Manassas Junction, located 25 miles west of Washington DC was the meeting point of two train lines. The Orange and Alexandria RR ran from the Potomac River south to Charlottesville. A shorter spur ran 51 miles to the west to Mount Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, and joined the O&A at Manassas, putting the “Junction” in “Manassas Junction”. Now, a Confederate army commanded by the hero of Fort Sumter, General PGT Beauregard defended the junction of the two train lines. To protect his prize, Beauregard deployed his brigades along a shallow stream called Bull Run.
In Washington DC generals Winfield Scott and Irvin McDowell put the finishing touches on their battle plans. An army under General Robert Patterson would be tasked with keeping the Confederate Shenandoah Army pinned down. Irving McDowell’s Union Army would then attack and overwhelm Beauregard’s army at Manassas. Thus the campaign, as planned, would involve four separate armies- two Union, (under Patterson and McDowell) and two Confederate (under Johnston and Beauregard). The Union plan hinged on both generals acting as a team. If Patterson was not able to keep Johnston’s Army in the Shenandoah, nothing would stop Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard at Manassas and overwhelming McDowell.
McDowell, shouldering the responsibility of defeating the Confederate field army, had misgivings about the plan, or more specifically the components of it. His army consisted of 90-day troops who were still not able to march, much less fight as a team. No two regiments drilled or were uniformed the same way. Rather then commanding a “Union” army, McDowell led small-assorted armies from the 15 or so Northern States.
All this could be solved with more time, and more training, but these were two luxuries McDowell did not have. The Northern populous had become irritable and impatient for some action, and that impatience had reached the president, who ordered McDowell to take his slipshod army into action.
The ancient Scott tried to reassure his nervous go-to general with some of President Lincoln’s folksy homespun wisdom. “You are green, it is true.”
He said. “But they are green too. You are all green alike”.
McDowell also had a grim feeling that the elderly general Patterson was not up to the task of keeping Johnston occupied in the Shenandoah. The coming battle would reveal many flaws in McDowell’s leadership, but his appraisal of Patterson’s weakness was sound. Reluctantly, McDowell ordered his army of rookies towards Manassas Junction on July 16th, 1861.
Along the banks of Bull Run, McDowell’s old classmate was waiting for him. General Pierre G. T. Beauregard had graduated West Point with McDowell in 1838, and was now in command of his own army of rookies. Beauregard was expecting to be outnumbered and he was right. He only had a little over 21,000 men to McDowell’s advancing 37,000, but Beauregard would have two strong advantages. Firstly he’d be fighting on defense, normally an easier task with green soldiers, who would not have to do the complicated demands of an advance and attack that McDowell’s men would have to perform. Secondly, the Manassas Gap Railroad was on his side, able to shift Johnston’s men from the Shenandoah for backup if things got to hot for Beauregard (provided of course Johnston could give Patterson the slip).
McDowell’s strike force shambled west to Bull Run at a pace that would seem pathetic compared to later marches in the Civil War. The greenhorn soldiers took two whole days and nights to cover the none-too-demanding 25 miles to Centreville, the last town on the Union side of Bull Run. Speed was laughable, and any hope of secrecy was shot to pieces. Even the most casual Confederate scout couldn’t fail to notice the Union advance.
The Incident at Blackburn's Ford
As if to guarantee that every Confederate within a hundred miles would know that the Union army was here in force, McDowell ordered one of his divisions, that under General Daniel Tyler to perform a reconnaissance along the Run, to observe the roads, but not to bring on an engagement. Tyler’s division consisted of about 12,000 men, so when it moved, it didn’t move with anything along the lines of stealth.
Tyler probed a spot along Bull Run called Blackburn’s Ford on July 18th, and ran smack into Confederate forces. A sharp violent fight ensued, which resulted in 85 Union casualties to about 70 Confederate. Tyler was stopped cold, and later rebuked by McDowell for exceeding his orders. The effort however, did teach McDowell something about Confederate defenses at Bull Run- they were strong - too strong to attack directly. His plan would have to be finessed a little, and McDowell paused to adjust his plan.
Tyler’s probing of Blackburn’s Ford may have taught the Federals something, but it taught the Confederates a lot more. Beauregard now knew that he was going to be heavily attacked, and soon. He requested that Johnston’s 10,000 men move from the Valley and assist his 20,000.
This was easier done then said. Patterson, it seemed, had little-to-no interest in carrying out his all-important assignment of pinning Johnston, and in fact made no effort to engage. Johnston was able to hustle his men onto trains without his Union opponent suspecting. McDowell needed to act fast, as soon he’d be facing not one Confederate army, but two. The clock was ticking, and McDowell spent much of it coming up with a new plan of attack. His big push to capture Manassas Junction would not be ready until July 21st. All the while, trains carrying reinforcements chugged and snorted into Manassas Junction, bearing Johnston’s army, ready to participate in theup coming fight.
