Exchanged after his capture at First Bull Run, James Ricketts was in his first infantry command. By the time he approached the Gap it was securely in Longstreet’s hands. Veteran gunner Ricketts used his batteries to keep the Rebels at arm’s length for a time, held his line until dark, then pulled back to Gainesville. His sole accomplishment that afternoon was to accurately locate Longstreet’s half of the Confederate army. Even that, through no fault of his, proved an empty gesture.
McDowell’s Corps, Army of Virginia, did the Federals’ fighting on August 28. While Ricketts sparred with Longstreet to the west, John Reynolds’s and Rufus King’s divisions were marching eastward along the Warrenton Pike in search of Jackson. At midday Reynolds had a brief skirmish with Rebel pickets a mile or so short of Groveton. Reynolds’s Peninsula veterans chased the intruders away and resumed their march—much to Jackson’s disappointment; by the time his troops formed up the Yankees were gone. Jackson recognized that more Yankees ought to be coming his way soon enough, and got ready to bring John Pope to battle.
In late afternoon King’s division came in sight—four brigades, led by John P. Hatch, John Gibbon, Abner Doubleday, and Marsena R. Patrick. Just then General King suffered an epileptic seizure, his second in a week. King would be hours recovering, but his lieutenants were not informed that the division was leaderless. None of the four (and only one of their fifteen regiments) had been in battle before, but all four were West Pointers and their men had considerable training and drill.
The Rebels opened on Hatch’s lead brigade with artillery, and Hatch replied with his own battery. But Jackson’s chief focus fell on the second brigade in the Yankee column, John Gibbon’s Westerners—2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana. Gibbon was a tough and loyal regular from North Carolina (his three brothers served the Confederacy), a captain of artillery in the old army who had the knack for training volunteers. He had outfitted his men with distinctive black Hardee hats, tall-crowned regulars’ headgear that they wore with pride, calling themselves the Black Hat Brigade.
Gibbon sighted horses emerge from the woods north of the turnpike and thought Rebel cavalry, but then the horses turned in unison. “My experience as an artillery officer, told me at once what this meant; guns coming into ‘battery’!” Quickly he called up his old command, Battery D, 4th United States, to counter the enemy fire. He spoke with Doubleday, whose brigade was next in line. Since by report Jackson was at Centreville, they decided this must just be horse artillery, and Doubleday suggested storming it. “By heaven, I’ll do it!” said Gibbon, and he deployed the 2nd Wisconsin. The 2nd was the division’s sole veteran regiment. On July 21, 1861, uniformed then in gray, it had charged Henry Hill and suffered grievously from both enemy and friendly fire. Without warning, battle lines of Confederate infantry came streaming out of the woods to meet the Wisconsin men, and “there burst upon them a flame of musketry.”
Gibbon hastily brought up the rest of his brigade and a battle royal erupted. In his memoir, reflecting on three years of combat, Gibbon wrote that at Groveton “for over an hour the most terrific musketry fire I have ever listened to rolled along those two lines of battle. It was a regular stand up fight during which neither side yielded a foot.” Gibbon called on General King for support and got no reply. He called on Patrick for support, got no reply, and was blunt in his report: “Patrick’s brigade remained immovable and did not fire a shot.” (In his journal Patrick noted dismissively that Gibbon “under whose order I know not sailed into the wood” to bring on a fight; lacking orders from King, he stayed out of it.) Doubleday, who had urged on Gibbon, supplied two regiments to brace his line.
The firefight continued until it was too dark to see. Only then did the two sides break apart. John Gibbon wrote his wife of “my desperate fight of Thursday during which my men were literally slaughtered. . . .” The slaughter cost the Black Hat Brigade 725 of the Federals’ 1,025 casualties; the 2nd Wisconsin lost nearly two-thirds of its men. Jackson spent 1,250 casualties to reveal his presence to John Pope.
