The opening clash in the Second Battle of Manassas erupted on August 28th. Brigadier General Rufus King’s division of Federal troops was marching along the Warrenton Turnpike, bound for Centreville, where Union Maj. Gen. John Pope, commanding officer of the Army of Virginia, believed Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate II Corps, representing nearly half of Lee’s total force, to be located. In fact Jackson and his veteran divisions were lurking on Stony Ridge, almost on top of their old battleground at First Manassas.
Jackson had been running a merry race through the vulnerable Union communications and logistics of Pope’s army on the Rapphannock since making a rapid flank march through Thoroughfare Gap around Pope’s army, while Longstreet and Lee continued to face Pope along the Rappahannock. Lee was eager to bring Pope to battle before too many of George McClellan’s soldiers from the Peninsula could join him. When Jackson struck into his rear, Pope, up until that point managing and handling his army fairly competently, began to lose control of the situation and began an ineffectual pursuit of Jackson. Jackson, aware that Longstreet and Lee were now approaching Thoroughfare Gap with their half of the army, was now looking for an opportunity to attack, rather than continuing to avoid Pope as he had been doing. He was presented with such an opportunity, as King’s lone division was now marching right into his grasp. Jackson planned an immediate attack near Groveton; he deployed the Stonewall division, commanded by William B. Taliaferro, and Ewell’s division into position to attack when he gave the signal. A.P. Hill’s division was some distance behind the other divisions, in reserve. The leading brigade of King’s division, commanded by John P. Hatch, scouted the area, encountering only a few Confederate horsemen, and moved on. Brigadier General John Gibbon’s green western brigade, known as the Black Hat Brigade for their prominent Hardee hats, were next in line.
As Gibbon’s men advanced, Gibbon noticed Confederate horsemen moving out of the timber to his north. He saw them turning, presenting their flanks. Gibbon was an artillerist in the regular army before the war, and the author of a manual on artillery. He was quick to recognize that guns were coming into battery and preparing to fire on his men. He promptly ordered up his own artillery battery, Battery B, which he himself had once commanded, to return fire, while his lead regiment, the Sixth Wisconsin, took cover from the Confederate fire. Another Confederate battery had opened fire in the meantime. Gibbon believed that he was dealing with nothing more than some lone horse artillery units, since Hatch’s men had scouted the area previously and had not encountered any Confederates. Gibbon sent the Second Wisconsin forward to deal with the guns, leading them personally part of the way. The regiment encountered skirmishers who abruptly opened fire into the regiment’s right flank. This would have been enough to give pause to many green regiments, but not the Badgers on this day. They wheeled about and quickly drove back the skirmishers. The Confederate Stonewall Brigade, 800 strong, appeared on the left flank of the Second at this point, and opened fire at close range. Again, the Second Wisconsin reacted like veterans, partially wheeling about again and returning fire. Gibbon promptly called up the Nineteenth Indiana to hold the Second’s left, and they advanced to meet the Stonewall Brigade, blazing away with maximum firepower. More Confederate regiments began to open fire , and realizing this was no isolated detachment, Gibbon called for help from the rest of the division.
The weight of the Confederate assault was coming on Gibbon’s right, and Gibbon sent his last regiments, the Sixth and Seventh Wisconsin, to that sector. Arriving simultaneously, the regiments encountered the leading elements of Ewell’s division, and forcefully drove their opponents back. The veteran Confederates, upon being reinforced, quickly advanced again, and now the battle was joined on open ground. Gibbon’s flanks were in the air, and there was a gap between the Sixth Wisconsin on the far right of his line, and the rest of the brigade. Gibbon had 2,100 men in his brigade against over 3,000 Confederates engaged in four brigades, and with plenty more on the way. The Confederates put in three artillery batteries against Gibbon’s lone Battery B; however, the Federal battery got the best of the artillery duel, and the Confederate guns were shifted to provide enfilade fire against the infantry, to little effect in the close range engagement. Meanwhile, Gibbon’s calls for help weren’t completely unanswered; Doubleday promptly sent two of his three regiments to Gibbon’s assistance, increasing Gibbon’s total force to 2,900 and later followed up with the third. His regiments filled the gap in Gibbon’s center. Patrick’s brigade was further back, and for some reason did not move to the front particularly quickly and failed to join the battle. Hatch’s brigade had been too far in the advance; Hatch started back when he heard the guns, but arrived too late to be engaged.
Meanwhile, Jackson and Gibbon’s regiments engaged in a brutal stand-up fight of close-range volleys. Jackson attempted to deploy more men, but failed to get most of them into the battle before the fall of darkness. Ewell and Taliaferro, commanding the two divisions engaged, were both shot during the battle, as were several brigade and regimental commanders, impacting command and control. Jackson attempted to throw in regiments himself in a piecemeal fashion, largely to little effect. The battle was ended by darkness and the implicit consent of Gibbon and his Confederate opposites; as darkness fell, his troops withdrew a short distance to better cover, and the Confederates held their ground. Confederate Taliaferro, who remained on the field despite his injuries, later remarked “It was a question of endurance, and both sides endured.”
The casualties were appalling on both sides. Gibbon lost between 700 and 800 casualties, or slightly over a third of his command. Seven of his twelve field officers were killed or injured. Doubleday’s men, although latecomers, fought nearly as hard, losing 160 casualties, bringing the Union total to approximately 900–950 of the 2,900 men engaged. However, the Federals inflicted even worse casualties on their Confederate opposites. Trimble’s brigade of 1200 lost approximately 750 men as casualties. The Sixth Wisconsin, which fought Lawton’s brigade essentially on their own, albeit in better cover than any other unit in the engagement, lost 72 men while taking down about 420 of Lawton’s men. The Stonewall Brigade lost 340 men out of their 800.
Jackson’s trap had largely misfired. He gained nothing other than a bloody nose for his trouble in engaging King’s Division, and he had revealed his position to Pope’s army before Longstreet was in supporting distance, a dangerous move that would draw Pope into the Battle of Second Manassas. With the element of surprise and a vastly numerically superior force, 6,000 veteran troops at his disposal to under 3,000 green Federals, he had failed to engage most of his forces or achieve anything other than stalemate. King and his officers met to discuss what to do next; the brigadiers, Gibbon included, prudently advocated withdrawal of the seemingly isolated division, and King acceded to their wishes. The battle, for all its indecisiveness, still stands as a testament to the bravery of the men on both sides however, and the iron discipline and ability of John Gibbon’s Black Hats, later to earn the title of Iron Brigade.
Sources: Alan T. Nolan’s The Iron Brigade.
John J. Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run