Return to Bull Run

This excellent book from John Hennessy is the best book on the Second Bull Run [Manassas] campaign in August of 1862. It’s deeply researched, well sourced, and engagingly written. It’s filled with terrific information, not just about the battle but about the participants as well. For example, we learn this about Union Major General John Pope: “Pope’s ancestry included George Washington and an obscure line of Virginia Popes, the only hint of which that remains today is an appellation on two creeks–one of them near Washington’s birthplace, the other, ironically, not far from Manassas Junction. He was born in Kentucky in 1822, migrated with his family to Illinois shortly thereafter, and graduated from West Point in the top third of the class of 1842.” [p. 3] We also learn, “Pope’s father-in-law, congressman Valentine B. Horton, was a close friend of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase. More importantly, his father had been a Federal circuit court judge in Illinois before the war, and had welcomed Lincoln to his court on many an occasion. Too, one of Pope’s second cousins was married to Mary Todd Lincoln’s eldest sister.” [p. 4]

Most Civil War enthusiasts immediately dismiss Pope as not worth their time. That’s a mistake. The man wasn’t the most brilliant general, but he was also not an idiot. In reading this book we find he used good judgment many times during the campaign, and Pope was responsible for elevating one of, if not the, best cavalry officers the Union would produce. “[“Stonewall”] Jackson and his two divisions arrived at Gordonsville on July 19. Their arrival, coincidentally, foiled the first of Pope’s efforts to lay waste to the Virginia Central Railroad. Pope’s plan showed, at least, that he had learned something from the Confederates regarding cavalry, for he proposed two quick dashes by cavalry forces against the Virginia Central Railroad. The first came on July 17, when Union cavalry under Brigadier General John P. Hatch moved from Culpeper, intent on destroying the railroad around Gordonsville, and then toward Charlottesville. But Hatch moved slowly, encumbered by infantry and artillery, and by the time he reached Madison Court House, still fifteen miles short of his goal, he learned that Ewell’s division was already at Gordonsville. To Pope’s disgust, Hatch declined to face the Confederates and withdrew toward Sperryville. Pope’s second forward effort met with slightly more success. On the night of July 19 the 2d New York Cavalry, commanded by rising daredevil Judson Kilpatrick, dashed south from Fredericksburg and the next day struck the Virginia Central Railroad near Beaver Dam Station. Though unpracticed in what would later in the war become an art, the regiment ripped up track, burned the depot, cut the telegraph and, as Union General King later told it, ‘created a general alarm in that part of the state.’ The New Yorkers claimed one hundred barrels of flour and forty thousand cartridges destroyed, and captured a young Confederate captain. The capture of the captain would become the most remembered of the accomplishments. His name was John Singleton Mosby, then on his way to join Jackson. He carried in his pocket a recommendation from Stuart: ‘He is bold, daring, intelligent and discreet.’ The Federals should have taken heed of Stuart’s recommendation, but instead–much to their later regret–they paroled Mosby a few days later. The damage wrought by the 2d New York, though encouraging to Pope, was trifling. The Confederates put the railroad back in full service within a day. But if the stabs at the railroad had no substantial effect on Confederate logistics, they had at least revealed to Pope Jackson’s presence at Gordonsville. That stimulated still more activity by the Union commander: a reconnaissance from Culpeper on July 21; another from Fredericksburg on July 22, and still another on July 24. Hatch again attempted to strike the Virginia Central between Gordonsville and Charlottesville but failed, he said, ‘from the utter breaking up of his horses, the state of the roads, and the storms.’ With this second failure, Pope relieved Hatch of command of Banks’s cavalry and ordered him to Fredericksburg to direct a brigade of infantry in King’s division. Despite such bungling, by July 25 there could be no doubt in Pope’s mind that Jackson, with perhaps as many as thirty thousand men, confronted him.” [pp. 24-25] Hatch’s replacement was Brigadier General John Buford.

Hennessy’s descriptions of the action are clear and lucid. It’s easy to follow the troop movements from his text, and the maps give us a great view of the geography. He gives us excellent analysis of the two commanders’ decisions and why they made those decisions. He’s also strong on discussing the results of the campaign.

