Thursday, July 21, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Battle of Bull Run

Manassas National Battlefield - Pic 12Image by BattlefieldPortraits.com via Flickr

Continued from yesterday's post...

On Sunday, July 21, 1861, the Battle of Bull Run took place in northern Virginia.  Union General Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia moved out of its Washington entrenchments and marched south to confront General P. G. T. Beauregard's Confederate Army just south of Centreville.

Because it was a Sunday, there was a big crowd of sightseers who had driven down from Washington for the day.  There were a few congressmen and senators in the crowd, and even some Union officers who had somehow gotten separated from their men.  They narrated the action for the civilians in attendance.


Beauregard's line stretched along the south side of a stream called Bull Run.  The left of the line guarded a stone bridge where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed the stream.  Far to the east, the right side of the line guarded the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge.  Here and there along the line, masses of men guarded the fords, the few places where you could get to the stream to cross it.

McDowell's plan was to move off to his right, to the west, and cross Bull Run upstream at Sudley Springs Ford, far to the left of the Confederate line.  He would then move back to the east and strike the Confederate left flank, hopefully rolling it up and smashing the Rebel army.

Unbeknownst to McDowell though was that General Joseph E. Johnston's army from the Shenandoah Valley had broken free of the Union army confronting it there and had hurried east to link up with Beauregard's army, evening up the odds.  Johnston's Army of the Shenandoah had been coming in for the past two days and was still coming in while the battle was raging.

One thing that was working in McDowell's favor was that Beauregard had planned an attack on the enemy's left flank as well.  To that end, he had the majority of his army on his right side, far away from McDowell's point of attack.

Union General Irvin McDowell had his army in motion by 2:30 a.m. on the 21st.  Some 5000 men were held in Centreville in reserve.  Some were sent to the fords and the stone bridge to make warlike moves, keeping the Confederates focused here instead of upstream where McDowell's main thrust, 14,000 men, would come.

The advance was as bad as the one that had put the army in Centreville, the one that took two and a half days to go 22 miles.  The green troops were still having trouble marching, and there was a lot of starting and stopping, missed directions, snarls and bottlenecks.  It took until 11 a.m. to get the entire flanking force across the stream.

Meanwhile, General Tyler's men moved up close to the stone bridge and opened fire with his artillery.  Historian Bruce Catton describes this as "a slow, desultory cannonade which did little more than announce that the Yankees had got up early."  One consequence of this action though was that a shell ripped through the tent where a young staff officer, Captain Edward Porter Alexander, was sleeping.  Alexander was up quickly and scouted around until he discovered McDowell's flanking attack.

Alexander notified Colonel Nathan "Shanks" Evans, who commanded the extreme left of the Confederate line.  Evans had two small regiments, some cavalry and artillery, about 1100 men in all.  He left four companies to watch the stone bridge and took the rest of his men north.  Around 9 a.m. they were waiting in an open field north of the bridge.  When the Federal column appeared, they opened fire and the battle was underway.

McDowell's officers could never quite get the attack going right.  Instead of a heavy blow, the attack was an uncoordinated series of light taps.  It was proving quite difficult to get the green soldiers from a long marching column of fours into a fighting line four regiments wide.  Evans was badly outnumbered, but holding his own.

But the Union attack gained some momentum.  McDowell finally had his entire flanking force across at Sudley Springs Ford and enough units were getting into the fight now to cut up Evans's regiments.  Evans sent back desperate appeals for help and Barnard Bee's brigade joined the fight.

McDowell sent word to Tyler at the stone bridge to make more of a fight there.  Tyler sent William Tecumah Sherman's brigade forward.  They waded across Bull Run north of the bridge and joined the attack against Evans and Bee and pushed them back south of the turnpike, across a muddy creek, and up an imposing hill.  It was named for the Henry family who had a farmhouse on the crest.
 
Over on the right, the Confederate commander, now Johnston who outranked Beauregard, recognized what was going on and began shuffling more troops to the left.  But it would take some effort for Johnston, even with Beauregard's help, to realign his entire army in the midst of the battle.

Wade Hampton and Francis Bartow added their men to the Confederate forces and the battle suddenly boiled down to a struggle for Henry House Hill.  Evans's brigade was shattered, Bee's was falling back, and Bartow was trying to rally his Georgians when he was shot dead.  Beauregard was suddenly there, rallying the line.  A shell exploded nearby, killing his horse, but he was unhurt.  They just had to hold on until Johnston could get fresh troops up.

