McDowell Moves Deeper While Patterson Blunders

Wednesday, July 17, 1861

Not too long after the last Union troops filtered into their camps, the bugles sounded, calling them to fall into line. General McDowell’s marching orders for the previous day had been light, but today he expected to engage the Rebels at Fairfax Court House, fifteen miles from General Beauregard’s Confederate Army of the Potomac at Manassas.

On July 8th, Beauregard ordered his advance troops to fall back if pressed. He did not want his army torn apart and defeated in detail. Occupying Fairfax Court House, Brigadier-General Milledge Bonham commanded a brigade of five infantry regiments with some cavalry and artillery for scouting and security.

Bonham had been alerted to a Union advance from the north and east. Around nine in the morning, he heard artillery fire near Flint Hill to his north. This was, he figured, the Union advance shelling their way through his pickets and skirmishers. He ordered his baggage and supply wagons through Centreville and across Bull Run at Mitchell’s Ford. His men took to their trenches and prepared to give battle.

The Union force at Flint Hill, commanded by General Tyler, deployed in line of battle, covering ground from Germantown to Fairfax Courthouse.

Convinced that the enemy before him was indeed much larger, General Bonham ordered his entrenched Confederates to fall into line. They marched very orderly to Centreville, seven miles west.1

Bonham was fortunate that he moved when he did. Though his pickets reported no Union troops advancing from the east, that was only because the divisions moving east stepped off later than expected. As Tyler’s Division occupied Germantown, Hunter’s Division entered Fairfax Courthouse on the Little River Turnpike. Meanwhile, to the south, Miles’s Division halted between Fairfax Court House and Fairfax Station. Heintzelman’s Division passed through Fairfax Station and stopped at Sangster’s station for the night.

The Union troops arriving at Fairfax Court House found the town nearly deserted. The Rebel flag was hauled down and replaced with the stars and stripes. The men in the lead brigade broke ranks and began to ransack the town. Pianos from saloons were torn apart and furniture was carried into the street, as some entered clothing shops, reappearing in hoop skirts and tall hats. Others killed livestock and engaged in general, random looting. Officers tried to keep order, but failed until the Army Regulars arrived and brought about some semblance of military order.

The expected battle had not come.2

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Patterson Blunders to Charlestown

Union General Patterson’s army spent the previous night at Bunker Hill, just eight miles from General Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah at Winchester. Patterson’s only duty was to keep Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard at Manassas. To do this, he had only to threaten Johnston. If the Rebels at Winchester believed they could be attacked at any moment, they wouldn’t disengage and aid their comrades at Manassas.

Beauregard, at Manassas, sent word of the Federal advance towards Manassas to President Davis in the morning. The General promised to make a stand at Mitchell’s Ford on Bull Run and wished for Richmond to contact Johnston at Winchester. It was time for the Rebels at Winchester to fall back to Manassas.3

With Patterson’s force to their front, how could they? If they retired, Patterson would just attack their rear.

General Patterson had his troops on the march by 3am. McDowell, Patterson believed, should have fought the Battle of Manassas the day before or perhaps even on this date. Johnston could now be of no help to the probably-defeated Beauregard.

The men in the ranks, at first, believed they were marching to fight Joe Johnston, but when they turned off the Valley Pike and moved east, away from the Rebels, disappointment and anger flooded the ranks. After a long, hot, uneventful twelve-mile march to Charlestown, and after the troops, still rankled, settled into their camps, a dispatch arrived from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott.

Though the old general had not heard from Patterson since the 14th, he had happily read in the papers of his advance towards Winchester. Scott warned Patterson that McDowell had not yet fought the great battle, that maybe it would happen the next day. Patterson was again reminded not to allow Johnston to reinforce Beauregard.

Patterson and his staff knew what this meant. Scott had no idea Patterson’s Army was in Charlestown and expected him to attack Johnston very shortly. Patterson knew of his blunder, but figured that Johnston was still in Winchester and his (Patterson’s) army could just as easily advance on him via Charlestown as it could via Bunker Hill. The next day, assured Patterson, he would attack.4

All day, General Johnston had been wondering why Patterson was marching away from him. He concluded that Patterson wasn’t going to attack him at all, but was only in the area to keep him at bay. Around midnight, he received a dispatch from Richmond of the advancing Union forces towards Manassas. Reinforcements were needed and Johnston was told “if practicable, make your movement” to Manassas to unite the Armies of the Potomac and Shenandoah.

Johnston would march at dawn.5

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The Battle of Scary Creek

General George McClellan, victorious Union commander in western Virginia, had expected his forces in the southern part of the state to have defeated Confederates under former Virginia governor, General Wise, by now. The 3,000 Union troops in the Kanawha Valley had steamed east, up the Kanawha River from the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, but had stopped at the Pocotaligo River to repair a bridge destroyed by Confederates.

They planned to go by land to meet General Wise’s roughly 3,000 Confederates near Charleston. Blocking their way, however, was an advanced guard of 500 holding a bridge at Scary Creek. By noon, a regiment’s worth of Union infantry advanced towards the Confederates. In the meantime, however, the Rebels had been reinforced by Col. George Patton. The Virginians were waiting for the Federals when, at 2pm, they arrived.

At first, the volleys exchanged across Scary Creek were of little consequence. The Union commander ordered a flank attack, crossed the creek and assailed the bridge. The fighting turned hand-to-hand as the Federals closed in on the bridge. All was nearly lost for the Rebels until they were reinforced again.

Rallied, the Confederates beat back the Yankees, who fled across the bridge and returned to their camp on the Pocotaligo. Losses were light, with the Union dead at ten, wounded at thirty-five. Confederates suffered four killed, six wounded.

Though a minor skirmish, it stalled the Union advance under General Cox even longer and would allow Confederate General Floyd to move closer to General Wise.6



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p449-450. []
  2. The Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p439-440. []
  4. The Army of the Potomac; Birth of Command by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography by Craig L. Symonds, W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. []
  6. Lee vs. McClellan by Newell. []
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