However, he would only save them if they restored him to command of the forces now in the field. If they insisted on treating him as a subordinate he would cavil at his orders, ask them to consider and reconsider all possible objections, and obey only when all resources of correspondence were exhausted.7

McClellan had arrived at Aquia Creek on August 23 and immediately asked Halleck to clarify his command status. He wanted to know whether Halleck would keep his promise to put McClellan in command of all field forces once his army was joined with Pope’s. Halleck avoided giving a definitive answer. Instead, on August 26 he asked McClellan to go to Alexandria to expedite the forward movement of Franklin’s VI Corps. That corps had landed on August 25, and Halleck had ordered Franklin to prepare for an immediate march to Manassas to join Pope. But when McClellan got to Alexandria he countermanded those orders without explanation. He would subsequently justify his decision on two grounds: that Franklin lacked sufficient draft animals and wagons to move his artillery and supplies; and that the lack of cavalry to scout the road to Manassas made it too dangerous for Franklin to advance without the support of the II Corps, which had not yet disembarked. The next day, August 27, Jackson’s Corps struck Manassas and cut Pope off from Washington. There is no knowing whether an advance by VI Corps on the twenty-sixth would have checked Jackson, but it would certainly have complicated his mission. At the very least it would have given Halleck’s headquarters timely notice of the strength and position of Jackson’s force.8

Jackson’s occupation of Manassas had broken communication with Pope’s army for two days, and Halleck—who believed the chronic overestimate of Confederate strength—was afraid the Army of Virginia might now be surrounded by a superior force. On August 27 Halleck urgently ordered McClellan to send Franklin forward, if possible to reopen communication with Pope, but at least to define the tactical situation by a reconnaissance-in-force. McClellan ordered Franklin to prepare to march at once—which was not the same thing as having him march at once. While Franklin marched in place, McClellan harassed Halleck with telegrams warning against a premature advance. He proposed waiting until Sumner’s II Corps could add its strength to Franklin’s, which would delay any movement for two or three days. When a telegram from Pope finally got through asking for reinforcements, McClellan took another step backwards. “The great object,” he told Halleck, was not to aid Pope but “to collect the whole Army in Washington ready to defend the works.” Franklin and Sumner should be held back for the defense of Washington. He also quarreled with Halleck about who was to blame for the success of Jackson’s raid.9

This barrage of argument and advice, implying a dire threat against Washington, weakened Halleck’s resistance to McClellan’s demand for “authority.” It did not help that Pope’s communications alternated confident bluster with appeals for aid. Halleck had no wish to make decisions in such a crisis. On the evening of August 27, Halleck rather lamely conceded: “As you must be aware, more than three-quarters of my time is taken up with the raising of new troops and matters in the West. I have no time for details.” He therefore left it to McClellan as “ranking general in the field [to do] as you deem best.”10 This was still not the formal investment as field commander McClellan had sought, so the contest continued. On August 28 McClellan promised to send Franklin forward as soon as “a reasonable amount of artillery is at hand.” But he shortly reversed himself, advising Halleck that “[n]either Franklin’s nor Sumner’s Corps are now in condition to move & fight a battle—it would be a sacrifice to send them out now.”11 Rather, he wanted Halleck to order Pope to abandon the field and retreat to the safety of the Washington defenses, where he would come under McClellan’s command. At 3:30 PM Halleck countered: “Not a moment must be lost in pushing as large a force as possible towards Manassas.”12 McClellan explained that this was impossible. Halleck now showed annoyance: “There must be no further delay in moving Franklin’s corps.” McClellan promised that Franklin would march at 6:00 AM the next day but also warned Halleck that Lee and 120,000 men “intend advancing on the forts near Arlington and Chain Bridge, with a view of attacking Washington and Baltimore.” He proposed blowing up Chain Bridge to prevent its seizure by the Rebels. The threat was absurdly chimerical, but if it had been true, it would have required Halleck to bring Pope’s army back to Washington as quickly as possible, where it would come under McClellan’s command.13

