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A heavy, soaking rain fell across northern Virginia on the night of August 30-31, 1862. Despite the storm's intensity, it could not wash away the bloodstains that reddened the fields and wood lots along Bull Run creek. On the two previous days, more than 100,000 Northerners and Southerners had killed and maimed each other.
If General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had a single crucible that forged it into one of history's finest commands, it was perhaps this familiar killing ground at Manassas.
The road back to Manassas for a second bloodletting stretched across two months to the outskirts of Richmond. There, during the last weeks of June, Lee's troops shoved Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac down the Virginia peninsula away from the Confederate capital. When the retreating Federals repulsed Rebel charges at Malvern Hill on July 1, the Seven Days' campaign ended. McClellan shifted his units to the vicinity of Harrison's Landing, where Union gunboats offered firepower.
The two antagonists stalked each other for the next six weeks. McClellan singed the telegraph wires to Washington, D.C., with demands for more men, arms and supplies, and blamed President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton for all the Union Army's setbacks. Lee, meanwhile, probed the Federals with occasional artillery bombardments and infantry skirmishers. As the inactivity lengthened, Lee turned his attention to a second Union threat lumbering across central Virginia.
In June, even while McClellan crawled up the peninsula toward Richmond, the Lincoln administration consolidated three departments scattered across the Old Dominion into a unified command. On June 26, the government merged the Mountain, Shenandoah and Rappahannock departments into the three-corps Army of Virginia. For commander of the new army, Union officials selected 40-year-old Maj. Gen. John Pope.
A Kentuckian, John Pope had led the Army of the Mississippi during the spring of 1862. Pope's forces captured New Madrid, Mo., and Island No. 10, releasing the Confederate hold on the upper Mississippi River. Awarded a major generalcy for the operations, Pope was ordered eastward upon creation of the Army of Virginia.
John Pope, unfortunately, was his own worst enemy. Abrasive, conceited and loudmouthed, he rubbed people the wrong way. When he reported to Virginia, he managed to alienate his top subordinates almost at once and soon earned the enmity of the common soldiers. Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis, for instance, upon receipt of an order from Pope, snarled, 'I don't care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung.'
As for the men in the ranks, Pope greeted them with a bombastic proclamation that the soldiers never forgot. 'I have come to you from the West,' Pope announced, 'where we have always seen the backs of our enemies….Dismiss from your minds certain phrases which I am sorry to find so much in vogue amongst you. I hear constantly of 'taking strong positions and holding them,' of 'lines of retreat,' and of 'bases of supplies.' Let us discard such ideas….Let us look before and not behind. Success and glory are in the advance.'
Despite his flaws, Pope was energetic and aggressive, with a zest for fighting–the type of officer Lincoln wanted for the post. His mission was to relieve pressure on McClellan by advancing southward from Washington along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad toward Gordonsville. If Pope could capture Gordonsville, he could sever the Virginia Central Railroad, which hauled the rich harvest of the Shenandoah Valley to Lee's army at Richmond.
When Pope took command of the Army of Virginia, his three corps were scattered across northern Virginia from the Shenandoah Valley through Manassas Junction to Fredericksburg. West of the Blue Ridge, the I and II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gens. Franz Sigel and Nathaniel P. Banks, respectively, were stationed at Middletown, roughly a dozen miles south of Winchester. The III Corps, under Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, was divided, with one division at Manassas Junction and the other at Fredericksburg. Consequently, Pope ordered a concentration of the corps at Culpeper Court House on the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, 30 miles north of Gordonsville between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers
The leading contingent of Pope's units occupied Culpeper Court House on July 12. During the next two weeks the remaining commands arrived, and Pope, who came in on the 29th, deployed his troops around the village. Although he had opposed the decision, the Union administration retained Brig. Gen. Rufus King's 11,000-man division of McDowell's corps at Fredericksburg. Pope had roughly 40,000 troops with him at Culpeper.
