Before Lee’s orders even reached him James Longstreet modified his orders from the morning. The diversion was going to become a full-scale attack by all 28,000 men in his wing. Hood’s brigade (followed by the rest of Evans’ Division) was told to “push for the plateau at the Henry House, in order to cut off [Pope’s] retreat at the crossings by Young’s Branch.” Kemper’s division would move on their right, followed by Neighbor Jones. Anderson, as the army’s reserve, was up to Lee to commit. Wilcox’s division was already moving forward north of the Turnpike without orders.
Wilcox had sent two of his brigades forward as soon as he saw Porter start retreating. He had decided on his own initiative to cut off the retreating Union soldiers, but it didn’t go as planned.
We reached the works in front and passed through the skirt of woods over 600 yards wide, when we came to another old field some half a mile or three-quarters in width. Here we found on the opposite side of the field the enemy drawn up in line of battle, with several pieces of artillery turned on our troops, and directing a rapid, heavy, and destructive fire both upon the right and left of our lines.
The artillery opposite Wilcox belonged to Franz Sigel, Jesse Reno, and Sam Heintzelman, and they were hammering two of Jackson’s brigades as well that had also tried to chase Porter’s men. The three corps commander’s men were lined up in battle lines, waiting for a counterattack from Jackson, but also trying to do their best to intercept Porter’s fleeing men.
Robert Milroy wrote that he tried to stop “the great tide of cowardly runaways”:
I tried this a while alone with my sword, but soon found I could not stay the tide. I then ordered my brigade to deploy into line and threw them rapidly across the [Warrenton Turnpike] and valley… and ordered my regiments to face the front and fix bayonets and stop every man whether officer or private.
George Morell had arrived on the battlefield in dismay. He had missed his men’s charge thanks to a mistaken detour to Centreville and now saw them streaming down the Turnpike as fast as they could move. Spurring his horse he road up and down the lines, trying to rally them with very limited success.
But aside from the four brigades involved directly in the attack, the rest of the Union position was holding, uneasily, waiting for Stonewall Jackson to counterattack. As the senior corps commander, Sam Heintzelman was steadying the men, trying to make sure the panic of the routed brigades didn’t spread, when a staff officer from Pope arrived. Irvin McDowell had convinced Pope that Porter’s failure meant that the Confederate threat south of the Turnpike was imminent—presumably first having to convince him it existed. But thanks in a large part to McDowell’s all-out strategy, there were only two brigades south of the Turnpike to defend.
McDowell wanted the remaining two brigades from Ricketts’ division sent from the Sudley Springs area to Chinn Ridge. Looking across the field at Jackson’s line, Heintzelman shook his head. He explained that they were protecting his flank, and if they were moved Jackson could reach level ground and collapse the whole Dogan’s Ridge position. But he volunteered the Pennsylvania Reserves, who were useless to him now that Porter’s attack didn’t need following up. The staffer dashed off to find John Reynolds.
Hood’s brigade moved forward with a whoop, all the regiments deployed in a single line of battle, their left anchored on the Turnpike. The brigade moved across the hilly fields of the Virginia Piedmont and approached the 10th New York from Warren’s small brigade, deployed as skirmishers on the west side of Groveton. “As the brigade moved across the first field of timber held by the enemy’s skirmishers,” the commander of the 5th Texas wrote, “a change of front… made it necessary to move my men at a run across the field. At the edge of the timber the enemy’s skirmishers were encountered…”
“Suddenly the rebel pickets arose and rapidly advanced, firing as they came, and the Texas brigade burst into view from the woods opposite,” a member of the 10th New York remembered. “The attack was so sudden that the deployed companies of the 10th had barely time to discharge their pieces once before the rebels were almost upon them.”
Some fell back doggedly and fired, but the speed of the Texans quickly overwhelmed them and the regiment turned into a disordered mob. Gouverneur Warren, in command of their brigade, had only one additional regiment, perched on a hill. As his men ran past him, he sent an aide to Lieutenant Hazlett, letting him know he could not protect his guns at Groveton, and then tried to stop enough New Yorkers to make a stand on the little hill. Hazlett, whose guns were to the northwest of Warren, could do nothing to help him. Having once fought his guns to the last on a hill near Manassas, he decided to limber up and move to safety—just in time as it turned out.
Hood’s men had become separated in the woods, with the 1st Texas continuing down the Turnpike (chasing Hazlett), but the four other regiments were more than sufficient against Warren’s one. The 5th New York remembered later that it had been preternaturally quiet until the 10th New York men came running by screaming that the enemy was upon them. “Attention battalion!” one member recalled the officers shouting distinctly. “There was a moments stillness, and then bang! Bang, bang, bang! Came the sound of shots from the woods directly in our front.” Another said that “the balls began to fly from the woods like hail. It was a continual hiss, snap, whiz, and slug.” The New Yorkers stood stock still.
In the woods, Hood’s men had run up against the 5th New York’s skirmish line. “I ordered the regiment to fire on and charge them,” the 5th Texas colonel wrote. “They broke and were closely pressed to the open field, where we encountered a second line of the enemy in the Fifth New York Zouaves…”
The Texans came into view, but the 5th New York couldn’t fire, because of the swarm of the 10th New York in front of them. The left side of the line was clear an opened fire, but the Texans’ fire was overwhelming. On the left, Warren was able to get the 10th’s reserve into line and the front clear enough to unleash one volley, before the wave of Texans was on them all. Various officers gave contradictory orders, as the whole brigade was swept away. One officer wrote about the run:
While running down the hill towards the small stream at its foot, I saw the men dropping on all sides, canteens struck and flying to pieces, haversacks cut off, rifles knocked to pieces, it was a perfect hail of bullets—I was expecting to get it every second, but on, on, I went, the balls hissing by my head. I felt one strike me on the hip, just grazing me and cutting a hole in my pants. I crossed the run in the wake of Warren, he being about 100 yards ahead of me, with his red cap in his hand, his horse running at the top of his speed. I turned and looked behind once and only once, that was enough to let me know there was no time to stop.
McDowell had found one brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves on his own, and sent them in front of Chinn Ridge and they had marched to the crest just in time to see Warren’s brigade dissolve. He had one battery with him, and the captain instantly volunteered to set his guns on the ridge, while the commander hurried to get his men out of column and into lines. The Texans briefly hesitated, then surged on, felling the brigade commander and collapsing wrapping around the Pennsylvanians to catch them in a cross-fire.
A member of the 4th Texas wrote:
The battery… held its ground, and as we neared it, began to hurl… canister that tore great gaps in our ranks. Behind it lay, in a thicket of cedars, a regiment whose special duty it was to support it, but when [it] saw the two lines in front break into flight, it also broke and fled, leaving the battery entirely without support. Then, feeling themselves deserted, the men belonging to the battery abandoned it and made for the rear, leaving only their captain to stand by it. And that he did, with a courage and a heroism that, although wasted on the impossible, deservedly won the admiration and even the sympathy of the foes he was doing his best to destroy. Even when we had come within forty yards of the guns, he stood at the only loaded one, and was in the act of discharging it when he was shot down.
McDowell was horrified at the rout of Warren and one brigade of the reserves, standing with a brigade of his fellow Buckeye Staters on Chinn Ridge from Sigel’s corps. The men wanted to open up on Hood’s brigade right away, and McDowell had to personally ride in front of their artillery to stop them from opening up into their own men who were mixed in. There was also an Ohio regiment from the brigade that had been detached rapidly falling back and right between the brigade and the Texans. But it was not the Texans that were about to become the Ohioans biggest problem.