Halleck dismissed the supposed threat to Chain Bridge and again insisted that Franklin be sent forward. So on August 29 McClellan finally ordered Franklin to march and (with an eye to the paper record) made a show of ardor: “Let it not be said that any part of the Army of the Potomac failed in its duty to General Pope.” Franklin was an engineer by training, with the engineer’s occupational preference for slow, cautious movement—a tendency so marked that even McClellan complained about it. Franklin moved his corps only as far as Annandale, seven miles from his starting point, where he stopped, again on McClellan’s order. Another exchange with Halleck ensued. The VI Corps lacked artillery and ammunition. Did Halleck really “wish the movement of Franklin’s corps to continue?” Halleck did! He wanted him at least to go far enough to find the enemy. But McClellan found even these simple and direct instructions questionable. At 1:00 PM he asked Halleck whether or not the order naming him “ranking general” had empowered him to “do as seems best to me with all the troops in this vicinity, including Franklin who I really think ought not under present circumstances to advance beyond Annandale.” Again he was pushing Halleck to decide whether to let McClellan take charge or to assume for himself the burden of mastering the crisis. The result was an impasse: McClellan would not let Franklin move to Pope’s aid, and Halleck would not commit himself to putting McClellan in field command.14

President Lincoln and the leading members of his cabinet were privy to many, if not all, of these exchanges, and found them alarming. Lincoln was disturbed by McClellan’s self-serving prophecies of doom, which made him the “chief alarmist and grand marplot of the Army,” and by his constant harping on “what is his real position and command,” which suggested that personal advancement was of greater concern to him than the fate of Pope’s army. He was also dismayed by McClellan’s response to his August 29 inquiry on the state of affairs. McClellan had said that only two choices remained: “[t]o concentrate all our forces” to relieve Pope or “[t]o leave Pope to get out of his scrape & at once use all our means to make the Capital perfectly safe. No middle course will now answer.” He had promised to obey whatever orders Lincoln might give, but “I wish to know what my orders & authority are—I ask for nothing, but will obey whatever orders you give.” To Lincoln it was perfectly clear that McClellan was angling for command of the field army, and he was appalled by the seeming callousness of the proposal to “leave Pope to get out of his scrape.” Stanton’s response was more overtly hostile. While the battle was still in progress, he leaked to the press his intention to hold McClellan responsible if Pope were defeated.15

By the evening of August 29, the balance in this internecine struggle had shifted against McClellan—which led Halleck to reassert himself. On the twenty-eighth Stanton had sent Halleck a memorandum pointedly inquiring whether McClellan had moved with proper celerity in obeying the order to withdraw from the Peninsula and forward troops to Pope. Halleck’s response to Stanton (August 29) gave the secretary all the ammunition he could want for relieving McClellan. From the time he was first ordered to withdraw from the Peninsula down to the time of that evening’s last dispatch, McClellan had “not obeyed [his orders] with the promptness I expected and the national safety, in my opinion, required.” The brief was supported with summaries of the telegraphic exchanges between the two generals. With Stanton behind him, Halleck’s orders to McClellan now took a more peremptory tone. After learning that McClellan had once again ordered Franklin to halt his march at Annandale he fired off an angry dispatch: “This is all contrary to my orders; investigate and report the facts of this disobedience. That corps must push forward, as I directed . . . and open our communication with Manassas.” This time McClellan obeyed.16

It was too bad that Halleck had not got the courage of his convictions two days sooner. On August 28 and 29, while Halleck and McClellan and Franklin were dithering, VI Corps infantry could actually hear gunfire from Manassas, where Pope’s infantry were fighting and dying in their vain effort to break Jackson’s line. Franklin’s corps would finally begin their advance on the thirtieth, but their leading elements had not yet reached the Bull Run bridge when they met the first fugitives from Pope’s disaster.


