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Posted on Nov 30, 2011 in Books and Movies

Second Manassas: Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge – Book Review

By Neal West

Second Manassas: Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge. Scott C. Patchan. Potomac Books, 2011. 160 pages plus Order of Battle, battlefield tour guide, notes. Hardback, $26.95.

The Campaign of Second Manassas is perhaps the Civil War’s least written-about military operation. Although it was the second of Robert E. Lee’s first three campaigns as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, it was his first campaign from start to finish. The battle that culminated the campaign, fought on August 28–30, 1862, was the seventh-costliest battle of the war, and, some historians say, the closest Lee came to putting an entire Federal army hors de combat. (Lee took command of the Confederate army in Virginia after its leader, Joseph E. Johnson, was wounded during George B. McClellan’s peninsula campaign to capture Richmond. Lee then launched a series of counterattacks known as the Seven Days Battles that pushed the Federal army back down the peninsula.—Editor)


However, historians have largely ignored Second Manassas, bookended as it was by Lee’s dramatic rise to command in June, his consequent repulse of George McClellan outside Richmond, and the failure of his Maryland Campaign at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) in September. Aside from John Hennessy’s seminal 1993 work, Return to Bull Run, authors have usually preferred other battles to research and write about.

Now, though, we have Scott C. Patchan’s Second Manassas: Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge. However, while Hennessey dealt with the entire campaign from the end of the Peninsular Campaign, Patchan confines himself to a macro level study of only a four–five hour portion of the three-day battle: the August 30th assault on Maj. Gen. John Pope’s left flank by James Longstreet’s corps of Lee’s army.

Around 3 PM on the afternoon of the 30th, Pope believed Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson—Lee’s other corps commander, whose troops had been fighting while Longstreet’s corps was marching to the battle area—was retiring. Unaware of Longstreet’s arrival in a position at right angles to his left, Pope unleashed Fitz-John Porter’s V corps in a “pursuit.” They were easily repulsed by Jackson’s infantry and Stephen D. Lee’s massed artillery, and as the survivors streamed to the rear, Longstreet unleashed his five divisions against Pope’s left flank, which had been nearly denuded of Union troops by Pope’s second in command, Irvin McDowell.

Longstreet’s strategic goal was the plateau of Henry House Hill, the old battleground of 1861 that controlled Pope’s route of retreat across Bull Run creek toward Washington. The only physical obstacle in their path was the half-mile-long finger of Chinn Ridge and the succession of Federal infantry and artillery fed piecemeal into the vortex to stop them. Second Manassas is a blow-by-blow account of that fight for Chinn Ridge and Henry Hill.

Patchan provides a short, 15-page overview of the campaign before settling in with his story of Chinn Ridge. The story is not a long one: only 99 pages from the time Longstreet’s boys step off until darkness quiets the guns. However, by keeping his book focused on such a short span of time and distance, Patchan is able to take the reader on a remarkably detailed journey with Longstreet’s regiments as they deal with the terrain, command frustrations, battlefield confusion, and stubborn Yankee resistance. Moreover, the journey is a very personal one, brought to life by the common soldiers and officer’s descriptions of what they saw and heard.

The book concludes with an analysis of the major mistakes and chance events that kept the victory from being more complete than Lee and Longstreet had hoped. Like Hennessey, Patchan believes that Pope and his army barely escaped either complete destruction or, at the very least, being severely damaged—an outcome that could have had significant influence on the upcoming Maryland Campaign.

For readers fortunate enough to live in the Northern Virginia area, Patchan also provided a personal tour guide of the battle’s major events and locations in an appendix. But if you do use the book as a tour guide, be sure and acquire some good battlefield maps to take with you—the ones in Second Manassas are not very good at all.

The 11 maps included appear to be adaptations of official NPS battlefield maps produced by the Eastern National Park and Monument Association in October 1985. The contour terrain backgrounds and unit counters look the same but with less overlapping, which makes it easier to tell "who went where." However, the unit designations look handwritten and the whole map looks as if it was copied from the original and then enlarged, creating a resolution that is difficult to read. Other issues involve the unusual lack of scale in time and numbers. While Patchan follows the action in an obviously chronological sequence, there are no references to when things happened. This could be due to none of the participants pausing to look at their watches while fighting for their lives, but it is still odd that Patchan did not try to estimate. As an example, one does not learn until page 70 that it only took an hour for the Confederates to sweep Col. Nathaniel McLean’s and Brig. General Zealous Tower’s Federal brigades off Chinn Ridge. Another oddity is that while numbers of killed and wounded are frequently cited, overall unit strengths are not. It is useful, perhaps, to learn that the 41st New York Regiment lost 103 men on the ridge, but not knowing their initial strength makes it difficult to judge how bad that actually was. The order of battle charts do not help either: division and brigade commanders are listed but unit strengths or losses are not; again, this is odd for a book of such detail.

Still, in spite of its minor flaws, Second Manassas reflects Scott Patchan’s experience as a veteran battlefield guide, researcher for a volume of Time-Life’s Voices of the Civil War series, and twice president of the Bull Run Civil War Round Table. It has enabled him to put on paper one of the clearest descriptions of Civil War combat this reviewer has ever read, and his work rises to the level of John Hennessey and Noah Andre Trudeau in its ability to articulate and guide a reader through the morass of nineteenth-century warfare.

Neal West has been a National Park Service volunteer since 2001 and a living historian at Manassas National Battlefield since 2004. He has a BA in American Military History and will shortly complete a MA in Military History with a concentration on the Civil War.