21 Jul 2011

First Battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861

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Brigadier General Thomas Jackson was still wearing his blue uniform.

The cannonade of Fort Sumter occurred way back on April 12th. There have occurred a few minor battles in remote locations, but so far the War for Southern Independence or the War to Preserve the Union, depending upon how you look at it, has not amounted to very much. But 150 years ago today the first great battle of the war took place.

I expect they had nicer weather for it that day.

As far back as May, the military high commands of both the Union and the Confederacy had envisioned a climactic battle occurring with a Union advance from Washington to come to grips with Confederate forces along the banks of Bull Run near the railroad junction of Manassas and the Warrenton Pike.

The commanders, for the Union, Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, for the Confederacy, Gen. Pierre Gustave Toussaint Beauregard, were both classmates of the West Point Class of 1838. Perhaps therefore it was not surprising that both commanders proposed essentially the same strategy.

Both generals intended to flank the opposing army on the left, roll up its lines, and thereby defeat it. Both generals failed to reckon with the difficulty of achieving complex military evolutions with inexperienced troops and staffs. Had both initiated their attacks at exactly the same time, spectators might have seen the two armies engage and begin to revolve, one around the other, like dancers.

As it happened, McDowell initiated his advance a little earlier, but the Confederacy was to be more favored by fate.

At 9 AM, the tardy Beauregard received a dispatch from a signal officer, reporting that he saw “a body of [Union] troops crossing Bull Run two miles above the Stone Bridge.” He observed both infantry and artillery.

Beauregard was caught unprepared, but as Douglas Southall Freeman observes, in “Lee’s Lieutenants:”

[T]he threat of a Federal turning movement far above the Stone Bridge had been met by the convergence of four small columns [those of Evans, Bee, Hampton, and Jackson]. Each had moved swiftly and to precisely the right point, but none had acted on specific orders or with the full knowledge of the Generals at field headquarters.”

When Beauregard hurried to the front, and arrived atop “an eminence from which was visible a wide range of smoke-covered landscape,’

In front was a long, curving Federal front, ablaze at intervals with musketry fire and artillery. To the right and North… on an adjoining ridge, a short, thin line of Confederate infantry was in action. … To the left… admirably placed behind the crest of the hill, was a waiting Confederate Brigade. Some of its men were lying down; others were in ranks. Near the center of this perfectly aligned Brigade, six field guns were barking viciously at the enemy. In the rear of these troops and streaming backward over the shoulder of the ridge to the North, were broken units that had evidently been in the fight.”

As his men, routed and in panic, fled toward safety and the rear, the desperate Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee attempting to stop their flight, placed himself in their path, and pointed with his sword toward that “perfectly aligned” Brigade. “There,” he cried, “stands Jackson, like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians.”

Faced with the approaching victorious Union infantry, Jackson commanded his Brigade to reserve its fire until they approached within 50 yards, then to fire and charge with the bayonet. “And when you charge,” Jackson instructed, “yell like Furies.”

The approaching Northern infantry ranks were shattered by well-aimed fire, and then the strange cry of Southern foxhunters broke from 1700 throats.

Jackson later reported with satisfaction that his Brigade “met the thus far victorious enemy and turned the fortunes of the day.” The Union Army broke into a disorganized mob, abandoning weapons and supplies, and fleeing back to Washington.

Despite the high temperatures, there are being conducted commemorative ceremonies and reenactments today. Washington Post

2 Feedbacks on "First Battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861"

Donald Sensing

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