To seize the junction, Irvin McDowell came up with a new and daring plan. The left end of the long Confederate battle line rested on a Stone Bridge that carried Warrington Turnpike over the Bull Run. McDowell decided to feint at this bridge with Tyler’s division of 12,000 men, then, while Confederate attention was focused there, lead another 15,000 men to cross the Bull Run at a place called Sudley Springs Ford, an unguarded creek crossing two miles to the left of where the Confederate line ended. Then, those 15,000 men (in two divisions under Genls. David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman) would drive down on the Confederate left flank and rear. With any luck the Confederates would have to abandon the junction, a mere 7-mile march from where the strike force would ford the creek. It was an excellent scheme, if it could be executed with speed and stealth, and if Hunters and Heintzelman’s main strike force remained undetected.
Everything that could have gone wrong for the Northern army did go wrong on the morning of July 21st. Divisions stepped off in the wrong order. Heintzelman and Hunter got lost. Tyler started his diversion at 6 am while the main strike force was nowhere near the creek, and would not be until 9. To make matters worse, the Confederates saw through the diversion.
Tyler’s demonstration at the Stone Bridge was parried by Confederate General Nathaniel Evans’ brigade. After about an hour of skirmishing and firing across the creek, Evans could figure out that the Union soldiers to his front (Tyler’s men) was not really trying to seize the bridge. He became suspicious. His suspicions were confirmed when a courier came galloping up to him with a note that was written by a Confederate officer in a signal tower a few miles to the rear. “Look out on your left! You are turned!”
warned the note. The Confederate lookout had spotted the glint of rifles and cannons in a long line moving through the woods to the Sudley Springs Ford. Hunter and Heintzelman’s main strike force had been detected.
Evans responded quickly. Leaving only a scratch force to guard the bridge (which he decided wasn’t being seriously attacked anyway) he hustled the bulk of his men towards the Sudley Ford, taking up positions on a hill about a half-mile south of Sudley. The hill was on a farm owned by a man named Matthews. Here he’d make his stand. Here, the battle for Manassas would begin in earnest.
Matthews Hill – The First Killing Ground
In spite of the Federal problems this morning, things seemed to be going well for the North. By 9:15, two Yankee divisions were across the Bull Run. They had flanked the Confederate army! Busting out of the woods south of the Sudley Ford, the Rhode Islanders that made up the vanguard of the main strike force were confident that had the drop on their Southern foes. Thus they were shocked when Evan’s Confederates unleashed a wicked volley that stopped them dead in their tracks. The Union men were so surprised that they thought they were outnumbered. In reality, the opposite was true.
Evans only had 900 men and 2 cannons to defend against Hunter’s 6,000 men. He had no hope of stopping the Northern advance, only slowing it. To accomplish this Evans used the bluff. Rather then pull his pathetically outnumbered force off of Matthews’ Hill, he ordered an attack. The attack failed and was beaten back, but it stalled the Northern men for just enough time to allow Evans to call for help.
Confederate help came in the form of two more brigades led by General Bernard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow. They linked up with Evans’ units, forming a combat line of 5,500. But no sooner had they reached these positions, then the Federals got backup of their own. Heintzelman’s division came to support Hunter, and the two divisions now fielded their full strength of 15,000.
The Confederate line decided to perform a repeat of Evans’ earlier bluff and charged down the hill towards the two Union divisions, bravely enduring the casualties to buy time for Johnston and Beauregard to order up more reinforcements. The suicidal charge was effective in halting the huge Union force for a time, but the casualties were awful, and the three courageous Confederate brigades of Evans, Bee and Bartow finally reached the point where they could do no more. They tried to execute an orderly withdrawal to a small stream called Young’s Branch, just to the south, but no sooner had they reached this spot, when yet more Federal soldiers arrived! The North now had six brigades across Bull Run, and had badly beaten up the two and a half Southern brigades that had faced them. The men of Bee, Bartow, and Evans broke in a panic and fled south, across the Warrington turnpike and up the next hill, the Henry Hill. Behind them, Matthews Hill was a grim and frightening wasteland of shattered and shot torn trees, dead horses, moaning and screaming wounded, and mangled dead men of both North and South.