Pope believed the Southern people should pay a price for the transgression of secession and civil war. When his army advanced, he issued orders instructing officers and men to live off of the fertile land, taking foodstuffs and supplies from the civilians. He also implemented stern punishments for guerrillas, and directed that all male noncombatants along the route of march be required to swear an oath of allegiance or be arrested and expelled from the region. If they returned, they would be prosecuted as spies. Finally, Pope announced that any man or woman who corresponded with anyone in the Confederate Army–even a parent writing to a son–would be subject to execution.
When Lee learned of Pope's directive, he labeled the Union general, in strong language for Lee, 'the miscreant.' But he could not ignore the threat that Pope posed to Gordonsville and the vital Virginia Central Railroad. On July 13, a day after the Yankees entered Culpeper, Lee entrained two divisions of infantry and an artillery battery–10,000 troops in all–under Maj. Gen. Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson for Gordonsville. Two weeks later, Lee forwarded Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's division to Jackson, telling Stonewall, 'I want Pope to be suppressed.'
The initial clash between the foes came on August 9 at Cedar Mountain, eight miles south of Culpeper. Learning of the presence of Union cavalry and infantry in the area, Jackson pushed his divisions forward. Late in the afternoon, the Confederates attacked, driving back the advanced elements of Banks' II Corps. It was a ragged battle as Banks broke Jackson's left, but Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's division held and Jackson counterpunched, forcing the Federals northward. Jackson claimed victory because he held the field. His casualties amounted to roughly 1,350; Banks' to nearly 2,400.
In Washington, Lincoln's patience with McClellan had drained away. On August 3, the administration ordered the abandonment of the peninsula operation and the transfer of the Army of the Potomac to northern Virginia. Stunned by the dispatch, McClellan telegraphed recently appointed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck, stating that the order had 'caused me the greatest pain I ever experienced.'
Halleck urged McClellan to comply with speed. McClellan, however, reacted slowly, as was his custom; the army did not begin the withdrawal from Harrison's Landing until the 14th, with McClellan protesting to the very end.
Lee monitored the situation as well as he could. He learned from an exchanged Confederate officer that Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps, en route from North Carolina, had been sent to Fredericksburg to reinforce Pope. When he discovered McClellan's abandonment of the lines at Harrison's Landing, Lee rushed Maj. Gen. James Longstreet and four divisions westward to Jackson. Lee, Longstreet and the van of the troops arrived at Gordonsville on August 15, as McClellan's troops headed down the peninsula toward Fortress Monroe for embarkation northward.
Lee had won the initial leg of the race. If the Confederates could strike Pope before units of the Army of the Potomac arrived, the Southerners had a chance for victory. Lee acted at once, endeavoring to trap Pope between the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers. But Pope recognized the danger and skillfully withdrew his army behind the Rappahannock.
The Rebels crossed the Rapidan in the wake of Pope's withdrawing troops, deploying south of the Rappahannock. On August 22, Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, with 1,500 cavalrymen and two cannon, circled beyond Pope's right flank, striking Catlett's Station in the Federal rear. The Southern horsemen attacked during a howling rainstorm at night, capturing hundreds of men and horses and Pope's personal baggage, including his dispatch book.
The captured documents confirmed Lee's belief that Pope was too strong for frontal assaults. Lee could either retreat or advance, but if he withdrew, he jeopardized the Piedmont region and probably the Shenandoah Valley. If he waited, troops from McClellan would combine with Pope, giving the Federals a decisive edge in manpower. As Lee said later, 'The disparity. . . between the contending forces rendered the risks unavoidable.' On the afternoon of the 24th, he directed Jackson to sever the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Pope's supply artery. Longstreet's wing would hold the Federals in place along the Rappahannock.
Jackson's 23,000-man force started from Jeffersonton at first light on the 25th, marching through Amissville, across the Rappahannock beyond the Union right flank to near Salem in Upper Fauquier. The vaunted 'foot cavalry' swiftly covered 25 miles. As they approached Salem, Jackson, standing on a large rock, quietly remarked to his staff, 'Who could not conquer with such troops as these?'
The pace resumed again at dawn on the following morning: eastward from Salem, to The Plains, through Thoroughfare Gap to Haymarket, and on to Gainesville on the Warrenton Turnpike. Jackson pushed the column toward Bristoe Station on the railroad, arriving about sunset–50 miles since leaving Jeffersonton. Stuart's cavalrymen overtook the infantry and halted along the tracks. After derailing a train, Jackson sent Brig. Gen. Isaac Trimble with two infantry regiments and some cavalry to secure Manassas Junction, Pope's main supply depot.
Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro's Stonewall Division and Powell Hill's Light Division started for Manassas Junction on the morning of the 27th. When the lean, hungry graycoats arrived at the depot, they found a veritable cornucopia. One of the Southerners remembered that the warehouses contained 'all the delicacies,' from lobster to oranges. They happily gorged themselves, carrying away what they did not devour.
Jackson's first order at the junction was to break open hundreds of barrels of whiskey, wine and brandy, and dump the contents. 'I shall never forget the scene,' admitted a Confederate. 'Streams of spirits ran like water through the sands of Manassas and the soldiers on hands and knees drank it greedily from the ground.'
During the activities, a brigade of New Jersey troops approached from the north. Hill directed part of his division forward, and the Southerners repulsed the Federals. Ewell's division arrived from Bristoe Station at sunset, and Jackson ordered a night march toward Groveton on the Warrenton Turnpike west of Bull Run Creek. There Jackson could cover the roadway, keeping open Aldie Gap in his rear until Lee and Longstreet reunited the army.
By midday on August 28, Jackson's men had reached the Groveton area, filing behind a low ridge north of the turnpike. During the march, Hill's division moved to Centreville before turning back toward Groveton. The soldiers lay down behind the ridge, rested and awaited further orders. One of them recalled that they were 'packed [in there] like herring in a barrel.'
When Pope learned on the night of the 26th of Jackson's march to Bristoe Station, he was exultant over the prospect of a divided Confederate army. The Union commander decided early the next morning to abandon the Rappahannock line, ordering a convergence of his corps on the isolated Jackson. His army had been augmented by the belated arrival of Burnside's IX Corps under Maj. Gen. Jesse Reno, and the III and V Corps of the Army of the Potomac commanded by Maj. Gens. Samuel P. Heintzelman and Fitz-John Porter, respectively. Directing Banks' corps to act as a rear guard, Pope hastened the other corps toward the Manassas JunctionCentreville area.
Throughout the 27th and 28th, the Federals shifted northeastward in search of the elusive Rebels. The weather was hot and dry, and the marchers suffered mightily. A Massachusetts officer complained that his men were'scorched by a noonday sun and almost stifled by dust, which lay ankle deep in the road, and sick at heart of General Pope and his strategy which he so bombastically told us was going to turn the tide of war in Virginia.'
Major General Joseph Hooker's division of Heintzelman's corps struck Jackson's trail on the afternoon of the 27th when it collided with Ewell's division at Bristoe Station. A skirmish ignited and flared before Ewell retired to Manassas Junction. Late that night, Pope directed his units toward Manassas Junction. On the following morning, when Pope reached the burning supply base, he found no Confederates and redirected his troops toward Centreville. Reports of Hill's march misled Pope into believing that Jackson's entire command was there. By nightfall he was at Centreville, but still with no Confederates in sight.
Meanwhile, on the 28th, McDowell led his corps, Sigel's and Reno's, along with Maj. Gen. Philip Kearny's division of Heintzelman's corps, on the Warrenton Turnpike toward Centreville. About sunset, Brig. Gen. John Gibbon's brigade approached Jackson's concealed veterans.
Jackson ordered an attack, and Taliaferro's division plunged down a hillside on the Brawner farm. Gibbon's men, who had never been in battle before, withstood the test. Each side lost about 1,300 men. On the Confederate side, the wounded included Taliaferro and Ewell. Jackson's attack revealed his location, but as Confederate artillerist E. Porter Alexander later argued, Jackson had wanted to prod Pope into battle before additional troops from McClellan's army reached the battlefield.
'Old Jack' also knew that Lee and Longstreet were en route with the army's other wing; in fact, during the action at the Brawner farm, Jackson's men saw puffs of white smoke in Thoroughfare Gap that indicated the approach of Longstreet's 32,000 men. Jackson's troops slept where they were.
