The Second Battle of Bull Run was one of the most significant Confederate victories of the American Civil War. It was a particularly bitter blow to Northern hopes coming as it did at the end of a Union campaign that had reached the gates of Richmond and marked a remarkable turnabout in southern hopes.
The situation at the start of June held out the promise of a quick Union victory. General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was making slow but steady progress towards the Confederate capitol at Richmond (Peninsula Campaign). April had seen a major Union victory in the west, where a Confederate counterattack was defeated at Shiloh. Only in the Shenandoah Valley were Confederate armies winning victories. There the army of Stonewall Jackson spent May and early June inflicting a series of defeats on several different Union armies.
The federal response to these victories was to reorganise the armies in and around northern Virginia. On 26 June General John Pope was appointed to command a new Army of Virginia, made up of the forces previously commanded by Generals Fremont, Banks and McDowell. Pope was technically junior to all three men, but he had won victories in the west, including the capture of New Madrid and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi. Fremont resigned in protest, but Banks and McDowell stayed on to serve Pope well as corps commanders.
Pope’s appointment came at a crucial moment. On the very same day Robert E. Lee launched his great counterattack against McClellan, which developed into the Seven Days’ Battles. 26 June was the second of those seven days, but the first to see a southern offensive. This attack was badly mishandled, and resulted in a serious Confederate defeat at Mechanicsville, but McClellan’s reaction to it began to turn the Seven Days’ into a major Confederate victory. Concerned that his lines of supply on the Peninsula were dangerously exposed, McClellan decided to move his army south to the James River, where his supply lines would be protected by the navy.
This move exposed Pope’s new army to an unexpected level of danger. While McClellan was threatening Richmond, Pope’s army was fairly safe – if Lee moved enough men north to threaten Pope, then McClellan would be able to move into Richmond. However, if McClellan moved south, then Lee would be between the two federal armies. He could pin McClellan down on the James River with part of his apparently vast army and turn the rest of it north to defeat Pope.
One of the problems facing the north was of their own making. McClellan’s intelligence services had convinced him that Lee had 200,000 men around Richmond, twice the real figure. This would mean that never mind how many men Lee was known to be moving North, McClellan would still be convinced that he was outnumbered at Richmond. In fact Lee was never to have a numerical advantage at any point during the campaign that was to follow.
The real danger point would come if McClellan’s army was withdrawn from its position south east of Richmond. Once his army began to move, it would be unable to intervene anywhere, leaving Lee free to threaten Pope, or to attack McClellan’s rearguard. Responsibility for that decision now fell on the new General-in-Chief, General Halleck, promoted from the western theatre after the successes won by U.S. Grant. He arrived in Washington on 23 July, and on the following day went to visit McClellan. There he discovered that McClellan was still obsessed with the size of Lee’s army. McClellan was willing to attack Richmond, but required an increasingly unrealistic amount of reinforcements before he would do so.
Pope’s first task had been to concentrate his new army. That concentration was achieved early in July between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers, where it also served to threaten Lee’s railroad links to the Shenandoah Valley, a key source of supplies. In response, on 13 July Lee dispatched Jackson, with 12,000 men, to Gordonsville, on the same railroad as Pope’s men.
Towards the end of July, Jackson became convinced that if he was reinforced he would be able to deal with isolated elements of Pope’s army. Lee took a gamble and dispatched another 12,000 men to Jackson’s support. He was still outnumbered by about 2 to 1 by Pope’s force, now around 50,000 strong, but was now strong enough to risk a fight with part of the Union army.
He got that chance in early August. General Banks with 8,000 men, was posted eight miles south of Culpeper, at Cedar Mountain near the Rapidan River. On 9 August Jackson attacked him there, but despite having a numerical advantage was unable to win the victory he was hoping for. Eventually Banks was forced to retreat by weight of numbers, having suffered some 2,400 losses (to Jackson’s 1,400), but Jackson was well aware that larger Union forces were in the area and did not pursue.
While this was happening in northern Virginia, back on the James River McClellan had finally received the order to withdraw from the Peninsula. It was essential that he moved with speed, in order to reduce the period during which Pope was vulnerable to attack, but that was not McClellan’s way. His ordered arrived on 3 August. It then took two weeks before the last of his men left their base at Harrison’s Landing (16 August), and another three days before they began to embark for the journey north.
With McClellan finally on the move away from Richmond, Lee was free to turn his attention north. On 13 August he dispatched Longstreet with the first of another 30,000 men to join Jackson. Leaving 20,000 men at Richmond, just in case McClellan turned his rearguard around, Lee then took command of the combined army facing Pope. For a short period both armies were about the same size, around 55,000 strong. This was the chance Lee had been looking for, but for most of August it looked as if Pope would deny him his chance. Poor weather and skilful manoeuvring on Pope’s part seemed to have held Lee off for long enough for elements of the slow moving army of the Potomac to begin to reach the area.
