The Battle of Groveton

        It is time that we return, from what has, we are afraid, proved a tedious discussion, though a necessary one, to the operations of the right wing.
        At daybreak on Friday, the 29th, it will be remembered, Sigel and Reynolds were on or near the turnpike in immediate proximity to Jackson's forces. General Reynolds' division was near Groveton, on the south side of the turnpike. General Sigel's two divisions under Generals Schenck and Schurz, with the independent brigade of Milroy were farther to the eastward, near the crossing of the Sudley Springs road. At daylight our troops wore put in motion to attack the enemy.
        Jackson was found to occupy a long line, stretching from Catharpin Creek, near Sudley Springs, on the north, to a point near and on the heights above the turnpike near Groveton; he was fronting east or southeast. Jackson's old division under Starke, Taliaferro having been wounded the evening before, occupied the right; Ewell's division under Lawton, Ewell having been also wounded the evening before, held the centre; while A. P. Hill's division was on the left. Their main line rested on the excavation of an unfinished railroad, which ran in a northeasterly direction toward Sudley Mill. In front of the greater part of this old railroad were tolerably thick woods, which were occupied by their skirmishers.
        Our forces advanced, moving westerly, Reynolds being on the extreme left, as he was already the farthest in the front. Next to him, and on his right, came Schenck. Both these divisions moved on the south side of the turnpike. Just north of the pike and next to Schenck, came Milroy's independent brigade; then, on our extreme right, the division of Schurz. The troops advanced with spirit, their batteries shelling the woods, and their skirmishers driving the enemy before them. On our extreme left, Reynolds, on arriving near the battlefield of the evening before, changed front to the north and advanced Meade's brigade across the pike with the intention of turning the enemy's right. Whatever might have come of this attack, however, had it been properly supported, it soon ceased, owing to General Schenck, who was supporting the movement, being obliged to send one of his brigades, Stahel's, to the temporary, relief of Milroy, who was hard pressed. Our line then fell back, Reynolds retiring some distance behind Schenck. The contest here in the morning was mostly with artillery and skirmishers.
        On the right of the turnpike, Milroy advanced his brigade, with skirmishers deployed beyond Groveton, Schurz's division being on his right. Near the piece of woods on the field of battle of the evening before, he turned away from the pike and inclined to the right, Schurz having also more or less got separated from him by inclining to the north. There was then a gap between Milroy and Schenck, and another between Milroy and Schurz. The latter was filled by Schurz, but at the expense of weakening his line. The former was, as we have seen, filled by Schenck's detaching Stahel's brigade to come in on Milroy's left. But the line was too thin. Perceiving this, the enemy advanced vigorously from their position from behind the railroad embankment and broke Schurz's line. At this juncture there was a good deal of musketry as well as of artillery firing. Toward noon Schurz renewed the attack, drove the enemy through the woods, and Schimmelpfening's brigade even gained possession of a portion of the railroad embankment, and held it against the repeated attacks of the enemy, until about two o'clock in the afternoon, when the whole division was relieved by fresh troops.
        On the whole, the work of the forenoon had equalled expectations. Our forces had moved with commendable promptitude and activity; had ascertained the exact location of the enemy's line; had driven him from his cover in the outlying woods to his railroad intrenchment, for such it really was; and had paved the way for such telling blows as might be delivered when the rest of the army should arrive.
        An hour or two before noon Heintzelman came up with the two divisions of Kearny and Hooker, and Reno with his own and Stevens' divisions. By this time Sigel's troops, who had been manoevring and fighting since five o'clock, were exhausted; and as General Pope expected the cooperation of McDowell and Porter in the afternoon, the troops were allowed to rest, and nothing of importance occurred from twelve to about four in the afternoon. Some severe skirmishing took place, and there was constant artillery firing, of course; but this was mainly a time of rest and of preparation for the heavy blows which General Pope intended to deliver so soon as he should hear from his left wing.
        He had no doubt now of winning his long-deferred victory over Jackson. He had heard nothing of the arrival of Longstreet, nor were any of Longstreet's troops, up to five or six o'clock, opposed to our advance in this part of the field. He, therefore, expected that McDowell and Porter would move up from the railroad across the country, and strike Jackson in flank and rear. So far as he knew, there not only was no reason why they should not do this, but every reason in the world why they should.
        There is a curious statement in General Pope's first or original report dated September 3, 1862, only five days after this battle, which shows us exactly what he expected. "As soon as I found that the enemy had been brought to a halt, and was being vigorously attacked along the Warren-ton turnpike, I sent orders to McDowell to advance rapidly on our left, and attack the enemy on his flank, extending his right to meet Reynolds' left, and to Fitz John Porter to keep his right well closed on McDowell's left and to attack the enemy in flank and rear while he was pushed in front. This would have made the line of battle of McDowell and Porter at right angles to that of the other forces engaged." General Pope's memory was at fault here, as he sent no such order as he here speaks of; but he may very possibly have had it in his mind to send such an order, and at any rate this shows us exactly what he expected would be done by McDowell and Porter. It is to be observed that the expectation is, that they would act together, and together attack the enemy in flank and rear.
