July 21 will mark the 150th anniversary of the first “major” battle of the American Civil War, which was referred to as “Bull Run” by the Union, and as “Manassas” by the Confederates. Hopefully any serious students of this particular battle will forgive my oversimplified explanation of the battle itself, as I’ve tried to capture the highlights.
On July 16, 1861, under pressure from President Lincoln, General Irwin McDowell set off from Washington toward the town/railroad junction of Manassas, VA, located less than 30 miles southwest of the Nation’s Capital. Lincoln’s logic in insisting that McDowell move immediately was two-fold. First, it was unsettling to have the enemy encamped in strength virtually on the outskirts of Washington. Second, the 90-day enlistment period of a large portion of McDowell’s 30,000 troops was about to expire (they had enlisted shortly after the attack on Ft. Sumter, April 12).
Due to lack of urgency and excess caution, the Union troops finally pulled to within three miles of the Confederates around July 19. But by this time, the march had taken so long that they’d eaten all their food and had to send for more. Finally, on July 21, McDowell’s Army attacked the Confederates at two separate points on Bull Run Creek (the Stone Bridge and the ford at Sudley Springs to the northwest.)
A giant equestrian statue of Stonewall Jackson stands today near the spot where his lines faced the Federals and stemmed the tide, leading to ultimate Southern victory on the battlefield.
However, by this time, due to McDowell’s leisurely marching pace, the commanding Confederate General, P.G.T. Beauregard, was able to acquire about 11,000 additional troops from Winchester, VA, under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. Beauregard’s and Johnston’s combined forces brought the Confederates’ strength up to a level that gave them a “fighting chance.”
For much of the day, the Union appeared to be slowly but steadily getting the best of the Rebels, as they steadily pushed southward on the Confederate left flank, finally driving them over the crest of Henry House Hill. But at this point in time and place, up rose out of seemingly nowhere one of the great mythological images of American military history.
While other Confederate troops were retreating in confused disarray, a brigade of Virginians, under the command of college professor turned General Thomas J. Jackson were deployed across the crest of Henry House Hill. Jackson placed them deliberately along the topography so that they were shielded from Union artillery fire but still able to effectively rain rifle fire down upon advancing Union troops.
Jackson’s Virginians effectively halted the Union advance, inspiring other retreating brigades to likewise rally and re-engage in the battle, thus turning the tide of the battle. Generals Johnston and Beauregard arrived shortly after this initial encounter on Henry House Hill, bringing with them additional fresh troops as reinforcements. Over the course of the next several hours, the Union troops, who had been on the verge of victory, were running away in disorganized retreat back across the creek and toward the relative safety of the town of Centreville, several miles to the east.
It was, of course, at this critical point in the battle, atop Henry House Hill, that another Confederate officer, South Carolina General Barnard Bee, rallied his own troops to re-enter the fight by pointing to General Jackson astride his horse at the top of the hill and shouting out for nearby ears and for the legend and history as well: “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
Or something like that. We can never know precisely what Bee said, or what he meant when he said it, because he was shot and killed just minutes later. But from that time on, General Jackson was known to all as “Stonewall” Jackson, and his brigade of Virginians was henceforth “the Stonewall Brigade.” This is one of my favorite stories from the war, in large part because Jackson went on to earn his larger than life reputation through his successes in the Shenandoah Valley, and at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where he was finally felled by the mistaken fire of his own troops in the Spring of 1863. But I also enjoy this story because it later stirred controversy within the ranks of Bee’s troops, some of whom insisted that Bee was attempting to mock and insult Jackson by deriding his decision to just sit motionless (like a stone wall.)
In the meantime, one other officer of note who performed well in spite of the general chaos of retreat is worth mentioning. A Union Colonel, William Tecumseh Sherman, rallied his own brigade to fight a courageous rear guard action against advancing Confederate forces while other Union troops were in full retreat. Sherman was soon promoted and sent to a command in the western theater of war, although he would meet with failure and a damaged reputation until partnering up with a new and previously forgettable western general, Ulysses S. Grant. Under Grant’s command, friendship, and confidence, Sherman would, of course, become the second most successful and renowned Union leader of the War.
But those days were well in the future. For the time being, notwithstanding Sherman’s rear guard defense, the Union retreat later turned into a full blown route, when troops, wagon trains, and fleeing civilian onlookers got tied up in traffic gridlock as they tried to hurry back to Washington.
Fortunately for the Union, Johnston and Beauregard did not follow Stonewall’s recommendation to pursue and further defeat the retreating army. Unfortunately for the Union, when McDowell got his troops back to Washington, he war relieved of command and replaced by General George B. McClellan, and the Union Army of the Potomac was essentially inactive for another eight months.
Patrick Teegarden’s series on the Civil War appear weekly in The Colorado Statesman. The author can be contacted at Patrick@coloradostatesman.com.