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The Battle of Second Bull Run was fought over several days in late August 1862. It was a stunning Confederate victory over the Union Army of Virginia. Over 20,000 men fell as casualties at this fight.
We also recommend watching The First Battle of Bull Run: Civil War Blood is Shed and The Battle of Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris
On July 21, 1861, the first great battle of the American Civil War was fought near Bull Run, just outside of Centreville, Virginia. With approximately 5,000 casualties, the Battle of First Bull Run was a terrible shock to the nation. However, just over 11 months later, Union and Confederate forces again met near Bull Run in a battle that saw over four times as many casualties and had a much bigger impact on the history of the United States. Let's learn more about the Second Battle of Bull Run in late August, 1862.
In the spring of 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George B. McClellan, embarked upon a campaign to advance on Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. McClellan's plan called for taking Union forces by sea to the Virginia Peninsula, landing near Fort Monroe, and advancing the short distance against Richmond from the east. Such a move would bypass the large Confederate force near Manassas, Virginia, a force that had been there since the Confederate victory at the Battle of First Bull Run in July 1861. By April, Union forces had landed and were moving west toward Richmond. In their way were Confederate forces under General Joseph Johnston. Johnston was a defensively minded general, and one of the highest ranking officers in the Confederacy. Yet, by the end of May, McClellan had come within just a few miles of Richmond. On May 31, Johnston led a robust Confederate counterattack at the Battle of Seven Pines. During that fight, Johnston was wounded severely and forced to relinquish command. In Johnston's stead, Confederate President Jefferson Davis placed General Robert E. Lee in command of the Confederate army defending Richmond.
Lee was a distinguished officer who had served in numerous posts in the United States army before the Civil War. In 1861 he oversaw Confederate forces in what is now West Virginia, and in 1862 he became a military adviser to Jefferson Davis. On June 1, 1862, he was an excellent choice to take Johnston's place.
Lee's first priority was to stop the Federal advance. By late June, Lee launched a series of vicious counterattacks, known to history as the Seven Days Battles. The combined effect of these battles was to push Federal forces away from Richmond. By mid-July, McClellan had fallen back to the James River and his push toward Richmond had fallen apart. By early August, President Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered McClellan to bring his army back to Washington.
In late June, because Lincoln's frustration with McClellan's lack of progress on the Peninsula, a new Union army was created. This force was called The Army of Virginia. To command this army, Lincoln selected a general who had fought with distinction in the Western Theater: Major General John Pope. Pope was an aggressive commander, a change in style from the cautious McClellan, and he was given the tasks of protecting Washington and moving against Robert E. Lee. Pope's army was an amalgamation of spare parts. It contained three corps, and most of the soldiers had been engaged in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign of that spring.
With the Army of the Potomac being pulled back to Washington to support Pope, Lee likewise turned his attention to this new Union army. Lee began to move his Army of Northern Virginia away from Richmond, moving north toward Pope's army. On August 9, Confederate forces under Major General Thomas Jonathan 'Stonewall' Jackson engaged part of Pope's army at Cedar Mountain, a resounding Confederate victory. After this fight Lee moved toward the Rappahannock River, finding the bulk of Pope's army. It was here that Lee devised a bold strategy. He sent half his army under the command of Jackson and cavalry under Major General Jeb Stuart north to cut off Pope's communications with Washington. Lee hoped this move would either force Pope back to Washington or lead to a Confederate victory. It ultimately did both.
By August 27, Jackson and Stuart had reached Manassas Junction, where a significant number of Union supply trains were captured or destroyed. This forced Pope to fall back toward Jackson's position near the old First Bull Run battlefield. Ironically, it was at First Bull Run in 1861 where Jackson gained his famed nickname of 'Stonewall' through his brave leadership. On the evening of August 28, Pope's columns were marching near Jackson's position on the Brawner's Farm, near Groveton. Jackson attacked these Union forces, beginning a fierce fire fight that lasted until darkness closed the day. Ultimately, Jackson fell back into an excellent defensive position to await Pope's attack. Jackson's Confederates were well positioned on Stony Ridge, and parts of the line were in or next to an old railroad cut, providing cover for the upcoming fight.
Pope believed that he had gotten the best of Jackson at Brawner's Farm and decided to attack the new Confederate positions on August 29. By this time, he had received portions of McClellan's Army of the Potomac as reinforcements, namely, the Third Corps and Fifth Corps, commanded by Samuel Heintzelman and Fitz John Porter. Pope wanted to use each of these on the 29th to press Jackson's lines, along with the men of the Army of Virginia.
Pope's battle plan that day was to attack both ends of Jackson's line. For several hours, repeated Union assaults tested the Confederate positions. When driven back, Confederate forces would counterattack to retake their position on the defensive line. It was a day full of back and forth assaults with terrible losses on both sides.
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By the afternoon of the 29th, Major General James Longstreet had arrived with the remainder of Lee's army. Lee originally wanted Longstreet to attack on the 29th, but because of poor positioning on the field and resistance from Longstreet, Lee decided against the move. While not an all-out assault, parts of Longstreet's force did move forward to engage Federals on the 29th, stopping some of the attacks on Jackson's right flank that day.
On August 30, believing the Confederates to be falling back after the attacks of the 28th and 29th, Pope ordered the assaults to continue. Parts of two Union corps were sent against Jackson's right flank near the Deep Cut, the deepest part of the old railroad cut that ran the length of Jackson's line. After this assault was repulsed, Lee ordered Longstreet to begin his grand counter attack. Under Longstreet's command, thousands of Confederates poured into the left flank of the Federals, driving them back in waves. Many Federals tried to make a stand on the old First Bull Run battlefield, but to little avail. By the end of the day on August 30, Union forces were retreating across Bull Run toward Washington for the second time in the Civil War.
The aftermath of Second Bull Run was terrible for the Federals. On September 1, while Union forces were heading back to Washington, a small scale battle erupted at Chantilly, Virginia, where two Union generals were killed. As the defeated Federals reentered Washington, they were all placed under the command of McClellan once again. Pope was relieved of command and sent to Minnesota to fight the Sioux. His Army of Virginia was dissolved and his Civil War career was effectively over.
For Lee, Second Manassas was arguably his greatest victory of the war. Thanks to the audacious leadership of 'Stonewall' Jackson, Lee had defeated an army with superior numbers in stunning fashion. After Second Bull Run, Lee decided to capitalize on his momentum and move north into Maryland. Federal forces were defeated and in disarray, and Lee wanted to push north and take advantage of the weakness of his foe. Thus began the Maryland Campaign, which led to the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the American Civil War. Antietam was fought just two and a half weeks after Second Bull Run, and many of the same soldiers were at both battles. Combined, the two battles saw nearly 50,000 casualties.
It is worth noting that Second Bull Run, just like First Bull Run, is often referred to by two names. The battles were referred to as First and Second Manassas by those in the Confederacy, after the nearby town of Manassas. Conversely, they were referred to as First and Second Bull Run in the North, after the nearby stream. Because both battles were Confederate victories, the National Park Service site preserving them is named Manassas National Battlefield Park.