Tuesday, September 12, 2006
Union: Brigadier General Irwin McDowell
Confederate: Brigadier General P.T.G. Beauregard (Later General Joseph Johnston)
Prelude: for the past few months both sides have been training and preparing for what seemed to be a colossal showdown. In the South, the new Confederate Army was drilling at various places, expecting to go to the field, scare off the Yankee invader, and secure independence for the new Confederate States of America. This was evident in Virginia, where President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the rebellion spurred that state to vote for secession. The response to the President’s request for Virginia to furnish three regiments for Federal service was that three regiments were formed, but for the Armed Forces of Virginia. Within weeks, those troops, and others, were re-mustered into Confederate service and their commander, former US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, becoming an advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In the North, many were taking offense to the firing on the US flag at Fort Sumter and were flocking to recruiting stations to enlist in regiments being raised by the State governments for Federal service. Many of these were 90-day enlistees, the feeling being that this war would end after one battle. Most of these had no idea what military service and discipline was like. It was not as if the Federal government had much of a choice. The Regular Army only had 16,000, many of those scattered at outposts on the frontier. There was no way the professionals could hold off the tens of thousands now flocking to the Stars and Bars now flying over Southern cities.
As June began, there was pressure being put on McDowell to start an offensive. The politicians were calling for a grand offensive to crush the rebellion. However, there was a bigger problem, those who enlisted for 90 days were nearing the end of their terms and they were intending to leave at the 90th day. Under this pressure, McDowell did come up with a plan. He would lead a force to seize the rail junction at Manassas, VA while another force under Brigadier General Robert Patterson was sent into the Shenandoah Valley to face Confederate troops under Joe Johnston. When McDowell expressed his concerns about the greenness of his troops, he was told that the enemy was also green.
July 16, 1861: McDowell’s army begins marching from their camps into northern Virginia. Confederate spies in Washington quickly get word to Beauregard, who orders his pickets to fall back.
July 17, 1861: Beauregard requests reinforcements from Johnston.
July 18, 1861: Johnston keeps a cavalry screen to fool Patterson into remaining where he was, while Johnston moves his army towards Manassas by rail.
McDowell was having problems with discipline as many of his troops break ranks to pick blackberries and play around. The progress of the Union forces is very slow. He finally reaches Centerville. An attempt to move towards the Confederate right flank is stopped at Blackburn’s Ford. McDowell decides to scout out the enemy positions in front of him.
July 20, 1861: Despite receiving word that Beauregard was being reinforced, McDowell issues orders to launch an attack in the morning. It was believed that Patterson was holding Johnston at bay, but the truth was that Johnston’s troops were on trains heading for Manassas Junction, a short march away.
July 21, 1861: Morning; McDowell sent his troops down the Warrenton Turnpike towards a creek called Bull Run. South of Centerville, the force split, with one group continuing down the road while the second group went west and looped around to seize the Sudley Ford crossing over Bull Run. The first group, under Brigadier General Daniel Tyler reached the Stone Bridge about 5:00 a.m. One of the brigades is commanded by Colonel William Sherman.
9:00 a.m. The second group, under Brigadier Generals David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman crosses Bull Run at Sudley Ford and attempts to hit the Confederate left. Beauregard was planning to launch an attack on the force at the Stone Bridge, but this new threat forces him to shift troops from Colonel Nathan Evans brigade to the west to support the brigades of Brigadier Generals Bernard Bee and Francis Bartow as they were holding off the Federal thrust.
10:00 a.m. At Matthews Hill, the Federal attack was pushing Bee’s and Bartow’s troops back. At the same time, Tyler’s troops make it across the Stone Bridge and pushed south.
2:00 p.m. All of the Confederate forces begin to concentrate on Henry House Hill.
At the same time, Johnston’s troops were arriving at Manassas Junction and were marching toward the battle.
The first brigade from Johnston’s army, led by Virginia Military Institute professor and now Brigadier General Thomas Jackson arrives to find Bee and Bartow, and Evans pulling back. Bee meets Jackson:
Bee: General, they are pushing us back.
Jackson: Well, sir, we shall give them the bayonet.
Bee rides back to his troops and shouts, “Look, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let up endeavor to die here and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!”
It is not know whether that was a compliment, meaning that Jackson was bravely facing the storm of shot and shell that was coming in, or an insult, meaning that Jackson was slow bringing his troops into battle. Fifteen minutes after he said those words, Bee was killed by a Federal volley. The main result was that Jackson became known as “Stonewall” and the brigade was named the “Stonewall Brigade.” (Jackson never liked to be called “Stonewall,” he felt that the brigade deserved the nickname more than he did.)
Between one and four p.m. there was a series of back and forth attacks with neither gaining the advantage until Johnston’s army was fully into line of battle. The Confederates were ready for a full charge. Beauregard orders the charge.
4:00 p.m. Jackson was rallying his men when a bullet smashes into his left hand. That gets him mad. He yells, “When you charge, yell like furies.” (This is believed to be the origin of the “Rebel Yell.”)
Beauregard orders the charge. As the Confederates moved forward, the disorganized Union line began to crumble. Some units tried to hold off the charge, but a cavalry charge led by Colonel J.E.B. Stuart broke the Federal line and McDowell’s troops began to fall back.
As the Union forces were falling back, some in fine order and others in a rout, they ran into an incredible sight. Several hundred politicians and society persons had come out from Washington to watch the battle with picnic baskets and champagne to toast the Union victory. Now they were astride the only route that the Union troops could take to get away.
As the soldiers and civilians were crossing the Stone Bridge, a Confederate shell exploded overhead, overturning a carriage and blocking the road. The panic had begun in earnest as people tried to swim across the creek. Soldiers were tossing aside knapsacks, muskets, and cartridge boxes, anything that would lighten their load.
Caught up by the charging Confederates were Congressmen like Alfred Ely of New York, who was threatened with execution by a Confederate colonel. Ely ended up in a prison for several months.
The fleeing Federals did not stop until they were back in Washington. The Confederates, especially Jackson, wanted to press on to the city but they too were disorganized and exhausted to continue. As night fell, the battle came to an end.
Several lessons were gained from this battle;
1. The Confederates were not going to be a pushover. The idea that one volley and they would run was disproved by noon on that day.
2. Johnston’s movement proved the value of railroads in military operations. This was a lesson that the Union was able to take full advantage of.
3. The idea of a glorious war was quashed as lists of those killed were published in Northern and Southern news papers. Both sides learned the blood price that would have to be paid in order for either side to win.
4. There can no longer be 90-day recruits to fight this war. There will have to be a long term commitment to any army that takes the field again.
McDowell was relieved of army command and he served a time in the Washington Defenses before receiving a corps command under Major General John Pope. Following another defeat on the same battlefield, he was relieved of field command and was named Commander of the Department of the Pacific in 1864.
As the south celebrated this first victory, few actually realized what the next few years will be like.
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