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“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
“Well, I reckon there is,” the officer replied. Then, after a long pause, he added by way of explanation: “We are going home because, as you see, the men’s time’s up, sir. We have had three months of this sort of work, and that’s quite enough of it.” McDowell himself had pleaded with this regiment to stay on for the battle, but, its ninety-day term of service expiring on July 20, the 4th Pennsylvania had simply walked away. This was Russell’s first experience with the volunteer soldier on the field, and he was frankly horrified.
The firing had been going on since early morning. Tyler opened his showy feint at the stone bridge at 5:15 A.M. , but the Confederates across the bridge, under the calm and efficient command of Colonel Nathan G. Evans, correctly interpreted this for the diversionary effort it was. Meanwhile, Evans was watching the suspicious clouds of dust rising far to his left. About 8 A.M. he realized that a major effort would shortly be made to turn his left flank. Precisely according to the regulations of the book, he notified the commander to his immediate right that he was abandoning his position and within an hour had about half his men concealed in the woods facing Sudley Springs Ford.
The first Union troops across Bull Run, Burnside’s Rhode Islanders, debouched out into the open, where they were easy targets for Evans’ waiting Rebels. The division commander, David Hunter, was almost immediately felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet. McDowell was present, but he was being forced to spend more time than he should have in attending to petty details. In addition, a digestive complaint this morning made it impossible for him to mount a horse. And so he careened about the battlefield executing the functions of an aide-de-camp from the seat of a carriage. It was a distinctly uninspiring sight to his men.
The Confederate commanders, Johnston and Beauregard, had more correctly selected an observation post, one overlooking Mitchell’s Ford, where they hopefully expected the development of the battle they had planned. Not until nearly 11 A.M. did they realize that the battle on their right was never going to proceed according to plan. Johnston quickly made some final disposition for reinforcements and set off for the scene of developing action beyond the Warrenton Turnpike. Mounting the first of four horses he was to exhaust that day, Beauregard joined him without a word. After they had surveyed the situation, Johnston agreed to return to the rear to send reinforcements, and Beauregard took up front-line command.
McDowell, his flanking movement no longer a surprise, had wisely doubled up his troops to get Heintzelman’s division on the field alongside that of the fallen Hunter and thus overlap the Southern defensive line. It was one of the last clear command decisions of the day. Henceforth the men would be fighting almost as individuals. The battle drill by which a regiment of ten companies moved from column to line was complicated enough when practiced on the drill field in camp. On the field, with woods and gullies separating these units, with shouted orders lost in the din of gunfire, such intricate movements were all but impossible for poorly trained men. The commander of a Vermont regiment saw his force disintegrate when he attempted to move them from one place to another. To get them off the field, he ordered a right-face past enemy artillery and another right-face to go to the rear. Apparently, the command of about-face had slipped his mind.
Two competent U.S. Regulars, Captains Charles Griffin and J. B. Ricketts, whipped their batteries of artillery onto the scene and, supported by a regiment of zouaves, took up an advanced position near the Warrenton Turnpike. Their advance was largely responsible for the initial success of McDowell’s flanking movement. The Confederates reeled back across the Turnpike to take up an uneasy defensive position on Henry House Hill.
Evans’ makeshift defense against McDowell’s attack had been strengthened by the Confederate brigades of Bernard Bee, F. S. Bartow, T. J. Jackson, and the 600 men of Hampton’s Legion, privately recruited and outfitted by South Carolina’s immensely wealthy Wade Hampton. Pushed back across the Turnpike, these intermingled units had hastily formed an uneven defensive line about the Henry house. Bee, realizing that his men were on the verge of retreat, pointed to the hill where Jackson’s brigade was stoutly resisting the Federal sweep. “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall,” he was later reported as crying. “Rally on the Virginians.” And a name and a tradition were born. Yet it seemed at that hour that the Southern cause was irretrievably lost.