Chinn Ridge-What Could Have Been?

Scott C. Patchan’s “Second Manassas, Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge

Patchan, Scott C. Second Manassas, Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge. Potomac Books,Washington D.C; 2011. Pp. IX, 185. ISBN 978-1597976879. Hardcover. $26.95.

Just because the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Manassas comes to an end does not mean the learning of what unfolded at the railroad cut, ridges, and fields of Northern Virginia has to. Second Manassas had the potential to completely alter the outcome of the American Civil War. The loss opportunities, the “what-ifs,” and the men who did their utmost to decide the outcome is illuminated in Scott Patchan’s “Second Manassas, Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge.”

This specific account of a certain aspect of Second Manassas pinpoints a few hours where the Confederacy actually had a chance to wreck a Union army and completely alter the course of the war. The account shows how ordinary soldiers—from Ohio and South Carolina, from as far away as Texas and Poland—shaped the outcome of Second Manassas and subsequently the war itself. Before Patchan’s history, the action late on August 30th had not been singled out for its significance.

According to historian John Hennessy (whom is the author of Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, the standard bearer for 2nd Manassas), this engagement “brought Lee and the Confederacy to the edge of their greatest opportunity. No victory of the war so thoroughly cleared the strategic table for the Confederates” (xvi). The attack on Chinn Ridge would come as “close to destroying a Union army as any ever would” (xvi). If the Confederates had been successful on their assault on Chinn Ridge, they would have taken possession of the bridge across Bull Run and severed the route of retreat for General John Pope’s Army of Virginia. The “what-ifs” of this scenario are endless. Patchan examines a few of the very possible outcomes if Confederate General James Longstreet’s attack would have wiped aside the Union soldiers on Chinn Ridge and surrounding area.

But, why did that not happen? Well, that is what Patchan explains in his narrative. From the disjointed assaults—or ironically the too successful charge of General John Hood’s Texan Brigade—to the stubborn defense by Colonel Nathaniel McLean’s blue-clad Ohioans.

Patchan places the reader right in line with the soldiers, utilizing their voices whenever possible—such as Colonel William Wilson, who told his charges in the 7th Georgia to remember as they charged to “put on the shoes” of Yankees that have been killed to replace worn out or the loss of shoes, to extorting them to remember if they capture cigars to “give old Billy two” (91). On the other side, Patchan bucks the trend of the much maligned future 11th Corps of the Army of the Potomac (the infamous “Flying Dutchmen” of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg fame) and how, in this engagement, they fought valiantly, holding back overwhelming Confederate numbers, and gave precious time for daylight to end, the Union high command to uncover what was happening, and to keep open the retreat route of the army.

No better testament to the courage of McLean’s Ohioans who were sacrificed on Chinn Ridge, or to the Germans, Poles, and other nationalities represented in Colonel John John Koltes or Colonel Wlademier Krzyanowski’s brigades, came than the one by a member of the 5th Texans after the fighting ended on August 30th. Private William Fletcher of the 5th Texas remarked, “The bluecoats on the ridge were a tough set to move” (126).

It was that attitude of the Northern soldiers who stood their ground on Chinn Ridge that eventually won the war for the North (115).

So, hopefully the passing of another anniversary begins the quest to understand more about the combatants that fought and have been largely passed over—the McLean’s and Koltes’ who wore blue or the John Means’ and Thomas Glover’s who were gray. Koltes, Means, and Glover gave their lives on the assault or defense of Chinn Ridge. Glover, dying in a field hospital that night, still thought of his barefooted fellow soldiers in the 1st South Carolina and muttered to a comrade “Give them [his boots] to one of my barefooted soldiers” (110).

From the primary sources to the “what-ifs,” Scott Patchan’s book is a must read for understanding an overlooked action in a battle bookended by the Seven Days’ Battles and the bloodletting at Antietam the following month.

Chinn Ridge
(courtesy of Civil War Trust)

To understand what happened on Chinn Ridge, to think about the “what-ifs.” and to uncover more heroes of the American Civil War, pick up Patchan’s history. Then the learning started by the sesquicentennial of Second Manassas will continue.

Further reading:

Hennessy, John. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas

2 Responses to Chinn Ridge-What Could Have Been?

  1. Agreed that it will be difficult to top John Hennessy’s book…However, I think that one should look upon this book as supplement to ‘Return to Bull Run’ and not as a replacement…

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!