After a night on edge, Phil Kearny had finally received permission to move his men off the front-line at the morning meeting. In anticipation of McDowell’s big push, two brigades from Ricketts’ division would take his men’s place. He moved them back from the line to a spot along the banks of Bull Run, hoping to give them a break, but the opposite occurred. Their new position drew the attention of Jackson’s gunners and, as one soldier recalled, “soon they shortened their fuses and the shot commenced to explode over our heads or not very far behind us.”
Phil Kearny’s instincts told him that this was not the actions of a retreating army, and he decided to send word to Pope immediately.
More evidence that Pope was terribly wrong about the Confederate retreat was uncovered by Ricketts as he brought Kearny’s replacements into line. They two came under artillery fire, so his lead brigade moved forward into the timber strewn with corpses and wounded from the assaults of the day before. The 104th New York of the brigade, operating on the left, came under fairly heavy fire not only from its front, where Ricketts expected the artillery’s support to be, but from its left, further down the railroad line. When yet another Confederate battery unlimbered and began to find its range, the brigade was withdrawn.
As the men reached relative safety, an officer from Pope’s staff arrived and asked Ricketts to send out a reconnaissance to determine how many Confederates were left. Dumbfounded, Ricketts told the officer that he had just done so and they were in force, but would do so again if that’s what Pope really wanted. The embarrassed officer suggested Pope hadn’t realized Ricketts’ men were engaged and rushed back to headquarters to ask if a second reconnaissance should be ordered.
Hearing the musket fire and artillery fire to his right, Brig. General Isaac Stevens commanding a Ninth Corps division became concerned. Like Kearny and Ricketts, he found the behavior suspiciously unlike that of a retreating army. Stevens was a McClellanite and a friend of both Reynolds and Porter, and their insistence had already done a lot to sway him, leading to his own conversation with Pope. Pope had suggested that if he was concerned, he should do a reconnaissance, so Stevens sent two companies of his old 79th New York, the Cameron Highlanders. One wrote afterwards:
Our skirmish line had not got far into the woods in our front before we were met by a heavy fire… Pushing on, our men drove the enemy’s skirmishers back, and when their main line was encountered at the railroad cut, the volleys of musketry that met them caused them to halt.
It was as Stevens suspected and he hurried to headquarters to tell Pope.
John Reynolds, meanwhile, was under orders to advance despite his misgivings. Pope had ordered him to put his brigade into columns and occupy Groveton in preparation for pushing down the Turnpike, but columns were no formation to be in when meeting the enemy.
He put George Meade’s brigade in front, with the Bucktails as skirmishers, as usual. Almost immediately the Bucktails drew fire and progress slowed while Meade deployed his regiments from column into line. The Confederate pickets, probably from Hood’s brigade, were holed up in the houses of the little hamlet. Borrowing the 2nd Pennsylvania Reserves from the second brigade, Meade sent them on a sneaky flanking mission. Remembered one:
After feeling the enemy for some time they were found occupying a store and some outbuildings about three hundred yards in advance of us. Leaving a portion of the skirmishers to occupy their attention, [Colonel] McCandless moved with the balance to the left, and under cover of woods crept up upon them, but the scamps were too wide-awake to be caught, they skedaddling before we could flank them. Taking up a position in the buildings and the extreme edge of the woods, a sharp fire was opened by both sides across a broad field, beyond which the enemy were posted in a woods.
It was the same position and the same field that Schenck had fought from the day before. And to Reynolds it looked like the same situation, with Confederates ready to fight, not flee. He decided to tell Pope.