Camp-Fires of General Lee, by Edward S. Ellis, Chapter 9

Camp-Fires of General Lee


“THEY’VE cut the wires! The Confederates are between Pope and Washington!”

It was an anxious group that were gathered about the electrical instrument at headquarters in Washington. The telegraph-wires throbbed with the messages flashing back and forth, and the party listened to the continuous clicking of the instrument as though it was delivering the verdict of their own doom.

All at once it stopped; the chattering tongue had become mute. Men looked inquiringly at each other and then at the telegraphist. He smiled grimly:

“They’ve cut the wires! The Confederates are between Pope and Washington!”

The explanation, as we learned long ago, was the true one. General Stuart had just reached Bristoe Station, where he seized the two railroad-trains and cut the wires.

The authorities were at their wits’ end; the old terror of the capture of Washington caused them to quake once more. Was it some daring raiders that had cut the wires, or was Lee and his army between the Union commander and Washington? Ought a regiment or powerful reinforcements be sent out to the rescue of Pope? Finally a brigade of New Jersey troops under General Taylor took the cars to Bull Run Bridge, where they disembarked, crossed the stream and set out to learn what they could about Manassas. The Confederates ambushed the entire brigade, killing one-third of them and wounding their leader. The rest scampered to Centreville, where a few troops rallied around the remnants of the command.

It was not until the morning of the 29th that General Pope learned the real position of his adversary, and by that time he had scattered his own troops all over the country by his contradictory orders; so that their great strength was practically unavailable. Sigel and Reynolds were near Groveton, and they were ordered to engage the Confederates, while Pope endeavored to shape up matters elsewhere. Reno’s corps and Heintzelman, with Hooker and Kearny’s divisions, were directed to countermarch from Centreville, and Porter with his corps and King’s division of McDowell’s command was pushed forward to regain the position at Gainesville, which had been abandoned the day before.

Meanwhile, the redoubtable Jackson maintained his position on the elevated land near Groveton. He thus secured complete command of the Warrenton road, over which Lee was advancing to join him, and even then was close at hand. The gray-coated Cromwell could afford to feel little alarm about what his bombastic adversary was doing; nevertheless, like the true general he was, he disposed of his troops in an admirable order, his right resting on the Warrenton turnpike and his left near Sudley mill. Most of the troops were sheltered in the thick woods in the rear of the railroad cut and embankment. In obedience to orders General Sigel attacked this force, and suffered severely from the hot fire he received. Near noon Reno’s command and the divisions of Hooker and Kearny joined him, and Porter had advanced from Manassas Junction with a view of flanking Jackson’s right by marching to Gainesville; but before he could do this Lee’s van arrived at Thoroughfare Gap, Longstreet reaching the ground before noon. Assuming position on Jackson’s right, he drew an extension of the Confederate line across the turnpike and the Manassas Gap Railroad. By this means every point by which Porter could have advanced on Gainesville was covered.

The Union general, however, was about to form his line when General McDowell appeared. McDowell says he ordered Porter to advance and attack the Confederates, while Porter is equally emphatic in declaring that McDowell told him to stay where he was; the reader is welcome to believe whoever he chooses. McDowell took King’s division from Porter, and, joining it to Ricketts’s division (both of which belonged to McDowell’s corps), moved toward the battlefield of Groveton, which was reached toward evening. Porter remained in his former position the rest of the day.

Matters went from bad to worse so far as the Federals were concerned. Pope’s opportunity for engaging Jackson’s corps alone was gone, and, with his own forces out of position, the Union leader was compelled to face the whole Confederate army under the eye of the masterful Lee himself. Pope not only did not know where McDowell and Porter were, but he was unaware of the alarming fact that Longstreet had joined Jackson.

No general of ability could find justifiable grounds for assailing Jackson in his entrenched position, but about the middle of the afternoon Pope ordered Hooker to make the attack. The indignant Hooker remonstrated, but Pope insisted, and the general who well deserved his title obeyed with great spirit. So well, indeed, did Grover’s brigade do its work that it penetrated between the Confederate brigades of Gregg and Thomas, on the extreme left. They secured possession of the railroad embankment, and by the most furious kind of hand-to-hand fighting held it for some time; but Jackson then sent reinforcements forward, and the Unionists were driven out. When the time had passed for helping Hooker, Kearny was sent to his assistance, but the Confederates quickly drove him out after the others.

Having learned the location of Porter’s command, Pope sent him orders to assail the enemy’s right, flank and rear, Pope believing that the right flank of Jackson, near Groveton, was the right of the Confederate line. Near sunset, when Pope supposed Porter was about to make the attack, Heintzelman and Reno were ordered to assault the Confederate left. The order was obeyed with great dash and vigor. Kearny struck the demoralized division of Hill, on the left of Jackson, when their ammunition was nearly exhausted. Hill’s flank was doubled up on his centre and the railroad embankment seized, but the Confederates had a fashion of throwing reinforcements to the right point at the right time, and Kearny was driven back.

