It had been only about twelve hours since Brig. General John Hatch had taken command of Rufus King’s division, in which time he had marched them back and forth across the countryside. Now the division was ordered back to the spot it had abandoned the night before, Brawner’s Farm, except this time coming from the east. Pope had seen what he believed were Jackson’s retreating wagons and was determined to make sure the general didn’t escape.
Hatch was a curious choice to lead this mission, because he had only been with the infantry since July, when Pope humiliatingly removed him from command of a cavalry brigade for acting too deliberately. Cavalry had been his life since he transferred to Winfield Scott’s Mounted Rifles two years after graduating from West Point. But King’s Division was the largest unit intact, even with Gibbon’s brigade detached, so it was to Hatch that the breathless messenger said “Pursue… overtake, and attack him!”
Taking the two brigades at hand, his own under its senior colonel following that of Abner Doubleday, Hatch started up the Sudley Road, sending words for the final brigade of Marsena Patrick to follow. Men from the 95th New York of Doubleday’s brigade saw their corps commander, Irvin McDowell, in front of the Stone House on horseback shouting “The rebels are retreating, and you will have little more to do than to take prisoners!”
The men marching past McDowell had opened the battle the night before, when the general was lost in the woods northwest of Manassas Junction, but since the corps had been irrelevant, with the exception of John Reynolds’ Pennsylvania Reserves. Since they were not operating under McDowell’s direction, the corpulent corps commander needed success at this moment to achieve his ever-elusive redemption on the field of battle.
As the two brigades turned left onto the Warrenton Turnpike at Stone House, McDowell found Hatch and repeated his exhortations. “General Hatch,” he shouted loud enough for the men to hear, “The enemy is in full retreat. Pursue him rapidly!” Continuing down the line, McDowell kept rallying the men. “What regiment is this?” he asked to one of those in Hatch’s brigade, and received the cheers of the 24th New York (whose colonel was the one temporarily leading the brigade). “Have we got ‘em, General?” one asked, and McDowell shouted a hearty, “Yes… follow ‘em up, they are on the run!”
Hatch sent for the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters with his brigade to deploy forward as skirmishers. Carrying the breech-loading Sharps rifle like the Buck Tails of the Pennsylvania Reserves, the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters were deadly accurate and the most valuable asset to place in front of the division in the failing light. Following them, Hatch placed the one battery of four howitzers he intended to set at Groveton. Whenever Patrick arrived with the third brigade, he would bring another battery. The division’s third battery was already firing from above the Stone House, and its fourth was detached with Gibbon.
Doubleday, riding with the 95th New York right behind the howitzers, recalled the twilight ride down the turnpike:
As we advanced everything seemed quiet and peaceable. Not a rebel was in sight… When we had reached a point about three quarters of a mile in advance of our general line of battle, a small body of rebel infantry were seen on the north side of the road moving towards the south.
A member of the 2nd U.S. Sharpshooters also recalled that “no sooner had the gunners taken their position [on the heights above Groveton] than a heavy fire was opened upon them and us by several regiments of the enemy, just over the hill.” The unexpected nearness of several infantry regiments scattered the sharpshooters, who abandoned the artillery and ran to the safe side of the hill.
The infantry they faced was that of Brig. General John Bell Hood, who was almost as surprised to find Hatch as Hatch was to find him. Hood had been ordered to take along the brigade of Brig. General Nathan “Shanks” Evans—one of the heroes of First Manassas—and run a reconnaissance in force east on the Turnpike, to get an idea how battered Pope was after a day of fighting in order to provide intelligence for a major counterattack Lee had planned for dawn.
“At sunset an order came to me from the commanding general to move forward and attack the enemy,” Hood reported after the fight. “Before, however, this division could come to attention it was attacked [by artillery], and I instantly ordered the two brigades to move forward and charge the enemy…”
The commander of the 4th Texas reported:
With the 1st Texas… on my left, and the 18th Georgia on my right, I advanced through the timber we were lying in, then through an open field in front, thence into a second wood, where a sharp musketry fire was going on in our front between out skirmishers and the enemy. Cautioning the men not to fire without orders, I advanced to within 50 yards, when we were fired on by the enemy.
