Fitz John Porter ordered forward his lead division and King’s division (under John Hatch). They had been lined up in Groveton Woods parallel to Groveton-Sudley Road (Featherbed Lane) with a three brigade front, and now pivoted on the right-most across an open plain towards the railroad. Watching from Brawner’s Farm, James Longstreet couldn’t help but admire the smartly executed military maneuver:
I reached a point… where I could plainly see the Federals as they rushed in heavy masses against the obstinate ranks of the Confederate left. It was a grand display of well-organized attack, thoroughly concentrated and operating cleverly.
The left brigade had more ground to cover than almost any other unit, and had to do it entirely in the open. Remembered the colonel of the 17th New York, in the lead of the brigade:
We crossed the road, the men scrambling over the fence on the other side, and moved forward steadily in quick time. No sooner had we appeared in plain view of the enemy than he opened a tremendous fire of artillery and musketry on our advancing line. Nothing could surpass the behavior of the officers and the men, the latter steadily closing the huge gaps made in the ranks.
The 17th New York actually had a slightly easier time than the rest of its brigade going in. Four regiments followed behind it, one after the other, which made even more appealing targets to the Southern gunners. In the woods it had been too difficult to form the line of battle that was standard, so Porter had intended for them to do so in the field before charging the railroad. A member of the 44th New York, next in line, wrote:
Emerging from the woods, we were ordered to deploy column, a maneuver we tried to execute under a galling fire of the enemy’s batteries and infantry; and most of the companies became badly tangled; the enemy was concealed in an old railroad cut about 500 yards in our front, and their fire… made sad havoc of our ranks; the rain of shot and shell… was something terrible. About midway across this open field was a dry brook into which many of our men fell for shelter…
One of the casualties crossing the field was the brigade commander, so the colonel of the 44th New York took command. Not a military man, he did his best to get the brigade into position for the final charge into the bristling muskets behind the railroad cut.
As the New Yorkers had advanced across the field, Colonel Bradley Johnson’s Virginia brigade rapidly threw themselves into the railroad cut, some without even loading their weapons. Next to Johnson’s brigade, a soldier in the Stonewall Brigade wrote:
The Federals came up in front of us [as] suddenly as men rising up out of the ground, showing themselves at the old railroad line opposite our line in double battle phalanx coming forward in slow time, ouring their shot in our ranks in unmerciful volume.
The Northern men, now more-or-less fanned out as intended, slammed into the Confederate lines, sending the first line of defenders staggering back towards the rest of their units in the woods on Stony Ridge. On the far right of the advance, a member of the 24th New York from Hatch’s brigade remembered that the charge “seemed like the popular idea of pandemonium made real, and indeed it is scarcely too much to say that we were transformed for the time from a lot of good natured boys to the most bloodthirsty of demoniacs.”
The 24th’s commander, only a major because of losses, was shot dead off his horse right as he reached the embankment. An officer from the regiment wrote:
Those of us who were on the embankment were too few to even attempt to drive out the troops on the other side of it and accordingly lay as flat to the slope as we could, crawling occasionally to the top, and discharging our muskets, held horizontally over our heads, in the direction which seemed to afford a chance of hitting something on the other side.
On the other side was Starke’s Louisiana brigade, led by its senior colonel, Leroy Stafford. A soldier in the 1st Louisiana remembered their first volley into Hatch’s brigade and the 24th New York: “When the smoke arose the line of Federals was almost swept away, with the exception of the gallant band who [had] advanced and secured protection on the opposite side of the embankment.” A second attack wave crashed against them from Hatch’s brigade and almost dislodged the Louisianans, but their reinforcements came rushing into the hand-to-hand combat from the Stony Ridge tree line.
In the center of the attack, the Stonewall Brigade had been knocked out of the railroad by another New York regiment. Wielding his saber, Colonel Baylor ordered the second-line of Virginians to charge to regain it. Watching the flag of the 33rd Virginia fall and rise again three times as its bearer was shot, Baylor grabbed it himself and screamed “Boys, follow me!” in an instant he staggered as several minie balls riddled his body, and fell dead. The Stonewall counterattack fizzled and they began falling back.
A messenger ran as fast as he could to Jackson, who was pacing not far behind another part of the line and begged for reinforcements. “What brigade?” Jackson asked. “Stonewall Brigade,” the messenger replied, and Jackson told him to “go back, give my complements to them, and tell the Stonewall Brigade to maintain her reputation.” Jackson thought better of his harsh words though, and called the officer back, telling him instead to hold on for a short time longer and he would provide reinforcements. To find them, he asked A.P. Hill to send two from his battered division, and sent an urgent plea to Lee for some of Longstreet’s men.
