Just over an hour earlier, John Pope had been the most miserable man in the army. He had received word that no reinforcements or supplies were coming from the two Union corps outside of Washington, and realized he couldn’t take another day of battle without them. But when Irvin McDowell arrived for a morning council of the army’s high command he found Pope positively buoyant, chomping on a cigar and congratulating everyone on the imminent victory. What had happened?
One of McDowell’s own brigade commanders, Marsena Patrick, had caused the jubilance. Stationed next to the Dogan house, Patrick had seen a large cloud of dust kicked up from the dusty Warrenton Turnpike, a sure sign of soldiers marching. Patrick reported the dust went from Groveton west past Brawner’s Farm, and may have continued beyond that.
To Pope, it was evidence of the retreat of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and he had immediately sat down to write a victorious email to the general-in-chief and the President. Soon McDowell was joined by Franz Sigel, Sam Heintzelman, and Jesse Reno, along with other senior officers, and Pope began explaining the situation to them.
Lee, he explained, had stacked his wings two deep behind the unfinished railroad, which is how Jackson had been able to hold out so long the previous day. But the Confederates were nearly spent, as Phil Kearny’s evening success where the railroad crossed the Sudley Road proved. The nasty little fight in the darkness at Groveton had been a run in with a retreating column or maybe a rearguard, strongest there because troops were being siphoned from the Confederate left flank.
It was pure fantasy, but the corps commanders and staff wanted to believe it as much as Pope did. That morning, he told them, the army would launch an attack where the railroad crossed Sudley Road with a force several corps strong led by McDowell, turning the Confederate retreat into a route. Phil Kearny appreciated the aggressiveness of the plan, but John Reynolds warned that Pope was underestimating how many Confederates were south of the Turnpike. Pope made the orders and the meeting was breaking up when Fitz John Porter rode up to be the fly in the ointment.
Porter was late, and before the meeting had formally started Pope had been trashing him to the other officers. As McClellan’s favorite general, Porter, Pope was sure, was doing his best to sabotage the battle—to what end, Pope didn’t explain. More than a few of the officers present owed their positions to McClellan and he remained generally popular with the conservative officer corps, but Pope had rumbled on spouting obscenities about Porter and his master, fuelled by the early denial of resupplies and Porter’s tardiness.
Pope was icy to the other general, who apologized profusely for how long it had taken him. Declining to unleash his volcanic temper, Pope instead let Porter ramble explanations while he stared him down. At last Pope outlined in the barest possible terms instructions for Porter to take the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac and join McDowell’s attack on the retreating Confederates north of the Turnpike. As he explained the situation and his plan, horror spread over Porter’s face.
Porter explained how many Confederates were south of the Turnpike by his reckoning, and how focusing all forces near Sudley Springs would leave the army exposed. He explained how they rather needed to reinforce Chinn Ridge and ask McClellan to join them or else to fall back to the east side of Bull Run. He explained how bunched up on Dogan’s Ridge they were already risking being crushed. “I tried to convince him,” Porter later testified, “but he put no confidence in what I said.”
Reynolds had come up and listened to Porter’s arguments then thrown in his own for good measure. But McClellan had waged a bureaucratic war with Winfield Scott to get Reynolds in his army, and Pope wrote him off as well. No one but John Pope himself could stop the attack from occurring.