“You are excited, young man; the people you see are General Porter’s command taking position on the right of the enemy.” -Gen. John Pope, upon receiving a breathless report of movement by Confederate Gen. James Longstreet’s 28,000-man army.
156 years ago today, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army emerged victorious in what would be the decisive battle of the Second Manassas Campaign. The Battle of Second Manassas lasted three days, resulted in 22,177 casualties, and gave Lee the confidence to invade Maryland, leading to the bloodiest single-day battle in American history – at Sharpsburg less than one month later.
The campaign began because of a bold Confederate strategy to provoke the Union army. By late August, Lee’s trusted and highly capable wing commanders, Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson and Gen. James Longstreet, had brought Lee's army within 35 miles of the Union capital. On August 28, soon after covering 54 miles in 36 hours with his 24,000 men, Jackson ordered an attack on a passing Federal column to draw Union Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia into battle. Jackson’s attack that day resulted in a stalemate after hours of furious fighting, but it achieved the broader Confederate objective of convincing Pope that he was winning.
Through a full day of fighting on August 29, Pope maintained this misapprehension, launching a series of assaults against Jackson’s position, which were repulsed with heavy casualties on both sides. Longstreet’s wing arrived on the field around midday but the majority of his forces were held in reserve.
General Pope spent the morning of August 30, in the words of one of his aides, “standing under a tree waiting for Jackson to retreat.” Despite repeated warnings from his subordinates, he refused to believe that Longstreet was forming to attack his left flank and renewed his own assaults that afternoon. When Confederate artillery devastated a Union assault by Gen. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, Longstreet’s wing of 28,000 men attacked in one of the largest simultaneous attacks of the war. The Union left flank was crushed and the army driven back to Bull Run. Only an effective Union rearguard action prevented a replay of the First Manassas disaster.