The battle of Second Manassas was one of the bloodiest and most critical of the Civil War. The battle displayed the sheer power of the Confederate force when its high command performed at its highest potential. It also set the stage for the bloodiest day in American history a few weeks later along the banks of Antietam Creek in Maryland.
In the summer of 1862, after General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac began withdrawing from its unsuccessful attempt to capture Richmond on the Virginia Peninsula, President Lincoln looked to form a new army out of different Union forces in the Valley and around Washington D.C. At the head of this new Army of Virginia, he placed General John Pope, a man who had achieved success in the western theater of the war. He set out to defeat Robert E Lee’s army with a strong sense of arrogance and self assurance.
Lee wasted no time in engaging with this new enemy. In late August, Lee ordered General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to take half of the Confederate forces and march quickly to Manassas, where the first major battle of the war had occurred. Jackson’s presence at Manassas threatened Pope’s supply and communication link to the capital at Washington.
On August 29th, 1862 Pope launched a vicious assault on Jackson’s forces in a particularly brutal fight around an unfinished railroad cut that the Confederates sometimes used as a makeshift trench. Union General Phil Kearny led the most brutal assault of the day against Jackson’s left flank, an attack that seriously threatened Jackson’s position and survival. However, Jackson’s troops counterattacked and somehow held their position against the relentless waves of blue.
Meanwhile, the remainder of Lee’s army under General James Longstreet was approaching Pope’s flank. Lee expected an attack by Longstreet to relieve the pressure on Jackson, but Longstreet delayed, waiting for just the right moment to hurl his forces into Pope’s flank. Union soldiers under General Reynolds discovered the Southern reinforcements. Pope did not believe this information and thought that the reports of Longstreet’s men were born out of confusion and misidentification.
The next day Longstreet launched his attack from a perfect position on Pope’s exposed left flank. A seemingly endless wave of Longstreet’s battle hardened veterans swept toward the small units positioned on Pope’s flanks at Groveton and Chinn Ridge and quickly overwhelmed them. The Union troops put up a heroic defense, with the 5th New York Zouaves losing 300 out of 500 men. Despite heavy casualties, these Northern soldiers bought Pope much-needed time to react to the Confederate assault and form a defensive line. Jackson soon joined the attack, finally forcing Pope to issue the order to retreat.
The Southern victory was complete, and one of the shining successes of the Army of Northern Virginia. Robert E Lee, master of strategy, had outmaneuvered Pope. Jackson had used his famous speed and stealth to lure Pope to Manassas and the hard-hitting Longstreet had delivered the final blow. The victory gave Lee an even greater confidence in his men and officers, causing him to roll the dice that would end with the horrible slaughter at Antietam, an event that is inextricably linked with the events that unfolded in those late August days on the rolling hills of Northern Virginia.