08 January 2006 by Published in: General musings 12 comments

The Second Battle of Bull Run was fought August 28-30, 1862. I have, for a long time now, found this battle to be particularly compelling and especially interesting. As Ulric Dahlgren was the acting chief of artillery for the Army of Virginia’s First Corps during the battle, addressing it renewed my interest in this campaign. I’ve long toyed with the idea of doing a book that would be called “Pope’s Horsemen: The Union Cavalry in the Second Bull Run Campaign”, and may yet do so; the research for it is largely finished.

The opening engagement is often treated as a separate battle, the Battle of Brawner’s Farm, also sometimes called the Battle of Groveton. In this action, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon’s brigade of western soldiers (Indiana and Michigan troops) earned the name the Iron Brigade, and Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Stonewall Jackson’s ranking division commander, was badly enough wounded that it cost him a leg. The main battle opened the next day, with Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia launching uncoordinated, piecemeal attack after uncoordinated, piecemeal attack against Jackson’s Corps, which was using an unfinished railroad cut near the 1861 Bull Run battlefield, as a natrual breastwork. One of Pope’s attacks briefly punched through the line, and was driven back, and the day’s fighting ended up with the opposing forces in pretty much the same positions they had held at the beginning of the day.

Pope was so focused on the enemy in front of him that he refused to believe intelligence reports that indicated that Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s Corps had passed through Thoroughfare Gap and was moving on his flank. Brig. Gen. John Buford, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks’ active and extremely competent chief of cavalry, sat on a bluff at Gainesville and personally counted Longstreet’s battle flags as they passed. Buford reported this intelligence to Brig. Gen. James Ricketts, who passed it to Irvin McDowell, who pocketed it. For reasons that are unclear, McDowell waited for six hours to give this intelligence to Pope.

The next day, Pope renewed his attack, sending 12,000 men of the Fifth Army Corps against the center of Jackson’s line. In extremely fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Fifth Corps attack was repulsed. By then Longstreet’s Corps was on the field, and not long after the repulse of the Fifth Corps attack, Longstreet launched a counterattack that rolled up Pope’s flank and drove his army from the field in a disorganized rout. By September 5, Pope’s Army of Virginia had ceased to exist and Pope was on a train to Minnesota, where he spent the balance of the war fighting Indians.

Robert E. Lee suffered no major casualties in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, Ewell being the highest ranking casualty. On the other side, two of Pope’s division commanders were killed in a confused fight in a raging thunderstorm at Chantilly the next day (September 1). Second Bull Run was probably Lee’s greatest victory; there was no other instance where an army ceased to exist as a consequence of a battlefield defeat (other than through surrender, such as at Vicksburg). Yet, Pope’s army was that soundly beaten.

What I’ve never quite understood is why this battle gets little respect and even less attention. Perhaps it’s because Pope was such a dislikeable fellow, described by Lee as a “miscreant”, and hated by his own men. Perhaps it’s because it did not really involve the Army of the Potomac or any of its principal commanders. Perahps it’s because the battle was fought on the same ground as the July 1861 fight occurred. Perhaps the total destruction of all but four acres of the Chantilly battlefield adds to it. Perhaps it’s because the Army of Northern Virginia fought a mainly defensive battle. However, it’s hard to argue the merits of what Lee achieved or the significance of the battle, which engendered panic in Washington. In my humble opinion, it was Lee’s greatest victory, overshadowing even Chancellorsville, which cost him the services of Stonewall Jackson and led to the wounding of A. P. Hill in the same errant volley. Yet, Chancellorsville (which is a campaign and battle that also fascinates me) gets far, far more attention, both in terms of visitation and the number of pages of published works devoted to it than Second Bull Run could ever hope to achieve.

In addition, the Second Bull Run Campaign has produced one of the finest Civil War campaign studies ever published in John J. Hennessy’s excellent Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. John’s book really is one of the best studies of a full campaign I’ve ever seen; it’s hard to imagine anyone ever doing a better job of it than he did. And while John’s book is universally respected (and rightfully so), it hasn’t done much to generate a lot of interest in this battle, either.

Interestingly, the men of Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel’s First Corps–which later became the much-maligned Eleventh Corps–did some of the hardest fighting on the two days of the main battle at Second Bull Run, including a desperate last stand on Henry House Hill. Yet again, they get no respect for this fight, either.

