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Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas

by John J. Hennessy

It is rare that a book does not need the test of time to determine its status as a classic. The 1993 release of John J. Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas, a fairly recent publication, was immediately recognized by reviewers as the most important book on the subject. Noted Civil War historian James I. Robertson Jr. described Hennessy’s work as “the deepest, most comprehensive, and most definitive work on this Civil War campaign.” Hennessy unravels the tactical knots of the engagement in beautifully written prose that draws from extensive research in archival manuscript collections across the country. But Return to Bull Run is more than a micro-level study of regimental movements and command decisions, a point that was lost on most reviewers, who failed to appreciate Hennessy’s innovative approach. The author placed the battle within its broader context, giving deeper meaning to the life-and-death struggle that occurred on the plains of Manassas, Va. Those who wrongly insist that the marriage of traditional military history with social history forms a dysfunctional relationship and produces a narrative that ends up divorcing the reader from tactical action, need to read this book.

The Union debacle at Second Manassas, according to Hennessy, was the creation of the Army of Virginia’s commander, John Pope, who came to the Old Dominion with the arrogance and attitude that we commonly associate today with professional athletes. Pope made all kinds of ridiculous promises about taking the war to the enemy. This did not inspire his own troops, but as Hennessy shows, Pope’s policies did intensify the war against Southern civilians. The Second Manassas campaign moved the conflict farther away from the limited war practiced by George B. McClellan. Pope’s actions enraged the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee, who called Pope a “miscreant” who must be “suppressed.” It did not take much for Lee to dispense with his adversary, whose generalship rested on fatal methodology that underscores some of the poorest command decisions ever made against the Army of Northern Virginia.

Hennessy found that Pope always worked from the assumption that the enemy would mindlessly conform to his plans, even as the tactical situation evolved from his preconceptions of the enemy’s movements. For much of the three days of fighting at Second Manassas, Pope wrongly believed that Lee was leaving the field in defeat. Any piece of intelligence that suggested that the Army of Northern Virginia was extending its line in preparation for a counterattack was discarded. The Union commander thought he could crush Stonewall Jackson’s isolated and “retreating” force, even though Jackson had no intention of abandoning the field. As a result, he launched a series of frontal assaults against a Confederate position mounted along and behind an unfinished railroad cut. Hennessy puts the reader in the mix of these ragged, uncoordinated attacks without sanitizing combat as some heroic endeavor in which all soldiers were brave and dutiful. The tactical descriptions succeed because Hennessy knows the ground like no one else, having spent years working as a National Park Service historian at Manassas. Readers need to become familiar with this book if they visit the site, as the terrain has changed radically since the battle. Dense woods cover most of the ground where the Federals made their repeated assaults. Without Hennessy’s narrative, it is impossible to make sense of the historic landscape today.

Hennessy’s discussion of the Confederate command also makes for compelling reading. He gives Lee and Maj. Gen. James Longstreet exceedingly high marks for their performance. Jackson is also praised, but Hennessy is critical of Stonewall for his lack of aggressiveness on the final day of the battle, an innovative interpretation that fits with the author’s anti–Lost Cause treatment of Longstreet. The lethargic, unruly Longstreet found in Douglas Southall Freeman’s magnificent works on Lee’s army is not present in Return to Bull Run. According to Hennessy, Longstreet’s flanking attack, which ultimately drove Pope from the field, ranks as one of the most successful assaults in the history of the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee’s achievement at Second Manassas set the stage for his first raid across the Potomac River, a decisive moment in the war that held out the possibility for even greater Confederate success. Union defeat at Manassas, on the other hand, was a severe blow to a Northern public still reeling from the failed Peninsula campaign. Pope’s disaster and his charges of insubordination against key Union officers who were also allies of McClellan created a witch hunt mentality among members of the Lincoln administration. Republican officials, including Lincoln, grew more suspicious of Democratic officers in the Army of the Potomac. A climate of political suspicion and intrigue, Hennessy writes, would be felt on the front lines, where Democratic officers worried that any mistake in the field might result in their dismissal. The fear of interference from Washington, Hennessy concludes, was the great legacy of Second Manassas. It continued to haunt the Army of the Potomac for the remainder of the war.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here