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Monday, August 27, 2012

Brooks D. Simpson on “the very vortex of hell,” Second Manassas (The Second Battle of Bull Run), August 28–30, 1862

Guest blog post by Brooks D. Simpson, professor of history, Arizona State University and co-editor of The Civil War: The First Year

On the afternoon of August 30, 1862, Union general John Pope was determined to smash Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s line once and for all. For the better part of two days he had launched assault after assault against the Confederates, who were deployed along an unfinished railroad cut that ran along a ridge northwest of the battlefield of First Manassas. At one point the Rebels’ ammunition had run so low that they had taken to throwing rocks at the attackers. One more time, Pope believed, and victory would be his.

In gathering men for the final assault, Pope left a single brigade and an artillery battery to watch matters on his extreme left flank. Colonel Gouverneur K. Warren deployed the 10th New York to the west, along with Lieutenant Charles E. Hazlett’s Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, along a hill just south of the crossroads at a hamlet named Groveton, while Warren’s old regiment, the 5th New York, remained in reserve. Both New York regiments were outfitted in colorful Zouave uniforms: the red pantaloons of the 5th helped mark them as one of the most visible regiments in the entire Army of the Potomac, and they were rumored to be George B. McClellan’s favorite volunteer regiment. But the beloved Little Mac was nowhere to be found at Second Manassas. Neither was the enemy, at least for these Yankees, and the men of the 5th stacked their arms and rested.

Suddenly soldiers from the 10th emerged from the woods in front of the 5th. They were fleeing rearward as quickly as possible, pausing only long enough to alert their fellow Zouaves that the enemy was upon them and coming quick. And so they were: nearly thirty thousand Confederates under the command of James Longstreet, spearheaded by John Bell Hood’s fiery Texas brigade, were advancing on Pope’s exposed left flank. The New Yorkers were all too familiar with the Texans, for the adversaries had met just over two months before at Gaines’ Mill. No sooner had they fallen into line than bullets began ripping through their ranks. At first the 5th could not readily return fire lest they hit their retreating comrades: they could barely manage a single volley before the Confederates charged.

Within minutes the New Yorkers broke. Many of them were cut down by the pursuing Confederates as they scrambled downhill towards a creek and crossed it to a ridge in the distance. At first Hazlett’s guns, bypassed in the initial Confederate assault to the south, stayed in position, until the battery commander realized that he stood in danger of being cut off. In orderly fashion the artillerists limbered their guns and pulled back.

Warren finally rallied what was left of his command at Henry Hill, the site of hard fighting in the 1861 battle. His old regiment was shattered. Of some 560 men, over half had fallen, with some 120 men killed. Back on the hillside, one of the Texans termed the carnage “a ghastly, horrifying spectacle,” while another observer said that from afar the colorful uniforms made the hillside look as if it were covered by wildflowers. Years later the regiment’s survivors returned to the field to dedicate a monument marking the events of that day. As one of them recalled, “where the regiment stood that day was the very vortex of hell.” (quoted in Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas by John J. Hennessy)

For Confederate lieutenant John Hampden Chamberlayne, who had been among the defenders at the railroad cut, it had been a most memorable contest. “All day long they threw their masses upon us, all day they fell back, shattered & shrieking,” he told his mother of the action of August 29. The next day had been even worse: Chamberlayne claimed that the fighting “was by far the most horrible & deadly that I have ever seen.” Although the battlefield was covered with Union dead, the foe was not destroyed. “Their discipline & the night saved them from a rout,” the lieutenant concluded.

Doubtless both the stubborn resistance of Pope’s army and nightfall played a role in preventing disaster at Second Manassas. Yet the result served as a reminder of just how hard it was to achieve total victory in one single decisive clash. Aside from Warren’s brigade and Hazlett’s battery, the Union left flank was completely vulnerable to Longstreet’s devastating blow. Terrain had helped slow down the momentum of the Confederate attack, as did the rapid response of Union defenders elsewhere in shifting to face the new threat. Still, if one could not destroy an enemy army at one blow under such circumstances, it seemed unlikely ever to happen. Enamored of visions of decisive battle, Civil War generals reluctantly learned that only after a series of indecisive bloody battles and trying sieges would they be able to pound the ragged enemy into submission and surround a foe decimated by desertion and starvation as a prelude to surrender.

Among those commanders who were frustrated by the indecision of battle was Robert E. Lee. Never again would Lee enjoy such an opportunity to smash his opponent as at Second Manassas, although he would seek once more to turn exposed Union flanks at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Helping to frustrate that latter effort in Pennsylvania would be none other than Warren, whose appraisal of the situation from the summit of Little Round Top led him to hurry reinforcements to that position, including none other than Hazlett’s battery (although Hazlett would be cut down in the ensuing clash). For the moment, however, the Confederates claimed victory. Whether they could make any use of it would be decided in the next few weeks, as Lee decided to cross the Potomac and invade Maryland.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It; The Civil War: The Second year Told by Those Who Lived It

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