July 16, 1861 – The largest army ever assembled in North America went into motion at 2 p.m., targeting the Confederate army at Manassas.
Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia around Alexandria and Washington, had been planning his march on Richmond since conferring with President Lincoln and other top advisors at the White House on June 29. The initial invasion launch date had been July 8, but delays in fulfilling supply requisitions and organizing troops pushed it back over a week.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac guarded the vital railroad depot at Manassas Junction. When Beauregard received intelligence that 40,000 Federals were poised to attack his army, he wrote to his friend, Congressman Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, “How can it be expected to that I shall be able to maintain my ground unless reinforced immediately?”
Beauregard asked Wigfall to convince President Jefferson Davis to send reinforcements. Then, he wrote, “If I could only get the enemy to attack me… I would stake my reputation on the handsomest victory that could be hoped for.” Beauregard then ordered his forward units, particularly Brigadier General Milledge Bonham’s Confederates at Fairfax Court House, to fall back if pressured to avoid having the army defeated in detail.
A Confederate spy named Bettie Duval delivered important information to Bonham. Duval worked for prominent Washington socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, an attractive widow who ran a spy ring in the capital and gained valuable intelligence from politicians eager to make time with her; these politicians allegedly included Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee.
Greenhow’s message came pinned in Duval’s hair. It informed Bonham that General McDowell planned to begin moving his army into northern Virginia on July 16. This message was forwarded to Colonel Thomas Jordan, Beauregard’s chief of staff.
Around Washington, the Federals continued preparing to move. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott met with Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, commanding McDowell’s 1st division, and informed him that the army would begin moving on the 14th. Tyler expressed concern that Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah could move eastward and join forces with Beauregard.
Scott took issue with Tyler’s concern, saying, “(Major General Robert) Patterson will take care of Joe Johnston.” Tyler replied that he would be “agreeably surprised if we do not have to go against both (Johnston and Beauregard).” The Federals spent the 14th reconnoitering the area around Alexandria as McDowell planned to move out the next day.
In Richmond, President Davis met with Major General Robert E. Lee, his military advisor, and Congressman James Chesnut, Jr. of South Carolina, representing General Beauregard, in the parlor of Davis’s temporary residence at the Spotswood Hotel. This was the first Confederate council of war. Chesnut conveyed an elaborate plan devised by Beauregard in which he needed 20,000 reinforcements from Johnston to destroy McDowell’s army. Then he would transfer the reinforcements plus another 10,000 men back to Johnston so he would destroy Patterson’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. Johnston would then invade Maryland and threaten Washington from the north while Beauregard advanced and threatened Washington from the south.
Lee opposed the plan because he doubted that Johnston could overcome the Federals’ numerical superiority in the Valley. He also doubted that any Confederate army could penetrate the massive defensive fortifications surrounding Washington. Davis sided with Lee. The men also considered an alternate plan that had been submitted earlier in which Beauregard and Johnston would conduct coordinated operations.
July 15th came and went with no Federal movement; instead McDowell held another meeting with his top subordinates to finalize plans for moving the next day. Each division commander received separate orders, with their units to begin moving by 3 p.m. One division would advance along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad toward Brentsville, two divisions would move down the Little River Turnpike to Fairfax Court House, and the fourth division would cut off any retreating Confederates at Vienna and Germantown.
On the morning of the 16th, McDowell issued marching orders to the officers and men: “The troops will march to the front this afternoon. The three following things will not be pardonable in any commander: 1st. To come upon a battery or breastwork without a knowledge of its position. 2d. To be surprised. 3d. To fall back. Advance guards, with vedettes well in front and flankers and vigilance, will guard against the first and second.”
With 35,000 troops, McDowell commanded the largest army the U.S. had ever assembled (by comparison, General-in-Chief Scott led only 14,000 during the Mexican War). Outnumbering Beauregard by over 10,000 men, McDowell had 50 infantry regiments, 49 cannon in 10 field batteries, and one cavalry battalion. Among McDowell’s troops were nearly 10,000 Regular Army officers and men; all five division commanders and eight of the 11 brigade commanders were Regulars, and most had combat experience. Moreover, McDowell himself had one of the finest reputations in the Federal military.
