- Historic Sites
“Bull Run” Russell
The first modern war correspondent won a nickname, much Northern ill will, and a lasting reputation out of his account of a famous battle
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Beauregard had already asked Richmond tor reinforcements, and his plea had been relayed to Joe Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley on July 18. Leaving 1,700 invalids at Winchester, Virginia, Johnston got 9,000 of his men through Ashby’s Gap and onto trains for Manassas. It was the first demonstration, in this or any war, of the importance of a troop movement by rail. Effectively screening Johnston’s movement from the Union commander who was supposed to detain him in the Valley was the cavalry of Colonel J. E. B. Stuart. In the vanguard of Johnston’s force was a Virginia brigade commanded by a stern, God-fearing former instructor at the Virginia Military Institute—Thomas J. Jackson.
The Union attack, scheduled for Sunday morning, July 21, called for an initial feint at Blackburn’s Ford, toward Beauregard’s right, followed immediately by a second diversionary effort at the stone bridge by 8,000 men of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s First Division. While the enemy’s attention was riveted on these actions, McDowell proposed to take the 12,000 men of the Second and Third Divisions, led by Colonels David Hunter and Samuel P. Heintzelman, on a circuitous route to Sudley Springs Ford, about three miles above the bridge. This force was to cross Bull Run and fall upon the unprotected Confederate left flank. As the attack swept down the Southern-held bank of Bull Run, the enemy was expected to roll back, opening the way for Tyler’s men to cross all along the line. More than 10,000 troops, almost a third of McDowell’s army, were to be kept in reserve in and around Centreville.
McDowell’s plan was, essentially, a good one. But for an amateur army, led by inexperienced officers, it was plainly too elaborate and involved too many risks. It called for clock-like co-ordination of widely separated units, and McDowell’s staff organization was virtually nonexistent. Also, it did not take into account the possible reinforcement of Beauregard on the eve of the battle.
Joe Johnston and the first contingent of his men from the Shenandoah Valley reached Beauregard at Manassas about noon on Saturday, July 20. Growing restless over McDowell’s failure to attack, Beauregard formulated an offensive plan of his own—and this he presented to Johnston, who quickly approved it. Though senior in rank, Johnston agreed to give field command to Beauregard because of the latter’s familiarity with the terrain, but he retained over-all command of the army for himself. The Confederate battle plan was curiously similar to McDowell’s in that it hinged on a thrust against the enemy’s left. Had both plans been put into operation successfully, the armies might well have swung completely around in the manner of a revolving door. As it came about, success was to fall to the commander who failed to execute his plan. Back in Washington, excitement over the impend- ing clash was mounting. Russell, determined not to miss the fight, was combing Washington livery stables for horses and a rig to take him to Virginia, but prices rose with each new report from the front. The reporter was outraged when one man asked $1,000 for a spavined bay. “Take it or leave it,” the man told Russell. “If you want to see this fight a thousand dollars is cheap. I guess there were chaps paid more than that to see Jenny Lind on her first night, and this battle is not going to be repeated, I can tell you.” Reluctantly, Russell paid an exorbitant price for a two-horse gig and prepared to set out at dawn for Bull Run.
Shortly after two o’clock on that Sunday morning, July 21, McDowell had his sleepy men roused and formed for the movement into battle. Once again this force demonstrated its seemingly limitless incapacity for organized movement. Colonel Heintzelman never found the road he was to take and was forced to follow blindly in Hunter’s path. Not until after 9 A.M. did the first Union brigade, commanded by Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside, reach Sudley Springs Ford.
At that hour William Howard Russell had just crossed the Potomac and was beginning to enjoy this early morning spin through the pleasant Virginia countryside. “The promise of a lovely day, given by the dawn, was likely to be realised to the fullest,” he later recalled of that moment, “and the placid beauty of the scenery … breathed of peace.” His reverie, however, was shortly interrupted by the sound of firing. “They are at it,” he shouted to his driver. “We shall be late! Drive on as fast as you can.”
Soon after, Russell stopped at a farmhouse to gather information and inquire for directions. His attention was suddenly directed to a cloud of dust on the road in front of him. Out of it slowly materialized a large body of laughing, chattering men, moving in twos and threes down the road away from the sound of firing. It was the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment. The correspondent stopped one of its officers. “May I beg to know, sir, where your regiment is going to? … I should think there is severe fighting going on behind you, judging from the firing. …”