“The Second Battle of Manassas brought Robert E. 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. The route north lay unencumbered. A victory on Union soil held the potential to force a swift and happy political solution to the war. Unfortunately for Lee and his cause, the Second Manassas campaign did not concurrently bring them to the height of their power. The toils of the campaign had reduced the army dramatically. The nine thousand men lost at Manassas and Chantilly were only slightly more than the losses from straggling and desertions. On August 15 Lee had counted probably fifty-five thousand men in his army. On September 3, despite the addition of three new divisions totaling about nine thousand men, the number was only about fifty thousand. By the time his army formed on the west bank of the Antietam two weeks later, it would number less than forty thousand. The victory at Manassas was sweet and decisive. But the exertion required to achieve it left Lee’s army, in the commander’s own words, ‘not properly equipped for an invasion of the enemy’s territory.’ As he saw it, however, the grand opportunity forged by the triumph could not be lost. ‘We cannot afford to be idle,’ he wrote.” [p. 456]

He gives us insightful analysis of Lee and his top two commanders. “The Second Manassas Campaign also marked the emergence of Robert E. Lee. This was Lee’s first full campaign, his first opportunity to ply his talents unfettered on the fields of central and northern Virginia. It represented the happiest marriage of strategy and tactics he would ever attain. … When, on August 24, the chance to flank Pope finally came, Lee offered a plan of stunning nerve. He selected Jackson, the man best suited for the job (a management skill often conspicuous by its absence on both sides of the Potomac). His plan, though bold, was framed with proper caution. Throughout the flank march he maintained continuous contact with Jackson; Jackson’s route left avenues of escape to the north and northwest. The flank movement succeeded perfectly. Once on the battlefield, Lee again demonstrated patience. In deciding to withhold attack on August 29, Lee clung tightly to his own mandate to avoid heavy losses unless great advantage might be gained. When the opportunity for counterattack came on August 30, he reacted unerringly. Longstreet’s assault was one of the largest attacks Lee would launch during the war. It was mounted with incredible speed and achieved impressive results. That the Union army escaped the field at all was undoubtedly a disappointment to Lee, for once started, he surely saw his attack on August 30 as a battle of annihilation. Nonetheless, Lee came as close as he ever would to destroying a Union army.” [pp. 457-458]

In considering Jackson’s performance, Hennessy writes, “Jackson’s performance during the Second Manassas Campaign electrified the South and mortified the North. Lee had cast him into the role for which he was best suited: semi-independent command with the capacity for bold movement. … Once in battle, however, Jackson reverted to a mediocre form that by now was becoming standard for him. His inability to overwhelm King’s division near Groveton on August 28, despite a threefold advantage in numbers, shades Jackson’s tactical record. His failure to advance promptly on Longstreet’s left the afternoon of August 30 stands as one of the mysteries of the battle. While the cause of Jackson’s delay is not known, its impact is: it allowed Pope more than ninety minutes to shift troops into Longstreet’s path south of the turnpike. It was a decisive breakdown on Jackson’s part that possibly spared the Union army.” [pp. 458-459]

He also analyzes James Longstreet’s performance. “Second Manassas represented James Longstreet’s most important contribution to any of Lee’s victories. His decisive attack on August 30 was remarkable in both its breadth–more than a mile–and the speed with which it was launched. From its conception to first contact with the Federals took probably forty-five minutes. Problems of geography, not command, hampered the delivery of the assault. Rather than hitting the Yankee left with a single wrecking ball, Longstreet struck with many sledgehammers delivered in succession. In the end the Federal wall on Henry Hill would remain, despite a great deal of violent pounding invested by Longstreet to knock it down. In three hours of fighting Longstreet’s wing lost about four thousand men, more than Jackson lost in three days.” [p. 459]

He also analyzes the Union side. “The well-oiled performance of the Confederate army contrasted sharply with the disorganized toil of Pope’s Army of Virginia. Few Yankee soldiers of any rank emerged from the disaster at Second Manassas with enhanced reputations. Reynolds had done well; his record of unspectacular steadiness would continue until his death at Gettysburg. Hooker’s performance had been undistinguished (at Porter’s retrial in 1878 he could barely remember his role in the battle), but he nonetheless ascended to command of the Potomac army’s First Corps. Butterfield would soon be marked as the fastest-rising civilian soldier in the army. Politics, not his performance on August 30, would elevate him. He would command a corps in four months and would be the army’s much-despised chief of staff through Gettysburg. For Cuvier Grover, his bayonet charge on the 29th would be one of the brilliant moments of his career. Milroy, though uncommonly energetic and assertive, wrecked his reputation with his wild antics on Henry Hill on August 30. He would remain a peripheral player in the Virginia theater until his demolition at Winchester in June 1863. Stars for the Yankees were few: Gibbon, his brigade and Doubleday’s two regiments on August 28; Tower and McLean on Chinn Ridge (indeed McLean was the man who by his actions most positively influenced the battle for the Federals); Reynolds on Henry Hill. But at best these were dim stars only. And their meager number highlighted a decisive point: the Union army at Second Manassas toiled under poor or average leadership at every level of the high command. Among Pope’s corps commanders, all would swiftly leave the Virginia scene; indeed, the Second Manassas Campaign initiated an upheaval in the high command of the Virginia army unmatched in its history.” [p. 463]