Lee decided to make one more effort to catch Pope out before the rest of the Army of the Potomac arrived. On 25 August Jackson was sent on an outflanking march around Pope’s right wing with the aim of getting behind him and occupying his supply depot at Manassas Junction. If he succeeded this would put him between Pope and Washington and force the Union army to fight on Lee’s terms.
The outflanking march succeeded perfectly. Pope was initially convinced that Jackson was returning to the Shenandoah Valley and only learnt otherwise on the evening of 26 August, when news reached him that Jackson had captured the Manassas Junction supply depot.
Pope had to react. He marched back north towards Manassas Junction, but Jackson hid his army in the hills around the junction, waiting for the right moment to strike. That moment came late on 28 August. Aware that Lee was now approaching with the rest of the army, Jackson attacked part of McDowell’s corps at Groveton. Once again Jackson’s battlefield performance was poor – only a very small part of his force got into battle that day, but he achieved his main aim, which was to pin Pope in place until Lee could arrive. The scene was now set for Lee’s battle to begin.
The first day of the second battle of Bull Run saw Union forces on the attack. This was the most dangerous moment of Lee’s plan, for Jackson’s 24,000 men were badly outnumbered. However, this was also when Pope’s limitations as a commander were exposed. His attacks were poorly coordinated, and in all no more than 32,000 Federal soldiers got into the fighting on the first day. McDowell’s corps missed most of the action. The actions of General Porter, who had arrived from the Peninsula, have been the subject of the most controversy. On 29 June he was convinced that Longstreet with the rest of Lee’s army was in front of him and so felt that he could not move to aid Pope when ordered. After the battle he was to be removed from command as a result of his actions, but after the war he was at least partially vindicated. Longstreet had begun to arrive on 29 June, but he was not in position to launch a proper attack until late on the following day.
The second day of the battle started in a very similar way. Pope continued with his poorly coordinated attacks, this time using Porter’s troops. Once again promising attacks failed because they were unsupported, and once again Porter’s role was controversial. Pope felt that Porter’s attacks were not pressed with enough enthusiasm. However, the real problem on 30 June was that Pope refused to believe that Longstreet’s corps was anyway near Bull Run. He spent most of the day convinced that he was on the verge of a famous victory over Stonewall Jackson.
In his efforts to secure that victory, Pope slowly weakened his left wing until it was almost all engaged on the right. He came so close to breaking the Confederate line that Jackson was forced to call for reinforcements. In a way this was the moment that Lee and Longstreet had been waiting for. At about four p.m. Longstreet’s corps smashed into the side of the Federal army.
Taken almost by surprise, Pope’s men could not maintain their position. However, the Union army did hold together. At the previous year’s First Battle of Bull Run the Union army eventually turned and fled. This time Pope’s men pulled back in relatively good order. Longstreet’s men pushed them back, but did not break them, and were unable to cut their lines of retreat. Once again, Jackson did not play his part in the Confederate attacks, although by this point his men had been marching and fighting for six days.
One of the reasons that Pope’s army held together was that its line of retreat was full of fresh Federal troops. The sixth corps of the Army of the Potomac was only four miles behind the Bull Run bridges, with more troops just behind. If McClellan had moved with a bit more speed then many of these troops could have been present on the battlefield.
Lee was well aware of the approaching Federal troops. After another brief attempt to outflank the retreating Federal troops was repulsed at Chantilly (1 September), Lee turned his attention to an invasion of the north from the Shenandoah Valley. The defences of Washington were far too strong for him to attack, especially now that there were two entire Federal armies in the vicinity.
Second Bull Run was not the decisive victory that Lee was hoping for, but it was still an impressive achievement. With 55,000 men Lee had defeated an army 75,000 strong. He had suffered significantly lower losses than Pope (1,481 dead, 7,627 wounded and 89 missing compared to 1,724 dead, 8,372 wounded and 5,958 missing in Pope’s army). Although Pope had not performed badly, he was quickly replaced by McClellan, whose mere presence on the roads out of Washington had helped restore the morale of the defeated Federal army. This despite the fact that it was McClellan’s poor performance in front of Richmond that had left Pope’s army so dangerously exposed.
Things were soon to get worse for the North. In the aftermath of Second Bull Run, Lee concentrated his army in the Shenandoah Valley, and on 4 September crossed the Potomac into Maryland, on the campaign that would end at Antietam. The rapid transformation of southern hopes in the summer of 1862 promoted Robert E. Lee to the first rank of Southern heroes, a position he was to hold for the rest of the war and beyond.