Army of Virginia headquarters was overrun by disgruntled subordinates during the 1:00 hour. In one corner, James Ricketts was arguing with Irvin McDowell that he couldn’t lead a column down the Haymarket Road [no longer existent] because the Confederates were still behind the unfinished railroad cut. He had advanced his skirmishers, he could see the artillery, McDowell had to believe they were there. For a time, his superior pushed back, since he himself had been to the area and somehow missed the Confederate army while scouting, but eventually he relented. He told Ricketts to hold off on pursuit, and sent a messenger to Sam Heintzelman for the column to wait.
Nearby, a messenger from Franz Sigel was gravely relaying information to John Pope. The First Corps, Army of Virginia commander, who believed McDowell and Heintzelman’s scouting report that Jackson was retreating, had reservations about Pope’s dismissal of Porter and Reynolds’ reports that Longstreet was south of the Turnpike. He had sent a regiment of New York cavalry down the Old Warrenton-Alexandria-Washington Pike [Ball’s Ford Road] and they had run into Confederate cavalry, infantry, and artillery in substantial numbers. Alarmed at their report, Sigel had sent them directly to Pope.
Sigel’s messenger hadn’t been finished long when John Reynolds rode up at a gallop, his horse in a lather. “The enemy is turning our left!” he shouted to Pope. The commanding general shrugged Reynolds off, but this time the Pennsylvanian wasn’t going to let it go. He had advanced some skirmishers as far as Lewis Lane and found the expected return fire in front of him, but it was fire that came far from his left that had so unsettled him. “The skirmishers opened fire upon me, and I was obliged to run the gauntlet of a heavy fire to gain the rear of my division,” he wrote after the battle. It meant there were Confederates far further south than there were Union units and all it would take was an order to outflank the army.
“I thought the information of sufficient importance to bring it to you myself and run the gauntlet of three Rebel battalions,” Reynolds angrily snarled at Pope, “I would have thought you would believe me.”
Pope called over Brig. General John Buford and asked him to use his cavalry brigade to scout the left in order to mollify Reynolds, but it didn’t work. Reynolds didn’t need a scout, he needed support against the Confederate masses opposite him, so he found McDowell and argued his case to him. McDowell listened with concern as Reynolds explained the Confederates hadn’t retreated, they had just shifted so as to flank the army. It didn’t square with Ricketts’ report that the Confederates hadn’t moved at all. But Reynolds was insistent enough that McDowell mounted his horse and asked to see it personally.
Fitz John Porter was also having problems with his orders. When he had left headquarters, there had been a miscommunication in Pope’s vague oral orders. He had set up his two divisions on the west side of Dogan’s Ridge in anticipation of attacking the standing Confederate forces. But McDowell’s orders told him to attack down the Turnpike, not the intersection of the Unfinished Railroad and Groveton-Sudley Road [Featherbed Lane].
The orders were problematic for another reason for Porter. On the Brawner Farm, perched on heights commanding the Turnpike, were vast numbers of Confederate artillery that had harassed his men all morning and would make mincemeat of them if they marched down the Turnpike. Instead, Porter had planned on sending the two brigades of Morell’s division that had not gotten lost and gone to Centreville across the railroad, so that they could come down Stony Ridge onto Brawner’s Farm from above. It was a textbook assault on artillery.
He wrote a note to McDowell explaining the problem, and McDowell’s approval came back quickly, so Porter green lit the attack. No sooner had he done so than a message came back from the commander of the attack that he couldn’t proceed, because his right flank was entirely unsupported. Porter didn’t know for sure that the Confederates still held the length of the unfinished railroad, but his cautious military professionalism put him on guard not to move against a fixed position if it was possible for the enemy to come forward and shoot you in the side.
Ricketts should have been to the right with his skirmishers, but when McDowell had canceled his order to advance, he had never sent Porter notice. Fortunately, the four brigades from the Third Corps, Army of Virginia under John Hatch were waiting patiently on the Turnpike for the pursuit to begin. Porter ordered them up to the right as quickly as possible, delaying his attack until the support was in place.