General King, weakened by his seizure, had an unsteady grip on command. (The next morning he turned the division over to John Hatch.) He and his generals debated their predicament. They could not find corps commander McDowell—nor could anyone else. McDowell had ridden off eastward to find Pope, failed to locate him, and as a staff man put it, “could not find our way across the plains of Manassas.” They camped in the woods to wait for dawn and enlightenment. King and his lieutenants agreed that their four brigades, one of them crippled, dare not face Jackson alone in the morning. Orders were to head for Centreville, but the enemy blocked that path. Ricketts’s division at Gainesville might help . . . if McDowell so ordered. John Reynolds, good soldier that he was, had ridden to the sound of the guns and offered his division for the morning. Would that be in time, or enough help in any case? Without their corps commander to decide such critical matters, a decision was taken and reported to McDowell, wherever he might be found: “Our position is not tenable, and we shall fall back toward Manassas. . . .” Ricketts followed. So it happened that the way was left open on August 29 for Longstreet to unite with Jackson.
Rufus King would afterward be criticized for this decision, in a chorus led by John Pope, but with his limited knowledge of larger events it was the only rational choice. The true failure of command was Irvin McDowell’s. To absent himself from supervising half the army at a critical moment in the campaign was culpable negligence. He was still missing the next morning, and Pope lost his temper. “God damn McDowell, he is never where he ought to be!”
Notice of the Groveton fight reached Pope in late evening of the 28th. He leaped to the conclusion that Jackson had been intercepted in flight from Centreville. Heintzelman entered in his diary, “From the information we had we supposed the rebels retreating on Gainesville & McDowell on their front & that all we had to do was to follow them rapidly.” Pope assured his staff “the game was in our own hands.”
John Pope was truly confident he finally had Jackson trapped. He imagined McDowell’s corps, the divisions of King and Ricketts, to be west of Jackson on the Warrenton Turnpike. To the south of Jackson was Franz Sigel’s corps, three divisions under Robert Schenck, Adolph von Steinwehr, and Carl Schurz. Close by Sigel was Reynolds’s division. Pope ordered Sigel to “attack the enemy vigorously” at first light. Certain he had Jackson boxed in from west and south, Pope arranged a strike from the east. To Kearny at Centreville went instructions to march at 1:00 a.m. on August 29: “Advance cautiously and drive in the enemy’s pickets to-night, and at early dawn attack him vigorously.” Hooker would follow him, said Pope. “Be sure to march not later than 1. . . .”
Phil Kearny, reported one of his colonels, was “in one of his crabbiest moods,” his fancy accouterments far to the rear, reduced to coffee and hardtack, his only servant “a damned miscellaneous migratory contraband.” In any case he had his fill of John Pope and his repeated orders sending him this way and that way, always with great urgency, never with any result. The least tolerant of men to begin with, Kearny told Pope’s messenger, “Tell General Pope to go to Hell. We won’t march before morning.”
John Gibbon determined to hunt up Pope to brief him on the situation at Groveton, and on the morning of August 29 found him at Centreville in hot temper. Pope had by now learned of King’s withdrawal, but knew nothing of McDowell’s whereabouts. At Gibbon’s urging, he tried to reset the trap for Jackson. Fitz John Porter’s corps at Manassas, along with King’s (now Hatch’s) division, was ordered to march to Gainesville, west of Jackson’s position, to cut off his retreat. “I am following the enemy down the Warrenton Turnpike,” Pope told Porter. “Be expeditious or we will lose much.”
Gibbon volunteered to deliver the orders to Porter at Manassas, where he found as well the missing Irvin McDowell. Without orders himself, McDowell saw his command melting away, but Porter soothed him by pointing out that he was still senior officer. McDowell decided to march toward Gainesville with Porter’s Fifth Corps, plus Hatch, with Ricketts to follow. McDowell had yet to see Pope, had yet to deliver Ricketts’s report of the 28th that Longstreet was through Thoroughfare Gap and likely to advance in their direction on the 29th.
