Despite their stunning victory at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Confederate prospects were dim less than one year later. In the West, Ulysses S. Grant was having his way with Rebel defenders of vital river systems. In the East, George B. McClellan was inching his way up the Virginia Peninsula, threatening the Confederate capital at Richmond with the largest army ever assembled in North America. In addition, three Union forces in the Shenandoah prepared to move south through the valley to support McClellan’s invasion and hopefully to bring the American Civil War to a quick conclusion.
The main obstacle preventing the three Union armies in the Shenandoah from marching south to support McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign was a small detachment of soldiers from the Valley District, Department of Northern Virginia, commanded by Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. In a classic exhibition of generalship, Jackson held the three Union armies at bay throughout the first half of 1862. By June, President Abraham Lincoln lost patience with the uncoordinated Federal setbacks in the Shenandoah. On June 26, 1862, the President ordered the consolidation of forces commanded by Major General John C. Frémont, Major General Nathaniel Banks, and Major General Irvin McDowell, and several smaller units in eastern Virginia to form the Army of Virginia. Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the new army. The War Department codified the President’s decree by issuing General Orders, No. 103, dated August 12, 1862.
Sigel Replaces Frémont
Frémont, who was senior to Pope in grade, objected to the command structure and resigned in protest. Because many of the soldiers in Frémont’s Corps were of German extraction, Lincoln named German-born, Major General Franz Sigel as Frémont’s replacement.
Pope’s immediate mission comprised three key components:
- Aid McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign by drawing troops away from Richmond, or at least preventing Jackson from reinforcing General Robert E. Lee and his troops, who were protecting the Confederate capital,
- Secure the Shenandoah Valley, and
- Protect Washington, DC from a Confederate assault.
Army of Northern Virginia on the Move
By early July, the Army of Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, drove the Army of the Potomac away from the outskirts of Richmond and back down the Virginia Peninsula. McClellan’s withdrawal enabled Lee to turn his attention to Pope’s Army of Virginia.
Lee first sent Jackson north to intercept Nathaniel Bank’s Corps of Pope’s army, which was moving toward Gordonsville. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862), once again, Jackson’s soldiers prevailed. On August 12, Lee sent General James Longstreet’s Corps north to reinforce Jackson. By August 15, Lee followed with most of the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Second Battle of Bull Run
Upon his arrival, Lee boldly sent Jackson and one-half of the Rebel army on a march that outflanked Pope’s right-wing, capturing the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, Virginia on August 27. With Jackson now positioned between the Union army and Washington, DC, Pope had to turn his attention away from Lee. Pope marched his army toward Manassas Junction and attacked Jackson on August 28, the first day of the Second Battle of Bull Run.
On the second day, Pope believed that he was close to crushing Jackson’s forces and continued the attack. Unbeknownst to Pope, Longstreet’s Corps began arriving near the battlefield to relieve Jackson. On August 30, at approximately 4 p.m., Longstreet’s troops smashed into the left side of Pope’s unsuspecting army. Although the surprised Federals did not turn and run toward Washington, as they had done during the First Battle of Bull Run, they retreated nonetheless.
Fortunately for Pope, reinforcements from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac approaching the battle site from Washington prevented the retreat from deteriorating into a disorganized rout. Lee halted the pursuit, knowing that he could ill-afford to engage the combined forces of two Federal armies. During the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Army of Virginia suffered nearly 13,800 casualties, including 1,700 killed.
On September 7, 1862, one week after the second stinging Union defeat on the same ground near Manassas, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 128, reassigning Pope to command the Department of the Northwest, headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota. Less than one week after Pope plummeted into oblivion, the War Department issued General Orders, No. 129, on September 12, ending the existence of the Army of Virginia by merging its three corps with the Army of the Potomac.