Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia just outside Washington, had been tasked with moving into Virginia and destroying the Confederate Army of the Potomac guarding the vital railroad at Manassas Junction. He planned to move west and seize Fairfax Court House before continuing on to confront the enemy positioned mainly at Manassas and Bull Run.
The army was organized into five divisions led by Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, Colonel David Hunter, Colonel Samuel P. Heintzelman, Brigadier General Theodore Runyon, and Colonel Dixon S. Miles. Thirteen of the top 17 army officers were West Point graduates, but most of the rest of the rank and file were untried volunteers. Colonel Orlando B. Willcox, commanding a brigade under Heintzelman, wrote his wife: “One thing is certain, there is a great lack of competent colonels & generals, and all the regiments require drilling badly.” The army had been ordered to start moving by July 8, but delays in supplies, organization, and training pushed it back over a week.
Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate army, had 21,000 men organized into seven brigades under Brigadier Generals Milledge Bonham, Richard Ewell, David Jones, and James Longstreet, and Colonels Philip Cocke, Jubal Early, and Nathan Evans. Beauregard received word that 40,000 Federals were coming to attack him at Manassas. He had been ordered to hold the junction, but as he wrote to 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 Bonham’s brigade at Fairfax Court House, to fall back if pressured to avoid having the army defeated in detail.
Bonham received a very important message from a Confederate spy named Bettie Duval. Duval worked for Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a Washington socialite who ran a Confederate spy ring in the capital and collected valuable information from politicians eager to make time with her. These politicians allegedly included Henry Wilson, chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Duval had Greenhow’s message pinned in her hair, and it informed Bonham that McDowell planned to start moving toward him on the 16th. Bonham forwarded the message to Beauregard’s chief of staff.
Meanwhile, the Federals continued their preparations for the move. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott met with General 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 in the Shenandoah Valley might move eastward and join forces with Beauregard. Scott assured Tyler that Major General Robert Patterson’s Federals near Charlestown “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 14th came and went without a Federal movement. The Federals instead reconnoitered 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 Beauregard. The meeting took place in the parlor of Davis’s temporary residence at the Spotswood Hotel, and it was the first Confederate council of war.
Chesnut shared an elaborate plan devised by Beauregard in which he would need 20,000 reinforcements from Johnston to destroy McDowell’s army. He would then transfer the reinforcements plus another 10,000 men back to Johnston so he could 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 Patterson’s superior numbers in the Valley. He also doubted that any Confederate army could penetrate the massive defensive fortifications surrounding Washington. Davis agreed with Lee. The men also considered an alternate plan that had been submitted earlier in which Beauregard and Johnston would conduct coordinated operations.
No Federal movement took place on the 15th either. McDowell instead planned to move out the next day, and he held another meeting with his top subordinates to finalize the plans. 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 a fourth division would cut off any retreating Confederates at Vienna and Germantown. The fifth division (Runyon’s) would be in reserve.
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-American War). Outnumbering Beauregard by over 10,000, McDowell had 50 infantry regiments, 49 guns 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. And McDowell himself had one of the finest reputations in the U.S. Army.
After over a week of delay, the troops finally began moving out of Alexandria at 2 p.m., marching west with the Potomac River behind them. Hunter’s 2nd division moved down Pennsylvania Avenue; residents lining the streets cheered as the troops passed and adorned the horses with flowers. The Federals crossed the Long Bridge and joined with Miles’s 5th division at Annandale. The divisions of Hunter, Miles, and Tyler were to reach Fairfax Court House, 13 miles away, by 8 a.m. on the 17th. From there, the army would move on to Manassas Junction, 30 miles southwest of Washington, where the Manassas Gap and Orange & Alexandria railroads intersected.
Soldiers eager to finally see some action 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. According to McDowell, “The troops did not know how to take care of their rations, to make them last the time they should; moreover their excitement found vent in burning and pillaging.”
Men broke ranks to find shade or pick berries, tossing away their heavy equipment to ease their burden. 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.” The army covered just six miles on the first day. This gave the Confederates much-needed time to prepare.
At this time, Beauregard had his army positioned along an eight-mile line. When he learned that McDowell had begun his advance, he immediately ordered his outposts to pull back and began arranging his men in defenses behind Bull Run while he awaited reinforcements from Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley.
Reveille sounded at 3 a.m. in the Federal camps, signaling a resumption of the march. This would have given veteran soldiers plenty of time to reach Fairfax Court House by 8 a.m., but because of the hot weather and the troops’ lack of experience and discipline, McDowell wrote, “None of us got forward in time.” The men “stopped every moment to pick blackberries or to get water. They would not keep in the ranks, order as much as you pleased.” The march was also slowed by the skirmishers deployed to ensure that Confederates did not launch a surprise attack. A soldier noted, “Hardly a musket shot was fired, but our commanders were fearful of masked batteries, and proceeded as timidly as old maids eating shad in the dark.”
Advance troops from McDowell’s middle column (Hunter’s division) 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 at Fairfax, but Bonham had heard firing around 9 a.m. and quickly withdrew his brigade to Centreville, seven miles west. The Confederates left large amounts of supplies behind.
Federals did not fully occupy Fairfax until that night, and when they did, they replaced the Confederate flag over the courthouse with the U.S. colors and looted the town. Homes and businesses were ransacked, property was destroyed, and livestock was slaughtered. Sherman wrote his wife, “No goths or vandals ever had less respect for the lives & property of friends and foes… for us to say we commanded that army was no such thing–they did as they pleased.” This destruction enraged McDowell, who ordered each regiment to form a squad “to preserve the property and arrest all the wrong-doers.” The arrival of Regular Army soldiers finally restored order.
The army lacked cohesion, even at the top, as McDowell did not even know where Heintzelman’s southern column was until it arrived at Fairfax. McDowell halted the advance for the night, asserting that the men needed rest. The next leg of the march would be to Centreville, within striking distance of the final objective of Manassas Junction. McDowell directed Tyler, whose division was at Germantown, to seize Centreville and reconnoiter the surrounding area.
On the Confederate side, Beauregard wired President Davis: “The enemy has assailed my 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 withdrawn to Charlestown instead of keeping pressure on Johnston near Winchester. This gave Johnston the freedom to move wherever and whenever 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 Charlestown, reminded him to keep Johnston occupied. Patterson replied that he would attack the next day, but Johnston had other plans.
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