The immediate military effect of the Washington imbroglio was to prevent the reinforcement of Pope by the VI Corps. But lack of these troops should not have been critical. For despite everything, by the night of August 29–30 Pope had succeeded in concentrating most of his army in front of Jackson. His supply train, guarded by Banks’s corps, was safe, and he had reopened rail communications with Alexandria and Washington. He had on hand sixty-two thousand troops against Lee’s army, whose nominal strength of fifty-five thousand was probably lessened by the straggling that attended their long, hard flank march. Pope’s artillery outgunned his opponents in number of pieces and firepower. The head of a reinforcing column of troops from McClellan’s army was at Fairfax Courthouse, only twenty miles from Manassas. If Pope had organized the troops on hand properly for defense they could certainly have held their ground or made good an orderly retreat to Centreville, where ample supplies and reinforcement awaited.

However, Pope was still convinced that he had Jackson cornered, and that Lee and Longstreet were a long day’s march away. He ordered another round of frontal assaults on Jackson, and to give them weight he ordered Porter’s V Corps to leave its position defending the army’s southern flank and join the attack. This left Longstreet free to strike at will.

The fact that Longstreet was on the scene, positioned to crush Pope’s flank, is one measure of the difference between McClellan’s approach to impending battle and Robert E. Lee’s. McClellan refused to risk his VI Corps by sending it to Pope’s assistance. Between his caution and Franklin’s own deliberate movements it took three days for the VI Corps to move twenty-five miles—and even then it failed to reach the battlefield. In contrast, Lee had boldly risked Jackson’s wing in order to achieve his tactical objectives. Jackson had demanded, and his troops had executed, forced marches covering eighty miles over a two-day period. Longstreet’s wing had followed at a similar pace; and on August 28, fearing that Jackson’s wing might be in trouble, it covered the last twenty miles in half a day. Thanks to Pope’s ignorance of their presence, they were able to rest and recover on the twenty-ninth before being called upon to attack on the thirtieth.

Lee wanted Longstreet to strike quickly, but the latter advised waiting until the Federals were thoroughly entangled with Jackson. When he judged that V Corps was fully engaged he ordered his artillery to rake Porter’s lines. When the V Corps wavered Longstreet’s infantry advanced, some divisions rolling up Porter’s line, others sweeping out to the right to get behind the Federal army and cut off its retreat. Jackson’s wing, which had been hard-pressed, counterattacked as the Federal assault troops pulled back. Hit from the front and flank, Pope’s army lost all cohesion, and large masses of disorganized troops went streaming to the rear. Yet the army was not entirely routed. Stubborn stands and counterattacks by well-led regiments and brigades checked the Confederate assault columns. A rear-guard stand at dusk on the Henry House Hill allowed almost the entire army to escape to the far side of Bull Run. Still, the Federals suffered heavy losses, some sixteen thousand out of an engaged force of sixty-two thousand. Perhaps a third of these were ­captured—although there were no mass surrenders of brigades or divisions, which would have indicated general demoralization.

THUS BY A MIXTURE of good planning, hard marching, brilliant opportunism and Federal incompetence, Lee had achieved several of his primary objectives. He had shifted the zone of warfare from Richmond to Washington and driven Federal forces out of northern Virginia. He had also created an opportunity for the kind of victory that might substantially damage the North’s ability to wage war. Pope’s army was beaten, disorganized, and in retreat. Now if he could pursue and strike it in force while it was in that condition he might effectively destroy a Federal field army, with incalculable effects on the course of the war.

Nevertheless, it would be difficult to mount such a pursuit. Lee’s own losses were not inconsiderable—nine thousand out of fifty thousand engaged. Pope’s army was regrouping around Centreville on the far side of Bull Run, and was finally being reinforced by elements of McClellan’s VI and II Corps. For Lee to make a frontal attack across Bull Run would be costly, even if successful. Pope also had a short line of retreat to Alexandria and the safety of the Washington forts. If Lee wanted to strike again, he had to act quickly.

