Colonel Joseph Carr’s men had been exchanging fire with the Confederate pickets stationed on the other side of the unfinished railroad where it crossed the Groveton-Sudley Road [Featherbed Lane] since before noon. Initially, he had sent in just two regiments from the Second New Jersey Brigade he commanded—something of a misnomer now that a regiment each from New York and Pennsylvania had been added to the original four Jersey regiments. But after Milroy’s brigade had extracted itself from the hornet’s nest it had stirred up, Carr had maintained contact, eventually bringing his full brigade into the steady exchange of musket fire.
At about 4:00, Carr’s replacements arrived, the three regiment brigade of Colonel James Nagle. Nagle’s brigade was the second of two from the division of Maj. General Jesse Reno, a short loyal Virginian who was commanding the detachment of the Ninth Corps on loan to Pope. Reno’s First Division had been split up to reinforce various spots on the battlefield as it arrived, but his Second (his own) had been the army’s reserve force.
As John Pope threw everything he had into breaking Jackson’s Confederate line before sunset, he ordered Reno to send his division in, led by Nagle. But either by oversight or very poor design, Pope had not told the superiors of Joseph Carr—Joe Hooker, and Sam Heintzelman—that they shouldn’t withdraw Carr as originally planned. Carr’s men admired the precision of Nagle’s little brigade as it maneuvered into position while they marched away, the 6th New Hampshire on the left, the 48th Pennsylvania in the center, and the 2nd Maryland on the right.
Company C of the 6th New Hampshire was ordered forward as skirmishers for the regiment and proceeded through the woods carefully. A full seventy yards from the railroad, they came upon the Confederate skirmishers that had been keeping contact with Carr’s New Jersey brigade as it fell back. “The firing became brisk,” their historian wrote, “The enemy had wisely chosen their fighting ground… But they fell back as we pressed forward, firing as fast as we could and as often as we could get sight of the ‘grey-backs.’”
The pickets slowed so that the remainder of the regiment caught up, then the whole mass moved forward, with the other two regiments on their right at the same time.
We felt we were driving them; but perhaps we hurried too much, and therefore did less execution than we should have done had we moved more slowly. Suddenly, we received a terrific volley, which seemed to come from the ground in front of us. The colonel ordered us to charge, which we did with a will, and came out upon the brink of a railroad cut… in which the rebels had taken position, the embankment making a good breastwork for them. We poured into it such a volley that they got out of their hiding-place on the double-quick, and retreated to the clearing and woods behind.
Nagle had succeeded where Milroy and Carr had failed earlier in the day—he had taken the railroad. The two exhausted Confederate brigades that had been defending that part of the line had been under fire all day. Neither was commanded by its actual commander. Brig. General Alexander Lawton had left his brigade of Georgians under Colonel Marcellus Douglass when he replaced Dick Ewell the previous evening, and Brig. General Isaac Trimble had been wounded that morning, along with a score of other officers, leaving as the most senior officer in the entire brigade Captain William Brown of the 12th Georgia.
Watching from his resting spot in the Groveton woods, Robert Milroy described watching the attack:
We could only see the left flank [the 6th New Hampshire] of the long battle line, which passed out of the woods as they approached the R.R. and passed over the ground where my boys had struggled so desperately… I held my breath as they neared that fatal line. Suddenly a volcano of fire opened from behind the R.R. line… and hundreds of brave fellows in our long bristling line sank before that fatal fire to rise no more. The advancing faltered but for a moment and an answering volcano followed the first and an instant afterwards a great shout arose and that long line surged rapidly across the R.R. embankment at the charge bayonet into the forest.
As Nagle’s men had poured over the embankment, Milroy had ordered the 3rd [West] Virginia forward to help pursue. But Milroy wasn’t the only one spurred to action. Colonel Bradley Johnson, commanding J.R. Jones’ Virginia brigade since its commander had been wounded during the Seven Days, saw the threat to his men stationed about 100 yards behind the railroad.
In the afternoon the enemy carried the embankment to my left, and while I was trying to rally some men not of my command came close on me and between my command and the railroad cut. The men [Johnson’s] were lying down at the time in ranks, concealed, and unexpected. I ordered a charge, and with a yell the Second Brigade went through them, shattering, breaking, and routing them.
Prior to their charge, Johnson’s Virginians caught the Granite State men on the left of Nagle’s line by complete surprise. “Soon the shots came thick from the bushes to the left,” the historian wrote, “And some of the boys thought at first that the 48th [Pennsylvania] was firing into us by mistake. Captain Henry Pearson was immediately sent to stop the believed friendly fire.
As I approached the ditch I heard loud cheering on the other side and thought we were about to be supported. But as a number of bullets whizzed by my ears I quickened my pace to inform them that we were ahead. Mounting the opposite side of the ditch the bullets flew by me so thick that I quickly jumped back again…
Pearson hit the ground and peering from some cover spotted the Confederate uniforms. He rushed back to his regiment to tell the colonel to order the men to cover because they were about to be surrounded. Incredulous, because he was operating from the same assumptions as everyone else that there were far fewer Confederates in the area, his colonel sent him back. Pearson braved the bullets once more long enough to identify the Confederate battle flag before rushing back to his colonel.
