Thursday, July 18, 1861
General McDowell’s Union Army converged upon Centreville on the third day of their march towards the Confederate Army of the Potomac in a line along Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia. The Confederates covered the fords and bridges along the run, protecting the railroad hub of Manassas Junction. McDowell was aware of their general positions and forbade his division commanders from bringing on a general engagement.
First into Centreville was the division of General Tyler. There, his troops found abandoned Confederate breastworks. The town locals informed Tyler that the Rebels had left the night before and were now beyond Bull Run. He sent word to McDowell and asked for instructions. Concerned about the lack of water in Centreville, Tyler decided to see what sort of access he could get to Bull Run.
Tyler and a commander of one of his brigades, General Richardson, made an armed reconnaissance, south towards the water. While no Rebels were encountered along the way, at least one enemy brigade was spotted near Mitchell’s Ford. Tyler thought a demonstration was in order.
Richardson’s Brigade formed up and went forward with two pieces of artillery. Col. William T. Sherman’s Brigade was held at the ready. On the other side of Bull Run, the Confederate brigades of Generals James Longstreet at Blackburn’s Ford and Milledge Bonham (fresh from Fairfax Court House and Centreville the previous day) at Michell’s Ford.
As the Union brigade advanced, their artillery lobbed shell after shell into the Confederate positions at Blackburn’s Ford. It drove off Longstreet’s artillery with the first shot, but his troops were unmoved. General Tyler’s staff warned him about bringing on a battle, but Tyler figured the Rebels would run at the first sign of a strong force in their front.
For a moment, Tyler seemed to be right. A regiment from Richardson’s Brigade was advanced towards Longstreet and, after firing a volley, the Rebels at the front turned and ran. Soon, however, they returned and for an hour the lone Union regiment slugged it out with the Rebels across Bull Run.
For support, Tyler sent the artillery forward as Richardson’s entire brigade was formed. After one volley of cannister from the guns, the Confederates opened with a brigade-sized volley of their own. The sheer number of muskets across Bull Run convinced Tyler that no attack he could make would be successful. The Confederates then turned their fire to his artillery pieces and quickly drove them off.
Richardson’s Brigade marched forward as the helpless General Tyler looked on. The lead regiment kept up a furious exchange of fire from a woodlot, but after twenty minutes, began to melt away. As they fell back, other regiments were exposed to a flanking fire. Longstreet took advantage of this, pushed some men across Bull Run and called for reinforcements from General Jubal Early, commanding a brigade of his own nearby.
Seeing this, Tyler rode up to Richardson and told him to call it off. Richardson, however, wanted to continue. If only they would call up General Sherman’s Brigade, argued the Brigadier, the attack would succeed. Unconvinced, Tyler again ordered Richardson to withdraw.
As they were about to move out, the first regiments of Early’s Confederates came into view across Bull Run. Exposed as they were, Richardson’s men threw volley after volley into their column. Green as they were, some of the Rebels stopped and fired without orders. Caught in the crossfire, were Longstreet’s men. This spread confusion throughout the lines around Blackburn’s Ford and allowed Richardson’s Brigade to fall back as safely as possible.
For the next hour, opposing artillery batteries dueled to little consequence. Sherman’s Brigade was brought up to cover the retreat as General McDowell rode onto the scene. He was unbelievably irritated that Tyler had disobeyed orders, but also convinced that the Confederate position along Bull Run was solid. This knowledge was sure to come in handy.1
How to Steal a March
Late the previous night, Confederate General Joe Johnston, commanding the Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester, received an order from Richmond to come to Manassas to reinforce Beauregard, fifty-seven miles away. By dawn, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was riding towards Union General Patterson’s men at Charlestown to kick up some dust and create a diversion.
By noon, Johnston’s army was ready to move. General Thomas Jackson’s Brigade took the lead, marching towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. As the mid-afternoon sun beat upon them, the last Confederates left Winchester. At this point, the column was halted and a message was read to the 10,000 or so troops, informing them that General Beauregard was about to be attacked and they were marching to his aid. As for Patterson’s Union army, they had “gone out of the way to Harper’s Ferry” and would no longer be a problem.
The Confederates were ecstatic as they marched towards Manassas. After twelve more hours of marching, however, they were simply exhausted. The march was moving at too slow a pace for Johnston, so he sent a messenger to Piedmont, the nearest station on the Manassas Gap Railroad, and discovered that there were enough trains to take his army the rest of the way to Manassas.
Jackson had made it to Paris by 2am, after crossing Ashby’s Gap over the Blue Ridge and the Shenandoah River beyond it. The next morning, he would board trains to Manassas.2
Meanwhile, in Charlestown, Union General Patterson was defending himself. To General-in-Chief Scott, he argued that he was still keeping the enemy “actively employed. Not only was Johnston still at Winchester, but he had also been reinforced.”
Patterson was also facing the expiration of the 90-days troops’ terms-of-service. These losses would soon greatly deplete his numbers. With the “reinforcement” of Johnston, plus the discharge of many of his own regiments, Patterson, again, could not fight.
Scott, understanding Patterson’s situation better than Patterson himself, wrote that night of Johnston: “Has he not stolen a march and sent reinforcements to Manassas Junction?”3
- From a composite of several sources, including: A Single Grand Victory by Ethan S. Rafuse, Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Beatie and Battle at Bull Run by William C. Davis. [↩]
- Stonewall Jackson by Robertson. [↩]
- A Narrative of the Campaign in the Valley of the Shenandoah, in 1861 by Robert Patterson, and The Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Beatie. [↩]