While the low-intensity conflict in the Gap continues, Robert E. Lee and his staff joined a Mr. Robison for dinner. Lee had ridden forward to see the conflict when it first began, but confident that Longstreet would easily have the Gap cleared, had returned to headquarters soon thereafter.
Unaware that Pope had changed his orders yet again, King’s lead brigade under John P. Hatch marched quickly up the Turnpike. Infantry marching behind the 1st Rhode Island cavalry, they had passed the Brawner Farm and crossed through a small wood immediately to its east. The sun was low in the sky and it was apparent that the climactic battle would not occur that day.
Suddenly the staccato burst of musket fire sounded off to the side of the brigade, followed by the boom of cannon. Hatch ordered his men to lie down in the road, whose steep embankments near Groveton would help protect them from artillery fire. Unaware of where the threat came from, he deployed skirmishers around and sent for division artillery immediately.
The musket fire had come from Jackson’s Division under Taliaferro. Jackson himself had given the orders, as remembered by a staff officer later.
Jackson rode out to examine the approaching foe, trotting backwards and forwards along the line of the handsome parade marching by, and in easy range of their skirmish line [the 14th Brooklyn], but they did not seem to think that a single horseman was worthy of their attention… Presently General Jackson pulled up suddenly, wheeled, and galloped towards us. “Here he comes, by God,” said several, and Jackson rode up to the assembled group as calm as a May morning and, touching his hat in a military salute, said in a soft voice as if he had been talking to a friend in ordinary conversation, “Bring out your men, gentlemen.”
Taliaferro’s division cheered and stormed out of the woods. With Ewell’s men close behind, the Stonewall Brigade opened up on the 14th Brooklyn of Hatch’s brigade, moving in the field to the north of the Turnpike, there to spoil exactly this sort of surprise.
Captain Nadenbousch, the senior officer in the Stonewall Brigade’s 2nd Virginia by the time it was over, reported on the hellish scene after the initial volleys: ()
We were then ordered to advance, when our column moved steadily forward in full view of the enemy’s lines. On descending a knoll some 150 or 200 yards from the enemy our line was opened upon with a most terrific and deadly fire of musketry from the enemy’s lines stationed in the edge of woods and behind a fence. Our men stood the fire like veterans, many falling killed and wounded. They returned the fire promptly and vigorously, and in a few moments the line of the enemy was broken and fled. We then advanced to the edge of the woods, where the enemy, being reinforced, poured in upon our lines the most terrific fire.
The unlucky brigade opposite the Stonewalls was led by John Gibbon,
“I directed the men to lie down in the road, and ordered up Captain Campbell with a battery,” Gibbon wrote afterwards.
In the meantime, I found that two of the enemy’s pieces had been planted to our left and rear and were firing on Doubleday’s brigade, which was behind us… [I] supposed that this was one of the enemy’s cavalry batteries, and ordered the Second Wisconsin to face to the left and march obliquely to the rear against these pieces to take them in flank. As it rose an intervening hill it was opened upon by some infantry on its right flank. The left wing was thrown forward to bring the regiment facing the enemy, and the musket firing became very warm. The Nineteenth Indiana was now ordered up in support and formed on the left of the Second Wisconsin, whilst the Seventh Wisconsin was directed to hold itself in reserve.
The following brigade of Abner Doubleday lay under cover in the road, while Gibbon’s three regiments of Midwesterners tried to rescue it from a brutal artillery fire. Doubleday, like Gibbon an artillery officer before the war, left orders to keep his men as safe as possible from the shells and scampered forward to find Gibbon to figure out what they should do.
On Turnpike West of Brawner’s
Marsena Patrick, leading the rear-most brigade of King’s division, pulled his men back to beyond the high ground of Stuart’s Hill, south of the Warrenton Turnpike [US 29]. He sent his aides to find Rufus King, and secure orders for what to do.
John Pope, while planning the moves of his army the following day, heard the booms of the Confederate artillery firing on King’s division. He ignored them and continued planning for his pursuit of Jackson.
Sigel had arrived at the old battlefield late in the afternoon, and managed to set up his corps facing northwest, the correct direction. But when he too heard the cannon firing, he made no effort to reconnoiter what was happening.
Northwest of Manassas Junction
John Reynolds was on the Sudley Road marching north towards the old battlefield when he heard the artillery fire begin. McDowell’s messenger had found him nearly to Manassas Junction with the orders to return to the Warrenton Turnpike [US 29], so Reynolds had turned north onto Sudley Road. By coincidence, he happened to fall in behind the stragglers of Sigel’s regiment, who had frustrated his departure that morning. Going off McDowell’s last communiqué, he assumed that the artillery must be Sigel firing on Jackson’s retreating men, and moved his men hastily to join the battle.
McDowell himself, meanwhile, had arrived at the Junction to find it sparsely guarded. No one there had any idea where Pope was, and McDowell now had no idea where his own men were. Undoubtedly hearing the cannon, the man who had been defeated at Manassas thirteen months before, turned around with his staff and began to retrace his path.