I think the most concise description of the problems General Irwin McDowell (above) faced on the Tuesday, 16 July, 1861, as he began his 30 mile march from Alexandria and the Arlington Heights down to Bull Run creek, was given in Bruce Catton's, 1961 history of the war. Catton wrote, “Latter...when the troops knew how to march, and the generals and their staffs knew how to handle them, this (4 days) would have been more than time enough, but at this time no one knew anything: from general down to 90 day private, everybody was green...when the column started out the wagon trains that had to carry all of its supplies were still in process of getting organized...when the head began to move the tail of it was still being put together.” McDowell was unable to even start his 3 divisions, some 35,000 men - the largest single military force gathered in North America up to that time, and outnumbering the population of most Virginia counties - until after 2 in the afternoon.
“Coming down from Washington,” wrote Catton, “the Warrington Turnpike ran a little south of west, a dusty straight road (above) that passed through the looted Fairfax Courthouse, climbed the slopes around Centerville and then dropped to the valley of the Bull Run, where a brown river moved southeast in slow loops with a fringe of marshy underbrush, brier patches, and spindly trees on each bank. The turnpike crossed Bull Run on an arched stone bridge...”
William C. Davis tried to describe the march a century and thirty-one years later. “The three columns of Federals were in no hurry”, he wrote, “The men trekked through the thinly populated region of low rolling hills, with dense forests and cultivated fields, with many creeks, few bridges, and soft bottoms that bogged wagons to their axles...The soldiers dragged their feet, sang and bragged, chocked on dust, sweltered in the heat and humidity. The enlisted men casually broke ranks and stopped for drinks of water, or to wash the caked grime from their faces, or to forage for chickens...a kilted officer of the 79th New York Highlanders went running after a pig...he leaped over a rail fence, presenting what a comrade called “such an exhibition of his anatomy as to call forth a roar of laughter...It was 10 p.m. Before most troops...were allowed to bivouac ( for the night). None had hiked more than six miles.”
Shelby Foote described it as a “...lark, lending the march a holiday air of an outing. They not only broke ranks for berry-picking; they discarded their packs and “spare” equipment, including their cartridge boxes and ate up their rations intended to carry them through the fighting... Re-issuing ammunition and food cost him ((McDowell) a day of valuable time, in addition to the one already lost in wretched marching...” It was not until the second morning, says Davis, that the center division “began to trickle into Fairfax Courthouse around 10 o'clock.” Nobody went any further.
That night McDowell ordered central division commander, General Daniel Tyler, to push right through Centerville on Thursday, 18 July, and threaten a direct attack on Manassas Junction. McDowell reminded Tyler “Do not bring on an engagement, but keep on the impression we are moving on Manassas”. McDowell expected the real work would be done by General Samuel Heintzelman's 10,000 men. They were marching directly down the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, aiming for Union Mills and the ford over Bull Run. Heintzekman's orders were then to brush past the rebels' right flank and cut the rail line south of Manassas Junction. If communications to Richmond were cut, McDowell believed, the rebels would retreat.
But McDowell had lost touch with Heintzelman's division during Tuesday, and was forced to ride out on Wednesday morning, looking for him. By the time he found his wayward subordinate, McDowell discovered the key division was so fouled up, it was unfit to launch an attack this day. So McDowell ordered Heintzelman to instead wheel to his troops to the right, and concentrate his men at the crossroads of Centerville. Meanwhile, out McDowell's sight, General Tyler, thought he sniffed an opportunity down the Warrington Pike at Blackburn's and at Mitchell's fords across Bull Run.
Daniel Tyler (above) was a civil engineer, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran, an 1819 West Point graduate, who had left the army in 1834 and made a fortune saving railroads on the brink of bankruptcy. And gazing through the summer haze from the high ground around Centerville, his old eyes could still see the smoke and flashes at Manassas Junction, just two miles beyond Bull Run. And he could not see many rebels between him and that tempting target. When a couple of artillery rounds fail to generate a response, Tyler sent a regiment of Massachusetts men to cross Bull Run at Blackburn's ford.
It might have worked too, if Tyler's opponent had not been General James Longstreet, one of the most competent soldiers in either army. Longstreet had concealed his men well on both sides of Bull Run, and when the Massachusetts men stepped into the open at the ford, the Virginians blasted them from three sides at once. Just as the firing was building, Captain Fry, McDowell's chief of staff arrived, and urged Tyler to pull back. Instead Tyler sent another regiment forward, this one of New York men. And these men were then hit by the reinforcements Longstreet had also rushed forward. After 30 minutes of this hailstorm of lead, the New Yorkers broke for the rear. And when Longstreet's men rushed across Bull Run, they pushed the Massachusetts regiment back with them. Tyler was forced to push his own reinforcements forward, and regroup behind the crest of the Centerville high ground.
At about four that afternoon, General McDowell arrived on the scene, and with the frustrations of the day, he unloaded on General Tyler. The proud businessman did not take the criticism well. By the numbers it had not been such a bad day. The federal troops had suffered at the "battle" of Blackburn's ford (above) 19 dead, 38 wounded and 26 missing, while the rebels had 15 dead, 53 wounded and 2 missing. But the psychology was far more one sided. Captain Fry noted, “The Confederates...were encouraged. The federal troops, on the other hand, were greatly depressed.” And Tyler''s wounded pride would fester.
General McDowell spent the next day, Friday, 19 July, camped around Centerville (above) resting and resupplying his men's “haversacks” with another 2 days ration of hard tack, which his men had eaten on the march down from Washington. And he spent the day assessing the condition of his army. A Pennsylvania regiment and a battery of New York artillery had to be sent back because their 90 day enlistments were almost up, and they refused to remain. McDowell further weakened his force when by sending 5,000 men back to guard his supply lines through Fairfax Courthouse. On Saturday, 20 July, he sent engineers out to the west, checking the roads beyond the rebel left. It took until late afternoon before he knew the roads to Sudley Springs could support a flanking move by over 10,000 men.
On the Confederate side, the soldiers might be “encouraged”, as Captain Fry had noted, but on the night of 18 July, their commanders were worried. Beaurguard knew, thanks to Rose Greenhow, that a federal division of 10,000 men was marching directly down the Alexandria and Orange railroad line on his right. He could not know, at this point, that they had been redirected to Centerville. Beaurguard was still outnumbered , and he expected to be struck by the heavier force anywhere along the line from Union Mills to Blackburn's ford. If pressed, he knew he could not hold. He pleaded with Confederate President Jefferson Davis for reinforcements.
Davis had no men to send, except the soldiers under Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley (above). And as long as Patterson was still threatening Winchester, those men could not be spared. But after the skirmish on 16 July at Bunker Hill, the federals had stopped dead in their tracks, and on 17 July Patterson had moved sideways to Charles Town. Johnston was certain by the afternoon of 18 July that there was no chance of any further aggressive action from Patterson. That afternoon, when Jefferson Davis forwarded Beaurguard's urgent appeal, Johnston could now shift his men to the east.