General McClellan failed to defeat Robert E. Lee during the Seven Days Battles. In response, Abraham Lincoln promoted General John Pope to command the newly constituted Army of Virginia effectively splitting the Union command in two. Lee recognized the opportunity to destroy Pope and moved to intercept. Lee’s actions culminated at the Second Battle of Bull Run leading to Confederate route of Pope’s forces.
Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign drew sufficient forces from George McClellan’s offensive in Virginia to frighten the Union commander into eventual retreat. The overly cautious McClellan believed the South outnumbered him, reluctantly fought Lee during the Seven Days, and then fled. President Lincoln decided to promote a more aggressive general to tangle with Lee.
John Pope enjoyed success in the western theater. Lincoln hoped the new general aggressiveness would blunt Lee and bring victory. The president created the Army of Virginia for Pope to achieve this goal. Pope bragged to his men, “I have come from the west, where we have always seen the backs of our enemies.” To begin, Pope moved to draw forces away from McClellan and defend Washington D.C. General Lee knew McClellan posed no threat and moved to engage Pope.
Geography aided the Confederates. Lincoln split the Union forces leaving a vast gap between Pope and McClellan. As a result, the two could not support one another. In response, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck ordered McClellan to return to Northern Virginia to support Pope immediately. McClellan sulked and waited 11 days to comply. The preliminary engagements between Lee and Pope began on August 9, 1862. McClellan began the redeployment on August 14.
The two armies continued fighting throughout August. The Second Battle of Bull Run began on August 28 and lasted three days. The two forces engaged on the site of the Confederate victory a year earlier. In the First Battle of Bull Run, the Confederates routed Union forces. The sequel ended much the same way.
The engagement began in earnest at Brawner’s Farm. Initially, Union forces ignored Thomas Jackson’s presence. Jackson feared Pope’s army might link with McClellan and prove too large to defeat. As a result, the Confederates attacked with 6,000 men. They outnumbered the Union detachment 3-to-1, but could not achieve victory. Nightfall ended the first day’s battle.
General Pope decided to redeploy and destroy Jackson’s force. He wished to hammer both Confederate flanks in force. Second Bull Run resumed at daybreak. The two sides literally slugged it out. Later, Pope issued the “Joint Order” confusing his generals. It did not detail what Union commanders were supposed to do. The order came across like a suggestion and lacked explicit orders to attack. At the end of the document, he told his officers to ignore the order if necessary. Essentially, Pope told his commanders to act as they saw fit.
While Generals Porter and McDowell grappled with Pope’s lack of direction, Lee attacked. In response, Pope ordered four assaults on Jackson assuming Porter was following the Joint Order. Eventually, Pope ordered Porter to strike, but the order took two hours to arrive when the courier got lost. At the same time, General Kearny attacked A.P. Hill expecting Porter’s offensive that did not come. Meanwhile, General James Longstreet arrived to reinforce the Confederates. At the same time, McClellan decided to let Pope “get out of his scrape” and refused to march.
Longstreet’s full command arrived on August 30 while McClellan remained content to “guard the capitol.” Union commanders endorsed a conservative approach for the third day. They argued the rebel positions too strong. However, further investigation failed to find Stonewall Jackson. Pope assumed the rebels were retreating and ordered an attack.
Unfortunately for the Union, the Confederate army was dug in. They had not retreated at all and Pope fell into a trap. The Union assault suffered severe casualties. Eventually, Lee struck to destroy Pope and cut off any Union retreat. The North managed to hold on to the key hill and was able to stave off complete disaster. Pope created a strong defensive line nullifying Lee’s strategy. Next, the Union commander ordered a withdrawal. The exhausted Confederates did not pursue.
The orderly Union retreat proved opposite of the panicked flight a year earlier. Despite this, Lee won an overwhelming victory. Northern casualties topped 10,000 while Lee lost about 8,000 dead and wounded. Despite the victory, Lee failed to destroy Pope’s army. An exasperated Lincoln fired Pope, dispatched the general to fight Indians, and merged the Army of Virginia with McClellan’s. Pope blamed Porter for the debacle and the subordinate was found guilty at a court martial. President Chester Arthur exonerated Porter and overturned the verdict. Arthur realized Pope walked into the trap and not Porter.
The Second Battle of Bull Run proved another debacle for Union forces. General Pope walked into a trap and General Lee decisively defeated the Union on the same ground the Confederates routed the North a year earlier. Although Lee did not destroy Pope’s army, he helped lower Northern morale. In the end, Lincoln turned to McClellan once more while Lee contemplated taking the war to the North.