Pope learned of the fight at the Brawner farm before 10 p.m. At that time, the bulk of his army was in striking distance of Jackson. Sigel was on Henry House Hill, on the ground of the First Manassas; McDowell was in the vicinity of Groveton; Reno and Heintzelman were near Manassas Junction; and Porter held Bristoe Station.
Pope believed that he had Jackson trapped between the major components of his army. He told his staff that night, 'The game is in our own hands, and I do not see how it is possible for Jackson to escape without very heavy loss, if at all.' Orders went forth from headquarters to corps commanders for simultaneous attacks the next morning.
A crucial piece of intelligence, however, had not been relayed to Pope's headquarters. The fighting in Thoroughfare Gap noticed by Jackson's men was between the Union division of Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts and the van of Longstreet's four divisions. Lee and Longstreet had followed Jackson on the afternoon of the 26th. 'Old Pete' Longstreet pushed his columns as hard as Jackson had, and by 3 p.m. on the 28th his leading division had ascended the western slope of Thoroughfare Gap. Ricketts' men fought stubbornly until Brig. Gen. John B. Hood's brigades outflanked the Union position. Longstreet's command bivouacked for the night on the eastern side of the mountains. Somehow, Ricketts failed to notify McDowell of these developments.
Early on the morning of August 29, Jackson began shifting his units northeastward to a wooded position behind an abandoned railroad embankment. Hill manned the left; Ewell's division under Brig. Gen. Alexander R. Lawton held the center; and the Stonewall Division, Brig. Gen. William E. Starke now commanding, covered the right. Jackson's front stretched for nearly 3,000 yards from Sudley Springs on Bull Run creek to the Warrenton Turnpike.
Pope's grand scheme, as he learned soon after daylight, had already come unhinged. When he reached Centreville, he learned that King's and Ricketts' divisions had withdrawn during the night from the Groveton area to Manassas Junction. This was done without the knowledge of McDowell, who had lost his way during the night and could not locate his command. Pope believed he had to retake Gainesville and hold the Warrenton Turnpike to bar Jackson from escaping in that direction; he rerouted Porter's corps to Gainesville.
Franz Sigel, however, undertook Pope's instructions at dawn when his troops began probing Jackson's lines as the Confederates pulled back toward the railroad embankment. From 6:30 to 10:30, Sigel's divisions engaged the Southerners. The Federals advanced incrementally, and Jackson's soldiers had little difficulty in repulsing the thrusts. The fighting crackled along the Confederate front, but the Yankees made little headway. As the combat subsided, Heintzelman's and Reno's corps reached the battlefield.
Skirmishing between the opposing lines characterized the action throughout the midday hours. Pope arrived about noon, conducting a reconnaissance along the length of the front. Finally, about two o'clock in the afternoon, Pope directed Hooker to launch a frontal attack with his division. Hooker objected, requesting a simultaneous advance against Jackson's flank. Pope ignored Hooker's argument, and the latter's men went in alone about 3 p.m.
Brigadier General Cuvier Grover's brigade spearheaded Hooker's assault. Grover advanced with three regiments in the front and two in support. The Federals drove gamely toward the wooded embankment, which soon exploded in sheets of musketry. The men from Massachusetts and New Hampshire kept coming, scrambling into the Confederate works. At several points the foes exchanged fire muzzle to muzzle and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. At length, Grover's men wavered and broke. They had lost nearly a third of their numbers.
Two brigades from Starke's division then counterattacked. The Southerners hurried Grover's men rearward and routed Hooker's remaining two brigades deployed in some woods. One of Reno's IX Corps brigades also got caught in the onslaught and tumbled back in disarray.
The final Union assault came shortly afterward against Hill's division on Jackson's left. One of the Federals' best combat officers, Philip Kearny, led the attack. When his men stepped out, Kearny exclaimed, 'Fall in here, you sons of bitches and I'll make major generals of every one of you!' The force of Kearny's blow fell upon the South Carolina brigade of Brig. Gen. Maxcy Gregg, positioned at the end of Hill's front. The fierce combat centered on a rocky knoll. Gregg was in the midst of the fury, shouting, 'Let us die here, my men!' Many did, but Confederate reserves saved Gregg's ranks, repulsing Kearny's troops. The South Carolinians lost over 600 of their comrades; only two field officers passed through the ordeal unscathed.
