“Bull Run” Russell

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On June 24, McDowell had presented a plan of attack. In it he proposed moving a force of some 30,000 men from Washington to Manassas Junction, Virginia, twenty-five miles away, where General P. G. T. Beauregard had encamped his Rebel army, 25,000 strong. Beauregard, a Louisiana Creole, was just then the South’s most popular hero—perhaps as much for his dark handsomeness as for the part he had played in the capture of Fort Sumter. He and McDowell had been classmates at West Point, Beauregard finishing second of forty-five in the class of 1838; McDowell, twenty-third. Success of the Union movement against Beauregard would hinge, McDowell foresaw, on the ability of a Union army at Harpers Ferry, some fifty miles up the Potomac River from Washington, to prevent General Joe Johnston’s 12,000 Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley from reinforcing Beauregard.

Lincoln’s Cabinet approved the plan on June 29, and the advance was scheduled for July 8. One frustrating delay after another, however, forced McDowell to postpone the movement. Now, on the evening of July 16—the day the advance actually got under way—McDowell himself was reduced to inquiring at the railway station for two missing batteries of artillery. His staff, he ruefully explained to Russell, was too busy to attend to such details. Russell accepted from McDowell a lift to his lodgings, and on the way the harried general told him that he had made plans for correspondents to accompany the Union Army to Manassas. But, he suggested, all newspapermen should wear white uniforms “to indicate the purity of their character.”

On the afternoon of July 16, the Union Army had marched out of its camps near Alexandria—bands blaring martial music, unsullied banners fluttering gaily in the breeze. Standardization of uniforms had yet to be applied; and the uniforms of different outfits, reflecting individual taste and local pride rather than national identification, provided brilliant blocks of color. The men knew little enough about marching. Their officers, almost to a man, knew nothing about moving such a large body of troops from one place to another. Lines stretched out and closed up in convulsive, accordion-like twitches. Often men in the front were halted endlessly in the sun, while those in the rear jogged up at double-time to close lengthening gaps.

The exuberant spirits of these farmers and mechanics of the North—citizens all, sovereigns in uniform—simply could not be curbed. They broke ranks on the slightest pretext, stopping to drink from an inviting brook, pick blackberries along the roadside, or merely lounge in the shade. Impromptu foraging parties were launched against nearby chicken coops; and any Virginia farmer wavering between union and secession must have found the decision made easier by the unbridled antics of these invaders from the North. One captain in kilts was wildly hailed by his men for leading a squad in a breathless chase after a pig that left him hung up and somewhat exposed on a fence.

Two and one-half days after starting, the Union Army reached Centreville. Jt had covered a little more than twenty miles.

Bisecting the six-mile distance between Centreville and Manassas Junction was Bull Run, a small, sluggish stream with steep and rocky banks, easily fordable at several points. The broken, thickly wooded terrain rose on either side of the stream into open, gently rolling countryside. Beauregard had deployed his forces on the southern bank, along some ten miles of Bull Run’s serpentine loops—from Union Mills on the right, past Blackburn’s and Mitchell’s fords at the center, to the stone bridge—where the Warrenton Turnpike from Centreville crossed the stream—on the left. The Confederate commander was about to sit down to dinner on July 18 when a stray Federal shell dropped unceremoniously into the fireplace of his headquarters farmhouse near Blackburn’s Ford to announce the arrival on his front of his West Point classmate.∗

∗The owner of the house, Wilmer McLean, subsequently sold his property to move to a safer locality, some seventy miles southwest of Richmond. Nearly four years later the war would once more surge up to his doorstep. It was in the parlor of McLean’s second house, at Appomattox Court House, that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.

McDowell quickly broke oft the initial demonstration at Blackburn’s Ford and concentrated his entire force at Centreville. The Confederates dignified this indecisive skirmish on July 18 by calling it the Battle of Bull Run. The principal clash, three days later, was always to be known in the South as the Battle of Manassas, and only in the North as Bull Run.