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Battle of Ox Hill

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: August 29, 2006 
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Facts, information and articles about the Battle Of Ox Hill, a Civil War Battle of the American Civil War

Bitter rain lashed the Virginia countryside, causing the creeks to swell, turning the roadbeds into sludge and threatening to drown any hopes Major General John Pope had of soon reviving his broken Union army. Over the four preceding days, August 28-31, 1862, Pope's army, squaring off against General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, had been brutally beaten on the field of Second Manassas and forced back into its entrenchments at Centreville.

Casualties on the Union side were thick–more than 14,400 Federals had been killed, wounded or were missing. The dead lay on the ground everywhere, exposed to the cold, steady rain, while the main route from the battlefield was littered with makeshift infirmaries. Behind the lines at Centreville, every house, stable, barn and church was packed solidly with wounded Federal soldiers.

Now, on September 1, Pope was glumly reporting defeat to his commander, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, and to Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, in charge of the defenses surrounding Washington. 'The enemy is still in our front,' Pope wrote in a pre-dawn dispatch. 'It is his undoubted purpose to keep on, slowly turning our position so as to come in on our right. You had best at once decide what is to be done. The enemy is in very heavy force and must be stopped in some way. These forces under my command are not able to do so in the open field, and if again checked I fear the force will be useless afterwards.

'Robert E. Lee, for his part, wasted little time following up his victory. Two days earlier, on the morning of August 30, during a lull in the fighting at Manassas, Lee had shaped a plan to cut off the Federals by maneuvering around Pope's right. But the renewed clash of enemies that afternoon, which climaxed in Pope's withdrawal to Centreville, prompted Lee to postpone the maneuver until noon the next day.

Realizing that a frontal assault against Pope's fortifications at Centreville would be disastrous, Lee opted to take full advantage of the local topography. Pope's primary route of retreat toward Washington, the Warrenton Turnpike, was intersected seven miles behind the Union lines at Centreville by the Little River Turnpike, a larger road directly skirting Pope's right flank. By striking at the crossroads of the Warrenton and Little River turnpikes–an area identified as Germantown on local maps–Lee saw that he could neatly cut Pope off from the rear, forcing his army out of the protective earthworks at Centreville and onto open ground, where he could destroy Pope's divisions piecemeal. Following Lee's orders at noon on August 31, Maj. Gen. Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson led his corps of 20,000 men north from Manassas, across rain-swollen Bull Run, toward the Little River Turnpike, where he planned to turn east in the direction of Germantown. His movements were screened by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry division, sent ahead on the same wet roads that Jackson's men followed. Lee planned to direct the remainder of his army, the corps commanded by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet, to follow Jackson by nightfall. Throughout the daylight hours of August 31, however, Longstreet's corps was to remain in front of Pope's entrenchments, to keep the nervous Union general distracted. Jackson's movement around the Union right turned out to be uncharacteristically slow. His battle-weary troopers seemed to advance at a snail's pace, drenched by the continuous rain and frustrated by the mud-suck of bottomless roads. Jackson's gray-clad columns managed to cover fewer than 12 miles before dark, when at last they reached the Little River Turnpike. He ordered his men to bivouac along the road on the grounds of a clapboard church with the ironic-sounding name of Pleasant Valley. By late that afternoon, a part of Stuart's cavalry had trotted nearly 10 miles ahead of Jackson's main body, reaching the Confederate general's primary objective, the crossroads at Germantown. From a nearby hilltop, the Southern horsemen watched the assembly of Federal wagons and ambulances choking the Warrenton Turnpike. Stuart decided to wreak havoc. He brought up two cannons and began lobbing shells into the teamsters' columns. Panic ensued among horses and drivers, but within minutes a small outpost of New Jersey troops from Brig. Gen. W.B. Franklin's corps of the Army of the Potomac, stationed on the opposite side of the road, deployed for attack. Stuart quickly hitched his guns and skedaddled back down the Little River Turnpike. Word of Stuart's presence at the crossroads reached Pope's headquarters shortly before midnight, signaling Lee's design to cut off Pope's rear and turn the Union right flank. He responded to the news by issuing a series of orders intended to buttress the meager force protecting the crossroads at Germantown and to fend off further trouble from Rebel skirmishers.

