Wednesday, July 20, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Eve of the Big Battle

The painting Capture of Ricketts' Battery, dep...Image via Wikipedia

Saturday, July 20, 1861, was the eve of the largest battle to this point in the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run.

The firing on Fort Sumter and President Lincoln's war proclamation was three months ago, in April, and so far there had not been a lot of action.  Many people, in the North and the South, thought this would be a short, limited war.  One decisive battle would show those damned Yankees (or Rebels, depending on your side) a thing or two, and then all this foolishness would be over.

It just seemed logical that the big battle would take place in northern Virginia between the two capitals, Washington and Richmond, and public opinion on both sides was pushing for the battle to happen soon.  "Forward to Richmond" screamed banner headlines in the North.  Now wasn't soon enough.  Many had hoped that Richmond could be taken by today, July 20, when the Confederate Congress would be convening in their new capital for the first time.

Union General Irvin McDowell had been pushed into this battle.  McDowell knew his army wasn't ready to fight.  The belief that the war would be a quick one had led Lincoln, when he proclaimed war and called for 75,000 militia immediately after Fort Sumter, to sign these initial recruits to three-month enlistments.  Now the three months was ending and the enlistments were expiring and many men in McDowell's army would be going home soon.

New recruits were pouring in to replace them, but it would take time to train them and organize them.  The three-month men weren't even trained properly.  Most of the officers, including McDowell himself, had never led troops in battle.

In late June, McDowell had submitted a plan of operations to the War Department.  He had stayed away from the grandiose plan of taking Richmond and concentrated on the Confederate army in his front.  He estimated that P. G. T. Beauregard had 25,000 men (he actually had closer to 20,000) amassed near Manassas Junction behind a stream called Bull Run, and that was as far as McDowell planned to go for the immediate future.

Two other armies, both called the Army of the Shenandoah, complicated the picture.  The Union Army of the Shenandoah, led by Robert Patterson, faced General Joseph E. Johnston's Confederate Army of the Shenandoah.  McDowell's plan called for Patterson to keep Johnston busy so that he could not rush to Beauregard's aid.

Map: July 1861 -- The Bull Run Campaign Overview

McDowell was ordered to begin his advance on July 9, but that wasn't much time and delays were inevitable.  And McDowell was pushing for more time, knowing that his army was not ready for a fight, until Lincoln finally told him, "You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are all green alike."  McDowell began his advance a week late.  

Over in the Shenandoah Valley, Patterson was facing the same problem as McDowell with three-month men in his army whose enlistments were ending.  Patterson had also been given vague orders -- he wasn't sure if he was supposed to attack Johnston or just maneuver against him.  Johnston sent his cavalry, led by J. E. B. Stuart, to harass and confuse him, and Patterson maneuvered himself out of the campaign, settling in Charlestown, twenty miles away from the nearest Confederates, where he reported that "it would be ruinous to advance, or even to stay here, without immediate increase of force."  Johnston marched his men to the Manassas Gap Railroad line and began shuffling them east to Beauregard.

That would not have mattered if McDowell had advanced quickly.  He could have dealt with Beauregard's army before Johnston arrived, but his worst fears about his army were realized when they began to move.  The line of advance crept forward with the men spending more time standing around than marching.  Marching for miles with full packs in the hot July sun was beginning to seem much more complicated than marching around a parade ground.

When McDowell's army finally reached Centreville, just two or three miles from the Rebel position, they had eaten all their rations.  McDowell paused for two more days to get his wagon trains and the rest of his army up, and all the while, more and more of Johnston's army was linking up with Beauregard's.

McDowell and his officers had also been spending the time doing reconnaissance of the Confederate position.  Their line on the south side of Bull Run stretched from the stone bridge on the left where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed the stream to the Orange and Alexandria Railroad bridge on the right.  A reconnaissance-in-force on Blackburn's Ford in the center of the Confederate line was repulsed on July 18, convincing McDowell to try a flanking attack.  He would take a substantial part of his force to the right, around the Confederate left, crossing Bull Run upstream at Sudley Springs Ford.

Map:  July 18, 1861 -- The Confederate line, the Union army concentrating at Centreville, the recon and skirmish at Blackburn's Ford

In fact, both commanders would plan attacks on the other's left.  Beauregard had a grand Napoleonic plan to mass his men on his right and wheel them around to catch McDowell in the left flank.  The plan didn't have much hope of success with his green army, but it didn't matter.  McDowell would beat Beauregard to the punch and catch Beauregard with most of his men massed far away from the point of attack.

McDowell began getting his men into motion after dark.  They would all be moving by 2:30 a.m., July 21.

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