Also, the massive push to save Stuart’s Hill from development required Congressional intervention and the purchase of the land at an exorbitantly high price. This particular preservation fight focused a great deal of attention on the plight of Civil War battlefield land perservation, in light of the loss of the Chantilly battlefield. Even the loss of the Chantilly battlefield had an unforeseen but very favorable outcome–it led to the creation of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites, the successor organization to which is today known as the Civil War Preservation Trust, in response to the destruction of all but four acres of the Chantilly battlefield.

I wish I could understand why this battle and campaign doesn’t get the respect and attention it deserves, but I can’t. I can only hope that some day, it does finally receive the respect it really deserves.

Scridb filter


  1. Dave Kelly
    Sun 08th Jan 2006 at 7:18 pm

    Points well taken. The 2d Manassass battle was Napoleonic in scope, with sweeping maneuver, classic tactical encounters, and huge Corps assaults.

    But it’s bookended by 7Days and Sharpsburg. Sort of like everybody knows Waterloo and draws a blank on Ligny/Sombreffe….

    The federals swept the period under the rug like a stroke victim with partial memory loss. Halleck had just come to Washington and couldn’t control McClellan. Huge numbers of federal troops stood idle while commands fussed at each other. Union malaise continued all the way to Gettysburg (or if you prefer until Grant took operational control). 2d Bull Run was just buried in a landslide of failures.

    Lee and his lieutenants smelled decisive victory here, but, like so many 19th Century battles, time, distance and weaponry got away from the commanders and both sides took a battering without closure.

    Bull Run and Perryville, 2d Corinth all fall in a crack in late 1862.

  2. Sun 08th Jan 2006 at 8:11 pm


    I think that your point here is very well-taken. Perryville was obviously a critical phase of the war and marked the true Confederate high water mark. I don’t know a lot about Second Corinth and won’t comment on it, but I think you’re absolutely correct about Second Manassas being lost in the Antietam shuffle, and I think you’re quite right about it being just another in a long line of Union failures, irrespective of how important this campaign really was.


  3. Paul Taylor
    Sun 08th Jan 2006 at 11:37 pm


    I try to make the point in my battle of Ox Hill (Chantilly) book that even in its day, Second Bull Run/Chantilly received scant media attention. This was due in large measure to the strict clampdown that Pope instituted on newspapermen as well as stopping all soldiers’ mail into and out of the camps. The news blackout came about in part due to Henry Halleck being fed up with operational details being leaked to the press that would then often appear in Washington papers the next day!

    Such censorship had never before occurred and was later commented on at length by both the soldiers and the press. The net result was that there was relatively little news at the time to capture and hold the pubic’s imagination.

    A few days later, Lee’s army was splashing across the Potomac. The great invasion of Maryland quickly usurped national attention as to what had happened on the plains of Manassas only a week before. Such lack of focus has apparently continued to today.

    That said, I think I recall reading somewhere that in the several decades following the war, Second Bull Run was most widely discussed and debated battle amongst the veterans, even more so than Gettysburg. Don’t recall where, though.

    It’s an amazing battle, and probably the one where Lee’s high command were at their best in working in concert with one another.

    Paul Taylor

  4. Sun 08th Jan 2006 at 11:47 pm


    I’d forgotten about your book on Chantilly–please forgive me for that. I’m glad that you piped up about this issue.

    Your point is certainly valid, and well-taken. And I think that you’re absolutely correct about the invasion of Maryland diverting any and all attention away from what had transpired at Second Bull Run and Chantilly. As for subsequent attention, it’s worth noting that there was a major court-martial and a significant court of inquiry that came out of that battle, so it’s no wonder that the veterans found it a fascinating topic for endless discussions.

    And I agree with you about Lee’s conduct of the battle. It shows what happens with good staff work and even better performance.


  5. Johnny Whitewater
    Mon 09th Jan 2006 at 1:56 am

    Hailing from Wisconsin, I’d be remiss not to point out that at Brawner’s Farm the Iron Brigade was comprised mostly of Wisconsin soldiers, with 3 Wisconsin regiments (2nd, 6th and 7th) combined with one Indiana regiment.

    The 24th Michigan’s first action as part of the Iron Brigade was at Fredericksburg (and the brigade as a whole did very little during that battle).

