Since Major General Irvin McDowell had set the Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia in motion toward the enemy, his men had advanced only 22 miles in the first two days. The sweltering heat, slow supply trains, and the lack of troop experience and discipline contributed to the delays. The Federals concentrated around Centreville on the morning of the 18th, within striking distance of their objective at Manassas Junction. Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac held the junction on an eight-mile line that guarded all crossings of Bull Run.
Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s Federal division had been the first to enter Centreville, and Tyler informed McDowell that the Confederates had withdrawn beyond Bull Run. McDowell directed him to conduct a reconnaissance in force, with orders not to bring on a general engagement. Tyler sent Colonel Israel B. Richardson’s brigade toward Blackburn’s Ford to probe near the Confederate right-center, but the Federals went too far, and skirmishing erupted with Confederates guarding both Blackburn’s and Mitchell’s fords.
Richardson ordered a withdrawal when Brigadier General James Longstreet’s three Confederate brigades stopped his advance. Tyler reported: “It appeared to me that there were 5,000 muskets fired at once.” As Federals fled the scene in panic, Richardson rode up and shouted, “What are you running for? There is no enemy here! I cannot see anybody at all!” The green soldiers would have none of it.
Tyler then defied McDowell’s orders by sending more infantry and artillery into the fight. Longstreet counterattacked with support from Colonel Jubal Early, but the green troops bungled the effort. Nevertheless, the Confederates prevented the Federals from reaching Bull Run, and both sides fell back to reorganize. The Federals suffered 83 casualties, while Confederates lost 15 killed and 53 wounded.
Colonel William T. Sherman, whose brigade was part of Tyler’s force, described the combat: “From our camp, at Centreville, we heard the cannonading, and then a sharp musketry-fire… We marched the three miles at the double-quick, arrived in time to relieve Richardson’s brigade, which was just drawing back from the ford, worsted, and stood for half an hour or so under fire of artillery, which killed four or five of my men…”
Confederates celebrated this minor victory, as President Jefferson Davis wired Beauregard: “God be praised for your successful beginning.” McDowell was annoyed by Tyler’s disobedience, but the action did uncover important information about the enemy’s strength. McDowell had originally planned to move around Beauregard’s right flank, but the engagement at the Bull Run fords showed that the enemy flank was too strong for such a movement. McDowell had to halt his advance at Centreville until he could devise a new plan of attack. After two days of collecting supplies and reconnoitering enemy lines, McDowell finally decided that his main thrust would be against Beauregard’s left.
Meanwhile, Major General Joseph E. Johnston prepared to reinforce Beauregard with his 11,000-man Army of the Shenandoah. Johnston’s main force was currently around Winchester, and Major General Robert Patterson’s Federal Army of Pennsylvania had been tasked to keep Johnston there. But as Johnston wrote to Adjutant General Samuel Cooper on the 18th: “General Patterson, who had been at Bunker Hill since Monday, seems to have moved yesterday to Charlestown, 23 miles to the east of Winchester. Unless he prevents it, we shall move toward General Beauregard to-day…”
Patterson’s move to Charlestown took him too far from Johnston to stop him from reinforcing Beauregard. Patterson had initially planned to attack Johnston on the 18th, but he reported to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott that not only had Johnston been neutralized at Winchester, but “he had also been reinforced.” Patterson also expressed reluctance to attack because his 90-day enlistments were about to expire, and he complained that orders from Washington did not clearly state whether he should attack or merely keep Johnston occupied.
Before Patterson could get his Federals in motion to do anything, Colonel J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry rode up and diverted their attention at Charlestown while Johnston began moving his troops out of Winchester. Officers read a general proclamation to their men explaining that Beauregard needed help against an impending attack. The first troops left town at 12 p.m., with Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade in the lead.
The troops were initially excited about rescuing their comrades to the east, but they soon became exhausted by the daunting march through the Blue Ridge. Johnston noted, “The discouragements of that day’s march to one accustomed, like myself, to the steady gait of regular soldiers is indescribable.” After covering a grueling 23 miles, the army stopped at Piedmont, the nearest stop on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Johnston arranged for the men to cover the remaining ground by train. This marked the first large-scale strategic troop movement by railroad in military history. By day’s end, four of Johnston’s brigades totaling some 8,300 men were on eastbound trains.
