North of Bull Run
Maj. William Patrick dismounted his six companies of the 1st Virginia Cavalry on a mission to turn back an entire brigade of Phil Kearny’s northerners that had crossed Bull Run and were now threatening the supply wagons for Jackson’s wing of the Confederate army. He advanced them to the omnipresent Unfinished Railroad. The Union brigade commander reported:
“I saw the enemy’s skirmishers deployed to meet us along the line of the railroad, and could see the glistening of the bayonets of the supports in the cornfield beyond [in fact, stragglers].”
His skirmishers, the 2nd Michigan, moved up the hill steadily, until they were almost in range of Patrick’s dismounted cavalry. Suddenly, Pelham’s horse artillery opened fire from its position near Sudley Ford, behind the Michiganders, and to their left. “At this moment,” a member of the regiment wrote, “we got orders to face about and ‘double quick’ to the shelter of the wood. We had to pass through a perfect hail of grape and canister which ripped the sod under our very feet. In noticeable gusts the missiles swept through our ranks.”
Patrick’s men pursued, to add extra impetus for the Union withdrawal, and the brigade took cover in the woods under the cover of Union artillery fire. The bluff had worked, Kearny sent orders to pull the brigade back across Bull Run, but Maj. Patrick had been killed in the process, the price for defeating the Union’s best chance at winning the battle.
While Kearny maneuvered, Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolinians were about to break the men Kearny was supposedly supporting. The 12th South Carolina lead the charge, hammering into the right flank of the overextended 1st New York, trying to cover the gap between the two brigades of Carl Schurz. “The 12th charged in the most gallant manner,” its colonel reported, “firing as it advanced, and putting the enemy completely to rout, pursued them with heavy slaughter through the woods and until they crossed the field beyond and ran out of sight.”
Every man in his division already fighting, Schurz rode forward personally to try to rally his scattered regiments. The 29th New York had pivoted to try to give the 1st New York to reform after the brutal assaults of the South Carolinians, but they were quickly becoming overwhelmed too, as the 1st Rifles of South Carolina sharpshooters caught up with their fellow Palmetto Staters. Schurz personally rode through the scattered 54th New York, bellowing appeals to their patriotism. It gathered enough men to send help to the 29th, buying enough time for an as-yet-unengaged brigade from the First Corps reserves to arrive and stabilize the line. The South Carolinians slowly fell back to the railroad.
The immediate crisis passed, Schurz received an order from Maj. General Franz Sigel, still in command of the field, for his and Kearny’s division to begin an all out attack on the Confederates in front of them. Perhaps Sigel still believed that it was only several divisions and wanted to break through to defeat the force at Brawner’s Farm, or perhaps he had realized that Jackson was not retreating, but in line from Brawner’s to Sudley Springs and wanted to prevent him from concentrating all his men against Schenck to the southwest. Either way, Schurz put his men into motion for a counterattack, and prayed for Kearny’s guns to start firing.
Whatever his understanding of Jackson’s total position, Sigel had directed almost all of his artillery fire on the Confederates of Ewell’s division (led by Lawton since Ewell’s injury) that was threatening to overrun Robert Milroy’s brigade. Milroy had not well economized use of his force and sent a small portion of it into a hornet’s nest that was now threatening to split the Northern forces in half.
Now Milroy, with his brigade reunited and with a brigade of reinforcements from Robert Schenck, had formed his men up in an open field and the Confederate artillery was returning the favor. The two brigades of Union men were being cut to pieces, when Joe Hooker arrived. Recognizing the futileness of the ground immediately, Hooker sent one regiment into battle to stem the Confederate advance, while holding the rest of his division behind a ridge to the east of the Groveton woods. He sent orders for Milroy to pull back his men along this new line he had established.
South of Brawner’s Farm, Robert Schenck was missing the brigade he had sent to Milroy. Longstreet was continuing to spread his men to the south, threatening to outflank Schneck’s support, the division of John Reynolds that now outnumbered the division he was supposed to be supporting by three-to-one. Reynolds had already decided to fall back to Lewis Lane [Groveton Rd], and Schneck regrettably joined him.
Northwest of Manassas Junction
While gloomily riding behind Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, Irvin McDowell was interrupted by a messenger from army commander John Pope. The messenger gave him the Joint Order, which said that Porter and McDowell should operate together, but which more importantly to McDowell restored King’s division to his command. He had hardly finished reading it, when Buford’s report from Gainesville arrived about the movement of Longstreet’s wing of the Confederate army. With both in hand, he rode forward along the long column to find Porter.
Porter had already received the joint order, and the two discussed the situation. McDowell casually repeated Buford’s intelligence about Longstreet, but did not place much emphasis on it. Porter’s skirmishers appeared to be firing at Longstreet’s men, and McDowell could see a large dust cloud up ahead, that he assumed was from it. They must be moving east on the Warrenton Turnpike [US 29], he told Porter, towards Reynold’s division and Sigel’s corps—both supposed to be under McDowell—and so it was essential to execute the discretion allowed by the Joint Order.
Assuming because of the dust cloud that the Turnpike was not far off, McDowell decided to turn his men around and then move them up the Sudley Road towards the sound of the artillery, before Longstreet’s men arrived to overwhelm Sigel. McDowell left Porter to continue the march towards Gainesville, while he executed his new plan.
But Porter barely made much more progress, advancing to Dawkin’s Branch, where he discovered not the cavalry skirmishers he had been fighting all morning, but Confederate infantry.