The orders Gibbon delivered marked Porter’s second change of direction that morning. At dawn Colonel Strother had awakened him with Pope’s order to march to Centreville for a pending “severe engagement.” Porter read the new order and then wrote a dispatch of his own. Porter asked Strother how to spell “chaos.” Strother told him, and “at the same time divined what he was thinking about.”
Porter was indeed thinking that chaos (he chose not to use the word) described the tangled arrangement of Union forces. His dispatch, to Ambrose Burnside, who forwarded it to Washington, described the Rebels “wandering around loose; but I expect they know what they are doing, which is more than any one here or anywhere knows.” He added, “I hope Mac is at work, and we will soon get ordered out of this.” Thus Fitz John Porter’s state of mind as he went to war on August 29.
By the time he came to issue marching orders to Joe Hooker and Jesse Reno, Pope had calmed down. He directed them to follow Kearny on the Warrenton Pike. Pope now had every man under his command on the move except for Banks’s corps, guarding the army’s trains. In none of these communications did he mention Longstreet.
On August 28 Sam Heintzelman asked, “I cannot see why troops were not pressed forward from Alex. to attack this force in our front yesterday.” General-in-Chief Halleck had the same thought. That evening he telegraphed McClellan, “There must be no further delay in moving Franklin’s corps toward Manassas. They must go to-morrow morning, ready or not ready.” McClellan’s reply was apocalyptic: “The enemy with 120,000 men intend advancing on the forts near Arlington and Chain Bridge, with a view of attacking Washington & Baltimore.” Morning on August 29 saw Franklin’s Sixth Corps march out of Alexandria all of seven miles, to the village of Annandale. There it halted on McClellan’s order and spent the day listening to the roar of battle off to the west. In midafternoon, receiving a query from the president, McClellan replied, “I am clear that one of two courses should be adopted—1st To concentrate all our available force to open communications with Pope—2nd To 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.” In halting Franklin, McClellan had adopted course two: to let Pope get out of his scrape as best he might.
Convinced that Jackson was trying to escape, Pope left no room for the possibility that his foe was seeking a battle and held good defensive ground on which to fight it. Jackson’s three divisions took advantage of concealing woods and the fills and cuts of the roadbed of an unfinished railroad. First on the scene on the 29th was Franz Sigel’s corps. Lacking guidance from anyone who fought at Groveton the day before, Sigel felt his way onto unknown ground.
Sigel’s corps was only 9,000 strong, refugees from Pathfinder Frémont’s Mountain Department, with an unhappy history against Jackson in the Valley back in the spring. First to engage was Carl Schurz’s division. His brigade commanders, Wladimir Krzyzanowski and Alexander Schimmelfennig, were like Schurz émigrés from the revolutionary turmoil in Europe. Only Krzyzanowski had seen action previously, leading the 58th New York at Cross Keys in June.
All was perfectly still, Schurz remembered: “The skirmishers pass the detached groups of timber and enter the forest. The line of battle follows at the proper distance. No sign of the enemy. A quarter of an hour elapses. Perfect stillness all around.” He began to wonder if the enemy was there at all. But then Krzyzanowski’s advance found A. P. Hill’s defenders and opened a bitter, extended firefight in the woods that soon drew in Schimmelfennig’s brigade. Schurz’s opening gambit was stymied but he managed to hold his own while waiting for support.
To Schurz’s left, Robert Milroy rushed his independent brigade into action without benefit of reconnaissance. Milroy was a lawyer and onetime Indiana militia captain with a low opinion of professional soldiers (he called Pope “our miserable humbug-bag of gas”), and he pushed his four little regiments blindly into action. They lost a quarter of their numbers and were knocked back to their starting point.
