Outnumbered two to one, Robert E. Lee and his corps commanders Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet outgeneraled the Union’s pompous and unpopular John Pope at the Second Battle of Bull Run. The reputations of three Confederate generals rose to mythic proportions as yet another Union military leader—Lincoln’s latest candidate for top command—suffers not merely defeat but humiliation. The outcome was another blow to Northern morale and a grave political threat to Abraham Lincoln. At this point, the Union was losing the Civil War.
George B. Mccellan, the vaunted “Young Napoleon” on whom Abraham Lincoln relied to redeem the Union Army from the humiliation of the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), had promised to capture Richmond in what he called the Peninsula Campaign, a name that echoed Napoleon’s “Peninsular War,” fought for possession of the Iberian Peninsula in 1807–1814. It was not the best Napoleonic parallel to evoke. The Peninsular War was one of the defeats from which Napoleon could not recover.
McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign spanned March to July 1862, culminating in the so-called Seven Days Battles (June 25-July 1, 1862), the last of which was Malvern Hill (July 1). That battle ended in a tactical victory for McClellan, but a victory fought not on ground to which he had advanced, but to which he had retreated. Having set out to capture Richmond, the Young Napoleon ended up farther from the Confederate capital than he had been at the start of his endeavor. Moreover, while McClellan defended his high ground position expertly at Malvern Hill, bombarding Robert E. Lee’s attacking forces with fire from massed cannon that were positioned nearly wheel to wheel, he refused his field officers’ pleas to seize the initiative, hold Malvern Hill, and counterattack Lee. This might have revived and redeemed the Peninsula Campaign. Certainly, it would have taken a greater toll on Lee than the mere defense did. But George B. McClellan was completely cowed by the Confederate general, even when, as now, Lee committed a great blunder in fruitlessly attacking uphill. No sooner did Lee break off his attack than McClellan completed his withdrawal from the campaign against Richmond by returning to Harrison’s Landing, the location on the James River from which the Army of the Potomac had originally embarked.
Commanding a larger army than Lee, McClellan had failed in his mission. Nevertheless, his 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing) were 4,000 fewer than what he had inflicted on the Army of Northern Virginia. Tactically, the Union forces had come out ahead. Strategically, they were humiliated. As if to certify his failure, Major General McClellan sent an abject telegram to the War Department on July 2, 1862: “I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world—but they are worn out. Our losses have been very great. I doubt whether more severe battles have ever been fought—we have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”
The telegram did not appease Abraham Lincoln. Astoundingly, McClellan assessed Lee’s strength at almost 200,000 men. It was actually between 55,000 and 65,000. Feeling that McClellan was not just making poor use of the magnificent army he had built, but virtually no use of it, Lincoln summoned Major General John Pope to a conference. He assigned him to command a force to be known as the Army of Virginia. It would consist of numerous units in and around Virginia that had been slated for incorporation into the Army of the Potomac. As if this weren’t a sufficient demonstration of Lincoln’s loss of confidence in McClellan, who seemed not only unwilling but incapable of leaving Harrison’s Landing, Lincoln ordered him to return to northern Virginia and detach three Army of the Potomac corps to be put under Pope’s command and used in coordination with the Army of Virginia.
From today’s perspective, few would argue that Lincoln was wrong to shift the initiative away from McClellan; however, he could hardly have chosen a less popular officer to turn to. Pope had shown a certain brilliance as commanding general of the Army of the Mississippi against Confederate General Sterling Price in Missouri and in the capture of Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River (February 28-April 8, 1862). His far greater military talent, however, was his unerring ability to alienate virtually everyone in the army, both officers and enlisted men. When he assumed command of the Army of Virginia in July 1862, he addressed his soldiers with a level of condescension that makes one cringe even to read it:
Let us understand each other. I have come to you from the West, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies; from an army whose business it has been to seek the adversary and to beat him when he was found; whose policy has been attack and not defense. In but one instance has the enemy been able to place our Western armies in defensive attitude. I presume that I have been called here to pursue the same system and to lead you against the enemy. It is my purpose to do so, and that speedily. I am sure you long for an opportunity to win the distinction you are capable of achieving. That opportunity I shall endeavor to give you
Amazingly, Pope also provoked a special outrage from the enemy. The Army of Virginia occupied a sliver of northern Virginia. Instead of trying to win over the populace there, Pope tyrannized them. He seized from the people whatever food supplies he wanted, and he repeatedly threatened to hang civilians as well as prisoners of war and traitors. Robert E. Lee found Pope’s conduct so unbecoming a military officer that he condemned him as no better than a “miscreant” in need of being “suppressed.”