Hatch had ordered Doubleday to deploy his brigade for battle, while sending his adjutant back to McDowell to inform him that the Confederates were not retreating at all, rather they were attacking. Hatch then rode back to his own brigade deployed. Doubleday, meanwhile, was trying to get the 95th New York into battle line so it could protect the battery from the oncoming Confederates. But behind them, the 24th New York had formed into line faster. With their colonel elsewhere trying to get other regiments around Doubleday’s to bring as many muskets as possible into line against an unknown Confederate threat, the 24th’s lieutenant colonel bungled his commands. Wrote a member of the regiment:
By a mistake of a lieutenant colonel, we were marched right behind [Doubleday’s] brigade, when we should have formed on their right… When the word “forward” sounded from the lieutenant colonel’s lips, all were amazed at the order, yet we must obey, but in trying to pass through that firm line of Doubleday’s by crowding and jamming we got into confusion and broke our line as well.”
“This spoiled the formation and brought [the 95th] together in a confused mass,” Doubleday remembered. The Confederate fire had quickened as Hood’s second brigade came into range, and Doubleday abandoned the two New York regiments to untangle themselves so that he could get his other two regiments placed to protect the artillery. It was too late. Remembered a Southern soldier:
When the 4th Alabama reached the cover of the hill on which the enemy was strongly posted, his artillery could only be depressed to effect us but little. As the regiment half bent ran up under the belching guns, several members of the 4th Alabama were powder burned in hands and faces. Brave little Captain McInnis as he ran up the hill in a stooping position beneath the blazing cannon, the back of his coat became ignited, burning a hole as large as ones hand before it could be extinguished. All the enemy’s guns limbered up except one howitzer and escaped… The piece that remained fought valiantly and continued the fire until some of the 4th Alabama ran up and wrested the sponge staff from a brave gunner…
In the rapidly fading light the two brigades had become a mob, with little-to-no organization. One soldier wrote:
Suddenly a body of troops was seen moving towards us from among the trees along the lane at our left and we were in doubt whether they were enemy or friends. They shouted “Don’t fire at us, boys, we’re coming to help you” and some of us felt reassured, while other incredulously cried, “Don’t believe ‘em, they’re rebels!” and ran towards the rear.
Then their muskets all went off together, clearly illuminating the Confederate regiment. Most of the Northern men ran, and the ones who didn’t weren’t enough as Hood brought up a third brigade in the darkness. Hatch was already ordering everyone to fall back to Chinn Ridge when his adjutant returned with McDowell’s message. The corps commander had balked at the report, and invoked Pope’s stinging rebuke of Hatch by asking “does General Hatch hesitate? Tell him the enemy is in full retreat and to pursue him.” Hatch couldn’t have if he wanted to.
One last foolhardy act remained in the night for the Northern men. As the two brigades from King’s Division streamed back towards the Stone House in the dark, two companies of Union cavalry drew their sabers and charged down the Turnpike towards Groveton. One of Hood’s brigade commanders remembered the charge after the war:
When it was too dark to see clearly, a cavalry charge was made upon us, one squadron passing through an interval in the line, where it crossed the turnpike and riding down it to our rear. I knew that they would be taken care of back there if they went on, and therefore made provisions to receive them when they returned, which I was sure they would soon do…
They did, in the form of the 23rd South Carolina, who heard the horse hooves and formed a double line across the Turnpike, opening fire as the horsemen galloped towards them. The Northern troopers who survived the volley wheeled around and went tearing back up the Turnpike, where Hood’s scheming brigade commander waited.
The road was… left open, and two companies of the regiment on the south or open side of it…were wheeled so as to fire obliquely across the road in our front. The clattering of hoofs upon the turnpike soon announced that the cavalry were about to “run the gauntlet” back to their own lines. As they passed out line, at full speed, they received a single volley… which almost annihilated them.
Only eleven of the several dozen horsemen sent in returned.