Kearny's withdrawal concluded the day's fighting along Jackson's front. One Northerner wrote of the day's combat, 'The slope was swept by a hurricane of death, and each minute seemed twenty hours long.' To Dr. Hunter McGuire, Jackson's medical director, the battle's outcome 'had been won by nothing but stark and stern fighting.' 'No,' replied Jackson. 'It has been won by nothing but the blessing and protection of Providence.'
To the south and west of the main battlefield, events of this day would result in controversy and court-martial. When Pope redirected the V Corps to Gainesville early in the morning, Porter complied. The command advanced cautiously toward the village, not approaching it until well after noon. Before they reached the Manassas Gap Railroad just east of Gainesville, Longstreet's Confederates barred the route. Porter stopped, deploying his troops into a defensive position. Pope, however, expected an attack from Porter against Jackson's right throughout the afternoon. Finally, at 4:30 p.m., the army commander issued a peremptory order for an immediate attack, but the order did not reach Porter's headquarters until nearly nightfall.
Longstreet, in fact, had secured Jackson's right flank by noon. Hood's division led the march on this day, arriving on the field about 10 o'clock. He aligned his brigades north of the turnpike and waited as the divisions of Brig. Gens. James Kemper and D.R. Jones lengthened the front across the roadway toward the railroad, while Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox's division formed behind Hood. The deployment was completed well before Porter's column appeared from the southeast.
Shortly after noon, Lee urged Longstreet to strike the Union left, but Longstreet demurred, arguing that he needed to conduct a reconnaissance. The examination of the terrain took an hour, and Longstreet found Federal troops posted well south of the turnpike. He also received reports of Yankee units at Manassas Junction, and Stuart came in with news of the approach of Porter's command. After shifting Wilcox to the right, Longstreet resurveyed the ground. Lee again suggested an attack, but once more Longstreet convinced the army commander to wait until the strength of the oncoming Yankees could be determined.
Both Lee and Longstreet conducted another reconnaissance. For a third time, Lee ordered an attack, and for a third time, Longstreet disagreed, citing the lateness of the hour–it was now after 4 p.m. Longstreet recommended a reconnaissance in force, and Lee relented. Shortly after 6 o'clock, Hood and Wilcox advanced their divisions. Hood soon became entangled in a nasty fight with Silas King's division, now under the command of Brig. Gen. John Hatch. (King, an epileptic, had to relinquish command because of his health.)
Both Hood and Wilcox reported to Longstreet before midnight, counseling against any early attack on the 30th. Lee, who had instructed Longstreet to advance at dawn against Pope's left flank, canceled the order when he received Hood's and Wilcox's recommendations from Longstreet. For the aggressive Lee, the day's developments on the right were disappointing. But Longstreet's suggested caution was supported by evidence uncovered by Stuart, Hood and Wilcox.
At Union headquarters, meanwhile, Pope learned of Longstreet's presence on the field. But Pope characteristically misinterpreted the information, believing that Longstreet had not extended Jackson's line but merely moved into a position of direct support He consequently decided that Jackson's right flank could still be turned, and directed Porter's corps to start at once for the battlefield upon receipt of the orders. Porter had his men on the road shortly after 3:30 a.m. on the 30th. Later in the morning, John Reynolds' division of Pennsylvania reserves moved toward the Groveton area, forming south of the turnpike. With Porter advancing to the battlefield, Reynolds' solitary command covered Pope's left before Longstreet's massed divisions. The situation had all the appearance of an impending disaster.
August 30 dawned hot, dry and quiet. Pope soon received a string of conflicting reports that indicated either that the Confederates were in retreat or were still in force along the embankment. He summoned his corps commanders to a conference at Union headquarters. The officers agreed reluctantly to renew the offensive. But as the morning wore on, conflicting evidence mounted. Finally, about noon, Pope became convinced that the Rebels were pulling out, and he directed Porter's corps, supported by Hatch's division of McDowell's corps, to pursue and press Jackson.
