Prelude to the Battle
In 1862, Union leaders attempted to bring a quick ending to the American Civil War by capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. On March 17, Major General George McClellan began moving the 50,000 men of the Army of the Potomac toward Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign. By June, McClellan reached the outskirts of the Confederate capital but ultimately retreated after losing a series of encounters with General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, collectively known as the Seven Days Battles.
Lee Becomes the Aggressor
Dissatisfied with McClellan’s performance, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Major General John Pope to command the newly created Army of Virginia. Sensing that McClellan now posed little threat to Richmond, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, took the offensive, before Pope’s army could unite with McClellan’s retreating forces.
On July 13, 1862, Lee sent 12,000 Rebel troops under the command of Major General Thomas J. Jackson to secure Confederate railroad links with the Shenandoah Valley near Gordonsville, Virginia. Later that month, he deployed 12,000 more men to support Jackson. Although outnumbered nearly 2 to 1, Jackson determined in early August that he now had enough strength to order isolated attacks on Pope’s army. With McClellan’s army in full retreat, Lee dispatched Major General James Longstreet and 30,000 additional troops to support Jackson on August 13, and Lee took command of the offensive against Pope.
Pope in Search of Jackson
Lee boldly sent Jackson on a march that outflanked Pope’s right-wing, capturing the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction on August 27, 1862. With Jackson now positioned between the Army of Virginia and Washington, Pope had to turn his attention away from Lee. Pope spent the next day ordering a series of futile marches and counter-marches in search of Jackson, who seemed to have vanished.
Unbeknownst to Pope, by the morning of August 28, Jackson’s soldiers had hunkered down behind an unfinished railroad grade along Stony Ridge, which paralleled the Warrenton Turnpike in Prince William County, between Groveton and Gainesville, Virginia. Concealed behind the railroad embankment, Jackson monitored the turnpike while awaiting Longstreet’s forces.
Ambush at Brawner’s Farm
As Jackson’s men laid in wait late on the afternoon of August 28, Brigadier General Rufus King’s 1st Division, comprising four brigades, came into sight marching east along the Warrenton Turnpike. Brigadier General John P. Hatch’s 1st Brigade led the way, followed by Brigadier General John Gibbon’s 3rd Brigade, Brigadier General Abner Doubleday’s 2nd Brigade, and Brigadier General Marsena Patrick’s 4th Brigade. King, who suffered from epilepsy, was traveling in an ambulance after having suffered a seizure.
As King’s soldiers marched by, Jackson readied his artillery. At roughly 5:45 p.m., Gibbon’s brigade of green volunteers from Wisconsin and Indiana neared John Brawner’s farm along the turnpike. Looking across an open field, Gibbon noticed some men on horses to his north. Wondering if they were Confederate cavalry, Gibbon left the road to investigate. He discovered Jackson’s cannoneers preparing to bombard his troops. Within minutes, two Rebel batteries opened fire on the unsuspecting Yankees.
Iron Brigade Meets the Stonewall Brigade
Gibbon quickly ordered his brigade to take cover on the north side of the road. Convinced that the Rebel guns belonged to J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry, Gibbon ordered the 2nd Wisconsin (his only regiment that had previously seen combat) to form a skirmish line and advance across the field to silence the Rebel batteries. As they crested a ridge on the other side of the field, the shocked Badgers discovered an entire Confederate infantry brigade advancing toward them. Unbeknownst to the Federals, they were about to come face-to-face with perhaps the most formidable unit in the Confederate Army, the famous Stonewall Brigade, now commanded by Colonel William S.H. Baylor.
Although outnumbered roughly 800 to 300, the stubborn Westerners held their ground. When the Rebels threatened to envelop their left flank, Gibbon deployed the 19th Indiana to anchor his line. Jackson countered by leading 800 to 1,000 fresh Rebels into the fray. Gibbon then brought forth the 6th and 7th Wisconsin to bolster his right flank. By the time Gibbon deployed all of his soldiers, his line stretched over a mile long.
Poor communications, created by serious injuries to two of Jackson’s three divisional commanders, hindered the Confederate general’s efforts to bring up more troops. A Union musket round shattered Major General Richard Ewell’s kneecap, causing doctors later to amputate his leg. Yankee soldiers shot Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro (pronounced ‘Tolliver’) three times during the battle, limiting his effectiveness.
As the struggle continued on toward darkness, an opening unfolded between the 6th and 7th Wisconsin. Recognizing the potential for disaster, General Doubleday deployed nearly 1,000 reinforcements from his brigade to plug the gap.
For over two hours, stubborn Rebs and Yanks poured hot lead into their enemies no farther than 30 to 100 yards apart. Even the onset of nightfall did not end the carnage. Unable to see their foes, dogged soldiers on both sides continued to fire at each other’s musket flashes in the dark. Eventually, the plaintive cries of the wounded replaced the roar of musketry, and soldiers from each side eerily crept forward with lamps to gather their dead and wounded.
Aftermath of the Battle
Although relatively unheralded, the Battle of Brawner’s Farm was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War. Fully one-third of the soldiers engaged on the evening of August 28 were killed or wounded. Gibbon’s brigade, later famously known as the Iron Brigade, suffered nearly 800 casualties. The 2nd Wisconsin took the brunt of it, losing 276 of the 430 soldiers who marched into battle.
On the other side, the renowned Stonewall Brigade sustained a forty percent casualty rate, losing 340 of 800 men. The 21st Georgia lost 184 of 242 men who took the field, a frightful seventy-six percent killed or wounded.
During the night, the Federals withdrew to join forces with General Pope at Manassas Junction in time to take part in the larger clash at the Second Battle of Bull Run the next day.