The Battle of Bull Run

First Battle of Manassas

Manassas Junction, VA.

October 14th, 2001

Our trip to one of the most historic points in America, Manassas Junction Virginia, the beginning point of the land battles of the great Civil War, was coupled with the newly arrived fall attire as the maples and beech were turning into a showy display of red and orange, making for a delightful outdoor adventure. We decided to visit one of our famous hallowed grounds, made so by becoming the land for which the opening battle of the Civil War was fought. In setting the stage for this momentous occasion, it is necessary to understand what had just transpired prior to this battle. One hundred days earlier on April 12th, 1861, the South Carolina militia had fired on Fort Sumter. Both North and South were caught unprepared for war. The South elected Richmond, Va. as their Capital, less then a hundred miles south of the Northern Capital at Washington, D.C. There was no such thing as a national army. Each State maintained its own state army often called a militia, under the command of its own generals. These were combined into a national army with overall commanders often appointed by the President. Right after Fort Sumter, each side realized their vulnerability resulting from their close proximity, and the lack of available troops to meet the need. Each side put out a call for volunteers. While the South took a somber approach requiring an enlistment of one year, the North developed almost a festive attitude, limiting enlistment to just 90 days. There was no standardization required and each group of volunteers were allowed to pick their own colors and uniform style. Everyone wanted to be involved in what was generally perceived as the first, last and only battle the war was ever going to produce. From the beginning the South had no intention of engaging in aggression, choosing to defend southern land only. If hostilities were to come, it would be from an invading Northern army. The most logical Northern objective would be to capture the Southern Capital at Richmond by either marching straight down the Warrenton Turnpike, which was the shortest route or by entering Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley and coming in from the west. Realizing this, the South sent all its newly volunteered recruits to the newly created Fort Pickins At Manassas Junction. An ideal place to create a defense, with the formidable Bull Run river between the Armies and the railroad which ran west into the Shenandoah Valley where another Southern Army waited. With half the enlistment time spent, Lincoln ordered the troops to attack with just 45 days training. General Irvin McDowell, who had never commanded more then 6 men, reluctantly obeyed. It was a grand parade through Washington as 35,000 gaily clad recruits marched and sang. Many Congressmen, joined by other Washington celebrities and their families, packed picnic baskets and rode out behind the troops not wishing to miss what was believed would be a colorful show, during which the Southern rabble would be routed and then a quick march to seize Richmond and end the succession. General Pierre Beauregard, who had never commanded more then a company, was now commanding some 22,000 defenders, who had enlisted at about the same time and were about equally trained, saw the situation differently. McDowell's first attempts to cross Bull Run were stopped by Confederate defenders, and McDowell, not wishing to bloody his troops in a forced crossing, spent two days searching for an unprotected crossing. This would be the first of many mistakes on both sides. Before the sound of the first shots over the river had faded, Beauregard had sent word to Richmond requesting re-enforcements. Johnson who commanded the Army in the Shenandoah was ordered to immediately board trains and hi-tail it to Manassas with an additional 10,000 troops. Two days later, McDowell made his crossing miles north of the Warrenton Turnpike. After sending a diversion attack against stone bridge crossing, he marched most of his army north and over Bull Run, turning south again with nothing between him and the Southern defenders but rolling hills. The inexperience of these troops came to the front again as they wandered north along a country lane paying no attention to their equipment, especially the glitter of their highly polished bayonets. And so it was, some six miles away that that a southern Captain on top of a signal tower caught the gleam of sunlight off something north of stone bridge. Col. Nathan Evans soon realized that the Union attack on stone bridge was diversionary and leaving a line of skirmishers, marched the remainder of his command north to meet the Union after they had crossed the river. Evans met the advance elements of the Union at a place called Matthew's hill and for a moment the North was halted. Very quickly the remainder of the Union force joined in and the Southerners made a hasty retreat becoming a rout as they fled toward Henry Hill a mile to the south.

It was here that Thomas J. Jackson led his Virginians to the top of Henry hill and sat still facing the onslaught of Union blue. Seeing this, General Bee, in attempting to rally his retreating force shouted "Look there boys, there's General Jackson like a stone wall, rally around the Virginians boys". The name would stick and the legend of Stonewall Jackson was born. Up on Henry Hill was the Henry farmhouse. Eighty-five year old Mrs. Judith Henry who lived there alone, was in ill-health but had been assured by the Southern defenders that there would be no need to move away from the Henry Hill farmhouse. McDowell would order a halt to the advance while he regrouped. This would take several hours and long enough for Richmond to send additional troops. During this time McDowell moved his cannon within 300 yards of Confederate guns in preparation for a bombardment. Sharpshooters hiding in and around the Hanry farmhouse began sniping at the cannoneers. McDowell, infuriated by the loss of any of his few good cannoneers ordered the battery to fire on the farmhouse with grape shot. Judith became the first civilian killed in the Civil War. The battle for Henry Hill raged for hours with neither side giving way. Death and carnage was everywhere as green recruits became hardened to the sights and sound of battle. However, McDowell had waited too long and the troops from Richmond were soon on the field. McDowell had no choice but withdraw. In what started out as a disciplined withdrawal of his green recruits while being covered by Union regulars, suddenly turned into chaos when the retreating Union troops ran into the masses of congressmen and others who had ridden out in their carriages to see the show. The road became blocked and panic struck with the first of the Confederate shells that exploded on the road. Civilian and soldier alike fled north. Those who lagged behind were soon captured by the pursuing Confederates. One unfortunate U.S. Congressman would spend a month in a Southern prison camp before being properly identified and returned to Union soil. The "great show" as it was earlier called left over 900 bodies dead and dying on the various hills around Manassas. Never again would the public look on the war as a "good show".
The Henry house is long gone but another has taken its place. Old cannons stand silently as sentinels at their original firing positions pointing at each other. Henry Hill now houses a visitors center where the National Park service offers guided walking tours that describe the various actions on that hot, still day in July of 1861. Many things would change in the coming months and years. The Confederate flag which looked almost identical to the U.S. flag when the wind was not blowing and the flags were laying limp on their staffs, would be removed from the battlefield. Although this flag had cost McDowell two of his precious cannons and possibly the battle when a Confederate company was allowed to walk right up to the Union Cannon position and fire on it at point blank range, capturing the cannons. Union troops were mistaken as Confederate because both were dressed in blue. This would result in standardization of uniforms and the creation of the cross bar battle standard used by the Confederacy so often mistaken for the Confederate flag. Virginia's rolling hills in the fall are spectacular. Combining this with a historical event can make for a very enjoyable and informative adventure in Manasses, Virginia.

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