  6. Johnny Whitewater
    Mon 09th Jan 2006 at 2:00 am

    I also forgot to mention that the brigade became known as the Iron Brigade during the Antietam campaign, after their action at South Mountain

  7. Mon 09th Jan 2006 at 9:52 am


    Having just finished playtesting for Mad Minute Games’ new computer wargame, Take Command: Second Manassas, I was going to point out what Johnny mentions above as well, except he beat me to it. 😉

    Brett S.

  8. elektratig
    Mon 09th Jan 2006 at 1:28 pm

    Just a word on behalf of poor John Pope. Yes, particularly in his younger days he was self-centered and a bit of a blowhard, and yes he was utterly over his head at Second Manassas. All that said, however, the man had a number of admirable characteristics. After reading Return to Bull Run — which I agree is an outstanding book — I was intrigued by Pope and read Cozzens’s biography, General John Pope: A Life for the Nation, which I highly recommend.

    Pope’s post-Manassas Bull Run career confirms that, while Pope could be extremely annoying at times, he mellowed over time, and he was a man of substantial talent in other respects, provided he was kept away from the battlefield. Grant and others recognized that he was a highly competent administrator, rewarding him with substantial commands in the West, punctuated by diligent and conscientious service as District commander of the Third District (Alabama, Georgia and Florida) during Reconstruction.

    He also proved a highly perceptive and sympathetic analyst of the “Indian problem”, recognizing that the cycle of treaty, followed by renewed White incursion, gave the Indians little choice but to fight. As early as 1865, he perceptively described the cycle of tragedy and foresaw its “dreadful” end:

    “Lately large reinforcements have been organized which are now moving against the Indians in the hope to restore peace, but in my judgment with little prospect of doing so. The first demand of the Indian is that the white man shall not come into his country. How can we promise this, with any purpose of fulfilling the obligation, unless we prohibit emigration west or south of the Missouri River? So far from being prepared to make such an engagement with the Indian, the government is every day stimulating emigration and its resulting wrong to the Indian. Where under such circumstances is the Indian to go, and what is to become of him?

    “My duties require me to protect the emigration, the mails, and the settlements against hostile acts of the Indians. I have no power under the laws of the United States to do this except by force. As the Indians are more and more driven to desperation, the end is sure and dreadful to contemplate.”

    In 1887, after his retirement as Major General in 1886, he wrote sadly:

    “There is no rest for the Indian on this continent except in the grave to which he is being driven with accelerated speed every day. I used to think something in accordance with the ordinary dictates of humanity might be devised for him and carried into execution by the government but that hope has long been abandoned and death alone appears to offer relief from an outrage which will be a stain on this government and this people forever.”

    One must admire a man who was capable of expressing such sentiments.

  9. Tue 10th Jan 2006 at 10:07 am


    I agree with you. In 2000, when Pete Cozzens’ book came out, I was asked to review it for the Civil War News. Here are the first two paragraphs of that review:

    “Few figures of the Civil War are more reviled than is John Pope. The defining moment of Pope’s life was his debacle at the battle of Second Bull Run. Arguably Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory, Second Bull Run left both Pope and the Lincoln administration embarrassed. That debacle has long been the only thing that most people remember Pope’s career for.

    Unfortunately, an exclusive focus on Pope’s loss at Second Bull Run ignores his near 50-year career in the Regular Army, a career marked by fine, dedicated service and the respect of his peers.”


  10. ESRafuse
    Tue 10th Jan 2006 at 11:34 am


    Pope does deserve better. I do not necessarily agree that he in particular was in over his head in Virginia–after all, what Union general wasn’t before 1864? To be sure, there were many unpleasant aspects of Pope’s personality. But more weight should be given to the fact that the summer of 1862 was perhaps the most complicated time politically, militarily, and personally of the war for the North. I also think Pope is a victim of the fact that we are too quick to blame the generals in the East for military failure; but where is the problem? The generals change both in name and character, from the conservative McClellan to the radical Pope to the squishy Burnside to the aggressive Hooker to the cautious Meade, but there are two constants: inability to achieve decisive success and the character of the civilian leadership. Moreover, it should be noted that, in general, Union military success was usually in equal measure to how far a particular theater was from Washington. This is not, of course, to say that the Union generals did not make errors and create their own friction. They all did, but the “what fools they were” school of Civil War historiography provides an inadequate picture of the war.