First, Pope directed a brigade from the Army of the Potomac, which had been marching toward Centreville from a fort outside Washington, to join the New Jersey troops who had just chased off Stuart. He next ordered Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, commanding one of the three corps that constituted the Army of Virginia, to deploy a brigade from Centreville to clear all Confederates from the fields alongside the Warrenton Turnpike. At the same time, Pope ordered Maj. Gen. Edwin Sumner, in charge of a corps of the Army of the Potomac, to send a brigade at dawn from Centreville to Germantown, where he was to launch a reconnaissance in force west on the Little River Turnpike.

Jackson's divisions broke camp at Pleasant Valley early on September 1. After conferring briefly with Stuart, who then set out ahead of the main column, Jackson put his men on the Little River Turnpike and headed east.

The downpour that had slowed things the day before had momentarily abated. By 9:30 a.m., the Confederates reached the mansion Chantilly, which gave its name to the surrounding area. Jackson's divisions rested there until noon, then marched another two hours until reaching the western base of Ox Hill, a 500-foot rise that Stuart's cavalry had been holding since midmorning.

Meanwhile, Pope continued the buildup of forces along the Warrenton Turnpike. At 11 a.m., he dashed off another doleful message to Halleck: 'The enemy is deploying his forces on the Little River Turnpike, and preparing to advance by that road on Fairfax Court House. This movement turns Centreville and interposes between us and Washington, and will force me to attack his advance, which I shall do as soon as his movement is sufficiently developed. I have nothing like the force you undoubtedly suppose, and the fight will be necessarily desperate. I hope you will make all preparations to make a vigorous defense of the entrenchments around Washington.'

At noon, Pope ordered McDowell to unleash his entire corps from Centreville and join the two brigades already protecting the crossroads at Germantown, in order to defend the Federal rear from Jackson's men. An hour later, Pope ordered Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker to rush his division of the Army of the Potomac from nearby Fairfax Court House to the same spot, for the same purpose.
At 2:30 p.m., Jackson made ready to attack a Federal force of unknown size from his position on the western side of Ox Hill. He divided his infantry into two columns, each marching on one side of the Little River Turnpike while the artillery moved on the roadway. Out in front of Jackson's corps was Stuart's cavalry.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., horsemen from the 5th Virginia Cavalry, at the head of Stuart's column, clashed with their counterparts from the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry near the banks of a large creek that crossed the Little River Turnpike. Two Federals were wounded, and the Rhode Islanders retreated behind the battle line Hooker was forming immediately to the east of the creek crossing.

Hoping to get a better picture of what he was up against, Hooker sent two regiments of New York infantry forward through dense woods a few yards south of the Little River Turnpike. As one of the regiments emerged from the woods, around 3:30 p.m., it encountered and opened fire on a skirmish line of Virginians from the Stonewall Brigade that was moving down the turnpike. The Virginians quickly withdrew, but an artillery piece belonging to Stuart's cavalry checked any further advance by the New Yorkers. The sounds of musket and cannon fire and the sight of the retreating Virginians convinced Jackson that the Federal buildup on the Warrenton Turnpike was too great to risk further offensive action for the time being. He decided to halt his forward-moving columns at the crest of Ox Hill and wait for Longstreet's corps–still a few hours behind on the Little River Turnpike–to catch up with him before resuming the attack.

With his attention focused on seizing the crossroads at Germantown, east of his columns, Jackson was now surprised to learn from his scouts that a large number of Federal troops were maneuvering in the fields at the southern foot of Ox Hill. These were men from Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno's corps of the Army of the Potomac, led by Brig. Gen. Isaac Stevens. On the advice of two foragers who had spotted Jackson's columns, Pope had hastily deployed Stevens at 2 p.m. from Centreville, not with specific orders to attack Jackson, but with a general directive to assist Hooker's defense of the Union rear by linking with his left flank and probing toward Chantilly.

Believing that they were taking a shortcut to the Little River Turnpike, Stevens' men had left the Warrenton Turnpike and followed a cavalry guide several miles down a farmer's cart track to the southern base of Ox Hill. When Stevens spotted a Confederate skirmish line (which he correctly identified as a part of Jackson's corps), he quickly sent a Michigan lieutenant back to the main road to find help, and immediately prepared to attack.