Looming over the campaign was the influence of a Union officer who was nowhere near the battlefield–Major General George B. McClellan. “McClellan had absolute control over the Second Manassas Campaign’s most important variable: how long it would take for his Army of the Potomac to join Pope’s Army of Virginia. Stated another way, McClellan would determine how long Lee’s window of opportunity remained open. McClellan’s plodding evacuation of the Peninsula gave Lee precious additional days to operate against Pope. Later, at Alexandria, when the emergency required a bold response, McClellan sought every pretext, every excuse not to send troops to Pope’s aid. His vile writings put his actions in the worst possible light and reflected poorly on him and anyone associated with him–especially Porter. His performance may have been, for him, typical, but it nonetheless represented one of the sorriest chapters in the history of the war.” [p. 468]

Still, the person most responsible for Union failure was the commander on the scene, Major General John Pope. “Both Halleck and McClellan contributed to the Union failure in Virginia in August 1862, but the primary architect of the calamity was John Pope. … On the battlefield, Pope demonstrated a lack of skill that even twenty-five thousand additional troops from Franklin’s and Sumner’s corps might not have rectified. He utterly failed in the basic responsibilities of commanding an army on the battlefield. Insufficient attention to the army’s logistics left his army wilted and dispirited. Inadequate reconnaissance left him with a wishful, wholly inaccurate view of the battlefield. Failure to put the attacks of August 29 into a larger tactical context, by making concurrent diversions or at least providing additional support, doomed each assault to failure. Pope’s most spectacular and inexplicable failure was his persistent pattern of illogical reasoning.” [pp. 469-470]

If you want to know about the Second Bull Run, aka Manassas, Campaign, this is the book to read. It’s best read after reading Robert K. Krick’s Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain, and it could use more information on the Battle of Chantilly, but this book is the best out there on this campaign and especially on the battle of Second Bull Run, aka Manassas. I highly recommend this book for students of the war. It should be on every Civil War student’s bookshelf.



  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    This is a first: A review of a book that I am actually finishing up, myself.

    I will admit: I did not want to read this book, but I had to in order to get the most out of a — hopefully — tour that I will be participating in. I don’t normally like campaign books, because the ones that I have read remind me of pushing around little toy soldiers on mock-up fields. If the maps are not near-Topo quality, than the whole book is for a loss, in my experience. Also, in the past, there has been a lack of a basic narrative, so without preparation, one would not really understand troop movements.

    Enough grousing, because Return to Bull Run has none of these issues. Thankfully, John Hennessy takes you by the hand and gently and thoroughly walks you through the battles and the campaign as a whole. Decisions are analyzed as they are made, and chapters are re-capped with a paragraph or two of overview at the end. I would go so far as to re-name the book “Campaigns for Dummies: An Introduction to Civil War Battles and Campaigns”.

    Bravo to John Hennessy for a well-done job

    1. Thanks for the comment, Shoshana. I’m glad you also enjoyed the book. I agree with your comment. John is a fine example of the great work the National Park Service historians are doing.

  2. Hi Al,

    I remember hearing Mr Hennessy speak not too long ago (but long ago enough that I cannot recall where) about his book. Your review failed to mention that the original publication date of “Return to Bull Run” was 1992, a year that pretty much pre-dates the internet. Anyway, Mr. Hennessy related all of the actual legwork that went into researching the book. He detailed travels to archival resources, etc. His point was that today, if he sat down to research and write the book, he could have accomplished over 90% of it from his home!!

    Kinda interesting to consider how things have changed.

  3. Mike Musick · · Reply

    Responding to the comment by joefa104, readers may wish to peruse John Hennessy’s September 28, 2012 post on the blog Mysteries & Conundrums, titled “The value and limits of online research – a quickie case study,” about his research for “Return.” Granted that the post was written some six years ago, and much has since been put online, but the emphasis is on how much is NOT online. For example, “…it’s apparent that just a tiny share of the manuscript materials I used are available online today – probably less than 5%, if that.” This is only a glimpse of this careful essay, which really goes beyond being just “a quickie.”

    1. Thanks, Mike.

    2. Mike,

      That is a very interesting torpedo of my claim. Boy, memories certainly can be fuzzy, but I am almost certain if was Mr. Hennessy who related the story that I shared. Maybe I’m way off base, I have been before! I think that I likely saw Mr. Hennessy speak in the past 6 years, so maybe his perception has changed, but certainly can’t be that dramatic. I will be looking at the article you quoted today, but wish to figure out where I got the idea of the story I shared. Any ideas?

  4. Mike Musick · · Reply

    On the ideas front, in his post John states that overall (that is, not just for manuscripts), and including newspapers and so forth, he found that 63% of what he used for “Return” had been put online by the time he was writing. That moves much closer to what you recollect, so perhaps that explains the discrepancy.

  5. “I think that I likely saw Mr. Hennessy speak in the past 6 years,”

    C-SPAN covered several talks about “controversial generals” last fall. During the panel discussion he mentions the percentage of his research that is now on the internet.

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