The second battle of Bull Run, fought Aug. 29, 1862. (Library of Congress Prints…)
The hardened armies that would meet at the Second Battle of Manassas in late August 1862 had none of the naive enthusiasm of the men who a year earlier had joyously marched to the fields around Bull Run for a battle they believed would put a quick end to the young war between the states.
If the stunning Confederate victory at First Manassas in July 1861 had shown that a long, hard road lay ahead in this war, Second Manassas would show how bloody it would be.
The nation had been shocked by the toll at the First Battle of Manassas, which saw more than 5,000 casualties, including nearly 900 dead — the bloodiest battle in American history, to that point.
But as the Civil War stretched into its second year, the battles had become deadlier. The armies had grown much larger, the officers more competent, their tactics more proficient. The weapons were deadlier — more rifles with better accuracy and more precise artillery. As much as anything, it was this: The men had become expert at killing and remorseless about it.
In the western theater in April, Union troops under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant clashed with a large Confederate force at Shiloh, leaving more than 20,000 casualties, an unprecedented number. That grim mark was about to be matched on the familiar swales of farmland around Bull Run, 26 miles west of Washington.
‘An ungovernable mob’
In the summer of 1862, as Union Gen. George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign bogged down in front of Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln pinned his hopes on another commander who might bring victory. Gen. John Pope, who had achieved modest success in the west, was given command of the newly created Army of Virginia.
Pope quickly earned the enmity of his new army in his first address to the troops when he snidely suggested they lacked the courage of the western soldiers. But Pope had something McClellan lacked: an aggressive streak. The new commander was determined to seek out and destroy the Confederate Army.
In early August, McClellan was ordered to send his troops to Northern Virginia, where they would unite with Pope’s army and create an overwhelming force that could crush Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. But McClellan, jealous of Pope’s new prominence, delayed his departure for 10 days.
In the division of the Union armies, Lee saw opportunity. Lee would defeat Pope before he could be reinforced.
After several weeks of maneuvering, Lee’s and Pope’s armies were poised across from each other on opposite sides of the Rappahannock River. Lee developed a bold plan to split his own army.
Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson — his nickname earned by his tenacious stand at First Manassas — would take one wing around Pope’s right flank to get behind the enemy. The second wing, under Gen. James Longstreet, would stay at Pope’s front — but not for long. Once Pope turned his troops around to chase Jackson, Lee and Longstreet would follow Jackson’s path to reunite the army and try to inflict a decisive defeat on the Union force. The Confederate plan carried great risk, presenting Pope with an opportunity to destroy each wing of Lee’s army in succession.
On Aug. 25, Jackson launched his 24,000 men on one of the war’s great marches, covering more than 50 miles in 34 hours. At dawn Aug. 26, his lead elements passed through the Bull Run Mountains at Thoroughfare Gap and into the rear of Pope’s army.
Jackson had an open path to Manassas Junction, the critical railroad hub that gave the ground around Bull Run such strategic importance. Jackson’s men, lean, hungry and wide-eyed, fell upon an enormous, undefended federal depot, with warehouses and boxcars filled with rations, helping themselves to cigars and whiskey and wolfing down lobster accompanied by Rhine wine.
“Just imagine about 6000 men hungry and almost naked, let loose on some million dollars worth of biscuit, cheese, ham, bacon, messpork, coffee, sugar, tea, fruit, brandy, wine, whiskey, oysters, coats, pants, shirts, caps, boots, shoes, blankets, tents, etc.,” wrote a horrified chaplain from Louisiana. “I saw the whole army become what appeared to me an ungovernable mob.”
Union Brig. Gen. George Taylor led more than 1,000 New Jersey troops to the scene, confidently expecting to scatter some Confederate raiders. Instead, they met an explosion of fire from Jackson’s army. A quarter of the Union men were lost, and the mortally wounded Taylor urged his officers “for God’s sake to prevent another Bull Run.”
Pope saw no such danger. He withdrew his 66,000-man army from the Rappahannock and sent them northeast to hunt down Jackson’s army. “We shall bag the whole crowd,” he declared.