Middle Child and Second Fiddle: The Sad Fate of Second Manassas

The unfinished railroad cut

Try as I might, I can’t persuade my daughter to explore anything to do with Second Manassas. It’s July 29, 2000. Steph is six but already the veteran of several battlefielding campaigns, and she’s particularly a fan of First Manassas because that’s where her hero, Stonewall Jackson, got his nickname. She’s been eagerly urging us to explore other battlefields in the years since—but today, Second Manassas just isn’t clicking.

“But Stonewall fought there,” I tell her, trying to get her to go along. Big whoop. “There’s an old railroad cut here, Steph. This is exactly where Stonewall’s men were lined up. Right here.”

Steph gets out of the car—I can’t tell if she rolls her eyes or not—and I lead her and her mother to the edge of the railroad cut. Steph pokes around for a second, then looks across to the far side of the road. “This was the center of Stonewall’s line,” I tell her, using the park brochure as a crib sheet.

“This is it?” she asks.

“What did you think would be here?”

She shrugs, then retreats toward her mother and rests her head against Heidi’s side. “I think she’s tired,” Heidi says.

Landscape restoration at Deep Cut shows the strength of the Confederate position along the far ridge line (once obscured by trees)

So we trundle back to the car. Down the road a few hundred feet, I point out the spot where the Union army made a big attack that Stonewall beat back. Steph has her head leaned against her window, but I think it’s to sleep, not to peek out at the tour stop—not that I even bother stopping.

Such is the ignoble fate suffered by the battle of Second Manassas.

First Manassas starts the war. It’s where Stonewall gets his nickname. The battlefield has “the statue.”

In comparison, Second Manassas has squat—despite the fact that it was a far bigger battle that lasted three days (August 28-30, 1862), covered more territory, and resulted in more fatalities (3,300 compared to 900 at First Manassas). Jackson’s flank march at Chancellorsville gets all the attention, but his 50-mile flank march prior to Second Manassas put the Confederate army in position to cut off the Union supply line and open the battle on ground of Jackson’s choosing.

The blustery John Pope

The Union general, John Pope, brought from the West to head the newly formed Army of Virginia, was widely considered to be a pompous ass. Even Lincoln thought so. Pope’s new army consisted of several smaller armies patched together, and of Pope’s three subordinates, two had already gotten spanked by Stonewall in previous encounters (Irvin McDowell at First Manassas and Nathaniel Banks in the Shenandoah Valley). The third subordinate, Franz Sigel, commanded troops formerly led by John Fremont, who had also gotten a Stonewall spanking in the Valley.

Add to that mix a whole lot of underhanded maneuvering by an irately jealous George B. McClellan. McClellan would intentionally keep his Army of the Potomac from reinforcing Pope despite orders that told him to. The man most often scape-goated for that, Major General Fitz-John Porter, who was a close friend and ally of McClellan’s, had his career ruined; the controversy lasted for years.

Despite this fascinating powder keg of personalities, despite the larger scale of the battle, Second Manassas gets consistently overshadowed by its predecessor. And not just by the Mackowski family, either—by nearly everyone. “Without question,” says historian John Hennessy.

“I think people are most interested in things that either begin or end something,” Hennessy tells me. “First Manassas, Appomattox, Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, even Franklin—all of them begin points or end points. But Second Manassas was a bloody wayside on the way to Antietam. It ended nothing—except Pope’s career in the East—and came after a long succession of events.”

In 1992, Hennessy wrote the first comprehensive study of the battle, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. “There was a huge void when it came to Second Manassas,” he says. “So much not known, so much misunderstood.”

He believes Second Manassas suffers because people are most interested in what they see as fair matches. “And Second Manassas has come down in history at one of the great mismatches: Lee vs. Pope,” he says. “In most people’s eyes, there’s not much drama there—Fredericksburg suffers similarly. The explanation for the outcome seems simple and without intrigue. No great ‘what ifs’ related to Second Manassas plague the public mind or have entered popular culture.”

By contrast, Antietam spawned “What if The Lost Order—Lee’s Special Order 191—hadn’t fallen into Union hands before the battle of Antietam?” Chancellorsville spawned “What if Stonewall Jackson hadn’t been shot by his own troops?” Gettysburg raises the question “What if Ewell took Cemetery Hill at the end of the first day?” and “What if Pickett’s Charge had succeeded?”

But what does Second Manassas have? “What if John Pope had kept his mouth shut and not ticked off George McClellan?”

“Second Manassas is perhaps the greatest of all illustrations of the interplay between politics and the military,” Hennessy says. “Pope was no political general, but his appointment was in large measure political, intended to supersede McClellan with victory, rather than Lincoln having to remove him.”

Hennessy also says Pope’s appointment signaled a dramatic shift in how the Union government would wage war. “Pope’s job was to move the war away from the conservative ‘we must be gentle to them because they will someday be our countrymen again’ approach to a harder war that targeted not just the South’s armies, but its will to fight, its economy, and its social structure,” he explains. “Soon after assuming command, Pope issued a series of general orders that directed armies to confiscate supplies from locals, ordered them to take oaths of allegiance or risk being sent through Confederate lines and away from their homes, and held Southern civilians responsible for damage done to Union facilities by Confederate raiders. At the time, all of these things were dramatic measures. The South railed at them, as did Northern Democrats. But, those orders certainly foreshadowed what was to come.

