The Second Battle of Bull Run: A Missed Opportunity

Sun Tzu said that all warfare is deception. Confederate General James Longstreet never met Sun Tzu. In late August of 1862, Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were awaiting another Union attack aimed at eventually taking out the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Lee knew that McClelland was on the march and would soon be nearing the Confederate positions in defense of Richmond. Major General John Pope was set to join with McClelland and strike down the Confederacy. It had not been a good summer for the Union Army in Virginia and on the Peninsula. Things would not get any better for the Union when the 2nd Battle of Bull Run/Manassas took place in late August. But for the Confederacy, it was a missed opportunity which could have devastated the Union.

The summer of 1862 had seen the Confederacy lose battle after in the battle west (Mississippi and Tennessee) while winning battle after battle in the east (Virginia). For Robert E. Lee, his Army of Northern Virginia was gaining confidence. After holding off McClelland’s invasion on the peninsula that summer, Lee knew very well the next attack was going to come from the north. Rather than wait and fight a defensive campaign while the Union combined two armies, Lee had Stonewall Jackson attack Major General John Pope’s supply depot near Manassas in hopes of picking off the Union one general at a time.

Pope, upon hearing of the capture of the depot, marched towards Manassas to engage Jackson. There was no deception. The attack resulted in what Lee wanted, for Pope to engage the Confederates without hooking up with McClelland. Over the next three days, the Army of Northern Virginia gave out one of the biggest one-sided attacks of the war. While Jackson did attack first, it was Pope who was on the offensive the first two days of the battle. Jackson, using nearby trees, was able to repel the initial attack. Lee, hoping to crush Pope and create a hole in the Union lines all way to Washington, was very close to realizing his plan when General James Longstreet slammed in Pope’s left flank on August 30.

General James Longstreet

For Longstreet and Lee, the attack on Pope’s flank should have occurred the day before. Pope, having attacked Jackson near an unfinished railroad, did not have any luck against Jackson. His left flank was exposed. An attack by Longstreet on the 29th could have destroyed Pope. But Longstreet, whose men had been marching since 6 a.m., did not feel his men were in any condition, or strong enough, to attack. It was a missed opportunity. Longstreet wanted to wait until the time was just right for him. Lee, despite having ordered Longstreet to attack, acquiesced to Longstreet. It would not be the last time Longstreet disagreed with Lee and get his way (Gettysburg).

Unbeknownst to Pope, Longstreet and his men were in position. The seeds of destruction for the Union Army were in place. A little after noon on August 30 Longstreet’s men slammed in to the left flank of Pope. It was a crushing blow. Pope’s army staggered under the onslaught of trying to attack Jackson on the front (west) and defend against Longstreet on the flank (south).

Longstreet’s attack looked like it was destined to finish off the Union.Nearing 6 p.m., it looked like only a matter of time before the flank would crumble. But somehow, Pope’s men held off Longstreet. By 7 p.m., the defense was strong. Attacks at Chinn Ridge and the Henry House (the same Henry House in the first battle) failed. In fact, the attacks only strengthened Pope’s defenses.

When the attack was called off, Lee was sure he could finish off Pope the next day. However, there would be no next day. Unlike the First Battle at Manassas a year earlier, Pope was able to retreat orderly, this time under the cover of darkness. While his army may have been able to leave the battlefield, his job as commander of the Union Army of the Potomac was over, a short-lived summer.

One division, the 5th New York Zouaves, was wiped out in the battle. Author Brian Pohanka writes on the aftermath of the battle as attempts were made to clear the field of the wounded and dead:

A correspondent from the New York Tribune reported: ‘Attracted by the red bags of Duryée’s Zouaves, we proceeded to the field where they lay-nearly a hundred of them-shattered, torn and bloody, in every conceivable stage of misery. Exhaustion had been the cause of death with some whose wounds were not otherwise mortal. One man still clutched the earth, as in the last struggle for breath. Another, a tall, square-browed, Roman-faced hero, prone on his back-had his face turned to the sky in marble repose. By his side a mere boy laid, as if in death he had sought the protection of the stalwart arm which had befriended his weaker nature in life.’

A detailed examination of morning reports, muster rolls and military service and pension records indicates that in their 10 minutes at the vortex of hell, the 5th New York lost 332 men of the approximately 525 engaged. At least 119 of the casualties were killed outright or died of their wounds. The addition of two missing who were never accounted for would bring the death total to 121. It was the greatest battle fatality sustained by any Federal infantry unit in the war.

The survivors would never recover the esprit de corps that had died with their comrades at Second Bull Run. New recruits would arrive to fill the vacant ranks, but, as Sergeant Mitchell put it, ‘The regiment will never again be the regiment it has been.’

For Lee, his ability to take on larger forces and win was gaining attention. While the Second Battle of Bull Run was clearly a victory for Lee, Jackson, and the Confederacy, it was also a missed opportunity. The delay of a day by Longstreet was crucial. Lee, while deceptive in his use of Longstreet, Lee did not seize the moment on the 29th and stand up to Longstreet. An attack on the 29th would have taken full use of the deception Lee had devised. Pope was susceptible while attacking Jackson along an unfinished gauge of rail that day. Had Longstreet followed orders, Pope could have been wiped out, an entire army captured, and the door to the north would have flung wide open. Ultimately, while Longstreet did delay the order one day, Lee let him and deserves just as much of the blame. Lee would wait three weeks and try to draw McClelland away from Washington by invading Maryland. That battle would be a missed opportunity, too, but for the Union.

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3 comments

  1. Porters V Corp and parts of MCDowells command would have been directly on Longstreets flank had he attacked on the 29th, and it would have been late in the day giving him little time even if successful. On the 30th Pope sent the V Corp directly into the jaws of the trap, leaving the entire union flank open to Longstreet.

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