Stevens first set in motion three companies of New Yorkers, who opened fire on the Confederate skirmish line. The Southerners pulled back into the cover of the heavy woods shrouding Ox Hill as the Federals advanced across the open fields before them. Next, Stevens hurried three more brigades into battle. In the front line, on the right, was the 79th New York Regiment, with the 28th Massachusetts Regiment on the left. In the second line was the 8th Michigan on the right, the 50th Pennsylvania on the left. And in the third line, the 46th New York was on the right, the 100th Pennsylvania on the left.

An additional brigade soon arrived on the field, under Reno's command. Reno, who was ill, conferred briefly with Stevens and agreed to let him lead the charge as he had planned it. Reno gave the necessary orders, and the 21st Massachusetts and the 51st Pennsylvania moved smartly into an adjacent wood lot to cover Stevens' right flank. It was now 4:30 p.m. It had been drizzling throughout the afternoon, but now the winds out of the west suddenly picked up, and ominous, ink-black thunderheads began scudding across the gray skies.

To counter Stevens, Jackson pushed parts of all three of his infantry divisions off the Little River Turnpike and into the woods lining the southern slope of Ox Hill. They rapidly formed a wide arc around the base of the hill, hidden from the Federals' sight by the dense timber. Jackson's division, under Brig. Gen. William E. Starke, took the left flank. Ewell's division, under Brig. Gen. Alexander Lawton, occupied the center. Major General Ambrose P. Hill's division formed the right flank.

Stevens' advancing men were almost to the edge of the protective woods when the Confederates let loose a ferocious storm of musket and rifle fire. Captain Hazard Stevens, General Stevens' son and liaison officer with the 79th New York, was among the many severely wounded by the initial blast. The wave of bluecoats came to an abrupt halt.

Hoping to extend his front, Stevens ordered the second line to head into a cornfield to their left. Within seconds, the cornstalks were ripped by a blaze of Confederate bullets from the woods, and again the Federals began wavering.

Stevens rushed to the head of his old regiment, the 79th New York, and grabbed the regimental flag from the wounded color-bearer. He called out to his troops over his shoulder and ran directly to the edge of the woods and the source of the murderous Rebel fire. Inspired by their commander, the New Yorkers surged forward. In the same instant, the Massachusetts and Pennsylvania regiments, bloodied in the cornfield on the left, rejoined the attack.

The violent thunderclouds overhead suddenly broke with full fury on the combatants. The wild rains and darkening sky made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe.
Illuminated by flashes of lightning, the Union onslaught swept forward into the woods. Thunder and driving winds masked the sounds of gunfire. Near a fence bordering the cornfield the fighting became completely disordered, desperate hand-to-hand combat in a muddy quagmire. All across Stevens' front the Confederate lines began to break apart.

Suddenly, just after entering the woods, Stevens was killed by a Georgia rifle, and the assault he had been leading abruptly collapsed. The troops hovered at the spot where their commander lay, while Confederate bullets whipped all around them. Simultaneously, the Massachusetts regiment on Stevens' right flank ran into a particularly brutal Confederate ambush by Jackson's division. The Rebel volley dropped more than 100 Union men in mere seconds. The Federals now surrendered what little foothold they had gained in the woods and retreated back across the open fields. To make matters worse, the heavy downpour began to make it impossible for most men to fire the weapons they carried. Stevens' command fell to Colonel Benjamin Christ of the 50th Pennsylvania, who was trapped on the far left and unable to reorganize the shattered lines.But just when the Federals' situation looked bleakest, reinforcements arrived. The Michigan lieutenant whom Stevens had sent for help had managed to summon Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny, commanding a division of Maj. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman's corps of the Army of the Potomac. The five leading regiments from Kearny's division lined up at the edge of the cornfield and immediately started forward. The 4th Maine entered first, followed by the 101st New York, the 3rd Maine, the 40th New York and the 1st New York.

The advancing Federals quickly found themselves in the thick of a furious battle. The cornfield was transformed into a nightmarish vision of mud, fallen bodies and trampled stalks. Disorganized clumps of men fired point-blank into the faces of their foes. Men gored each other with bayonets and brained each other with muskets. The cornfield, now a crimson shambles, changed hands several times in the course of minutes.While the fighting raged in the cornfield, Kearny busied himself directing the emplacement of artillery pieces 200 yards behind. In the rain and darkness, accuracy was unlikely, but at Kearny's command the cannoneers began to fire solid shot over the heads of the Union troops in the cornfield and into the woods beyond. In minutes, they got off about 100 rounds. Eyewitnesses later noted an especially eerie effect: the thunderstorm raging overhead completely drowned out the sounds of the battery.