“Pope’s job was not just to win victories, but to change the nature of war in the East,” Hennessy says. “He needed to do the first to justify the second, and thus failed on both accounts, setting back the Union administration seriously. Lincoln had no choice but to return to McClellan for salvation, but he had little hope of changing the nature of war without Pope.”

From the Confederate perspective, Hennessy calls Second Manassas the best-of-all-case studies in the Army of Northern Virginia. “Only at Manassas did the four great leaders, Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, and Stuart perform at their highest levels at the same time,” he says. “They all achieved greatness at other times, but never in the same place at the same time.”

Not that everything ran perfectly. Jackson, for instance, operated brilliantly on the strategic level within the theater of the campaign. “His flank march was virtually unmatched during the war; he took stalemate and from it created opportunity for Lee, just as he did at Chancellorsville,” Hennessy says. “His deft movements to avoid Pope while at the same time putting himself in position to meet up with Lee and draw Pope into battle on Confederate terms constitute perhaps one of his most subtly excellent performances.”

Federal troops marching along the turnpike in the distance proved to be too much of a target for Stonewall Jackson to resist.

On the battlefield, however, Jackson failed to overwhelm a vastly inferior force on the Brawner Farm on August 28—much to his own frustration. On August 30, for whatever reason, he remained immobile north of the Warrenton Turnpike during Longstreet’s attack. “His immobility permitted the Union army to move troops almost at will into Longstreet’s path,” Hennessy says. “We do not know why it took Jackson two hours to begin to move forward on his front, but we do know the result of his inaction: virtually all the troops that eventually blunted Longstreet’s attack started the afternoon on Jackson’s front.”

Lee ultimately crushed the Army of Virginia and embarrassed Pope, who’d be relegated to Minnesota (assumed to be a backwater until an unexpected uprising by the Sioux later in the year). The Confederate commander then turned attention northward toward Maryland and, if all went well, to Pennsylvania beyond. A few lost cigars wrapped in a copy of Lee’s orders would eventually change all that.

This fall, in 2012, all eyes again seem turned toward Maryland and the anniversary of Antietam on September 17. Second Manassas, as the prelude to the Maryland Campaign, gets overshadowed by America’s bloodiest day—as it has for 150 years. Second Manassas has a bad case of middle-child syndrome, trapped as it is between its oldest sibling, First Manassas, and its most horrifically hyperactive, Antietam.

The interpretive center at Brawner Farm offers some excellent background on Second Manassas

But Second Manassas has much to offer and much to tell. The new exhibit center at Brawner Farm focuses excellent attention on the battle, and landscape restoration along the Deep Cut offers vistas that better reveal the ground in a way that helps the battle make more sense.

My daughter, all grown up now and just off to college, has new stories to learn, but I’ll revisit this one. I’ll take a few quiet hours to walk the battlefield and hear its stories. Second Manassas doesn’t mean second fiddle.

6 Responses to Middle Child and Second Fiddle: The Sad Fate of Second Manassas

  1. Another possible explanation is that Second Manassas to many people was not part of an overall strategy of either side–it just kind of evolved as part of trying to ward off pressure from General Pope after Cedar Mountain. Antietam and Gettysburg were planned northern invasions. Vicksburg was to control the Mississippi. First Manassas was exactly that: the first major encounter. Chancellorsville was part of the North’s attempt to take Richmond as was Fredericksburg. Second Manassas may also seem confusing to many battlefield visitors where the battlefields overlap somewhat and its is hard to appreciate that two battles took place there on the same real estate at different times, especially when Federal troops occupied the area that the Confederates once enjoyed a year earlier. So they opt for the first of the two, especially as a result of the human interest story of how Jackson got his sobriquet.

  2. Being an Iron brigade devotee, I always liked to think of the Brawner Farm engagement as a coming of age for the AOP. I think they showed that they could fight on an equal basis with confederate elite infantry.

  3. I agree that this battle is unfairly ignored. While I confess to being a Peninsula Campaign fanatic, I’ve always found this one interesting (in part possibly because of the somewhat nefarious role played by McClellan in the outcome). And Chris has squarely hit the nail with his assessment of the vaunted Stonewall in this battle. Far, far from his only tactical shortcomings in his CSA career but June 28 and June 30 were good examples of how not to handle tactical opportunities. I’d add some the Ox Hill/Chantilly blundering as completing the 2BR Trifecta.

  4. All the ‘vaunted Stonewall’ did was win despite his flaws. Be glad he had tactical shortcomings or many more federals would have perished.

    1. First Kernstown, Port Republic, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Brawner’s Farm, August 30, Hamilton’s Crossing, …. The biggest disappointment coming out of his foolish night recon on May 2, 1863 (necessitated in part by the way he executed the flank march) is that we never got to see how he’d fare against the A Team. “Be glad” we didn’t.

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