- 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
Russell had reached Fairfax Court House by 11 A.M. En route to Centreville, six miles further on toward the front, he experienced a little of the frustration that had earlier plagued McDowell in finding his way about this section of tangled Virginia countryside. The fields and forests of the region were interlaced with a network of narrow country lanes, all appearing identical to the British journalist. But somehow, by 1 P.M. , he managed to reach his destination. The Russell carriage pulled up alongside a crowd of eager spectators on a hill near Centreville overlooking the valley of Bull Run. This was a holiday outing for senators, congressmen, and their ladies, who had brought picnic lunches.
Below the hill stretched a densely wooded vista of some five or six miles. The woods echoed with cannon fire, and tatters of blue smoke drifted lazily over the trees. Through them, Russell detected the twinkle of sun striking bayonets. He joined the group of spectators. A lady with opera glasses shouted loudly at each discharge of cannon: “That is splendid. Oh, my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow.” Another bystander asked Russell’s professional opinion: “Are we really seeing a battle now? Are they supposed to be fighting where all that smoke is going on? This is rather interesting, you know.” A soldier borrowed Russell’s flask and took “a startling pull, which left little between the bottom and utter vacuity.” The Times of London was not amused.
After lunch an officer rode up to tell them that the Federals were sweeping the field. This brought a series of cheers; and the politicians shook hands around, exclaiming, “Bully for us. Bravo, didn’t I tell you so.” Russell’s practiced eye was not satisfied with the distant view from the hilltop, however, and secondhand reports were of little value to him. Mounting the saddle horse he had brought for this occasion, he jogged down the hill for a closer look.
Russell, of course, was still far to the rear, completely ignorant of the action raging in the early afternoon around Henry House Hill. Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding a brigade of Tyler’s division, had been posted above the stone bridge since early in the morning and had finally got his men across a previously undetected ford to add new muscle to the Federal attack on the hill. Here the Union batteries of Griffin and Ricketts seemed to have command of the situation. The Rebel defenders hung on desperately; but McDowell’s army was on the brink of success. Then, in a moment of confusion, the Union’s hope of ending the rebellion with one quick stroke was shattered forever.
Out of the woods in front of the Union artillery appeared a blue-clad regiment, its battle flag hanging limply in the still air of this oppressively hot day. There was no clear battle line in this fight, and the Federals held their fire for fear of killing their own men.
The unit—it was the 33rd Virginia Regiment of Jackson’s brigade—advanced to within seventy yards and then calmly let loose a deadly volley that destroyed the Union position. Ricketts was wounded and captured; Griffin was forced to abandon his guns and retreat. The ground he left behind, a Confederate artillery officer noted after the battle, “looked as though it had been rooted up by hogs.”
This was not the only case of mistaken identity on the field that day. At about this hour, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was coming to the aid of the nearly overwhelmed Confederate defenders of Henry House Hill. Seeing a dispersed group of men, he called out: “Don’t run, boys; we are here.” A vagrant wind stirred their lifeless banner; it was the United States flag, and Stuart hastily ordered a charge that sent these men flying and checked the Union advance on Jackson’s hard-pressed men. (Earlier in the day, Sherman had sent forward the and Wisconsin, proudly outfitted in natty gray uniforms. The men soon came scurrying back: they were being fired on by other Union troops.)
The overthrow of their batteries on Henry House Hill was the beginning of the end for the Union that day. Fresh Confederate soldiers under Jubal Early and Kirby Smith—the latter being the final detachment of Johnston’s men from the Shenandoah Valley—reached the field about 3:30 P.M. to pound in the sagging Union right. Burnside’s Rhode Islanders, having engaged in the initial skirmish at Sudley Springs that morning, had been out of action for six hours, lounging in the shade and waiting for orders that would send them back into the fight. When the order came, about 4 P.M. , the Union line had disintegrated. There was no battle to which they could return.