Meanwhile, Scott in Washington warned Patterson, “Do not let the enemy amuse and delay you with a small force in front whilst he re-enforces the Junction with his main body.” When he received intelligence that Johnston had given Patterson the slip, Scott sent a second wire hoping “to hear that you had felt him strongly, or, at least, had occupied him by threats and demonstrations… Has he not stolen a march and sent re-enforcements toward Manassas Junction?”
Patterson sent an irritated response: “The enemy has stolen no march upon me. I have kept him actively employed, and by threats and reconnaissances in force caused him to be re-enforced. I have accomplished in this respect more than the General-in-Chief asked or could well be expected, in face of an enemy far superior in numbers…” By the time Patterson sent this telegram, the bulk of Johnston’s army was already on its way east.
Back at Centreville, McDowell spent the 19th resupplying and reorganizing his army, along with reworking his plan of attack based on the previous day’s engagement at the Bull Run fords. Stragglers trickled in and out of camps throughout the day. Beauregard spent the day strengthening his defenses along Bull Run. Johnston continued shuttling his army eastward on the eight-hour train ride from Piedmont Station to Manassas Junction. Excessive traffic on the single-track railroad caused a bottleneck, but troops were gradually getting through. Jackson’s brigade arrived near 4 p.m., and Jackson surprised Beauregard and his staff by showing up at headquarters (the home of Wilmer McLean) to announce his arrival.
During the day, Johnston received a message from Beauregard directing him to move his forces via Aldie and arrange them on the Federal right flank. Johnston disregarded this, opting to stay with his railroad transport plan. He then wrote President Davis for clarification on who would be the ranking commander over the combined force. Davis made it clear that Johnston ranked Beauregard: “You are a general in the Confederate Army, possessed of the power attaching to that rank. You will know how to make the exact knowledge of Brigadier-General Beauregard, as well of the ground as of the troops and preparation, avail for the success of the object in which you cooperate. The zeal of both assures me of harmonious action.”
Johnston arrived at Manassas Junction around 12 p.m. on the 20th with another 1,400 reinforcements in three brigades under Colonel Francis S. Bartow, and Brigadier Generals Barnard E. Bee and Edmund Kirby Smith. By this time, some 9,000 of Johnston’s Confederates had traveled 50 miles by rail in just two days. Brigadier General Theophilus H. Holmes’s brigade also arrived from Aquia Creek, as did Colonel Wade Hampton’s Legion.
Since Beauregard had been at Manassas for nearly two months and had better knowledge of the situation, Johnston allowed him to retain top command. Beauregard explained that he intended to mass the Confederates on the right of his line and attack the Federal left flank. Despite the difficulty that green troops might have executing such a complex maneuver, Johnston approved. Ironically, McDowell also finalized a plan to mass on the right and attack the Confederate left. Had both armies moved at the same time, they would have swung in a circle. But if one moved first, the other would have to be on the defensive.
McDowell initially planned to move out on the 20th, but supply delays compelled him to postpone until the next day. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, visiting McDowell’s headquarters, sent a report on the army to President Abraham Lincoln. When McDowell reported, “There are rumors that Johnston has joined Beauregard,” Cameron hurried back to Washington to collect reinforcements. But McDowell and most of his men did not believe the rumors; they could hear the trains coming and going at Manassas Junction, but they thought the trains were bringing up small units from Richmond, not Johnston’s entire army.
The Federal camp had a lackadaisical air about it. Politicians and civilians rode out from Washington to mingle with the troops and witness the impending battle. The Federals were confident of victory. Colonel Oliver O. Howard led his brigade in prayer and later recalled: “The God of battles was entreated for guidance, for shielding in the battle, and for care of those so precious in our far-away homes.”
McDowell met with his division and brigade commanders that night. His plan was in place and it was final; according to Colonel Samuel Heintzelman, “The plans were detailed, but no opinions asked.” As McDowell explained, Tyler’s 1st Division would move out of Centreville on the Warrenton Turnpike and feint a crossing of Bull Run at the Stone Bridge. Colonel David Hunter’s 2nd Division and Heintzelman’s 3rd Division would follow Tyler on the Warrenton Turnpike, then turn northwest and cross Bull Run at Sudley Springs. This would position them to attack the Confederate left flank and rear. Tyler was to begin moving out at 2 a.m.
Some officers expressed concerns that Johnston may have reinforced Beauregard (in reality, 6,000 of Johnston’s men had already arrived). McDowell, who himself had initially advised against such a hasty campaign as this, would not hear of any further objections. The long-awaited time for fighting had arrived.
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