Sunday, October 16, 2011

Texas Tsunami: The Texas Brigade at Second Manassas

General John Bell Hood

There never were such men in an army before.  They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.

May 21, 1863
Letter to General John Bell Hood from General Robert E. Lee

General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was growing more worried by the hour. His 2nd Corps held off repeated assaults by the Union Army of Virginia, but it was reaching the breaking point. During the last Union assault, a Louisiana regiment resorted to throwing rocks after they ran out of ammunition. General James Longstreet’s 1st Corps was on its way, but no word yet on its arrival. Where were they? With low ammunition and shrinking numbers, how could the 2nd Corps possibly hold off another attack?

Help was on the way. An officer from Longstreet’s command galloped up to Jackson’s headquarters with the news. Longstreet had broken through Thoroughfare Gap and was approaching. A suddenly excited Jackson asked, “What brigade is in the lead?” “The Texas Brigade,” the young officer replied. “Bring the Texas Brigade here and place them on my right,” said Jackson. “Gallop sir, gallop!” Anxious for a fight, the Texas Brigade quickly marched into position. The rest of Longstreet’s Corps followed shortly. A hushed excitement spread upon the news of Longstreet’s arrival. Someone else had arrived with him. Someone who gave victories to the Confederate ranks. General Lee is on the field!

With a stocky build, a long beard, and a suffocating ego, Union General John Pope came to Virginia after impressive wins along the Mississippi River at New Madrid and Island No. 10. President Lincoln was in dire need of a more aggressive general to augment the less aggressive command of George McClellan, whose Army of the Potomac was bottled up along Virginia’s James River. Pope’s aggressiveness, however, was only matched by his arrogance. Proclaiming “I come to you from the West where we only saw the backs of our enemies,” he quickly alienated himself from his fellow officers. Southerners despised him even more. Placed in command of the newly created Army of Virginia, Pope brought a hard hand to Northern Virginia. Henceforth, his command would live off the land at the expense of Virginia farmers. Any guerrilla activity would be met with the immediate execution of the residents who allegedly harbored them. “Pope is a miscreant,” remarked General Robert E. Lee, “who ought to be suppressed.” In the wake of his victory during the Seven Days Campaign, General Lee met with his senior generals at Jeffersonton, Virginia. Suppressing Pope was on the top of the agenda.

On August 24, 1862, Lee sat down at a small table with Generals Longstreet, Jackson and his cavalry commander, General Jeb Stuart. He proposed a bold plan that flew in the face of basic military principle. He would divide his army between two Union armies: Pope’s Army of Virginia in the North and McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in the South. The Army of the Potomac alone outnumbered Lee by more than two to one. The plan called for Stonewall Jackson’s 2nd Corps to march behind Pope and destroy his supply lines. Pope would then go after Jackson, leaving his current position along the Rappahannock River. Lee and Longstreet’s 1st Corps would follow behind, join with Jackson, and smash Pope before he was reinforced by the Army of the Potomac. Time was of the essence. McClellan’s command was being evacuated by boat and transported to Aquia Landing near Fredericksburg, Virginia. From there it was a short march to Pope’s aid. Fortunately, McClellan was in no hurry to reinforce Pope whom he felt was his inferior.

Jackson stood up from the table and glared down at his fellow generals. “I shall move within the hour,” he said. Considering his success in the Shenandoah Valley, Jackson was well suited for his assigned task. Within a few days, he boldly captured and pillaged Pope’s supply base at Manassas Junction, a bonanza for the supply strapped Confederates. Pope went after Jackson and caught up with him at the same Manassas battlefield where Union forces were routed last summer. Dug in along an unfinished railroad embankment, Jackson held off Pope’s piecemeal attacks. Pope was aware of Longstreet’s approach but showed little concern. He mistakenly believed Jackson was about to retreat when he was actually pulling his men back to refurbish their ammo. In addition, McClellan’s regiments were starting to arrive. With fresh troops and overwhelming numbers, Jackson’s destruction was assured. The reality was otherwise. Pope was being sucked into a trap. A trap spearheaded by the Army of Northern Virginia’s best brigade.