All was silent on the left, where Porter was expected to join in the battle. The order which pope forwarded to Porter was sent at half-past four, and reached him just at dusk, when he deemed it too late to do as directed. The night was intensely dark, and no attempt to advance was made.*

It had been a day of disaster to the Union army. Pope had thrown away the most tempting chances. He had blundered right and left, while Lee and his lieutenants had been successful in every direction. Thousands of men were killed and wounded, and there was little promise of hope for the Federals on the morrow. Bitter must have been the reflections of their commander when he recalled his bombastic proclamations on taking command of the army, and then saw how completely he had been outgeneralled by his adversaries. In the desperate plight in which he was placed he ought to have turned over the command of his forces to some other leader or retreated to Washington; but he did neither.

The condition of the Union army was pitiable. The men had scarcely a mouthful to eat for two days; they were worn almost to death from continual marching and fighting; stragglers were everywhere; the horses had been in harness or under the saddle for more than a week; there was uncertainty in all directions, except the single one as to the incompetency of the general commanding. Pope decided to hold his position, and make another attack on the morrow. Before doing so it was natural that he should send a despatch to Washington announcing that Lee was in full retreat and fleeing to the mountains. The next day Pope revised this opinion.

Saturday, August 30, dawned bright and clear, and at the earliest streakings of light the confronting armies began assuming position for the tremendous conflict. General Lee’s position was the same as on the previous day—his left near Sudley Ford, his centre at Groveton and his right on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Colonel S. D. Lee held the centre with thirty-two pieces of artillery; Longstreet’s command stretched away obliquely from Jackson’s, forming with it an angle of nearly forty-five degrees. The cavalry covered both flanks, the entire army being present, with the exception of Anderson’s division, which was held in reserve.

“Now, by one of those curious conjunctures which sometimes occur in battle, it so was that the opposing commanders had that day formed each the same resolution: Pope had determined to attack Lee’s left flank, and Lee had determined to attack Pope’s left flank. And thus it came about that when Heintzelman pushed forward to feel the enemy’s left the refusal of that flank by Lee, and his withdrawal of troops to his right for the purpose of making his contemplated attack on Pope’s left, gave the impression that the Confederates were retreating up the Warrenton turnpike toward Gainesville. To take advantage of the supposed retreat of Lee, Pope ordered McDowell with three corps—Porter’s in the advance—to follow up rapidly on the Warrenton turnpike and ‘press the enemy vigorously during the whole day.’ But no sooner were the troops put in motion to make this pursuit of a supposed flying foe than the Confederates, hitherto concealed in the forest in front of Porter, uncovered and opened a heavy fire from their numerous batteries, and while King’s division was being formed on Porter’s right in order to press an attack clouds of dust on the extreme right showed that the enemy was moving to turn the Union line in that direction, and that, instead of retiring, he was in the full tide of an offensive movement. To meet this manœuvre, General McDowell detached Reynolds’s command from the left of Porter’s force, north of the Warrenton turnpike, and directed it on a position south of that road to check this menace. The Warrenton turnpike, which intersects the Manassas battlefield, runs westward up the valley of the little rivulet of Young’s Branch. From the stream the ground rises on both sides—in some places quite into the hills. The Sudley Springs road, on crossing the stream at right angles, passes directly over one of these hills, just south of the Warrenton turnpike, and this hill has on it a detached road with fields stretching away from it some hundreds of yards to the forest. This is the hill whereon what is known as the ‘Henry house’ stood. To the west of it is another hill—the Bald Hill, so called—which is, in fact, a rise lying between the roads and making about the same angle with each and running back to the forest. Between the two hills is a brook, a tributary of Young’s Branch. Upon the latter hill General McDowell directed Reynolds’s division and a portion of Ricketts’s command, so as to check the flank manœuvre that menaced the seizure of the Warrenton turnpike, which was the line of retreat of the whole army.”*

The disastrous blunder of these movements lay in the fact that when Reynolds’s division was detached from Porter’s left it uncovered the very key to Porter’s line. Colonel Warren, who commanded one of Porter’s brigades, saw the danger, and without waiting for orders rushed forward his brigade of a thousand men and assumed the place vacated by Reynolds’s division. Porter then made his attack on the Confederate position, but he accomplished nothing substantial, and finally, after suffering great slaughter from the artillery and infantry fire, he was driven back from the field. The truth was that, in making the attack on Jackson, Porter exposed himself to Longstreet’s batteries. “It gave me an advantage I had not expected to have,” said Longstreet, “and I made haste to use it. Two batteries were ordered for the purpose, and one placed in position immediately and opened. Just as this fire began I received a message from the commanding general informing me of General Jackson’s condition and his wants. As it was evident that the attack against General Jackson could not be continued ten minutes under the fire of these batteries, I made no movement with my troops.” Before the second battery could be placed in position the enemy began to retire, and in less than ten minutes the ranks were broken and that portion of his army put to flight. Colonel Warren with his thousand men maintained his position against great odds, fighting with splendid valor till all of Porter’s troops had retreated, and then he fell back only when the Confederate bayonets were pressing the very faces of his men.

