The Railroad Cut, Part 1
The Morning of August 29, 1862
by Sam Smith
A Reconnaissance in Force
General Pope had been convinced, or had convinced himself, that Jackson was in full retreat following the battle at Brawner’s farm. With his men deployed on a series of ridges roughly a mile away from the railroad cut, he ordered a reconnaissance in force to test Jackson’s “rearguard” before he sent his army in pursuit. Thousands of Union soldiers were soon pushing their way through the dense undergrowth of the Groveton Woods. This was a grave mistake—Jackson’s entire corps was still in place.
1. “I tell you I am going to be killed in this charge. I knew it last night. I have known it all morning.” – Capt. David Gibson, 3rd West Virginia (USA)
David Gibson had fought against Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley and did not share his commanding general’s delusions of a retreat. As his regiment was ordered forward he mentioned a premonition to fellow West Virginian Theodore Lang. Lang remembered that his face was “as calm and spiritual as if he had been preparing for a the march to the bridal altar.” Although Lang pleaded with him to stay behind, Gibson would not leave his comrades.
2. “My brave lads were dashed back before the storm of bullets like chaff before the tempest.” – Brigadier General Robert Milroy (USA)
Robert Milroy told the men under his command, including Gibson and Lang, to guide their march towards a one-hundred yard gap in the railroad cut that came to be known as “the Dump.” They pushed aside a thin line of Confederate skirmishers and poured through the gap cheering. On the other side they saw heavy lines of grey-clad veterans who were not retreating, but instead advancing on all sides. Within minutes crippling volleys were ripping through the Union ranks. David Gibson was hit in the forehead. Milroy’s men soon panicked, tumbling back through the Groveton Woods with yelling Confederates in hot pursuit.
3. “Give them two or three volleys and then charge them with the bayonet!” – Brigadier General Maxcy Gregg (CSA)
Pope’s mistake continued to have violent consequences for the men of his army. The most intense fighting of the morning began in the eastern neck of the Groveton Woods as Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski’s northern brigade crashed into the 1st and 12th South Carolina regiments. With a snapped order from General Maxcy Gregg, more Confederates pitched forward into the thick undergrowth. Neither side could stay organized in the smoky chaos of the woods. Most soldiers could see no farther than a few yards to their front. Dodging behind stumps and logs and tree trunks, thousands of men battled desperately for over two hours.
4. “The routed men present[ed] a curious spectacle, some fierce and indignant at the conduct of their comrades, some ashamed of themselves, their faces distorted by a sort of idiotic grin; some staring at their officers with a look of helpless bewilderment” – Brigadier General Carl Shurz (USA)
The Union troops finally broke, scattering back out of the woods and into the view of Carl Shurz. Gregg’s Confederates took this opportunity to pull back to a rocky hill behind the railroad cut and prepare for the next assault. General Pope was pleased with the morning’s action. He still thought that he had caught up to a retreating, demoralized Jackson and had forced him to turn and give battle. As the sun climbed towards its zenith tens of thousands of men began to deploy in the fields south of the Groveton Woods. After a morning spent feeling out his opponent, Pope was prepared to deliver the knockout blow.
Next: Union Success