“Battle for Right of Way”
Word that possession of the gap was in doubt hastened Ricketts march. At Haymarket all unnecessary equipment was discarded into large piles. Skirmishers were posted and a rapid march toward the firing was commenced. About one mile from the gap the advancing column ran into Wyndham’s retreating troopers. Having been impressed with the growing numbers of Confederates flowing into the fight Wyndham had opted to preserve his command. Longstreet now controlled the Gap. It would be up to the advance (Stiles) to seal the exit. It was a tall order for the rookie brigade from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Stiles (commanding for the ill BG George Hartsuff) was unfamiliar with the brigade having come from Zealous Tower’s brigade to assume command and they were marching into an unknown situation. Nevertheless they pushed forward vigorously.
The one positive that Stiles had was the prior knowledge of the Gap held by the 11th Pennsylvania. COL Richard Coulter’s men had spent the previous spring in occupation duty there and assumed the lead. After a momentary delay to maneuver through some of Wyndham’s obstacles the 11th and a portion of the 12th Massachusetts (Co. H) bumped into the 9th Georgia. The Georgians had not expected further resistance after dispatching the Federal cavalry and were caught somewhat unprepared. After a smattering of musketry COL Benjamin Beck ordered his men to retire, leaving behind eight men taken prisoner. They moved back to Chapman’s Mill where they met Anderson’s advancing supports. As they formed a line at the mill the pause allowed the Federals to deploy the 12th and 13th Massachusetts on Coulter’s left and more importantly four guns of Battery F, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery (CPT Ezra Matthews) and two from Battery C (CPT James Thompson) of the same unit. The Union line advanced on the Confederate position at the mill.
The large stone eminence of Chapman’s Mill was easily the most recognizable man made feature in the gap. The mill, built in 1742 by Jonathan and Nathaniel Chapman, by 1862 stood an imposing seven stories over the little level ground around it. Powered by Broad Run it had long been a prosperous business enterprise but now it served only as cover for Georgians seeking shelter from the Union artillery. The reorganized Confederates stopped the Federal advance with a volley from the well concealed men of Anderson’s line. As the Confederates maintained their cover behind the mill and its outbuildings it became obvious that any attempt to drive down the center of the gap would be suicidal. Division commander Jones recognized that a different plan had to be made.
Jones called for Colonel Benning and ordered him onto the mountain on the south side of the gap. Benning sent the 20th Georgia, up the incline as skirmishers, and strengthened them with additional men from the 2nd Georgia. This key terrain was also recognized by Ricketts who sent skirmishers from the 13th Massachusetts, on the Union left to secure it as well. The Twentieth won the race to the top by less than one hundred yards. The Georgians maintained their advantage, by driving the Federal skirmishers away with a “spirited fusillade.” After the 2nd Georgia arrived the position was solidified.
Realizing that the Federal advantage lie in the power of their artillery (the Confederates had none deployed) to control the Gap, Benning selected somewhere between 50-60 troops with long-range rifles and pushed them forward to an advanced position. They took a Union battery under fire at a range of about 400 yards. As the Confederates peppered the position the Union artillery thought better of their role and moved out of action. The situation at the gap stabilized, but the Confederates were unable to gain a decisive advantage. In the rear Lee (traveling with this portion of his army) and Longstreet consulted about means to shorten the affair to meet their expected link up time with Jackson.
With Jackson expecting their arrival Lee and Longstreet searched for means to circumvent the Union defense in the gap. A prolonged struggle would put them behind schedule and endanger Jackson. A flanking effort was determined to be necessary. Cadmus Wilcox was sent north with three brigades to pass through Hopewell Gap and come back down in Ricketts’ rear. Lee realized however that the move, although militarily sound, would take until the next morning to complete. He was unwilling to wait for the completion of the move. Searching for an alternative a local man stepped forward and announced that could guide men over Mother Leathercoat (the northern mountain forming the gap) on a little known trail. The proposal represented a significantly shorter route to Ricketts’ flank and the plan was quickly adopted by Lee and Longstreet.
The steep climb started with Law’s men pulling themselves forward by grasping the foliage in front of them. Unfortunately, the guide may have overstated his knowledge of the supposed trail. Law was unimpressed with the man’s guidance. His suspicion was confirmed when halfway up the mountain the man declared he could lead them no further. Law angrily dismissed him but refused to give up the mission. He set out scouts to search a way over the mountain. Near the crest a small opening in the sheer face was found. One by one the men (about one thousand) hoisted and pulled each other through the passage. When enough men had been gathered on the far side of the obstacle Law formed a skirmish line and started down the reverse slope.
