Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Success and Failure: The Battle of 1st Bull Run [Manassas]

By Arielle Potter

“You are green, the rebels are green—you are both green alike.” So said Abraham Lincoln, but the rebels proved not so green as he expected, to the sorrow of the Union in July of 1861. General McDowell wanted more time to train his troops before sending them into battle, but many of the men had signed up for only 3 months and that time had nearly expired. Therefore, Lincoln gave him his orders: march to Richmond! Three divisions set out along the Warrenton Turnpike into Virginia. They had gotten about 30 miles when there came a report to Gen. McDowell of rebs up ahead. It was the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard, hero of Fort Sumter. McDowell sent a command to scout out the rebels’ position. They found rebs enough under General Longstreet at Blackburn’s Ford and after a brisk skirmish fled in disgrace. The Confederates exultantly called it the 1st Battle of Bull Run. The real Battle of Bull Run had not yet started, though. McDowell, undeterred, devised a real West Point-style plan for surprising the rebels’ flank. He would keep Beauregard busy in his front and swing the rest of his men around to attack Beauregard on his left. Beauregard also devised a plan. He had been in McDowell’s class at West Point and made a plan very similar to McDowell’s; in fact, it was almost exactly like it. If he had carried it out the two armies would probably have swung around each other with one army headed North and the other South. McDowell, though, struck first.
Before dawn on July 19th two Union divisions began to move for the flank attack. Poor McDowell! His plan was a good one and should have worked, but he did not have detailed maps of the area and had to depend on rough guesses. For instance, he thought the route his men were taking was only 6 miles; it proved to be 12. The men were, as he knew, green and extremely slow. As the columns proceeded they were thinned by men falling behind to rest or pick blackberries. It was 10 a.m. before they reached Sudley Ford. By that time the Confederates knew something was up. Confederates on Signal Hill sent word to Beauregard by wigwag “look out for your left; you are turned.” Beauregard looked and saw a cloud of dust in that direction. Reluctantly, he gave up his plan of attacking McDowell’s flank and began sending men over to protect his own.
Confederate Gens. Bee and Bartow were in the path of the advancing Yankees. They held out bravely for some time but were at last forced back. The whistle of trains in the distance may not have sounded very ominous to the Yankees, but they told of the arrival of Gen. J.E. Johnston’s troops from Winchester, which spelt the turning point of the battle. The newly arrived rebs quickly got into position and halted the advancing Yankees. The Federal division left behind to engage the Confederates on the turnpike was supposed to come to McDowell’s aid but was delayed. One brigade was attacked by a rebel cavalry unit known as Hampton’s Legion. A brigade did manage to get through under the command of Gen. Sherman who would be heard of later in the war. The Yankees ranged themselves in position and began a fierce contest for the rise of ground known as Henry House Hill.
Now things got a little confused, the problem being the uniforms. It was only 1861, and the armies of both sides had just been organised. Their uniforms looked more like what men would wear to a parade than a battle. Many of the Confederates wore blue uniforms and some Union regiments (like New Hampshire State militia) wore grey. A Union battery, seeing blue troops approaching thought they were more Federals and held its fire. The blue coats turned out to be rebs and took the battery. Soon it was turned on the Union troops.
As disorder spread, the Union soldiers began to retreat. Beauregard had the chance to follow them and eradicate the Union army, but another mistake was made. Blue coated troops were reported to be marching on the Confederate supplies near Manassas Junction. The troops turned out to be Confederate after all, but by the time the mistake was discovered it was too late to follow up the victory. The Federals made a retreat towards Washington that was orderly enough to begin with, but soon became a rout. While crossing a narrow stone bridge over Bull Run Creek, the Union troops, supply wagons and picnickers from Washington, which had all become hopelessly entangled, received a Confederate artillery shell in their midst. It was every man for himself. The heroes of the day were the Union regulars who guarded the army’s retreat. As they were used to combat, they did not take part in the widespread panic.
The Confederates had won the field but not the day. They missed their chance of pursuing the enemy and following up their victory, but as Beauregard explained, his army was as disorganised by victory as the other was by defeat. Besides this, the rebels did not inflict much more damage to their opponents than they received themselves. Although the Union had more men reported captured or missing, the figures for dead and wounded were about the same. The 1st Battle of Bull Run did little more than raise false hopes for the Confederacy and show the Union that the war would not be over as soon as expected.