The Battle of Chantilly
By John Codman Ropes
The Army of Virginia arrived at Centreville on the evening of the 30th. Of course there were many stragglers, but the organizations were perfectly preserved. General Lee's army had suffered in these battles very seriously; and, considering its very inadequate means of repairing its losses, we were really in every respect, except in point of morale, in a better position than were the enemy to take the offensive. Not that the retreat, which Pope in his report almost apologizes for making, was unwise ; on the contrary, he should, in our judgment, have been behind Bull Bun on the morning, instead of on the evening, of the 30th; but we mean to say, that, at Centreville, the Army of Virginia, reinforced as it was by the corps of Sumner and Franklin, numbering 20,000 fresh troops, was, in point of numbers and in all material respects, a very formidable body of troops.
There is no denying, however, that we had lost prestige by the defeat of Manassas. The army was at Centreville, very near to Washington, and alarmists were not wanting to prophecy that this defeat would soon be followed by the' capture of the capital. The most exaggerated stories prevailed regarding the losses of the campaign, and the strength of the enemy. There was not the least reason for alarm, but in war, more than in most things, excitement and prejudice take the place of reason in times of danger, and impede the avenues by which the exact truth can reach the mind.
General Pope summed up the situation fairly enough, though with a certain amount of favorable coloring, in his dispatch to Halleck on the evening of the battle. He says:
We have had a terrific battle again to-day. The enemy, largely reinforced, assaulted our position early to-day. We held our ground firmly until six o'clock P.M., when the enemy, massing very heavy forces on our left, forced back that wing about half a mile. At dark we held that position. Under all the circumstances, both horses and men having been two days without food, and the enemy greatly outnumbering us, I thought it best to move back to this place at dark. The movement has been made in perfect order and without loss. The troops are in good heart and marched off the field without the least hurry or confusion. Their conduct was very fine.
The battle was most furious for hours without cessation, and the looses on both sides very heavy. The enemy is badly whipped, and we shall do well enough. Do not be uneasy. We will hold our own here. The labors and hardships of this army for two or three weeks have been beyond description. We have delayed the enemy as long as possible without losing the army. We have damaged him heavily, and I think the army entitled to the gratitude of the country. Be easy; everything will go well.
Unfortunately for him, however, the country was in no mood for looking calmly and resolutely at the state of affairs. People saw only an uninterrupted retreat from the Rapidan to Centreville. They had seen the campaign opened by that most unfortunate proclamation in which the army was to see only the backs of its enemies, and lines of supplies and bases of communication were to be discarded. They now saw the army retreating before a victorious enemy, after a sanguinary struggle, after its supplies had been captured and its communications more than once seriously threatened. They took no account whatever of the counterbalancing circumstances; they saw only what they termed results ; and they were unjust to General Pope. Moreover the strong partisanship which existed in the Army of the Potomac for McClellan rendered many, if not most, of the Peninsula officers harsh critics of their new general. It was no use arguing with them. It was no use reminding them how Porter had been driven from the field of Games' Mill, in full sight of 60,000 troops, who might either have taken Richmond or have strengthened his corps so that it might have held its own. It was no use reminding them that while it was true that General Pope delayed too long on the Rappahannock, and thus allowed Jackson to capture his stores at Manassas, McClellan, after being informed of the junction of Jackson's command with Lee's army,- delayed deciding on his course until the defeat of his right wing at Gaines' Mill had made his movement to the James a retreat, and a very hazardous one too. These comparisons only the cooler heads could make. The multitude were, as we have said, unjust to Pope and to his army.
Halleck at first stood by him. He said, "You have done nobly. Don't yield another inch if you can avoid it. All reserves are being sent forward. . . . Can't you renew tho attack ? I am doing all in my power for you and your noble army. God bless you and it."
But Halleck was not really a strong man in any way, and as a practical soldier he was absolutely useless. It does not appear that he ever even saw the army. What General Pope needed was a victory.