A pattern of uncoordinated assaults was set. Farther to the left, Robert Schenck’s division, supported by John Reynolds’s Pennsylvania Reserves, engaged fitfully with infantry and artillery but without unified direction . . . or accomplishment. On the right, however, the arrival of Kearny’s division—“Kearny did not start till after daylight & detained us,” Heintzelman grumbled—with Hooker and Reno following, seemed to promise a major push by the Army of the Potomac. Schurz was heartened to see orders from Sigel—in field command now that battle was joined—addressed to Kearny, telling him to take action immediately against Jackson’s left.
In his report to Sigel, Carl Schurz wrote, “On my right, however, where General Kearny had taken position, all remained quiet, and it became clear to me that he had not followed your request to attack. . . .” Heintzelman recalled, “There was so long delay that I sent to him a second order to move at once.” Hooker would complain that despite orders “repeatedly delivered . . . General Kearny’s Division did not move until several hours after my division had been driven from the forest. . . .”
Once again, as he had at Seven Pines and Glendale, Phil Kearny marched to his own drum, ignoring orders from a superior he had little respect for—in this case what was worse, from “an officer of a foreign country.” (The next day Kearny sent a note to Adolph von Steinwehr, one of Sigel’s generals whom Kearny knew from his years abroad, that offered amends. It seemed that Sigel had bristled at a letter critical of German soldiery that Kearny had sent to New Jersey’s governor. “I fancied Genl Siegel as extremely arrogant,” Kearny admitted, but he asked Steinwehr to apologize for him for the way he reacted to Sigel’s messenger . . . and by implication, to the order the man delivered.)
While Kearny’s animus toward Sigel was a factor in his slowness to act, there was more to it. This battle presented Kearny with a new command challenge. At Williamsburg, at Seven Pines, at Glendale he had responded to Rebel assaults—the enemy was in plain sight; his task was clear. Here he was ordered to mount an attack of his own devising, against an unseen enemy in an unknown position. He reacted with unaccustomed caution. He sent Orlando Poe’s brigade on a turning movement but pulled back when Poe met return fire. In time just three regiments of David Birney’s brigade supported Carl Schurz’s firefight.
Joe Hooker had particular cause to complain, for his men came close to breaking open the battle. Hooker objected to a frontal assault with just the 1,500 men of Cuvier Grover’s brigade, and proposed instead a joint attack with Kearny on the right. General Pope, taking the command, agreed. The Rebels’ railroad embankment line was formidable, so Grover sidestepped into the woods a quarter mile to the right. From that cover he launched a sudden charge, “and here occurred” (Grover reported) “a short, sharp, and obstinate hand-to-hand conflict with bayonets and clubbed muskets.” The Yankees surged ahead and broke a second line. But they were taking losses and nothing was seen of Kearny on the right, and finally the attack faltered and fell back. Grover returned with two-thirds of the men who started.
Next marked for action, by Pope’s disjointed thinking, was Jesse Reno’s little Ninth Corps division. James Nagle’s brigade spearheaded an assault that like Grover’s breached the railroad barricade but soon had its flanks beaten in and collapsed with heavy losses. In each of the day’s scattered, mistimed Union offensives, Jackson’s lieutenants met the point of attack with superior numbers and prevailed.
At 5:00 p.m. Kearny finally mounted his attack. His advance—John Robinson’s and David Birney’s brigades—sought to turn Jackson’s left. Kearny personally saw his men into the fire. “His simple words, ‘Now boys, do your duty!’ made our blood thrill and steeled our courage,” wrote New Yorker Theodore Dodge. To his wife, Colonel Alex Hays, 63rd Pennsylvania, Robinson’s brigade, described an experience entirely typical of the Federal assaults that day. His men answered his order to advance “with a deafening cheer. We drove them before us like sheep until they took shelter behind the railroad.” There they met “the most terrible fire I have ever experienced.” And there the 63rd stayed, unable to advance, unsupported, running out of ammunition. Hays suffered a bad leg wound, and soon the Rebels counterattacked his undermanned front. After an hour of this punishment they were driven back from the railroad line. Hays, who earned his brigadier’s star this day, counted the 63rd’s loss as 103 of 357 engaged. Kearny, not attacking in concert with Hooker (or with anyone else), was stymied.