At some point, John Hatch was wounded, but the individual units were fighting on their own now. Back on the right of Porter’s attack, Marsena Patrick had thrown his men in behind the men of Hatch’s brigade that were clinging to the railroad. Only some of the men had a few hundred yards of open space to cross before reaching the railroad, but Longstreet’s artillerists were zeroed in now, and fired with devastating effect. Cadmus Wilcox, watching from Brawner’s witnessed the effect of the artillery:
Seeing a second line issuing from the woods upon the field, I was in the act of ordering a battery to be placed in position to fire upon them when a battery was directed by the major general commanding [Longstreet] to fire upon them… They were caught in the open field. The effect of every shot could be seen... As the shells and spherical case would burst over in front and near them their ranks would break, hesitate and scatter…
Nonetheless some of the brigade made it forward, to find themselves in the same position as those that had preceded them. A Confederate soldier from Alabama wrote:
They just simply jammed up against the embankment opposite the right of the 15th Alabama and one of the Louisiana regiments. They were so thick it was impossible to miss them. Cicero Kirkland, of my company… mounted on top of our breastwork [the railroad] and poured buck and ball into them as fast as one of the boys could load and hand him a musket… What a slaughter! What a slaughter of men that was!”
The Louisianans grabbed rounds off the dead and wounded, but their ammunition soon ran out still. An Irish immigrant fighting with them shouted “Boys, give them the rocks!” and they began chucking them at the Union men. An officer from a New York regiment related later drolly called it “an unlooked for variation in the proceedings.” He continued: “Huge stones began to fall about us and now and then one of them would happen to strike with a very unpleasant effect.” Some of the New Yorkers decided to throw them back.
The rock throwing lasted only for a short time when one of the promised brigades from Hill, with plenty of ammunition, sprinted the last few hundred feet to the railroad embankment. No reinforcements had come from Porter’s second division, so the commanders of the attack ordered the withdrawal. In many cases, the order was superfluous, the men had already left.
On the left of the attack, where the men had the furthest distance to cover, they had to deal with additional artillery that Longstreet had moved into action rather than sending infantry reinforcements. One soldier from the brigade wrote: “The whole brigade went back pell-mell together… The Rebels kept up a heavy fire upon them as they retired, and it is probably that as many men were lost in the retreat as in the advance.” More than a few Union soldiers decided it was better to surrender than to cross the field again.
In the woods north of Groveton, Fitz John Porter had watched the spectacular defeat grimly. He had been fatalistic about the attack from the start, a negativity that probably saved some of his men by convincing Sigel to launch a supporting attack from Dogan’s Ridge with one division, keeping Jackson from transferring reinforcements from a closer point. But when the three brigades slowed at the railroad, Porter had immediately decided to withhold his division of Regulars. The Confederates were still on the battlefield in force, he reasoned, it was too dangerous to put in his last reserves.
If Porter was grim, Irvin McDowell was frantic. Pope’s entire plan for battle was predicated on breaking Jackson’s line, if that was done then Lee was defeated. Even if Jackson wasn’t already retreating, he would be when the railroad was taken. Porter had been very negative about his chances of success, so McDowell was working overtime to give him every resource he needed.
Very shortly after Porter’s men stepped off, McDowell transferred two brigades away from Ricketts on the Sudley Road to Groveton, by way of Dogan’s Ridge, and rode to Chinn Ridge to find Reynolds. As the Confederate artillery began booming, McDowell ordered Reynolds to march up Chinn Ridge north of the Turnpike and be ready to go in after Porter.
Reynolds did so with disgust. The obsession with defeating Jackson once again won out over basic force protection. As his men marched off the ridge they passed the one Ohio brigade of Sigel’s that had been dispatched to “that bald hill” which they took to mean Chinn Ridge. Their commander wrote:
After a very short time, to my intense surprise, Genl Reynolds marched with his whole command immediately across my front to the right, leaving me entirely alone with no other troops in sight. Thinking Genl Reynolds had forgotten me, I sent an officer to ask if he had any orders for me. He answered no, but tell him to take care of himself, as the enemy are approaching in heavy force through the woods.
Reynolds was more right than he knew. From his headquarters, Lee was sending observational information back and forth through all parts of his army, by signal flag and currier, to make sure each end knew what was going on. At approximately 3:45 a messenger from Jackson had confirmed what Lee’s eyes were telling him, the Union men were beginning to fall back from the railroad. Lee turned to another officer on his staff and sent the order he had been waiting for to Longstreet: attack.