Brigadier General David Birney, leading Kearny's men in the cornfield, sent word to his commander that the right flank was dangerously exposed. Incredulous, Kearny galloped forward to evaluate the situation for himself. In an open, grassy field he found the 21st Massachusetts, still reeling from the ambush minutes before by Jackson's division. Kearny ordered the regiment immediately forward to protect Birney's right flank, but was told by its captain in no uncertain terms that his men had had enough of fighting for a while, and that, besides, their ammunition was wet.

Infuriated, Kearny shouted that it was clear to him that the 21st Massachusetts Regiment lacked the stomach to fight, then turned his horse and dashed back to his battery. Minutes later, an officer of the battery returned to tell the captain of the 21st Massachusetts that if he did not advance immediately the Union artillery would commence firing on his men. Reluctantly, the Massachusetts regiment marched in the direction of the fighting.

But the regiment did not move quickly enough for Kearny. Crossing a fence that separated the grassy field from the cornfield, the 21st Massachusetts halted when it came under fire from some of A.P. Hill's men in the woods. Wanting to know the cause of this second delay, Kearny again rode forward to speak with the regiment's captain. Not satisfied to hear that there were Confederates lurking close by in the woods, the hot-tempered general spurred his horse into the cornfield, determined to conduct his own reconnaissance.

Kearny rode up to the edge of the woods, where he spotted a cluster of mud-encrusted troops. He then trotted into their midst and demanded to know the identity of their unit. Realizing that a Union officer had mistakenly ridden into their lines, the men demanded that the one-armed Yankee surrender. When he wheeled his horse to ride away instead, the Confederates almost reluctantly shot him out of the saddle.

It was now just after 6 p.m. Believing that Kearny had been captured, the 21st Massachusetts withdrew from the cornfield after another brief exchange of shots with the Confederates. Minutes later, Birney was informed by the regiment's captain that Kearny had fallen into enemy hands, and he then assumed command of the field.
The torrential thunderstorm had not abated, and the heavy, black clouds brought on a premature and unnatural darkness. The confused and gruesome battle in the cornfield continued, and continued to deteriorate. By 6:30 p.m., as the skies grew even blacker, both sides suddenly began to retire, the Union troops into the fields south of Ox Hill, the Confederates north, deep into the woods. Before 7 p.m., the ruined cornfield was empty of all living men but for a few pickets on either side.During the night the Union commands remained in the immediate vicinity of the battlefield for only a few more hours. Following new orders from Pope to withdraw to Fairfax Court House, the troops formerly commanded by Stevens and Kearny filed onto the Warrenton Turnpike around 2:30 a.m., September 2, joined up with Hooker's command at Germantown, and marched east on the Little River Turnpike.

Similarly, Jackson also abandoned Ox Hill. Around 11 p.m. on the 2nd, he marched his corps west on the Little River Turnpike, joining Lee and Longstreet at the Chantilly mansion, the same place Jackson's men had taken their noontime rest two days earlier.

Ox Hill was not the battle Jackson had wanted to fight. He had set out on August 31 to cut off Pope's retreat route, but instead was stopped cold in his tracks by Hooker's defensive line and was forced on the defensive himself when he was attacked by Stevens and Kearny.

The ensuing battle cost him more than 500 men.

After Ox Hill, Lee concluded that the drive to the Union rear could not be resumed–unless he was willing to sustain heavy losses–and that his scheme to cut Pope off from Washington was now hopeless. Lee chose instead to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, a strategic decision that led to the blood-soaked confrontation 3 1/2 weeks later at Antietam.

Pope's losses at Ox Hill amounted to nearly 1,000 men, including the well-respected Stevens and Kearny. Soon he lost even more–he lost the opportunity to inflict a decisive defeat on Stonewall Jackson, despite having caught him off guard. And soon he lost command of the Union forces in the East, despite having successfully protected his route of withdrawal from Second Manassas, preserving intact the remaining forces under him, and saving Washington from an assault by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

On the morning after the Battle of Ox Hill, General Halleck and President Abraham Lincoln met with George McClellan at his headquarters and requested that he take over Pope's command. McClellan graciously accepted. John Pope was the last victim of the storm-wracked battleground at Ox Hill.

This article was written by Robert James and originally appeared in the January 1995 issue of America's Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America's Civil War magazine today!



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