The Texas Brigade consisted of three Texas regiments (the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas Regiments), the 18th Georgia, and South Carolina’s famed Hampton’s Legion. The three Texas regiments were made up of tough East and Central Texas farm boys. Years of fighting the Mexican Army, bandits and the ever hostile Comanches had instilled a fierce warrior mode in Texas’ frontier populace. Handling a firearm was an absolute must. In Texas, the fight was taken to the enemy without appeasement, without remorse, and without weakness. Lee asked Confederate Postmaster General John Reagan for help in obtaining a full division of his fellow Texans. “With such a force,” he said, “I could break any line of battle on earth in an open field.”

Texas Senator Louis Wigfall created the brigade for service in Virginia.  Because of his duties in the Confederate Congress, he passed the command over to Kentuckian John Bell Hood.  Before the war, Hood led troopers of the U.S. 2nd Cavalry against the Comanches.  During one encounter near the Rio Grande, he blew two of them away with a shotgun before they could pull him from his saddle. When Kentucky didn't secede from the Union, Hood declared himself a Texan.  With his six foot two height, booming voice, and over the top aggressiveness, he was immediately popular with his new command.

The brigade was assembled at Dumfries, Virginia during the winter of 1861-1862. After battling disease and frostbite, the Texas Brigade marched toward the York Peninsula. Their elite status was sealed at the Battle of Gaine’s Mill. The Texas Brigade broke the Federal line which forced the entire Army of the Potomac to retreat from nearby Richmond, the Confederate capital. 

While seated on a tree stump, Lee listened to Jackson’s report.  Longstreet had extended the Confederate line well past the Union left flank. A battle plan began to take shape.  Jackson would continue to keep Pope occupied while Longstreet attacked the Union’s vulnerable left flank. The Texas Brigade would lead the charge followed by Longstreet’s entire corps. If all went well, Pope would be rolled up like a cheap carpet.

“Fall in!” yelled the officers. All blankets, overcoats, and personal effects were to be left behind. Only rifles and cartridge boxes would be carried. Rifles were loaded. Bayonets were fixed. The Lone Star flag was unfurled. Concealed in the woods, the Texans formed a 700 yard front. Unaware of their impending doom, two New York regiments were in their path. Signals were sent to "Stonewall" Jackson, “General Longstreet is advancing; look out for and protect his left flank.” On August 30, 1862 at 4:00 PM, the Texas Brigade advanced.

A piercing rebel yell emerged from the woods. The Texas Brigade struck the 10th New York Regiment head on, forcing them to flee for their lives into the ranks of the nearby 5th New York. The 5th and 10th were engulfed and annihilated under a hailstorm of bullets.  The 5th New York suffered the highest casualties of any Union regiment during the war. One Texan recalled how the Union’s  uniformed dead had “the appearance of a Texas hillside when carpeted in the spring by wild flowers of many hues and tints.” Onward the tide swept toward a battery of artillery. Members of Battery G, 1st Pennsylvania Artillery panicked and left their guns. Within an hour, the Texas brigade had destroyed two regiments and captured an entire battery. Longstreet’s attack on Pope’s left followed by Jackson’s on his right bent the Army of Virginia into a horseshoe. Pope’s Army was forced to retreat. It was Bull Run all over again! Only a timely thunderstorm and a determined stand on Henry House Hill prevented total destruction.

Within a few months, the Army of Northern Virginia had swept Union forces from Virginia. The fight was taken from the gates of Richmond to the gates of Washington D.C. Pope was fired and exiled to Minnesota. Once again, Lincoln had to rely on George McClellan to rally his beaten army. For the Texas Brigade, they had performed beyond expectations but at a cost 600 casualties. To the end of the war, Lee would rely on his Texans to carry his dwindling fortunes. Out of the thousands who served in the Texas Brigade, only 617 remained when the brigade surrendered at Appomattox.

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