        Accordingly, towards the latter part of the afternoon General Pope ordered Heintzelman to organize two simultaneous attacks, to be made by the divisions of Hooker and Kearny. General Hooker selected Grover's brigade to lead his attack, which was to be directed against the centre of the enemy's line. The brigade consisted of the First, Eleventh, and Sixteenth Massachusetts regiments, the Second New Hampshire, and the Twenty-sixth Pennsylvania. The charge was one of the most gallant and determined of the war. The men were ordered to load their pieces, fix bayonets, move slowly and steadily until they felt the enemy's fire, then deliver their own fire, and then carry the position by main force, relying on the bayonet only. These orders were literally obeyed. The railroad embankment was carried after a brief but desperate resistance, in which bayonets and clubbed muskets were freely used. Beyond the embankment this gallant brigade pursued, overthrowing a second line of their opponents, until overpowered by superior numbers, when it retired, having lost nearly five hundred men in about twenty minutes. It seems almost certain that if this splendid assault had been properly supported, it would have succeeded in breaking the centre of Jackson's line. Why it was not supported we do not know. If there were not troops enough to sustain it, it ought not to have been ordered.
        General Kearny's attack was to have been made simultaneously with that of Grover, but farther on his right, against A. P. Hill's division. For some reason not given, it was not made until Grover had been driven back. It was gallantly led by that gallant soldier General Kearny, and was supported well by the division of the equally gallant Stevens. At first it was successful. Hill's troops had suffered greatly in all the skirmishing and fighting of the day, and had now run short of ammunition. Kearny's attack, so violent and determined, rolled up their line, and it seemed as if their left was really turned. Hill says that the chance of victory trembled in the balance. His own troops could hardly stand this new charge. Gregg's brigade lost 613 officers and men killed and wounded, including all the field-officers in the brigade but two. But Gregg told Hill that he would hold his position with the bayonet. The tenacity of the soldiers could be relied on to the last. Yet the Federals in their impetuous ontset bore them down as it were by main force. Fortunately for Hill, he was able to call in two brigades of Ewell's division on his right, those of Lawton and Early, and these troops, striking ours when exhausted and disorganized, as troops always are, even by a victorious charge, drove us out of the position we had so hardly won.
        Finally, between five and six o'clock in the afternoon, McDowell arrived, bringing King's division with him, commanded by Hatch, as King had broken down with severe illness. Ricketts' division had not yet been able to come up. When Hatch arrived, the enemy was readjusting his line of battle after all the fighting of the day, and the impression arose in the minds of our generals that he was retreating. Nothing as yet appears to have been known by our generals here of the arrival of Longstreet. Hatch was, therefore, hurried along the pike toward Groveton, to press them in their retreat and, if possible, convert it into a rout. He carried with him three of his brigades. About half past six he encountered the enemy advancing to meet him. It was a part of Hood's division of Longstreet's corps, Hood's Texas brigade and Colonel Law's brigade. The action was very sharp, and very bloody. It is said that "at one period General Hatch sat complacently on his horse, while every man who approached him pitched and fell headlong before he could deliver his message." The action lasted some three quarters of an hour, when Hatch's wearied men re, tired in good order, leaving one gun in the hands of the enemy. This gun, says Colonel Law, "continued to fire, until my men were so near it as to have their faces burnt by its discharges." What higher praise could be given either to the gunners or to their antagonists?
        On our extreme left, south of the pike, Reynolds undertook, late in the afternoon, to renew the attack, but the artillery fire of the enemy in his front was too severe to be encountered, and he retired.
        This ended the battle of Groveton. Like all the battles in this campaign, it was desperately fought. There is absolutely no criticism to make on the behavior of the troops on both sides. The Federals fought to win to-day, and they attacked with great daring and perseverance. The Confederates fought that they might win to-morrow, and they resisted with inflexible resolution and courage. The losses had been severe on our side. General Pope estimated his loss at six or eight thousand men. He also estimated the loss of the enemy as twice as great as our own. In this he was probably in error, as we were almost uniformly the attacking party. The only attack made upon us was made at the close of the day upon Hatch's division, and then it was itself advancing to the attack of the enemy.
        Among the losses on the Confederate side were Brigadier-General Field, and Colonel Forno, commanding Hays' brigade, both of A. P. Hill's division, and Brigadier-General Trimble, of F, well's division, all severely wounded. On our side no general officer, singularly enough, seems to have been hit.
        General Pope apparently considered the result as a great victory. This estimate of his success was excessive indeed, although the advantage had certainly been with his army It had driven the enemy from a great deal of ground which they held in the morning. This retirement of the enemy's line, and other movements of theirs which we now know were merely preparatory to taking the offensive the next day, were naturally misinterpreted by Pope as indicating that they felt themselves defeated, and intended to retreat. His despatch is couched in most triumphant and encouraging language. It begins thus:


We fought a terrific battle here yesterday with the combined forces of the enemy, which lasted with continuous fury from daylight until dark, by which time the enemy was driven from the field, which we now occupy. Our troops are too much exhausted yet to push matters, though I shall do so in the course of the morning, as soon as General F. J. Porter comes up from Manassas. The enemy is still in our front, but badly used up. We have lost not less than 8,000 men, killed and wounded, but from the appearance of the field, the enemy lost at least two to our one. He stood strictly on the defensive, and every assault was made by ourselves. The battle was fought on the identical battlefield of Bull Run, which greatly increased the enthusiasm of the men. The news just reaches me from the front, that the enemy is retiring toward the mountains; I go forward at once to see. We have made great captures, but I am not able yet to form an idea of their extent. Our troops behaved splendidly.


General-in- Chief.

        We have no doubt in our own minds that Pope, who was, as we have said, a sanguine man, overpersuaded himself into believing that this estimate of the day's doings was substantially a correct one. Yet this only shows the terrible mistake which a man makes who closes his eyes to facts. We had not driven the enemy from their position behind the railroad embankment; we had not in any way disintegrated their army; there it was, in line of battle, every, unwounded man with his colors, every battery in position. And what was vastly more important, Pope now knew for a certainty that Longstreet had joined Jackson. He says this in his despatch. Was there, then, such ground for triumph as he tries to believe there was? There was assuredly no reason to feel despondent; there was every reason to feel cheerful; Porter and Ricketts would be up in the morning, which would give us more than fifteen thousand additional troops; but still the situation was a grave one. The Confederate army was all there before him; and it was a serious question what had better be done. Our troops were exhausted from hard marching, hard fighting, and want of food. Would it not have been wiser to adhere to the determination formed in the morning, before the elation of this partial victory had disturbed his judgment, and to have fallen back to the other side of Bull Run ? This, however, does not seem to have occurred to General Pope.
        Before we leave the consideration of this hard-fought battle, we desire to recall what we have said in regard to the uselessness of Jackson's brilliant raid on our communications. Here we find him standing on the defensive all day, having lost two of his best lieutenants and many valuable officers and men in a drawn battle the evening before, and, notwithstanding the chapter of accidents, which we have given at length, had postponed the day of his trial till Lee had come up and supported him with Longstreet's corps, still very sorely pressed and in great peril. And when we remember also, that it was due to no foresight of his that this battle was not fought on the day before, that it was the merest accident in the world that the attack upon Reynolds by Bradley Johnson's brigade early on Thursday morning did not draw down upon the divisions of Ewell and Taliaferro the entire Federal army, we should abate something of that popular belief that, by his march to Manassas, Jackson brought about the defeat of Pope's army. On the contrary, he did nothing of the sort, but, instead, he came within an ace of seeing his own corps routed and captured. In a word, the rules of war allow of no such dangerous movement as Jackson's, unless the object is a far more important one than the one which on this occasion he proposed to himself.
        The attack which he made on the Eleventh corps at Chancellorsville may be said to have in its results justified the daring flank march by which he arrived on our extreme right, and the situation of Lee's army that night was one that called for desperate measures. But no such emergency had arisen on the Rappahannock, when on August 25, 1862, Jackson entered on an expedition which for forty-eight hours put it in the power of the Federal army to overwhelm him. He succeeded, indeed, and doubtless his handling of his troops was admirable, and his courage and skill perfect; but, after all, great is the fortune of war!

Source:  Chapter 8 of "The Army Under Pope" By John Codman Ropes

This page last updated 02/16/02