Following the sound of the continuing fight Law’s line emerged on the flank of a Federal battery. Fearing he did not have enough to silence the enemy guns Law waited for the remainder of his brigade. As they assembled he again pushed out skirmishers. The growing force was impossible to hide and Riketts sent the 84th Pennsylvania to cover his artillery. As Law’s advance clashed with the 84th the Federal battery loaded up their guns and moved off. Desperately hoping to extend the battle into night Ricketts was doing everything but calling on his reserves to hold back the Confederate tide. Although the 84th managed to stop Law bad news from his left convinced Ricketts that he had done all he could. The 13th Massachusetts was being driven down the slope of Pond Mountain (the southern mountain forming the gap) by the 20th and 2nd Georgia. Deprived of some of his artillery support and a collapsing left flank Ricketts decided enough was enough. Finding his position “untenable and all efforts to take the pass unavailing” he decided to not commit more troops to a losing battle. He called for a retreat. Using the remaining artillery to cover the withdrawal of his infantry the fight for the gap ended. Ricketts marched his men back through Bristoe, where they buried two of the wounded that did not survive the nighttime trip in the ambulances, and rejoined the III corps on the 29th. They would play a large role in the coming debacle at Manassas.
Anxiously awaiting the outcome at the gap Longstreet wasted no time when their victory was announced. By morning of the 29th his men were bivouacked at the eastern exit to the gap. From there they moved on unimpeded to join Jackson. Forming opposite the Federal left flank where they would again be ignored by Pope. The short fight for the gap resulted in only about 100 casualties; most by the 11th Pennsylvania (18K and 37 w) the most important result of the battle would not be felt until August 30th.
Conclusion and Assessment
Some minor criticism has been leveled at the Union commanders for the loss of the gap but for the most part Wyndham and Ricketts can hardly be blamed for the failure to prevent the unification of Lee’s army at Manassas. Theirs was a very credible effort. They had been told that a two hour delay of Longstreet would ensure the destruction of Jackson’s Corps. They held the exit to the gap at long odds for more than four hours while Pope frittered away his opportunity with a series of disjointed and fruitless assaults on Jackson’s position. The failure belongs to Pope and McDowell. Pope became so fixated on Jackson that he ignored the tactical necessity of preventing his reinforcement. An early recognition of this fact might have allowed the Federals to seize the western end of the gap in force. Such a deployment would cause Longstreet to seek alternative routes, which could be countered on the shorter inside track, or accept a lengthy battle for the Gap. McDowell, to his credit, realized that such an effort would be of value but dedicated insufficient force to the task. If he had opted to ignore Pope’s order with his entire Corps instead of a single division Longstreet may have been stopped or at least further delayed somewhere near Haymarket. Instead Longstreet moved without further resistance toward Manassas where Pope continued to ignore reports of his presence and was eventually crushed by his attack on the Union left.
The Confederate commanders handled the situation at the Gap in fine style. After initial contact they reinforced in a timely manner, deployed the available troops to the best possible advantage, and maneuvered skillfully. Key amongst the decisions made was the recognition that a few correctly armed men using key terrain could have a large effect on the outcome. They won the race to the heights and dominated the field with a small number of long range weapons. Although faced with a determined effort by a smaller force the gap was won by proper consideration of key terrain and a few appropriate weapons deployed for their best use at the right time. Law’s flanking march also made the enemy realize that their position in the face of an opponent that outnumbered them by a large margin would eventually be rendered untenable. The victorious Confederates moved on to greater glory but it all started at the Gap.
- The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the union and Confederate Armies; Vol. 12
- The History of the First New Jersey Cavalry, Henry R Pyne, 1871
- The story of the regiment (11th Pennsylvania Infantry);Locke, William Henry
- Three years in the army: The story of the Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers from July 16, 1861, to August 1, 1864; Davis, Charles
- History of the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers (Webster regiment) – Cook, Benjamin F.
- History of Duryée’s brigade, during the campaign in Virginia under Gen. Pope, and in Maryland under Gen. McClellan, in the summer and autumn of 1862; Hough, Franklin Benjamin,
- The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide, John Salmon
- Return to Bull Run – The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas; John J. Hennessy
- From Manassas to Appomattox; James Longstreet
The Fight at Chapman’s Mill (Campaign Series)