It was not idle trash talk. Lee saw Pope as an inept and bombastic commander who was supplanting a timid one, McClellan. This made both the Army of Virginia and at least the three corps of the Army of the Potomac that were assigned to Pope’s command especially vulnerable—provided that Lee could strike before those three corps could link up with the Army of Virginia. Accordingly, on August 9, 1862, Lee dispatched Stonewall Jackson to attack a portion of the Army of Virginia at Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper. The resulting Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862) was a minor Confederate victory that did no more than force Pope to withdraw to the north bank of Rappahannock River. But that was precisely where Lee wanted him. Lee could now attack before the reluctant, petulant, and slow-moving McClellan arrived with his three Army of the Potomac corps.
For the first time in his military career, Lee decided to violate a very basic tenet of military practice in the field. He put half the Army of Northern Virginia under Major General James “Old Pete” Longstreet, charging him with the mission of occupying Pope’s front. The other half Lee gave to Stonewall Jackson, ordering him to lead his wing on a roundabout march to the northwest, so that he could hit the rear of the Army of Virginia with a surprise attack as Longstreet attacked Pope’s front. It was a strategy Lee would use again in the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). The idea was to hold the enemy by the nose while kicking him in the rear.
Pope observed the movement of Longstreet and Jackson, but he did little enough about it, except to launch a harassing raid on the encampment of Confederate cavalryman Jeb Stuart. The aim of the raid was to capture or kill Stuart. While the raiders did manage to bag the cavalryman’s adjutant, Stuart himself got away. In his haste to leave, he forgot to take with him his trademark ostrich-plumed hat and crimson-lined cape. Pope’s raiders took these items as prizes—something that delighted them almost as much as having captured Stuart himself.
Jeb Stuart was outraged. Bad enough that his adjutant had been taken, but the raiders went too far when they stole that hat and cape. Duly provoked, on August 22, Stuart and a small raiding party rode full gallop into Major General Pope’s headquarters camp at Catlett’s Station. They captured 300 prisoners and “appropriated” $35,000 in Union army payroll money. Worse, perhaps, they rifled through Pope’s personal baggage, taking his dress uniform coat and also his battle plans. Four days later, on August 26, Stonewall Jackson attacked and destroyed Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction, Virginia, very near the site of the First Battle of Bull Run. As serious as the loss of supplies was, Jackson’s raid did far worse by severing Pope’s telegraph and rail lines. This partially cut off rapid communications to and from the field and greatly limited Pope’s ability to transfer large numbers of men rapidly. The Union commander pursued Jackson, but was unable to locate him—at least until Jackson wanted to be found.
On August 28, Stonewall suddenly materialized. He attacked a Union brigade under Brigadier General Rufus King at Groveton. The skirmish was intense. Not only were two of Jackson’s division commanders seriously wounded, but King’s “Black Hat Brigade” (later called the “Iron Brigade”) fought with a fervor Jackson had never before seen in a Union military unit. While King took a toll on Jackson, however, he also suffered heavy losses. Nearly a third of his brigade were killed, wounded, captured, or missing.
Together, the Manassas raid and the Battle of Groveton were overtures to the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862). For all the problems Jackson had caused him, Pope was actually given an important advantage. The Confederate commander had revealed himself and thereby sacrificed the element of surprise. Pope knew exactly where he was, and he began concentrating his forces accordingly, deploying near Groveton with the intention not only of defeating Stonewall Jackson, but boasting that he would “bag the whole crowd.”