Rallying on the Henry Hill
The Union had won the fight for Matthews Hill, and so far it seemed they had won the entire battle – perhaps the entire war! General Irvin McDowell had arrived on the field and was jubilant. In spite of the late start, in spite of losing much of the element of surprise, in spite of the unexpected and ferocious Confederate resistance at Matthews Hill, his blue columns were marching onward. The sight of disorganized and frightened Confederates fleeing before them thrilled every man in blue, from General McDowell to the greenest private.
Union progress had come at a rough cost. So far they had won, but now Generals McDowell and Heintzelman were learning that winning a fight could be just as disorganizing and exhausting as loosing one. Several regiments were running out of ammo, and others had been badly chewed up in dislodging the Rebels from Matthews Hill. The advance would continue, but McDowell decided that his men needed a slight break to reorganize.
Later, as the history of the battle of First Manassas was written, it would generally be decided that this is where things started going wrong for the Union – and right for the Confederates. McDowell’s pause was not inherently a mistake in and of itself – he had good and proper reasons for doing ordering one. His attack force was disorganized, and the lead elements of it had been badly beaten up at Matthew’s Hill. Surely it would be better to continue the fight with the newly arriving brigades. But like all decisions it had consequences. McDowell’s decision to stop gave the Confederates time to stop running and catch their breath, and they did just that over the next hill to the south.
South of the turnpike and the Matthews Hill was another hill owned by an elderly widow, Judith Henry. Logically enough, the hill was called the Henry Hill. Here the ruined and bleeding regiments of Evans, Bee, and Bartow came upon a new brigade of Confederate reinforcements. Virginians all, they were commanded by a professor at the Virginia Military Acadamy, Thomas Jackson. General Bee, desperate to get his men organized, so they could resume the fight saw Jackson’s unit, the only Confederate one on the field that had any semblance of order now. “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!”
He bellowed, “Rally behind the Virginians!”
Historians still argue as to what Bee meant- was he praising the cool discipline of the Virginia brigade? Or was he bitterly griping that while his units were fought out, Jackson’s men had halted to make their stand, - standing like a stonewall - and were not attacking the Union forces yet? Sadly, Bee would never clarify his statement, as he would be mortally wounded and lay dying before this violent day was ended. Bee had however made his contribution to history – he had given Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson his luminous nickname.
By now it was almost 1:30 in the afternoon. Generals Beauregard and Johnston hustled four more Confederate brigades up to the scene of the fighting. The Confederate lines began to re-form again around Jackson’s intact brigade, now backed up by artillery. As they did so, General McDowell organized his Union forces for one final push up the Henry Hill. Manassas Junction was now only three miles away, and it was high time for McDowell to finish the battle.
If McDowell’s decision to pause was a possible error, his next command was a certain one. He ordered two batteries of artillery under Capts Charles Griffin and James Ricketts to ascend Henry Hill and engage the Confederate line – before he had infantry to send to back them up. This left the cannons alone and vulnerable to counterattack by Jackson’s men. It also set the stage for an awful battlefield tragedy.
80-year-old Judith Henry had been weathering the battle in her bed. Her house, alone and bare on this hillside was seen as an ideal perch for Confederate sharpshooters- particularly when the Federal cannons set up in her front yard. When Confederates used Mrs. Henry’s outbuildings (and possibly house) as sniper’s nests and began picking off horses and men Ricketts, lacking any infantry support to seize the house, turned two of his cannons on the structure, and opened fire. The Rebel snipers scattered, but sadly a single shell exploded in the old woman’s bedroom, tearing off one of her feet. Mortally wounded, Henry would not survive the day.
The Tide Turns
McDowell finally sent up some infantry to protect the cannons, but chose the greenest troops in his army to do it- the 11th New York Zouaves, backed up by the 14th Brooklyn. Their arrival restarted the battle with the new Confederate line; a battle the Northerners got the worst of. First Confederate cavalry charged the 11th New York, - the Empire Staters repelled the charge, but were quickly fought out. The Union cannons still had no effective infantry backup.
Just then, the Confederates caught a decisive lucky break. Captain Griffin ordered two of his Northern cannons to set up on the left side of the Confederate line. The fact that the Confederate regiment on this end of the line wore blue (instead of the gray most Confederate units wore) was going to cause serious problems. Griffin was convinced that he faced Confederates, but his superior officer ordered him not to fire, for fear that they’d be shooting Union soldiers. Griffin protested, but the order stood. The blue-garbed Southerners capitalized on the mistake, and fired at the guns at-point-blank range. The two Federal gun crews were almost wiped out, and the survivors abandoned their cannons and fled.
