The ground around Manassas, Virginia, was not auspicious for Union Army forces in the first two years of the Civil War. It was there, on July 21, 1861, that a Union army broke to pieces on the bulwark of Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson’s brigade, earning the Confederate general the sobriquet of “Stonewall” and his men the proud appellation the Stonewall Brigade. The scene of the first major battle of the war, Manassas was about to become the focus of attention once again.
The failure of Maj. Gen. George McClellan’s attack on Richmond prompted President Abraham Lincoln to order the withdrawal of the Army of the Potomac from the peninsula to Washington in the summer of 1862. Lincoln then summoned Maj. Gen. John Pope from the western theater and gave him command of the newly created Union Army of Virginia. Formed by the consolidation of the commands of Generals Irvin McDowell, Nathaniel Banks, and John C. Frémont, the new army was tasked with covering McClellan’s movement and protecting the nation’s capital.
Robert E. Lee’s Plan to Flank Pope
By mid-July, Pope’s 51,000-man army (which would soon receive reinforcements, mostly from the Army of the Potomac, that would bring its strength up to more than 70,000 men), had moved south to threaten Richmond’s access to the Shenandoah Valley. Although McClellan’s withdrawing forces were still perceived to be a threat to Richmond, General Robert E. Lee felt that Pope now represented the more immediate threat and sent reinforcements to Jackson with orders to counter Pope’s forces and suppress the new Union army.
On August 3, McClellan finally received orders to evacuate the peninsula, thus removing the dual threat to Lee’s troops and allowing him the opportunity to concentrate on Pope exclusively. On August 13, 10 of Lee’s brigades, commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, joined Jackson in the reorganized Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s aim was for Jackson to take his corps around Pope’s flank, cutting off his supply lines, at which point Longstreet’s corps would rejoin him to defeat Pope before the rest of McClellan’s slow-moving reinforcements could combine with Pope.
Backed by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, Jackson’s 23,000-man corps marched 54 miles in two days. On the evening of August 26, Jackson captured Bristoe Station on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, destroyed several trains, and threatened to cut the Union lines of communication with Washington. The first sign of serious trouble in his army’s rear reached Pope at about 8 o’clock on the night of August 26, just before the wires went dead, when the telegraph operator at Union-held Manassas Junction reported that “enemy cavalry has fallen upon the railroad.”
Confederate Brig Gen. Isaac Trimble was en route from Bristoe Station to Manassas Junction, four miles up the line, with two regiments of infantry. Before midnight he easily captured the huge but lightly defended Union supply depot. The next morning, with Jackson’s corps firmly between his army and Washington, Pope ordered the precipitous withdrawal of almost his entire force from the Rappahannock line into an all-out pursuit north to corral Jackson’s host.
For two days Pope exhausted his combined force in a massive, futile search for Jackson, first ordering his units to converge on Manassas Junction. When Pope arrived there in person at noon on the 28th to find his antagonist gone, he concluded wrongly that the Confederate divisions had moved east to Centreville, and he rerouted his scattered units there. Repeated marches and countermarches in the Virginia heat took a heavy toll on officers, enlisted men, and horses.
Meanwhile, Jackson had actually moved his men in the opposite direction. After ransacking the massive supply base at Manassas Junction and putting the torch to whatever his men could not consume or carry away, Jackson consolidated his three divisions several miles to the northwest along Stony Ridge north of the tiny hamlet of Groveton, not far from the old Manassas battlefield. Jackson had chosen a superb defensive position a few hundred yards up the hill from the strategic Warrenton Turnpike. Hidden in the fields and woods behind the embankments of an unfinished railroad, he could monitor Union movement on the turnpike while awaiting the arrival of Longstreet’s wing of the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederates had an excellent view of the turnpike to their front and could easily launch a strike against an isolated unit of Pope’s army moving along the pike.