Lee therefore decided to repeat, on a smaller scale, the turning movement that had produced the victory at Second Bull Run. This one was aimed at cutting Pope’s line of retreat, which ran east on the Warrenton Turnpike through Fairfax Courthouse to Alexandria. Once again Stuart’s cavalry and Jackson’s wing would lead, crossing Bull Run upstream and marching north to reach the Little River Turnpike, a road that ran back south through the village of Chantilly to Fairfax Court House, a forced march of more than twenty miles. Longstreet’s wing would demonstrate to distract Pope’s attention, then follow in Jackson’s footsteps.

The maneuver failed to produce the desired result. Lee ordered Jackson to march on August 31, while the wounded were still being brought in from the previous day’s fighting. Though the distance to be covered was far less than that achieved by Jackson’s “foot cavalry” on August 25–26, his men were now worn down by long marches capped by three days of intense combat. Aside from their physical weariness, many had literally been marched out of their shoes. Rain slowed the march by softening the roads to mud. Stuart’s cavalry also threw away whatever chance Jackson had to surprise the enemy by raiding into the Union rear on the night of August 31. Meanwhile, Pope’s troops had rallied in some old entrenchments around Centreville, and had been joined by fresh troops from the II, VI, and IX Corps.

Forewarned of Jackson’s approach, Pope pulled two divisions out of line and sent them to Chantilly, where they collided with Jackson’s advance in a raging thunderstorm on the night of September 1. Though the Union troops were not under unified command, they were led by aggressive and competent generals, Isaac Stevens and Philip Kearny, the one-armed general who had criticized both McClellan’s dilatory tactics on the Peninsula and his political associations. Stevens and Kearny sent their battle lines forward through the downpour, the flash of infantry volleys and cannon fire echoed and exaggerated in the stormy sky. ­Stevens was killed at the head of his division, Kearny rode into Rebel lines in the darkness and was shot dead out of the saddle, but their counterattacks stopped Jackson, as Pope’s troops withdrew to Fairfax.

On September 2 Lee tried yet again to turn the flank of the Federal army and force it to retreat under pressure. But Stuart’s cavalry could find no vulnerability in Pope’s position. Before Lee could attempt anything further, a demoralized Pope ordered his army to withdraw to the fortified lines of Alexandria and Washington—a move that was completed before the Confederates could interfere.

THE ESCAPE OF POPE’S ARMY confronted Lee with a strategic conundrum. The objectives for which he began his counteroffensive had been achieved. The seat of war had been shifted from the suburbs of the Confederacy’s capital to its northern frontier. Most of northern Virginia had been liberated and its productive potential restored to the Confederacy. Southern victories had enhanced the Confederacy’s chances for foreign recognition and roused the spirits of a populace that had been discouraged by the setbacks suffered in the winter and spring. Battlefield defeat had disorganized Federal armies and presumably depressed Northern morale. It would take some time for the Federal armies to reorganize for a resumption of the offensive. While it did, Lee could stand on the defensive, resupplying and recruiting his hard-used army.

Yet if Lee gave the Federals time to reorganize, the offensive would certainly be resumed, this time by the united armies of Pope and ­McClellan—with tens of thousands of new recruits added by Lincoln’s last call for volunteers. That huge force might be ready to march in a month, and would have perhaps three months to campaign before winter closed things down. The only way to forestall that advance—and the only way to exploit the advantages gained at Second Bull Run—was to continue his own offensive. But his army lacked the numbers, artillery, and supplies to directly attack the Washington fortifications. If he wanted to press the offensive, he would have to attack indirectly, menacing some vital point in order to draw the Union army away from its invulnerable fortifications.

The day after his last fling at Pope he set in motion the invasion of Maryland.

One day earlier, George McClellan had been reappointed to the command of the field armies in northern Virginia.

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