Fired by this success, the entire Confederate line attacked. A furious hand-to hand brawl erupted at the Union cannons, as Mc Dowell slowly fed more and more troops into the fray. The advantage had swung sharply towards the South – their units were fresher and at this point better organized, while the Union reserves were getting weaker, and more skittish. The daylong battle had turned Matthews and Henry Hills into grotesque war zones, and fresh Union rookies had to trudge past the dead, the crippled, the maimed, and the panicking retreating troops before getting to the fight. Many Union soldiers arrived in line already unnerved. The battle seesawed around the cannons for the better part of two hours, with casualties mounting on both sides. Finally, at 3:45, the final fresh Union brigade was committed to the fight …
… where they were immediately mauled by the last TWO fresh Confederate brigades. Almost as one, the entire Union line buckled, then fell back, then collapsed entirely. Units that used to be organized and disciplined disintegrated when they came in contact with their jittery comrades. Every Union soldier desperately sought out the exits for the battlefield. Union generals lost all control, and their every attempt to restore order was completely in vain.
Retreat, Rout, Resolve
"It's damned bad" -- President Abraham Lincoln
"Where are your vaunts, and the proud boasts with which you went forth? Where are your banners, and your bands of music, and your ropes to bring back your prisoners? The sun rises, but shines not ..." -- Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Standard
"We shall flog these scoundrels and traitors all the more bitterly for it before we are done with them!" -- Union soldier
In an episode practically bordering on dark comedy, the fleeing Union troops ran headlong into a legion of Northern civilians who had come from Washington to see the battle, and presumably the defeat of the Confederates. Now that they were blocking the Union retreat, they were about to become part of the battle itself. If the morale and discipline of the Yankee army had been salvageable before this point, it was destroyed now. The Union retreat disintegrated into a chaotic rout as terrified soldiers and civilians ran like mad towards DC.
The Confederates were overjoyed to win the battle but for the most part were in no condition to pursue the enemy. Only a few Confederates even tried. One of them, a Southern artillery battery, fired the parting shots of the battle of Manassas, putting the final period onto their victory. A shell flipped over a Union wagon on the Cub Run Bridge, blocking the bridge just as Union soldiers arrived at it. Flinging aside knapsacks, guns and haversacks, the embittered Federals continued their way towards the Capital. Overhead, rain clouds formed and began to drizzle, matching the mood of the Union soldiers – and the whole Union- precisely.
The Union army retreated all afternoon, all night, and into the next morning. For a matter of days, the divisions remained shattered and smashed in the city. Soldiers milled about with seeming no purpose in mind. A dejected President Lincoln mumbled,
Both North and South were stunned at the casualty lists. This battle of Americans vs. Americans had been far more costly then either side had thought it’d be. The North had lost 430 dead, 1,071 wounded, and 1,790 missing – a body count of over 3,000 - a sixth of the 18,000 soldiers actually engaged in combat. The Confederates, having won the battle, didn’t have many casualties in the “missing” column, but the fight was otherwise as rough on them as it had been on the Federals. 390 Rebels were dead, and 1580 were wounded. They too had gotten about 18,000 men into the fight, and had lost 1 out of every 9 who fought. It was true that Billy Yank and Johnny Reb lacked many of the things that made for a true soldier, but as the casualties proved, guts were not the problem.
For both sides, but the North especially, there were harsh lessons to learn. First and foremost, the Civil War would be a real war, not a 90-day sojourn. Serious thought and resources would have to go into the problems of logistics, leadership, weaponry, and most of all training and discipline. The next time North and South would meet in battle, things would be different. Both armies would be trained, both armies would have been seasoned and bloodied by experience, and both armies would be comprised of more apt killers.
And there would be a next time. The North did not have their resolve dampened by their frustrating and humiliating loss, at least not this time. Rather then reconsider the wisdom of their efforts to restore the Union by force, the North would double and triple their efforts. The Battle of Bull Run (as the North came to call the action) joined Fort Sumter as causes to be avenged.
For the South, there was of course jubilation at their repulse of the Federal Army. Beauregard, Johnston and Jackson became rising stars in the Confederate Army. Jackson’s brigade was forever after known as The Stonewall Brigade. Pride and honor indeed …but none were naive enough to think they had won the war. The enemy they had defeated had, after all, been made up of Americans, people for whom a lost battle had never meant a lost war.
One hundred fifty years ago this summer, America – now two Americas- gasped in pain and horror as the reality of the Civil War thundered across northern Virginia. The lists of casualties were telegraphed to all the newspapers in New York … Richmond … Philadelphia … New Orleans … Cincinnati… Charleston … Chicago … Mobile … Green Bay… each violent and bloody death on a battlefield causing numerous broken hearts back at home. It was far more awful then anyone had imagined … and it was only beginning.