Night was at hand, and the Federal troops not only had suffered fearfully, but were in a demoralized condition. Jackson was quick to perceive this, and started in pursuit. Longstreet, sure that he would be ordered to join, threw his troops against the Federal centre and left. In a brief while the whole Confederate army was advancing upon the conquered Unionists. Pope was compelled at last to see that he was thoroughly and most ingloriously whipped. Like McClellan in the Peninsula, he could attempt but one thing—to extricate and save his army. While engaged in the effort, Longstreet carried Bald Hill, held by Ricketts and Reynolds, and menaced the Henry house hill. Had this been taken, Pope and his army would have been destroyed; but a battalion of regulars—who are ready to die at any time rather than acknowledge themselves beaten by volunteers—maintained the ground until relieved by the brigades of Meade and Seymour. When the gasping troops had fled across Bull Run and scrambled into position on the heights of Centreville, they retired. The impenetrable darkness and the uncertainty of the fords decided Lee to cease pursuit on the banks of the stream; otherwise, to retort with Pope’s words, he would have “bagged the whole crowd.”

Pope drew a sigh of relief when he reached Centreville, for there he united with the corps of Franklin and Sumner, and there he remained during the entire day. But General Lee was not yet through with him. He sent Jackson to Pope’s right, while Longstreet was directed to stay on the battlefield and engage the attention of the enemy. There was still hope of cutting off Pope’s retreat to Washington.

As is nearly always the case, the cannonading had caused such elemental disturbances that a heavy rain set in, and Jackson’s march was very difficult and rendered tardy, while his men suffered much from exhaustion. At night he bivouacked near Chantilly, pushing on the next morning in the same direction.

Pope meanwhile had fallen back so as to cover Fairfax Court-House and Germantown. There, on the evening of September 1, Jackson struck his right, at Ox Hill, near Germantown. It was raining, in torrents, which beat directly in their faces as they made the assault, which fell on Reno, Hooker, a part of McDowell and Kearny. The Confederates were held at bay until Reno was killed, the ammunition exhausted, when the Union right fell back in disorder. Kearny instantly forwarded Birney’s brigade from his own division, following it with a battery, which he placed in position. A gap still remained on Birney’s right, which was pointed out to Kearny. The dashing one-armed hero—one of the bravest men on either side—rode forward to make a reconnaissance, and before he was aware entered the Confederate lines. He was in the act of wheeling his horse to escape, when he was shot dead. The next day the Federals withdrew within the lines of Washington, and the disastrous campaign was ended.

A Pope seized the first opportunity to vacate his command. The Army of Virginia went out of existence and its corps were united with the Army of the Potomac, who clamored so loudly, “Give us back our old commander!” that McClellan was again made its leader.

The precise losses on both sides during Lee’s campaign in Northern Virginia cannot be known with certainty. The Confederate authorities give the following figures as indicating their losses between August 23 and September 2: Longstreet’s corps, four thousand seven hundred and twenty-five men; Jackson’s corps, four thousand three hundred and eighty-seven; total, nine thousand one hundred and twelve. The confusion in the Federal army and its quick reorganization under McClellan precluded anything like an accurate estimate, but their loss was appalling. The Confederates captured nine thousand prisoners, thirty pieces of artillery and more than twenty thousand stands of arms in the engagement on the plains of Manassas alone. They have set down the Union losses at thirty thousand, and it is probable that they are not far out of the way.

Lee’s campaign in Northern Virginia had been a wonderful success, and was a fit introduction to the Confederate invasion of the North.


* This failure of Porter to obey the orders of Pope was the cause of an acrimonious discussion for years. Porter was court-martialled and dismissed from the army; many heated partisans contended that he ought to be shot. When time had allowed the passions on both. idea to cool, Porter secured a reopening of the case. The testimony of Longstreet and other ex-Confederate commanders was secured, and it may be said that for the first time the full truth became public. Without entering into the discussion, it is enough to Bay that Porter did the best thing possible. By remaining where he was he held Longstreet’s corps inactive in his front during the terrible battle. It was utterly beyond his power to make the attack which the commanding general ordered, inasmuch as Longstreet’s corps was directly in his path. No doubt Porter was impatient with Pope and gave him little sympathy, but it was a fortunate thing for the Union army that he did not obey the orders of its commander. Porter continually knocked at the doom of Congress for relief; he obtained many friends who were anxious to see justice done him. Among these the most noted was General Grant, who at first had denounced him in the severest terms. Finally a bill was introduced reinstating Porter in the army without back-pay. It passed both Houses of Congress with little opposition, but was vetoed on technical grounds by President Arthur. The moral purpose of Porter’s persistent battle for justice, however, has been accomplished.

* Swinton.

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