Both Armies to Attack Across Bull Run!

Saturday, July 20, 1861

It was morning and the sun had hardly risen, when Confederate General Johnston arrived at Manassas after an all-night train ride from Piedmont. He stepped off the cars with two more regiments to reinforce Beauregard’s line along Bull Run, and immediately proceeded to general headquarters.

The previous day, Johnston had wired President Davis, asking him who would be in command of the field once both Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac and his own Army of the Shenandoah were united. The President’s reply made it clear that Beauregard was a brigadier-general, while Johnston was a full general, out-ranking a brigadier. The issue of rank was settled, but since Beauregard had been at Manassas for months and Johnston for mere minutes, the former would be given as much freedom as he needed.

Beauregard wanted to attack McDowell’s Union Army at Centreville, across the banks of Bull Run before General Patterson at Charlestown could come to his aid. Johnston heard Beauregard’s plan of attack, which would mass the armies on the right flank and, using the network of roads leading to Centreville, hit McDowell on the Union left. Though it would require some impressive maneuvering, especially for raw recruits, Johnston agreed.

Though his Army of the Shenandoah was still arriving by train from the Shenandoah Valley, he found a shady spot in the nearby woods and took a much-deserved nap. The General had been awake for seventy-two hours, hurrying his men to Beauregard’s side before the Union could attack. Successful, Joe Johnston fell asleep.1

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McDowell Has a Plan of His Own

Across Bull Run, General Irvin McDowell was also planning his attack. The camps of the Union Army took on a feel of a county fair, with dignitaries and spectators from Washington, who made the short trip to Manassas to see the Rebels routed back to Richmond with McDowell hot on their tails.

For the past day and a half, he had listened to the trains coming and going from Manassas Junction, certainly bringing Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah, increasing the number of Rebels opposing him.

That night, he called his division and brigade commanders together to tell them of his plan. This was not a council of war. He solicited no opinions and cared little for the apprehensions of his subordinates. Though they were unsolicited, a few voiced their concerns. Some were convinced that Johnston’s Army tipped the scales and that no attack should be made at all. Originally, neither McDowell nor General-in-Chief Winfield Scott thought this campaign a good idea, but the time for such sentiments was over. McDowell and his army were faced off against the Rebels and they would, of course, prevail.

After the repulse of his troops at Blackburn’s Ford two days previous, McDowell wanted nothing to do with that crossing. Instead, he looked to his right. The Confederate left flank rested near the Stone Bridge on the main road to Centreville. One division would feign an attack on the bridge to hold the Rebels in place, while two other divisions crossed Bull Run at and near Sudley Springs, north of the bridge, to assail the Confederate left.

Both Generals’ plans could be boiled down to an attack on the left flank of their respective enemies. If all went according to plan, by the next night, both camps could effectively swap places in a deadly pirouette.2

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Situation in Missouri: Reaching Down to Forsyth

The situation in Missouri had been relatively unchanged since the aftermath of the Battle of Carthage, over two weeks past. Union General Lyon had concentrated his small force of several thousand men in Springfield, while over 8,000 pro-secessionist Missouri State Guard troops occupied Cowskin Prairie in the southwest corner of the state. Just across the border in Arkansas, Confederate General McCullough, with 2,800, was ready to aid the Missourians against their common Union foe.

Lyon had heard rumors of secessionist activity in the small town of Forsyth, fifty miles to the south. Supposedly, the town was a heavily-guarded depot for a division of Missouri State Guards who had not yet reached the main body at Cowskin Prairie. An expedition was in order. Captain Thomas Sweeny, a one-armed veteran of the Mexican War, who commanded a regiment of United States Regulars, was ordered to take 1,200 men and seize Forsyth.

The first day’s march was only seven miles, but due to the heat of the Missouri summer, it was a hard seven miles. The brigade camped for the night at the James River near White Oak Grove. Lacking adequate tents, many men had to take shelter in a local Baptist Church or in the covered bridge across the James when a rain storm opened upon them that night.3

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Jefferson Davis and a New Commander in Western Virginia

The Confederate Congress reconvened on this date in Richmond, Virginia. The cry from the north was for General Scott to be in Richmond with a great Union army to stop them from meeting. Regardless of such cries, President Jefferson Davis addressed the Congress, telling them that the call for troops by the United States was proof positive that they wanted to subjugate the Southern States. No proof was more positive than the North’s refusal of any compromise, spoke Jefferson.

Though events at Manassas were clearly the main focus, Davis’s eyes were also upon western Virginia. Were the losses there a harbinger of things to come? General Garnett’s Army of the Northwest had been all but destroyed, its remnants assembled at Monterey. With its leader dead, someone was needed to command.

General Robert E. Lee wished to go himself, but President Davis insisted that he was needed in Richmond. They had decided upon a one-armed Mexican War veteran, Brigadier-General William Wing Loring. Along with him, regiments from Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina were finally sent to reinforce the small army at Monterey.

It would take several days for Loring to reach the Army of the Northwest and by the time he did, the situation east of the Shenandoah Mountains would be drastically changed.4



  1. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds. []
  2. The Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Beatie. []
  3. Wilson’s Creek by Piston & Hatcher. []
  4. Lee vs. McClellan by Newell as well as Rebels at the Gate by Lesser. []
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Both Armies to Attack Across Bull Run! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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