The Battle of Second Manassas: Longstreet’s Attack

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series The Northern Virginia Campaign

The Battle of

Second Manassas:

Longstreet’s Attack

The final unit in Maj. Gen. James Longstreet‘s Corps arrived on the field at about 3:00 AM on the morning of August 30, 1862. All was now in readiness for the final day of the Battle of Second Manassas.

Maj. Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s Corps was in secure defensive positions along the edge of Stony Ridge behind an unfinished railroad grade. The previous day they had repulsed day-long Union attacks against their position. Jackson’s Corps numbered in the area of 20,000 men.

Longstreet’s troops had arrived through the Thoroughfare Gap and were positioned at a right angle to Jackson’s position. Longstreet had positioned the divisions of Brig. Gens. Cadmus M. WilcoxJohn Bell HoodJames L. Kemper and David R. Jones from left to right across his front. He placed his last-arriving division, that of Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, in a reserve position on the north side of Warrenton Pike. General Map of Second Manassas, Aug 30, Porter's AttackRobert E. Lee had positioned 18 of his artillery pieces, under Col. Stephen D. Lee, on the left of his line. In all, Longstreet had some 25,000 troops.

Click Map to enlarge.

Maj. Gen. John Pope, the Union commander, held a council of war at about 8:00 AM, during which his subordinate generals urged him to be cautious. Probes of the Confederate positions on Stony Ridge indicated that the Confederates remained entrenched there in great strength. Brig. Gen. John Reynolds and Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter arrived with the intelligence that the Confederates were in great strength south of the pike. This was Longstreet’s powerful corps.

Pope had decided that the newly arrived Confederates were there to extricate Jackson’s Corps from its positions and retreat en masse to the West. Based on this false assumption, he crafted his battle plans. He ordered Porter, supported by Reynolds and Brig. Gen. John P. Hatch to advance west along the pike.

Reynolds and Hatch commanded divisions in Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell‘s III Corps while Porter led his own V Corps of the Army of the Potomac, which had been attached to Pope’s Army of Virginia for this campaign.

At the same time as they were advancing west, Pope planned for the divisions of Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts, Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to advance on the Union right. Pope believed that this attack would crush the retreating Confederates. In essence Pope discounted all reports of Longstreet’s arrival and planned an attack that would expose his entire attacking fire to enfilade rifle and artillery fire on his left.

It took Porter about two hours to organize his 10,000-man corps to attack Jackson’s positions to his front. Porter’s attacking force needed to Map of Second Manassas, August 30, Union Defensetraverse 600 yards of open farmland, of which the final 150 yards was steeply uphill. All while under galling rifle firing from their front and enfilade artillery fire from their left. Hatch’s division only had 300 yards to traverse but they were required to make a complex right wheel maneuver, all while under similar fire.

Click Map to enlarge.

Hatch’s men made an initial breakthrough, routing the 48th Virginia but the Stonewall Brigade was able to close the breach in the line, despite the loss of their commander, Col. William S. H. Baylor, who was killed. It was at this point that the most interesting incident of the battle took place. As two defending Confederate brigades ran out of ammunition, they resorted to throwing rocks at the attacking Union troops. Some of the Union soldiers returned their fire. Longstreet directed his artillery to support the defenders and the Union attackers were cut to pieces.

Porter, seeing that his force was sustaining significant casualties, halted his advance and left his lead brigades to extricate themselves without support. Some of the Confederate troops from Brig. Gen. William E. Starke‘s Brigade attempted to pursue the retreating Union troops but were turned back. At this point, McDowell ordered Reynolds to support Porter. This left only 2,200 men south of the pike and exposed the Union flank in that position.

Lee and Longstreet agreed that the time was right for the Counterattack against the exposed Union flank. They decided that Henry House Hill, a key position at the first battle here, would be their objective. By capturing it, they could dominate the battlefield and cut off the Union avenue of retreat.

Hood’s Texans began their assault at about 4:00 PM, supported by Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans‘ South Carolina Brigade. Opposing them were but two Union brigades of Cols. Nathaniel C. McLean and Gouverneur K. Warren.  Warren’s brigade was almost immediately overwhelmed. Within the first 10 minutes of contact, the 500 men of the 5th New York lost almost 300 shot, 120 of them mortally wounded, the largest loss of life of any infantry regiment in a single battle during the entire war.

Map of Second Manassas, August 30, Final Confederate attacksMcLean’s Brigade was left to defend against the rampaging Confederates until reinforcements could race to defend Henry House Hill. The 1,200-man Ohio brigade with one artillery battery for support faced west on Chinn Ridge. They were able to repulse the first two assaults but the third assault forced them to retreat after a fierce firefight at point-blank range. The Ohioans were able to give Pope 30 minutes to bring up reinforcements. Their payment was a 33% casualty rate.

Click Map to enlarge.

As soon as the arriving Union brigades entered the battle, they were severely mauled by reinforcing Confederate brigades. At least four Union brigades attempted to hold back the onrushing tide of gray. Both sides sustained grievous casualties. The Union forces were able to hold back the Confederates while Pope was able to place four brigades in defensive positions on Henry House Hill.

Realizing that he would need fresh brigades to push back the Union defenders, Lee ordered Anderson’s Division forward from its position in the reserves. Several Confederate attacks met with some success but the approaching nightfall prevented Anderson from exploiting their success.

Jackson ordered an attack at 6:00 PM that met with limited success. His failure to be more aggressive during the third day of the battle is somewhat puzzling. Historian John J. Hennessy called Jackson’s delays “one of the battle’s great puzzles” and “one of the most significant Confederate failures” of the battle.

By 8:00 PM, Pope ordered a general withdrawal to Centreville. Unlike the previous battle at this location, the Union retreat was conducted in an orderly fashion.  The Confederates, weary from battle and low on ammunition, did not pursue in the darkness. Although Lee had won a great victory, he had not achieved his objective of destroying Pope’s army.

Union casualties were about 10,000 killed and wounded out of 62,000 engaged; the Confederates lost about 1,300 killed and 7,000 wounded out of 50,000. The Battle of Second Manassas was John Pope’s last as the commander of the Army of Virginia. In fact, it was the last battle of that formation. Pope was relieved of command on September 12, 1862, and his army was merged into the Army of the Potomac as it marched into Maryland under McClellan. He spent the remainder of the war in the Department of the Northwest in Minnesota, dealing with the Dakota War of 1862.



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