Stonewall Jackson had withstood attacks from Pope’s army all day long, and his men—already weary after weeks of his famous grueling marches and several smaller battles—were beginning to break down. Pope’s men had twice captured the unfinished railroad near Sudley Road, and had done so again just recently on the Gainesville-Sudley Road [Featherbed Lane]. Two rested brigades had countercharged and collapsed the Union flank, and Jackson was certainly tempted to throw all his reserves behind them, but faced some more serious concerns.
His left flank was supposed to be anchored on Bull Run at Sudley Church, but the steady pounding since early morning on A.P. Hill’s division had severely weakened it. Jackson had ridden to Hill’s headquarters when he heard that a Union brigade had crossed the railroad unopposed at Sudley Church (in fact, it had happened before 3:00 pm). Hill told him that his men were just about out of ammunition, and were pulling as much as they could off the dead and wounded. They probably would not be able to sustain another attack.
“General,” Stonewall told Hill quietly, according to one of Jackson’s aides. “Your men have done nobly; if you are attacked again you will beat the enemy back.”
“Here it comes,” Hill replied, as the Union artillery began to fire. He spurred his horse and rode forward.
“I’ll expect you to beat them back,” Jackson called after him.
The artillery was in support of the long-delayed attack of Maj. General Phil Kearny. First division of relief on the field that morning, Kearny was now the last to begin an attack in earnest. His First Brigade had been across the railroad embankment since before 3:00 pm. Already bolstered by an extra regiment from the reserve brigade, Kearny added four more to it, and ordered the Second Brigade to support its attack.
Exhausted after having driven off Grover’s men almost two hours earlier, Gregg’s South Carolinians did their best to hold. Gregg’s men clung to their little knoll that they had held since the morning and as their ammunition ran out were ordered to use their bayonets. Maxcy Gregg himself paced back and forth across the knoll wielding a scimitar his grandfather had been awarded during the American Revolution, lopping off daises and muttering “let us die here men!”
The 1st South Carolina Rifles were the first victim, with Kearny’s First Brigade men wrapping around their flank in a semi-circle and opening a fire that killed their colonel and lieutenant colonel. Their major, now commanding, wrote:
[The Union men] soon came, now in still greater force, but our little band, though greatly exhausted, yet met them with as much determination as ever. Our men fell fast around us. The 13th[South Carolina], after exhibiting the greatest endurance and courage during the day, at last gave way and retired from our front, and upon the 1st was hurled full force of the enemy. They pressed on, crossed the cut, and slowly compelled us, step-by-step, to yield the long-coveted position. Here again our men fought the enemy at a few yards.
The men crossing the cut belonged to the supporting brigade, and included the 101st New York, whose lieutenant colonel recorded their part in the battle:
After a few minutes [of preparatory fire] the order was given ‘forward,’ and the regiment went on in splendid order, through a heavy fire, at a double-quick. The enemy could not stand the charge, but broke and fled (a few now and then turning to fire). After falling back a short distance they came to a deep cut. Here they attempted to rally, and partially succeeded…
Gregg’s men, joined by the Georgians of Thomas’ brigade who were also swept up in Kearny’s attack, were being reinforced by North Carolinians from Hill’s last unengaged brigade. By pure luck, Kearny had launched an attack just as a Ninth Corps brigade had begun actively skirmishing further down the line, leaving Hill with nearly no reinforcements. Kearny’s breakthrough was the strongest of the day and threatened to collapse Jackson’s entire line, so the general ruefully agreed to send Hill two brigades from the vicinity of Brawner’s Farm. That meant there would be no one to complete the destruction of Pope’s forces started by the collapse of the 4:00 pm attack.
Not yet aware of Kearny’s success, Pope watched as the position around Groveton collapsed. The men of Nagle’s Ninth Corps brigade that had crossed the unfinished railroad just after 4:00 pm now streamed past his headquarters, joined by survivors of Milroy’s First Corps, Army of Virginia brigade, and the Excelsior Brigade of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac. Carr’s New Jersey brigade was mostly standing its ground, but would rapidly be overwhelmed if Jackson sent anymore troops after them. Aside from the New Jersey brigade, there was one tiny brigade and a mob of retreating Union soldiers between Pope and the whole of Jackson’s wing.
Far from being horrified, Pope was most concerned about Fits John Porter’s perplexing failure to launch an attack from Gainesville, as ordered. A message had arrived from Porter asking for orders, but Pope surmised it had been before his nephew had dispatched with orders to attack. “Tell general Porter we are having a hard fight,” he told the messenger, then gave orders to move headquarters across the Sudley Road to Buck Hill. Observing the Confederate counterattack peter out and assuming it was because Jackson was nearly beaten, rather than because he was reinforcing against Kearny’s attack, Pope decided to re-form his line across Dogan’s Ridge and set out to find the troops to do it.
First, he would put as many of Sigel’s First Corps, Army of Virginia men as could be rallied on the ridge. But he had little faith in their commander, so he summoned Irvin McDowell to his new headquarters. McDowell had had a division on Bald Hill for almost two hours before he finally informed Pope he was there (and not with Porter on the Manassas-Gainesville Road [Wellington Road]). More grateful to have his most trusted subordinate and relatively fresh troops on hand, Pope eagerly listened to his scant (and wildly inaccurate) description of Porter’s position, then shared with McDowell the situation on the battlefield.
Now feeling better about Dogan’s Ridge than when he had left it--because of the better-than-expected shape of Schenck’s First Corps, Army of Virginia division shifted from Chinn Ridge, south of the Turnpike—Pope considered sending McDowell’s one division to reinforce Kearny. But the noise of the one-armed general’s breakthrough was finally loud enough to hear, and McDowell convinced him his men were more useful on Dogan’s Ridge.
Pope consented, and McDowell rode his horse back to Bald Hill as fast as he could. He was at last in the battle, but he needed men on the ridge to be truly back in the game. The first men he found were the brigade of Brig. General John Gibbon that had fought at Brawner’s Farm the night before. Gibbon recorded the interaction in his memoirs, though time and subsequent grudges appears to have eliminated the period of rest his men received:
Late in the afternoon… I met General McDowell with his staff and mounted escort around him. He came forward to meet me, appearing to be laboring under great excitement and exclaiming--“Hurry forward, hurry forward you are just in the nick of time!” I explained that my tired men were coming as fast as possible, but that was not very fast as they had been marching all night before and all day and were very much tired out. He repeated the admonition “to hurry” and as the head of the column appeared I asked him what orders he had. He said “Go right up that road,” pointing to the continuation of the road we were on as it climbs the hill on the other side of the Warrenton pike leading to Sudley Spring. “To whom shall I report?” I asked. “Go right up that road,” he replied, “I shall be here.”
Gibbon’s brigade was off to battle, though once again, the rest of the division and corps did not follow.
On Stuart’s Hill, James Longstreet had come to the conclusion that the mysterious Union force on the Gainesville-Manassas Road [Wellington Road] wasn’t a threat. It had remained inactive all morning, and his cavalry had reported it was substantially diminished in size. But when he informed Robert E. Lee, he found himself still arguing the general down from an all-out attack. This time, it was because there were only two hours before dark. While it was true that as many as three additional Union corps were somewhere between Alexandria and Manassas Junction (McClellan’s army), not enough would be able to arrive before morning to save Pope. Better to more completely defeat him in the morning.
Bitterly, Lee yielded, but not before ordering a reconnaissance in force down the Warrenton Turnpike, to get an idea just how soft Pope was after a day of thrashing.