After over a week of delay, the troops finally began moving out of Alexandria at 2 p.m., marching west, away from the Potomac River. Their first objective was to reach Fairfax Court House, 13 miles away, by 8 a.m. tomorrow. Their final objective was Manassas Junction, 30 miles southwest of Washington, where the Manassas Gap and Orange & Alexandria Railroad crossed.
Cheerful soldiers sang “John Brown’s Body” as they marched. Most of them, unlike their officers, were volunteers with no marching experience, especially in summer heat. Many drank all their water right away without realizing there was no way to get more. They broke ranks to find shade or pick berries, tossing away their heavy equipment to ease their burden. The army covered just six miles on the first day, giving the Confederates much-needed time to prepare.
Colonel William T. Sherman, one of the experienced officers, later wrote: “The march demonstrated little save the general laxity of discipline, for with all my personal efforts I could not prevent the men from straggling for water, blackberries, or any thing on the way they fancied.”
At 8 p.m. on the 16th, Beauregard received a message from Rose O’Neal Greenhow: “McDowell has been ordered to advance.” At this time, Beauregard’s 22,000-man army was posted along an eight-mile line. He immediately ordered his outposts to pull back and began arranging his army in defenses behind Bull Run while awaiting reinforcements from Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley.
The Federal army resumed its march early on the 17th. Colonel Sherman wrote about his brigade: “I selected for the field the 13th New York, Col. Quimby; the 69th New York, Col. Corcoran; the 79th New York, Col. Cameron; and the 2nd Wisconsin, Lt.-Col. Peck. These were all good strong volunteer regiments, pretty well commanded; and I had reason to believe that I had one of the best brigades in the whole army… The other regiment, the 29th New York, Col. Bennett, was destined to be left behind in charge of the forts and camps during our absence, which was expected to be short…”
Advance troops from the middle column, led by Brigadier General David Hunter, began entering Fairfax Court House around 10 a.m., two hours after the entire army was supposed to be there. McDowell had hoped to surprise the Confederates stationed there, but General Bonham had already pulled back seven miles west to Centreville, leaving large quantities of supplies behind.
Federals did not fully occupy Fairfax Court House until that night; troops raised the U.S. flag and looted the town until Regular soldiers finally restored order. The army lacked cohesion, even at the top, as McDowell did not even know where Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s southern column was until it reached Fairfax. McDowell halted the men for the night, asserting that they needed rest. The next objective was Centreville, nine miles further and within striking distance of the final objective of Manassas Junction.
On the Confederate side, Beauregard wired President Davis: “The enemy has assailed by outposts in heavy force. I have fallen back on the line of Bull Run near Manassas, and will make a stand at Mitchell’s Ford.” Beauregard said that he would fall back to the Rappahannock River if necessary and requested reinforcements.
Davis promptly sent three regiments and an artillery battery from Fredericksburg to Manassas. He then directed Confederate Adjutant General Samuel Cooper to telegraph Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley: “General Beauregard is attacked. To strike the enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force will be needed. If practicable, make the movement, sending your sick and baggage to Culpepper Court-House, either by railroad or by Warrenton. In all the arrangements exercise your discretion.”
Beauregard sent a wire on the afternoon of the 17th: “I believe this proposed movement of General Johnston is too late. Enemy will attack me in force tomorrow morning.” However, Johnston easily disengaged from “Granny” Patterson, who had disregarded orders by withdrawing to Charles Town and not keeping pressure on Johnston near Winchester. This gave Johnston freedom to move wherever he wished.
Patterson believed that McDowell had already fought the big battle on the 16th and there was no longer any need to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard. However, General-in-Chief Scott notified Patterson that the battle had been delayed and, unaware that Patterson had fallen back to Charles Town, reminded Patterson to keep Johnston occupied. Patterson replied that he would attack the next day.
However, Johnston planned to move eastward and join forces with Beauregard at dawn on July 18, before Patterson could stop him.
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