On this day in 1862, Confederate forces win the Second Battle of Bull Run. The two-day battle would prove to be one of the bloodier battles of the Civil War.
Union General John Pope was then chasing Confederate General Stonewall Jackson across northern Virginia. Pope thought he knew where Jackson was going, and he thought he had the upper hand.
He was wrong, on both counts.
Jackson knew something that Pope didn’t know: General Robert E. Lee and General James Longstreet were on their way to rendezvous with Jackson’s forces. Pope thought Longstreet was too far away to be of immediate assistance. He set off after Jackson, telling one of his men that “we shall bag the whole crowd.”
Pretty cocky! Little did he know that he’d been misinformed about Jackson’s location. Thus, on the evening of August 28, an unprepared federal column stumbled across Jackson’s men, who were hiding in some trees.
The battle that evening was hard fought. One Union soldier later described the scene: “My God, what a slaughter! No one seemed to know the object of the fight, there we stood one hour the men falling all around; we got no orders to fall back, and Wisconsin men would rather die than fall back without orders.”
Finally, though, darkness fell and both sides retired for the evening.
Pope was elated! He’d found Jackson. He quickly gathered his units and prepared for a renewed battle. Unfortunately, he still misjudged his opponent. He thought that he’d caught Jackson retreating toward Longstreet, when, in fact, he’d just fallen into Jackson’s neatly laid trap.
Pope’s misperceptions prompted him to make some bad decisions the next day.
“Instead of waiting until he had concentrated a large force in front of Jackson,” historian James M. McPherson explains, “he hurled his divisions one after another in piecemeal assaults against troops who instead of retreating were ensconced in ready-made trenches formed by the cuts and fills of an unfinished railroad.”
The Confederates managed to hold their own all day. Longstreet and Lee finally arrived in the vicinity, blocking a portion of Pope’s army from joining in the battle. Pope, however, still didn’t seem to realize that Longstreet was nearby, and the Confederate reinforcements ultimately decided not to make their move so late in the day. Again, both sides retired for the night.
Can you believe that Pope still misread what was happening? He thought the Confederates were retreating (again). He even sent a dispatch to Washington, D.C. prematurely declaring his imminent victory.
Famous last words?
The next morning, Pope saw just how wrong he was. As he readied his men to pursue presumably fleeing soldiers, he realized that they were not retreating at all. They were still in the trenches, firing at the advancing federal troops.
Again the battle was hard fought. Jackson’s men began to run out of ammunition, so some began throwing rocks. It was at this point that Longstreet finally came in, announcing his arrival with heavy cannon fire.
“Once Longstreet’s men went into action,” McPherson writes, “they hit the surprised northerners like a giant hammer.”
Pope finally realized that he’d lost, and he began his retreat toward Washington. One last battle would be fought against Pope’s rear guard on September 1, just 20 miles from the nation’s capital, but federal forces would retreat from that conflict as well.
Pope’s total force had outnumbered Lee’s by about 65,000 to 55,000. Nevertheless, during that last week in August, Union forces ended up suffering a total of 16,000 casualties,
compared to less than 10,000 for Lee.
It was one of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories.
James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (1988)
John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas (1992)