Lee, like Pope, met with his senior officers, Longstreet and Jackson, during that morning. Lee wanted a renewal of Union attacks but was willing to remain in place throughout the day if Pope did not engage. The three generals agreed that if the Federals remained quiet, the Confederate army would pull out after dark and cross Bull Run, swinging around Pope's right flank. With this decided, Longstreet and Jackson returned to their commands to await developments.
The Union pursuit rolled forth between 2 and 3 o'clock. Porter's veterans anchored the lines with Hatch's and Ricketts' divisions extending the right. Jackson's men, who had been pulled back from the embankment, resumed their places. The woods along the grade exploded with a volley of musketry. 'The first line of the attacking column,' stated a Rebel, 'looked as if it had been struck by a blast from a tempest and had been blown away.'
The Yankees leaned into the tempest and drove toward Jackson's ranks. Confederate artillery and rifle fire raked the attackers. As Grover's men had done the day before, Federal units penetrated the Southern lines. At one point, the Southerners hurled rocks at their enemies. Major Andrew Barney of the 24th New York urged his horse over the embankment into the works. Several admiring Rebels shouted, 'Don't kill him! Don't kill him!' Their pleas went unheard, and Barney tumbled to the ground, his body riddled with bullets.
The second and third lines of Federals advanced in support. But Longstreet had prepared for this moment by deploying 18 cannon of Colonel Stephen V. Lee's battalion on a ridge between the two wings of the Confederate armies. Lee's gunners had 'a beautiful position in easy range' of the Federals, and their fire wrecked the oncoming Union lines. Then, at 4:30 p.m., 'Old Pete' unleashed his divisions.
Longstreet's infantry rolled forward like an avalanche. When Pope saw the attacking Rebels, he gaped in surprise. According to one of his staff officers, for the first time in the campaign the general'showed strong excitement.' All that stood in the immediate path of Longstreet was the 1,100-man brigade of Colonel Gouverneur Warren and a six-gun battery. McDowell had mistakenly sent Reynolds' division into the fight against Jackson.
Longstreet's soldiers crushed Warren's brave command and overran the battery. Driving across Young's Branch, the Confederates met stiff Federal resistance along Chinn Ridge. Altogether, five Union infantry brigades, supported by artillery, fought stubbornly at the position, inflicting heavy casualties on Longstreet's units. The Federals held the position for the better part of an hour, buying time for their comrades to retire toward Centreville.
Jackson finally advanced about 6 o'clock, pushing the Federals before him. Another valiant defense by Union units on Henry House Hill ended the action. The defeated Northerners retired in order from Second Manassas; it was not a rout like First Manassas. The rain began falling about 8 o'clock.
Pope's Army of Virginia, a thrown-together collection of troops, had suffered a decisive, humiliating defeat. Their casualties amounted to 1,716 killed, 8,215 wounded and 3,893 missing, a total of 13,824.
Blame for the disaster fell squarely upon the boastful John Pope. He had promised much and delivered nothing. He, in turn, attributed the defeat to a conspiracy among the officers of the Army of the Potomac, particularly Fitz-John Porter. On November 12, 1862, a court-martial convened to weigh the evidence against Porter. The members of the board were handpicked by Secretary of War Stanton, who loathed McClellan and his supporters. The court found Porter guilty as charged, and he was cashiered from the army on January 21, 1863. Fifteen years later, he was exonerated of all charges.
As for Pope, he was removed from command within a week and his army absorbed into the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln did come somewhat to the discredited general's defense, stating, 'Pope did well, but there was an army prejudice against him.' One salient fact remained, however: 'the miscreant' Pope was no match for Robert E. Lee.
For Lee and his victorious troops, Second Manassas marked a passage. Gone were the mistakes of the Seven Days. The men in the ranks had fought magnificently, and Longstreet, Jackson and their subordinate officers had performed brilliantly. Casualties amounted to 1,305 killed and 7,048 wounded. The 8,353 fallen comrades would be missed as the Army of Northern Virginia turned northward from Second Manassas. But as they marched toward Maryland and Sharpsburg, they went forth confidently, an army tempered and trued by the second struggle along Bull Run creek.
This article was written by Jeffry Wert and originally appeared in the November 1997 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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