An even greater danger lay off Pope’s exposed left flank, where Longstreet’s wing was taking position, leaving the Union army squeezed inside a giant vise.
Night fell and fighting ended for the day with Pope still unconcerned about the threat, despite warnings from commanders in the field.
Behind Confederate lines, Jackson listened to a lengthy casualty report without comment. Some believed the general was beyond remorse a year into the war. But when surgeon Hunter H. McGuire disclosed that among the dead was 19-year-old Willie Preston, the gentle-natured son of close friends from Lexington, Jackson’s muscles twitched and his eyes glowed. “He gripped me by the shoulder till it hurt me, and in a savage, threatening manner asked why I left the boy,” McGuire recalled. “In a few seconds he recovered himself, and turned and walked off into the woods alone.”
Hurling rocks at Union troops
Saturday, Aug. 30, the final day of the battle, dawned hot, dry and quiet. Though Pope had finally recognized Longstreet’s arrival, he ignored the threat and prepared to attack. He sent a wire to Washington reporting the enemy had been “driven from the field” and his expectation that a glorious victory was at hand.
It was almost 3 p.m. when a single Union cannon fired a shot, the attack signal for 12,000 Union soldiers in 37 regiments, lined up in assault formation that stretched more than a mile. In the desperate close-quarters fighting that ensued along the railroad bank, Confederates who had expended all of their ammunition were reduced to hurling rocks at the Union troops.
With his entire line in danger, Jackson sent a message to Lee asking for reinforcements. Now Longstreet opened up with 18 cannons sighted on the open ground where the Federals were advancing. Next he unleashed his five divisions, 25,000 soldiers, stretching nearly a mile and a half. It was the largest single mass assault of the war. With frightful screams, the rebel troops swept forward through fields, streams and woods.
Two New York regiments of Zouaves, who wore gaudy uniforms with baggy red trousers and tasseled fezzes modeled after the French, were the first to pay the price, overrun by Gen. John Bell Hood’s Texans. In 10 minutes, the 5th New York lost more men than any regiment would in any other battle of the war — 124 killed and 223 wounded out of 490. To one of Hood’s men, the bodies of the Zouaves sprinkled across the slope gave the appearance of “a Texas hillside when carpeted in the spring by wild flowers of many hues and tints.”
At last, Pope grasped his ghastly miscalculation and rushed to save his army. He sent troops to occupy the strategic high ground at Henry Hill. A brigade of Ohioans, reinforced by artillery and followed by others, bought time for their comrades with a stand on Chinn Ridge, which lay between Henry Hill and the advancing Confederates. They slowed the Confederate advance, buying 90 precious minutes, but at fearful cost.
Capt. Mark Kern, the commander of a Pennsylvania battery, was one of many who sacrificed his life. “I promised to drive you back, or die under my guns, and I have kept my word,” he told the Texans.
Henry Hill was secured, enabling Pope’s army to retreat in darkness across Bull Run and eventually to the safety of Washington’s fortifications.
“We are whipped again, I am afraid,” Lincoln sadly told his secretary, John Hay.
Second Manassas left 3,300 dead, more Americans than have died in a decade of war in Afghanistan. Although it lies just minutes from Interstate 66, the rolling landscape of Manassas National Battlefield Park has a peaceful beauty far removed from 150 years ago, when the mangled and bloody remains of thousands of young men lay in fields and streambeds, on hill slopes and in piles at the foot of the unfinished railroad grade.
Never again would Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia come so close to destroying a Federal army as it did at Second Manassas.
But the Federal army had escaped, and within days, Lee made the fateful decision to invade Maryland. Less than three weeks later, his troops would meet the Union army at Antietam, where a sad new standard of American bloodshed would be set.
Sources: National Park Service; U.S. Army Center of Military History; “The Second Battle of Manassas,” by A. Wilson Greene; “Return to Bull Run,” by John Hennessy; “The Battle of Second Manassas,” by Joseph W.A. Whitehorne; “Stonewall Jackson,” by James I. Robertson Jr.; “The Civil War,” by Shelby Foote; “Battle Cry of Freedom,” by James McPherson; “Team of Rivals,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.