He had, it will be remembered, with him now the two corps of Sumner and Franklin, the Second and Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, numbering about 20,000 excellent troops, in excellent trim, and admirably commanded. Here was his corps d'elite. With this very powerful force, as strong as Jackson's command, and two-thirds as strong as Longstreet's, he could certainly take advantage of any mistake made by the enemy with all needful promptitude.
The day after the battle was rainy, and the fords near the turnpike were rendered impassable. General Lee felt, however, the necessity of promptly following up his victory, and he therefore pushed his troops off in the course of the afternoon, the ever active Jackson taking the advance, followed by Longstreet.
They crossed Bull Bun high up, at Sudley Ford, and then pursued their way by cross roads to Little River turnpike, a fine road which runs from Aldie Gap through Fairfax Court House to Alexandria. Turning then to the southwest, they marched for Fairfax Court House, which is seven miles east of Centreville ; hoping to strike the line of communication of the Federal army, and bring about a hasty retreat of our forces, defeated, as they knew they had been, and demoralized, as they doubtless supposed them to be.
This movement of Jackson's, like his previous one to Manassas Junction, was conducted with what we should call— were we not speaking of Stonewall Jackson—a heedless disregard of supports. Longstreet was so far behind him that the action known as the battle of Chantilly, which took place this afternoon, was over before he arrived.
Jackson's march had been perceived by the detachments which Sumner had sent out in compliance with an order of Pope's, dated 3 A.M., of September 1st. Jackson left his bivouac at Sndley Ford early that morning, marched down the turnpike, and just after passing Ox Hill, which is on the right of the road, finding himself to be opposed by our forces, which had by General Pope's order been falling back during the day to the neighborhood of Fairfax Court House, formed his line of battle. Jackson recklessly moved his troops by a cross road to their right, so that the right of A. P. Hill's division was close to the Warrenton turnpike, and at right angles to it, while the left of Jackson's old division was on the Little River turnpike. Ewell's division, commanded by Early, was in the centre. The whole line thus faced east.
Here, then, was a chance for a success. An attack by Sumner's corps on the right flank of this line, while its left and front was assaulted by Franklin and other troops, would have been simply fatal to Jackson. He had absolutely no retreat. In the rear of the cross road were woods and difficult country. By moving down the cross road towards the Warrenton pike he had jeopardized his line of retreat. A vigorous attack on Franklin's corps on his left might have cut him off from the Little River pike, and a flank attack on his right and rear by Sumner would have given Pope his revenge.
Luckily for Jackson, it was nearly dark, and came on to rain very heavily. Our officers could not well discover the position of the enemy. By good luck, too, for Jackson, neither Franklin nor Sumner were anywhere near him, and he was opposed by troops which had been fighting him at Manassas. But, as it was, there was no success in store for him that afternoon. Branch's brigade of Hill's division, which was on his extreme right, was thrown into great disorder by a flanking fire, and its commander, General Lane, says the engagement was considered by the brigade as one of its severest. Gregg's brigade, that lost so many men at Manassas, here again suffered heavily. Hays' brigade got into confusion and fell back. Trimble's brigade evidently had a severe experience. And all that is claimed is that they held their position, which they certainly did.
The brunt of the battle was borne by Reno's divisions, and Kearny's division of Heintzelman's corps. The action was very severe, though short. Stevens' division fell back, and Stevens, an excellent officer, was killed. The gallant Kearny also was killed, while reconnoitering in front of his troops; a loss which was very deeply felt. He was a man who was made for the profession of arms. In the field he was always ready, always skilful, always brave, always untiring, always hopeful, and always vigilant and alert.
These severe losses and the indecisive character of the engagement, which after all was only a repulse of the enemy, could not restore the morale of the army. The enemy pursued his design of outflanking our right. Longstreet was up in the course of the night. On September 2d, at noon, the army being weary and the Government evidently subjected to great pressure, the order was given to withdraw the troops within the lines of Washington, and the campaign of the army under Pope was ended.
Excerpt from "The Army Under Pope" By John Codman Ropes, Published by C. Scribner's Sons, 1881