    But back to Pope. In order to get the job of commanding the Army of Virginia and do it effectively, he really had no choice but to conspicuously demonstrate his sympathy with the anti-McClellan crowd in Washington. In the process, however, he antagonized much of the officer corps and effectively commit himself to conducting operations aggressively, even though caution would have served him better. Sometimes what you got to do to get the job compromises your ability to do the job when you got it. Moreover, he was saddled with subordinates (Sigel, McDowell, Banks, Porter, Heintzelman) who were questionable for varying reasons, facing an Army of Northern Virginia that was truly at its peak, and had a somewhat unclear mission. Was concentrating the Armies of Virginia and Potomac the paramount priority (certainly McClellan and his associates believed this to be the case), or was seizing and creating opportunities to fight and beat the Confederates as Pope promised? And at a critical point in the campaign, when Pope needed guidance on this point and the ability to exchange information with his superiors, his communications were cut. But despite this, he skillfully thwarted Lee’s maneuvers (aided at first by the orders seized at Verdiersville, luck that the Union created by authorizing Buford’s raid) along the Rapidan and Rappahannock, conceived a sound plan for dealing with Jackson’s raid on Manassas Junction, and I think generally made the best decisions he could based on what he knew. True, he left Thoroughfare Gap open to Longstreet, dismissed evidence of Longstreet’s arrival, and developed his plans on 29-30 August based on faulty perceptions of the situation. But leaving Thoroughfare Gap relatively open was not necessarily fatal, and the latter is at least understandable. The officers advising Pope of Longstreet’s presence the morning of 30 August were Porter and Reynolds, both of whom were part of the McClellan crowd and Pope’s suspicion of this clique had been reinforced in recent days by Porter’s actions and warnings from the ever-noxious Kearny. Even then, were it not for McDowell’s awful blunder on the afternoon of 30 August, it seems unlikely that Longstreet’s assault would have achieved as much as it did. And even then, Pope was still able to get back across Bull Run and link up with the two corps of the Army of the Potomac that (after much unseemly foot-dragging by McClellan, another factor that must be taken into account) had finally marched out from the Washington defenses. In the process, Pope inflicted a significant beating on Jackson’s command and Longstreet’s that in the cold light of attritional analysis (which makes it possible to even see a silver lining in the Fredericksburg debacle), was worth something to the Union cause.

    One of Pope’s problems in history and memory, as I argue in a footnote in McClellan’s War, is that the Radical Republicans did not make the kind of effort to rehabilitate him that they would for Fremont and Hooker–in part because they found a new hero in the latter. As Hennessy pointed out in his incomparable book, Second Manassas was, next to Gettysburg, perhaps the most controversial campaign during the decades after the war. I do not think it is fair to say that Second Manassas has not generated recent interest or does not receive respect; I just think Hennessy did such an outstanding job that there has been no point revisiting it in a major way–although Joseph Harsh does so superbly in Confederate Tide Rising.


  11. Tue 10th Jan 2006 at 8:50 pm


    That post was a real tour de force. There’s so much in it, that I hardly know where to begin. So, I think I will simply say “well done” and that I agree with virtually everything that you say here. I think that your analysis of these issues is spot on, and well stated.

    Thanks for chiming in. You added a lot to the discussion.


  12. Will Keene
    Wed 11th Jan 2006 at 4:36 am

    “Second Bull Run was probably Lee’s greatest victory; there was no other instance where an army ceased to exist as a consequence of a battlefield defeat (other than through surrender, such as at Vicksburg). Yet, Pope’s army was that soundly beaten.”

    I think you’re over the top here. Pope’s army did cease to exist as an administrative unit becuase it was merged with the AotP. But the Corps that had composed it continued intact. Hooker was given command of what had been McDowell’s Corps and it played a prominent role at Antietam. Under Reynolds, this Corps would go on to Fredricksburg, Chancellorville, and Gettysburg.

    Banks Corps also served at Antietam under Mansfield, after that under Slocum. Sigel’s Corps was quite beat up at Manassas, but during the Antiteam campaign it rested and strengthened in northern Virginia. Command later switched to Howard. These two were renumbered as the 11th and 12th and would be at Chancelloreville and Gettsburg then went west to Chattanooga. They were then combined to form the 20th and served in the Atlanta campaign, the March to the Sea, etc.

Comments are closed.

Copyright © Eric Wittenberg 2011, All Rights Reserved
Powered by WordPress