The colonel still doubted whether it could be rebels [and] took our flag and waved it above the ditch. It was instantly riddled with bullets… [which] convinced him that the stars and stripes had no friends in that quarter.
It was then that Johnson’s charge hit. Nagle tried to get his brigade to hunker under cover, but they had already been worn out by the charge and except for Milroy’s one regiment had no one in range to support them. They began to run as fast as they could to get over the railroad and back to Groveton Woods.
Further down the Confederate line, the Louisiana brigade temporarily under its senior colonel, Leroy Stafford, while Brig. General Starke replaced the wounded Taliaferro at division level, watched Johnson go forward. Catching the spirit, Colonel Stafford ordered his men to follow. A private in the 2nd Louisiana wrote:
The cry ‘forward’ rang along our lines, and we advanced and ran almost into the Yankees, who giving us a deadly volley, fell back rapidly across the field into the woods beyond, where a battery, supported by swarms of troops, was posted.
The guns belonged to Captain Hampton, and had been placed there by Robert Milroy. Exposed in the middle of an open field, his 3rd [West] Virginia had been the target for the Louisianan’s charge. Nagle’s brigade had utterly dissolved, freeing up some of Johnson’s Virginians to focus on their loyal cousins as well. Milroy had sent for the battery when he thought victory was near, but when the Confederate wave came crashing, had ridden back personally and “hurried it frantically forward to near the edge of the forest.”
He had only been able to get one section (two guns) forward by the time of the charge. “I… commenced firing canister at three lines of rebels just beyond the Railroad cut,” one of the gun commanders remembered, “And after each shot, in looking under the rising smoke, I observed that the rebels were running toward us and disappearing, and I so reported to Lieutenant Irish [the section commander], who, with General Milroy, was close on my left.”
We had fired six shots, and were loading the seventh, when General Milroy and Lieutenant Irish, having rode far enough in advance to see into the Railroad Cut, and at this moment the rebel yell was raised, and [Johnson’s and Stafford’s brigades] charged…
“Under a withering fire of minies and canister we pressed on,” the 2nd Louisiana private recorded, “Bradley T. Johnson riding ahead, with his sword run through his hat, waving us on, until we waved him out of our line of fire. When we arrived within about one hundred yards of the battery [Irish’s section] the line was halted, and under this raking fire the alignment was corrected… Not a man faltered. Again ‘forward’ and we drove straight for the guns.”
Milroy saw the Confederates coming, but the 3rd [West] Virginia had been the only regiment close to fighting condition, so there was no one to protect the guns. He ordered Lieutenant Irish to retreat, and had the battery’s other section set up in Groveton Woods to cover the retreat. One gun got stuck on a stump and had to be abandoned to the Louisianans, but the other got to cover. Milroy sent a frantic message to Pope that the line had collapsed, and if he didn’t send reinforcements soon the Confederates would be on him.
Meanwhile, the mob of men that had been Nagle’s brigade crashed through an as-yet-unengaged brigade from Hooker’s division. The Excelsior Brigade had been preparing to skirmish with the troops on the railroad east of the Groveton-Sudley Road, but was now thrown into disarray. Its commander wrote:
Having everything in readiness, I gave the order to advance. The line had advanced but a few steps when the left was struck with such violence by a regiment (which continued the line to the left) which had broken that the [71st New York], which was on the left of the brigade line, was almost carried away with it. I hastily rode to this part of the line… and endeavored to stay this disgraceful retreat, but it was in vain; the tide could not be stemmed. On they rushed over and through my line perfectly panic stricken, breaking and carrying away with them the left of my line.
Also caught up in the maelstrom of fleeing Union soldiers were the men of Carr’s New Jersey brigade, who had thought they were out of the fight. Fast on their would-be-relief’s heels were the Confederates, so Carr reversed his brigade and put them back into battle lines as rapidly as he could. One regiment commander reported:
The enemy, having turned the left flank of the entire line of battle, came out in the open field to my left, and immediately after I received their fire from the front, which I returned, driving them from our immediate vicinity…
As Nagle’s attack was collapsing, Pope was still waiting for Fitz John Porter to flank Stonewall Jackson. When he had issued the Joint Order that morning to Porter and Irwin McDowell, he had expected them to understand that he meant for them to attack. It was an extremely high expectation on Pope’s part, since nowhere in the order had he actually told them to attack. In fact, both generals had read it as a cautionary order, discouraging attack.
Around the time Nagle’s men had reached their high-water mark, Pope became disgusted with McClellan’s favorite general and wrote him a new order:
Major General Porter: Your line of march brings you on the enemy’s right flank. I desire you to push forward into action at once on the enemy’s flank, and, if possible, on his rear, keeping your right in communication with General Reynolds. The enemy is massed in the woods in front of us, but can be shelled out as soon as you gain their flank. Keep heavy reserves and use your batteries—keeping well closed to your right all the time. In case you are obliged to fall back, do so to your right and rear, so as to keep you in close communication with the right wing.
To make sure there was no confusion, Pope asked his nephew to deliver it.