Late on the afternoon of August 28, Jackson was reconnoitering the ridge to his front when blue-coated troops belonging to the division of Brig. Gen. Rufus King came into view, marching east along the pike in the direction of Centreville. As his worried staff watched, Jackson rode down the ridge for a better look, trotting slowly back and forth within musket range of the blue infantry columns, which paid him no heed. As the sun was about to set, King’s column drew abreast of Jackson’s position. Jackson rode back to his officers on the ridge and calmly told them, “Bring up your men, gentlemen.” Within minutes the Battle of Brawner’s Farm erupted in earnest.
Gibbon’s Inexperienced Force
King’s division consisted of one brigade of all Westerners—three regiments from Wisconsin and one from Indiana—under the command of Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, and three additional brigades of untested troops from New York and Pennsylvania. Though yet to see action in the war, Gibbon was an experienced Regular Army officer, a veteran of the Mexican and Seminole Indian Wars. He had also served as an artillery instructor at West Point, and was the author of The Artillerist’s Manual, a scientific treatise on gunnery used by both sides in the war. Gibbon was appointed brigadier general of volunteers in 1862 and given command of King’s Wisconsin brigade.
Demanding the same level of discipline and professionalism from these volunteer Westerners that he demanded of his Regular artillerymen, Gibbon quickly set about drilling his troops and improving their appearance, ordering them to wear white leggings and, rather than the standard Union kepi, black Hardee hats, known as the Model 1858 Dress Hat. These tall hats were adorned with a plume, giving the brigade a distinctive appearance, and it soon became known, logically enough, as the “Black Hat Brigade.” Of Gibbon’s four regiments, only one—the 2nd Wisconsin—had seen action in the war, 13 months earlier on this same ground.
King was commanding his division from an ambulance after suffering a severe epileptic seizure on August 23. Now, as his mile-long column unknowingly neared the front of Jackson’s entire corps, with Brig. Gen. John Hatch’s brigade in the lead, King suffered another mild seizure that rendered him combat ineffective and left his division without a commander for the remainder of the evening. At 6 pm, after Hatch’s brigade marched through Groveton past the Brawner and Dogan farms north of the pike, his men approached a knoll east of the village and spotted movement on the ridge to the north. With Hatch now in temporary command of the division, the blue column halted while the 14th Brooklyn was brought up to reconnoiter the woods and fields below the ridgeline. Finding nothing, they fell back to the pike.
As Hatch and the other brigade commanders—Gibbon and Brig. Gens. Abner Doubleday and Marsena Patrick—scanned the ridgeline with field glasses, a lone Confederate horse-drawn battery emerged from the trees and wheeled into position. Captain Aston Gerber’s Staunton Artillery promptly opened up on the Union column; their third discharge found the range and began targeting Gibbon’s brigade and the two brigades behind him, strung out along the pike.
As shells screamed overhead and exploded around them, some of the Union column quickly scattered, their ambulances and wagons careening panic-stricken off the road into the fields and forests south of the pike. The New York regiments in Patrick’s brigade, now about 1,000 yards behind Gibbon, immediately broke up and headed for the trees—they would not participate in the fight to come despite Gibbon’s repeated pleas for help. It would be hours before Patrick could regain control of his troops, leaving Gibbon and Doubleday to contend with the Confederates by themselves. (Hatch had marched his lead brigade farther east along the turnpike, putting himself out of the fighting and almost out of range of Confederate cannons.)
Fighting the Confederate Artillery
With his brigade posted on the road a quarter mile behind Hatch’s, Gibbon rode to a knoll north of the pike and watched as two additional Confederate batteries emerged from the tree line, unlimbered, and opened fire on the broken Union column on the road below. Keeping his head like the veteran he was, Gibbon shouted for his old battery, Battery B of the 4th U.S. Artillery, to deploy on a small knoll east of the Brawner farmhouse. Soon the ground trembled violently as Union and Confederate gunners exchanged fire. Within minutes, the Union regulars were getting the better of it and the Southerners elected to pull their guns back to safety. Just as the guns fell back, Jackson sent in another battery, on Gibbon’s left, and it began blasting case and solid shot at the Union battery. Doubleday’s lead regiment, the 76th New York, was hit hard and began to panic; its commander, Colonel William Wainwright, succeeded in calming his jittery troops.