North of Manassas Junction
Riding from the Junction towards the increasing sound of the gunfire, McDowell had become frustrated at the distance. His men were engaged and he was not with them. The general must have thought back to the mishandling of the opening action the evening before Bull Run a year earlier, and how differently things would have turned out if he had been there himself.
McDowell made a critical decision. He would take a recommended shortcut. He and the staff turned off the path they had traveled a few hours before and headed towards the battle.
The Confederate fire had abated after the repulse of their charge, but the reports coming from prisoners was enough to convince the 76th New York to rethink their plan to countercharge. Prisoners were saying 50,000 to 60,000 Confederates were opposite the men of the reinforced brigade. John Gibbon ordered his men back about a hundred yards to a more defensible position, and then went looking for his fellow brigade commanders as the cannon continued to boom and intermittent musket fire broke the humid August night.
Gibbon’s division commander, Rufus King had emerged from his sick bed, and was engaged in planning a way forward. Shortly before Gibbon had ordered his men back, John Reynolds, had left his division south of Henry Hill on either side of Sudley Road and rode personally towards the fighting. According to later accounts it was Reynolds who had spurred Doubleday to send reinforcements to Gibbon, then continued on to consult with King about what was to be done. King and Reynolds agreed that the Confederates in front of them were certainly more than a rear-guard, and it was possible that Jackson’s whole force lay north of the Turnpike.
Given that possibility, it was too dangerous to move Reynolds’ division in the darkness [remember, no daylight savings time] without cavalry other than the 1st Rhode Island, currently needed to provide scouts for Kings’ division. On hearing the reports from Confederate prisoners, Reynolds quickly mounted and promised to have his division at Brawner’s by way of the Old Warrenton, Alexandria, and Washington Turnpike [Ball’s Ford Road] at first light.
Not long after Reynolds left, Gibbon found King and loosed his volcanic temper for all the ignored requests for help. Writing in his memoirs years later he delicately says:
[King] was sitting with members of his staff in a fence corner alongside the turnpike near the point where we first received the fire of the enemy’s guns. I must, I think, have been in a very bad temper and expressed myself very freely in regard to the way in which I thought I had been left to do the fighting with my Brigade alone and then it transpired that two regiments from Doubleday’s brigade had been sent to my assistance, but as they went to a different part of the field from where I was I had not seen them.
McDowell’s remaining division, under James Ricketts, had withdrawn from Thoroughfare Gap at last. No reinforcements were forthcoming, so Ricketts needed to fall back on his corps or risk getting squashed like a bug between Longstreet’s Wing and Jackson’s Wing in the morning. Executing a textbook withdraw, he ordered his artillery to bombard the Gap and the recently arrived cavalry of George Bayard to charge any Confederates that got too brave, while his infantry marched back towards Haymarket en route to Gainesville.