At Pope’s headquarters that afternoon, Heintzelman made note, “We are looking for Porter & McDowell.” Pope was persuaded that the daylong series of attacks, however limited in results, had fixed Jackson in place so that Porter’s and McDowell’s corps might turn Jackson’s right, and more, cut him off from the rest of Lee’s army—which by Pope’s calculation would not arrive for another day at least. He staked his expectations on a joint order he had sent Porter and McDowell at 10 o’clock that morning. Whatever he intended by this order, it befuddled both generals. Pope was here repeating his episode with Nathaniel Banks at Cedar Mountain—insisting an order of his had a meaning not at all evident in the order itself.
The joint order told Porter and McDowell to march their two commands toward Gainesville. When they connected with the rest of the army on the line of the Warrenton Pike, “the whole command shall halt. It may be necessary to fall back behind Bull Run at Centreville to-night. I presume it will be so, on account of our supplies.” The rest of the enemy force—that is, Longstreet’s command—“is moving in this direction at a pace that will bring them here by to-morrow night or the next day.” Pope qualified his instructions—“If any considerable advantages are to be gained by departing from this order it will not be strictly carried out”—then qualified that by insisting the troops “must occupy a position from which they can reach Bull Run to-night or by morning.” Beyond anything else then, the whole army must be prepared promptly to fall back on Centreville. Nothing was said in the joint order of attacking Jackson’s right or indeed of attacking anywhere at all.
At midday, pondering Pope’s joint order, Porter and McDowell noted strong signs of an enemy force to the north and west, blocking their path to Gainesville. As Porter phrased it, “We had enemies where we expected to find friends.” This was, of course, Longstreet’s column. Longstreet had made a swift march from Thoroughfare Gap to link up with Jackson’s right, then formed his line at a 45-degree angle with Jackson’s line. Lee discussed with Longstreet a strike at the flank of Pope’s forces just then attacking Jackson, but this Yankee force on the Manassas–Gainesville road on their flank caused them to pause. They bided their time to see if the miscreant Pope would walk into their trap.
As he and Porter puzzled over what to do, McDowell was handed a dispatch from cavalryman John Buford, who had been tracking Longstreet. Buford reported seeing, at 8:45 a.m., a large force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry pass through Gainesville. This could only be Longstreet, and meant that he and Jackson were uniting their forces. McDowell had failed to report to Pope James Ricketts’s Thoroughfare Gap intelligence of yesterday; now he failed to forward Buford’s crucial sighting as well. McDowell told Porter they could not reach Gainesville without a fight. Therefore he was joining the rest of the army, posting his corps to fall back on Centreville, per the joint order. He said, “Porter, you are out too far already; this is no place to fight a battle.” Porter had better remain, but if he had to fall back, “do so on my left.”
McDowell’s corps made contact with the rest of the army at 3:45 p.m. At 4:30, apparently untroubled that his flanking force was now reduced by half, Pope sent to Porter “to push forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible, on his rear. . . .” At 5:45 McDowell himself arrived at headquarters. He somehow talked his way clear of the awkward fact that he had told Porter to remain in harm’s way and then marched off with his own corps to a safer place. He showed Pope John Buford’s early-morning sighting of the enemy arriving in force at Gainesville from Thoroughfare Gap. This, finally, was enough to persuade Pope that Longstreet was uniting with Jackson, but McDowell either kept silent or forgot the signs of Rebel troops in numbers on and west of the Manassas–Gainesville road. Consequently, Pope got it in his head that Longstreet was simply reinforcing Jackson’s position north of the Warrenton Pike—not the truth that Lee with his two lieutenants had formed the wide-open jaws of a trap for a stubbornly unwary John Pope.