Map:  Morning, July 21, 1861

Then, Thomas Jackson's brigade deployed in a line just past the crest of the Henry House Hill.  Jackson had found the perfect place for a defensive line.  His fresh troops waited for the Yankee onslaught.  Bee, his regiments now in almost complete disarray, rode back to Jackson and said, "General, they are beating us back."  Jackson replied, "Sir, we will give them the bayonet."  Bee rode back to what was left of his unit, gestured at Jackson's brigade, and yelled, "Look!  There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!  Rally behind the Virginians!"

That was it for Bee.  A bullet struck him in the abdomen, mortally wounding him, but the name would live on.  From then on, Jackson would be known as Stonewall and the men with him on Henry House Hill would be the Stonewall Brigade.

A mixup in uniforms affected the outcome of the battle.  McDowell sent two regular artillery batteries forward.  These commanders, Captains J. B. Ricketts and Charles Griffin, got ahead of the infantry and were exposed to deadly musket fire, but were blowing Jackson's line apart.  One of their shots went through the Henry house, killing 84-year-old Judith Henry, who was a helpless invalid in one of the bedrooms.  These gunners saw some men in blue approaching.  Thinking it was infantry help they had requested, they held their fire.  The men were from the 33rd Virginia of Jackson's brigade.  They opened fire and a Union officer who witnessed it from afar wrote later that "it seemed as though every man and horse of that battery just laid right down and died right off."

But as mid-afternoon approached, it seemed that the Union army might win the day.  The breakthrough was imminent.  Johnston and Beauregard had called in every available man.  But the Union attack had lost all cohesion -- the units had broken down with officers separated from the men and stragglers heading for the rear.

The turning point came around 4 p.m., when the last of the fresh Confederate troops plunged into the battle.  Jubal Early's brigade from the right and Edmund Kirby Smith's brigade, the last of Johnston's men from the Shenandoah Valley, fresh off the train joined Jackson's line.  Beauregard launched a counterattack.

The three-month men in McDowell's army decided they had had enough and began to fall back.  It was orderly at first with pockets of resistance, but suddenly the whole Federal army was in retreat, heading back across the bridges and fords of Bull Run.

The civilian onlookers got caught up in the retreat back to Centreville.  At a bridge over a creek called Cub Run, a Confederate shell arced in and wrecked a wagon, blocking the bridge and adding to the panic and confusion.

From The Coming Fury by Bruce Catton...
"The bridge was blocked. Drivers on the Centreville side of it whipped up their horses to get out of danger, and the drivers on the Bull Run side incontinently did the same, getting guns and wagons and carriages into a complete tangle, with horses rearing and kicking, teamsters swearing, ladies from Washington beginning to scream, the press of civilian vehicles constantly feeding in new elements which killed any faint hope that this traffic jam could be resolved. Some carriages trundled down to the little stream, lurched up on the far side, and made off for Washington as fast as maddened horses could take them. Here and there a mounted officer took fire along with all the rest and tried to ride through everything at a bucketing gallop. People who were on foot began to run, cavalry was coming up to kill and maim -- and, all at once, utter panic descended on everybody in sight.

The great drifting mass of fugitive soldiers, already out from under what little discipline they had ever known, moved faster and faster and became a wild, frantic, scrambling mob which generated its own unendurable pressure. Teamsters cut their horses loose and scrambled on their backs to ride to safety, leaving guns, caissons, and military supplies for anyone who cared to pick them up. Ambulances carrying wounded men to hospitals were left by the roadside. Soldiers who had thought they were too exhausted to do more than put one heavy foot in front of another found they could run very nimbly, and they dropped whatever they were carrying -- muskets, haversacks, canteens, anything -- so that they could run even faster. It was gabbled up and down the wild rout that armed Rebels were close behind; for some odd reason, the pursuing Confederates, believed to be as ruthless as Cossacks, were all thought to be riding black horses and frightened men were forever shouting: "Black horse cavalry! Black horse cavalry!"

The 22-mile trip that had taken two and a half days one way took less than a day the other way. McDowell still had a reserve force in Centreville and hoped to form a line there. Around 6 p.m., he wired Washington to say that he had been driven from the battlefield and "we have now to hold Centreville until our men can get behind it." The men got behind Centreville and kept going. McDowell later wired to say, "The larger part of the men are a confused mob, entirely demoralized. It was the opinion of all the commanders that no stand could be made this side of the Potomac." Even later, after another attempt to regroup at Fairfax Court House failed, McDowell admitted, "Many of the volunteers did not wait for authority to proceed to the Potomac but left on their own decision."

Map:  July 21, 4 p.m. to dusk
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