Jackson At Brawner’s Farm: Mistake or Blessing In Disguise?

Chapter Five of Joseph Harsh’s Confederate Tide Rising focuses on the strategic chess match between Robert E. Lee and John Pope from August 9 to August 26, 1862. In this chapter, Harsh repeatedly maintains that Lee never intended Jackson to bring on a major engagement after cutting Pope’s supply line at Bristoe Station. Instead, Harsh believes that Lee preferred to have Jackson meet up with Longstreet in the Shenandoah, in preparation for a move north to cause panic in Washington and keep the Federals out of Virginia for as long a period of time as possible. Harsh argues that a major battle in the vicinity of Manassas Junction and Bristoe Station would be bereft of any positive strategic results. He points out that Washington, D.C.’s fortifications were nearby, and that a beaten Union Army could simply limp back to the capital to meet McClellan’s forces and regroup. Jackson’s turning movement was just a raid in Lee’s mind, according to Harsh. The problem was that Lee gave Jackson a lot of leeway as far as decision-making went, and that in this case Jackson went to far and brought on a general engagement by attacking King’s Union Division at Brawner’s Farm on August 28, 1862. This alerted Pope to Jackson’s whereabouts and resulted in the Second Battle of Manassas. I was struck by the author’s contentions on this point. I had never really heard these events portrayed in this manner. So the question is, did Jackson make a mistake according to Lee’s strategic thinking when he attacked King at Brawner’s Farm? It is an interesting theory, to be sure, and it fits into Harsh’s overall thesis quite nicely. I’m not totally convinced however. Harsh also continually states that Lee’s goal was to bring on “easy fighting and heavy victories”. He had Pope out in the open after Jackson’s flank march, and McClellan’s men were fast approaching. In my humble opinion, it made sense for Lee to fight Pope before McClellan’s reinforcements could arrive. If Lee withdrew to the Shenandoah without fighting a battle as Harsh says he wanted to, Pope and McClellan could unite and field a force far stronger than Lee’s. How could Lee have “easy fighting and heavy victories” against a host such as that? In the end, the fighting at Second Manassas so wrecked several Federal Corps (Heintzelman’s II Corps, Army of the Potomac and Sigel’s 1st Corps, Army of Virginia, later the XI Corps, Army of the Potomac) that they were left behind in Washington during the ensuing Antietam Campaign.

In addition, I’ve read the relevant chapters of four other books on the Second Manassas Campaign in order to see what these authors had to say on this question. My interpretation of their thoughts on this question follow below:

Second Manassas 1862: Robert E. Lee’s Greatest Victory (Osprey)
by John Langellier

Pages 7-41
Langellier doesn’t really address this issue to any extent. He only says that Jackson was supposed to meet up with Longstreet after burning Bristoe Station. There is no mention of where this junction was to have occurred, and if it did, what was to happen afterwards. He also presents a simplified view of Lee’s thinking by saying that Lee’s intent, from the very beginning even back in Richmond in early August, was to get between Pope and Washington. Harsh clearly shows this not to be the case in a series of messages between Davis and Lee, who both seemed surprised that Lee had maneuvered Pope behind even the Rappahannock River without a fight. It was obvious that Lee took things one day at a time, and that new successes opened up frontiers ever further northward in the summer of 1862.

The Second Bull Run Campaign: July-August 1862 (Great Campaigns)
by David G. Martin

Pages 13-158
Martin has much more to say on the topic of Lee’s strategic goals. On pages 106-107, he discusses what Lee wanted to accomplish with Jackson’s flanking march. He agrees in part with Harsh, saying that Lee “apparently was ready to have Jackson withdraw to the comfortable and familiar environs of the lower Shenandoah Valley if necessary.” He disagrees with Harsh, however, concerning the readiness of Lee to fight. Martin believes that Lee wanted to catch a part of Pope’s force out in the open, and that the withdrawal to the Shenandoah was a safety valve of sorts if the plan went awry. Similarly, if Pope chose to attack Longstreet, he too could withdraw to the Valley and wait until Jackson joined him. In either case, Martin believes that Lee hoped to fight Pope before McClellan reinforced him. On page 135-136, Martin supports Harsh’s theory that Jackson acted aggressively. He states, “these new orders [to A.P. Hill to move south to attack Pope’s “retreating” army on August 28] show how eager Jackson was to start a fight on his own terms and not let Pope’s army slip away to the safety of the Washington defenses.” Martin, however, does not make clear his opinion on whether or not Jackson was simply doing what Lee wanted him to do or overstepping his bounds by attempting to bring on a fight.

Lee Takes Command: From 7 Days to 2nd Bull Run (Time-Life Books)
by The Editors of Time-Life Books

Pages 90-143
The authors of this book tend to disagree with Harsh. On page 126, they maintain that Lee hoped to catch and demolish Pope (or at least a part of Pope’s Army) before McClellan could arrive. They make no mention of a retreat to the Shenandoah if the plan did not work as envisioned. Further, on page 134, they mention that Pope believed that Jackson’s force was only engaged in a raid, and would retreat to the Shenandoah after he finished his work. They make no mention of Lee’s thoughts on the subject. Even later, the authors mentioned Jackson’s decision to hit King’s Division at Brawner’s Farm, and they infer that Lee meant for Jackson to do this all along.

Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas
by John J. Hennessy

Pages 1-193
I was especially interested to see what Hennessy, an acknowledged authority on Second Manassas, had to say. Hennessy does not disappoint on this topic, covering it several times throughout the early portion of Return to Bull Run. On page 30, Hennessy quotes a dispatch from Lee to Jackson from August 12. Lee states “I hope your victory is but the precursor of others over our foe in that quarter which will entirely break up and scatter his army.” At this point in the campaign, Lee very clearly was looking to fight Pope before McClellan reached him. However, it can definitely be argued that Lee changed his mind some time between August 12 and August 25, when Jackson started on his turning movement. On page 89 Hennessy hints at the possibility of Lee moving into the Shenandoah instead of attacking Pope’s Army, saying “That would bring [Lee] closer to the Shenandoah Valley (a possible route to the Potomac) but it also meant that the route to Pope’s lifeline on the Orange and Alexandria would be longer.” The author gets to the heart of the matter on pages 92-93, where he discusses Lee’s goals for Jackson’s flank march specifically. Hennessy believes that Lee’s main goal was “to clear the Federals out of central Virginia, and hence relieve that fertile region in advance of the harvest.” This seems to confirm what Harsh believes vis a vis Lee’s intentions for Jackson’s flanking march. A battle with Pope’s Army is not necessarily a goal. However, Hennessy further qualifies this, saying Lee “did not rule out ultimate battle, but recognized that it must be carefully waged to minimize losses.” In other words, Hennessy confirms Harsh’s mantra of “easy fighting and heavy victories”. Hennessy concludes that “Lee articulated no specific long-term objectives after dispensing with Pope, but most observers North and South expected him to head to Maryland.” Jackson would be sent to cut Pope’s supply line and get him moving northeast, away from the fields of the area. Then, “once Jackson had accomplished his object, Longstreet would march hard to join him. If opportunity to strike Pope presented itself, Lee would seize it, but the primary objective for the moment was to force Pope back toward Washington.” In essence, Hennessy does believe that Lee wanted a fight with Pope’s Army, contrary to Harsh’s view. But it comes with the qualification that the battle had to be fought with a Confederate advantage. My final excerpt from Return to Bull Run comes from page 136. There the author discusses the options open to Jackson at nightfall of August 27, 1862. Hennessy says Jackson could have retreated to Thoroughfare Gap and the Bull Run Mountains, happy with the success of his raid (and what Harsh believes Lee intended him to do), or he could also choose to move north to Aldie and rendezvous with Longstreet and Lee there or somewhere west of there with an eye towards an invasion of Maryland. Here is where Hennessy seems to agree with my line of thinking leading off this blog entry. He says, “but these options would leave Pope and his army intact, able to move against Lee’s rear; he would soon be joined by McClellan. Eventually, when a clash came, he would have to face more than twice his number.” Hennessy then confirms Harsh’s belief that Jackson took matters into his own hands by seeking a third option: forcing Pope to give battle in the area of Manassas Junction.

So what does this all mean? The authors above for the most part all agree that Jackson was the aggressor and caused the battle by hitting King at Brawner’s Farm. This is indisputable fact. However, they are vaguer on what Lee was thinking. Martin and Hennessy are the most vocal in saying that Lee wanted to catch part of Pope’s Army. These are the two books I would most recommend on the campaign and battle, coincidentally. Harsh’s comments that Lee did not want to fight Pope seem to go against his thesis slightly. Lee was always outnumbered, and he took risks because of this fact. He had an opportunity to catch Pope before McClellan could fully reach him. Harsh even emphasizes that Lee acted quickly in his campaign because he needed to force some action before McClellan and his large number of men got involved. It wouldn’t make sense for Lee to act quickly versus Pope, only to allow Pope and McClellan to unite bloodlessly (and greatly outnumber him) when he had a chance to hit a smaller portion of the Federal Army. With that said, I’m fully prepared to admit that not only was falling back to the Shenandoah an option for Lee, he was fully prepared to use this strategy if need be.

This is an interesting topic and I thought I’d throw it out for debate among readers. If anyone has other sources that shed light on this subject, or if you have any thoughts one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. This blog entry is a perfect example of why Joseph Harsh’s works should be required reading. He has opinions that sometimes run contrary to the popularly accepted views on a given subject, but he backs those opinions up with exhaustive notes and sources, leading readers to want to look through the sources themselves to determine what Lee was really thinking.

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3 responses to “Jackson At Brawner’s Farm: Mistake or Blessing In Disguise?”

  1. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    I enjoyed reading your outlined questions here. I will definitely have to get Harsh’s book as I recently read Hennessy and wondered about this question (i.e. did Lee really want Jackson to bring on a full scale engagement?).

    In Joseph W.A. Whitehorne

  2. Brett Schulte Avatar


    Thanks for your thoughts. You’ve definitely added to the conversation. I was hoping more people might get involved on this one, as I find it an interesting subject. If you do pick up Harsh’s book, I think you will enjoy it.

    Brett S.

  3. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    As I am thinking about this further, how does Harsh fit in the follow-up battle on September 1 at Chantilly/Ox Hill with the theme of Jackson being overly aggressive? Pope’s army left the battlefields of Manassas and retreated into the defenses of Centreville on the evening/night of the 30th and Lee could have moved the ANOV westward to the Shenandoah Valley if that was his ultimate intention. Instead, Lee sent Jackson’s corps on yet another flanking march the very next day on the 31st apparently attempting to get between Pope and Washington, DC again. This doesn’t seem to me to jive with the idea that Lee was trying to avoid major engagements.

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