Pope did what McClellan seemed unable to do. He took the initiative, and he attacked Jackson on August 29. The trouble was that the attacks came piecemeal. I Corps, under Franz Sigel, started in on Jackson, and then the Pennsylvania Reserves under John Reynolds joined in. Pope ordered Major General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps, Army of the Potomac, to get between Jackson’s Corps and Longstreet’s—but it was too late. Longstreet had already made contact with Jackson on his right. Porter was stymied, not knowing where to attack.
Another of Pope’s commanders, Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman, bore down on Jackson with his corps, as did elements of Major General Jesse L. Reno’s IX Corps and two divisions under Irvin McDowell, the Union commander defeated at the First Battle of Bull Run. Despite this impressive array of forces, Pope proved utterly unable to coordinate them. Individual Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac units made inroads against Jackson’s line here and there, but, lacking effective overall command, were unable to consolidate any of their gains. Each Union attack was repulsed in turn, and, after heavy fighting, Jackson remained in control of his position by the end of the day on August 29, while Longstreet, on his right, actively extended the Confederate line. Noting Longstreet’s advantage, Lee urged him to attack, but, always cautious, Longstreet declined, protesting that he had no idea of Pope’s strength to his right and front. Longstreet did launch a reconnaissance in force to ascertain what lay ahead. This resulted in some confused nighttime skirmishing, which prompted Longstreet to recall his brigades to their starting positions.
Although Longstreet had not intended this withdrawal to deceive Pope, Pope was nonetheless deceived. At daybreak on August 30, he assumed that both Jackson and Longstreet were in full and final retreat. He assumed that the Second Battle of Bull Run was over and that he had won. When it became evident that the Confederate commanders were not giving up, Pope was confused. Unsure what to do, Pope launched a massive attack against Jackson’s front. Porter’s V Corps attacked just after three in the afternoon. Although the attack was bold, it discounted the presence of Longstreet, who used his artillery to enfilade the attackers, firing along the length of Porter’s advance and cutting his men down like reaped wheat.
Lee was quick to take advantage of Porter’s repulse. He ordered Longstreet to make a general advance, and, this time, Longstreet did so wholeheartedly and with absolute confidence. His troops surged forward, smashing into Union positions on much the same ground that had been contested at the First Battle of Bull Run. Still, two Union corps managed to hold out, and federal troops were able to hold a position on Henry House Hill. This made it possible that the tide of battle could still be turned in the Union’s favor. But Pope had lost both situational awareness and the will to fight on. He saw only that his forces were being mauled and generally driven back. He did not grasp the significance of the action on and around the high ground of Henry House Hill. Accordingly, he ordered a general retreat back across Bull Run. Longstreet rushed in to take over Henry House Hill, and Pope continued to fall back, withdrawing the combined Army of Virginia and Army of the Potomac to the outer defenses of Washington itself. Of the 75,696 troops under John Pope’s command, 1,724 were killed, 8,372 wounded, and 5,958 went missing. It was a devastating 21 percent casualty rate. Lee had a total of 48,527 men engaged, of which he lost 1,481 killed, 7,627 wounded, and 89 missing, making for a casualty rate almost as heavy as Pope’s—19 percent.
President Lincoln wasted no time in disposing of a general he hoped could have effectively replaced McClellan. Three short days after the Second Battle of Bull Run, Pope was ordered to service in the Department of the Northwest, where he was tasked with battling the Santee Sioux, who had staged an uprising in Minnesota. In effect, Lincoln exiled him, altogether removing him from the Civil War. His Army of Virginia was dissolved, and most of its units and personnel incorporated into the Army of the Potomac, whose three corps were also returned, all under the command of George B. McClellan—at least for the time being. McClellan was apparently rehabilitated, but—at this point—the Union was losing the Civil War.