I would have thought the bubble for the flamboyant General Gustave Toutant Beauregard would have popped just after five, on Sunday morning, 21 July, 1861, when a federal artillery shell smashed into his headquarters, It had been hit 3 days before, by federal guns covering the union retreat from Blackburn's ford, ruining Beauregard's dinner. And now another 12 pound ball crashed his breakfast, almost killing his Spanish valet. This second shot ought to have proved two things to Beauregard – first, that it was past time to move his headquarters, and second, that federal troops were no longer passively waiting for Beauregard's coup de main. But in spite of this second rude warning, the little general retained his surplus of self confidence.
It had been a very busy year for Beauregard. In January, “The Little Napoleon” had been named superintendent of West Point. Five days later,when the appointment was withdrawn, Beauregard took offense, even tho there was never a chance he would stay in the job. He spent the next two years trying to get the government he had just betrayed to reimburse him for the train ticket to New York he had never used. Beauregard was again offended when he was not named commander of his native Louisiana's new Confederate army. In a snit he enlisted as private in “The Orleans Guards”, an aristocratic militia unit. Confederate President Jefferson Davis rescued Beauregard from his own ego, by making him Confederate commander of Charleston, South Carolina.
His many admirers said the 42 year old Beauregard worked so tirelessly to strengthen the harbor defenses that his hair turned white. Others, who knew him well, suggested the hostilities had cut off his supply of hair dye. But in April it was Beauregard who accepted the surrender of Fort Sumter, and he became a hero to the entire Confederacy. July found “Old Borey”, as the 21,000 men under his command called him, doing his very best to live up to his growing reputation for arrogance and to give his savior an ulcer.
Amazingly, after scaring the entire Confederate chain of command with a mere twitch on 18 July, Irwin McDowell's 35,000 man federal army at Centerville went somnambulant for 48 hours, oblivious while trains carrying the lead units of Joe Johnston's 10,000 man army staggered into Manassas Junction. By the morning of Sunday,21 July, 1861, the numerical odds in northeastern Virginia were just about equal. Despite this, Jeff Davis thought Beauregard's planned offensive, little short of insane.
The Little Napoleon intended on throwing half his army (12,000 men) across Bull Run at Union Mill, to drive past McDowell's left, and fall upon Centerville, isolating the federal army, and dictating peace terms from Arlington Heights, overlooking Washington, D.C.. President Davis did not know that McDowell had already dealt with that threat, on 19 July, sending 5.500 men back to Fairfax Court House, where they could easily out flank Beauregard 's out flanking maneuver. But Davis did know the Confederates had just enough ammunition for one big fight, and no logistics to support an advance. Davis tried to discourage Beauregard without offending the famously easily offended creole. Unfortunately, Beauregard already despised Davis. "The curse of God must have been on our people when we chose him...” Beauregard wrote of his superior and savior. Despite his breakfast clue of a cannon ball, Beauregard still insisted upon launching his assault.
General Richard Ewell got the first of his 5 Virginia regiments across Union ford on the rebel right, as the federal artillery was opening fire. General David Jones was ready to follow with 3 more regiments, and behind him was General Longstreet with 4 more. The Virginians shoved aside the cavalry skirmishers, and pushed north on the empty road. McDowell was duly informed of the assault, and glad to hear of it. By the time Ewell got to the west bound road leading to Centerville, the federal army would be in Manassas Junction. Luckily for Beauregard, orders for Ewell to halt and withdraw arrived within half an hour of his crossing Bull Run. .The only problem was, no correction arrived for General Jones, who kept going and found himself on the north side of Bull Run, advancing all by himself.
The new orders had been issued by Joe Johnston (above), who was junior to Beauregard, but twice as smart and half as arrogant. And when he saw reports from Longstreet saying that Federal General Daniel Tyler's division seemed to be getting ready to attack the north side of the stone bridge that carried the Warrenton Turnpike over Bull Run, Johnston had ordered Ewell to get back south of Bull Run, fast. General Beauregard was suspicious at first, but held off countermanding the order until he received an appraisal of Tyler's intentions from the observation post 358 feet up Signal Hill knob. And that delay gave Beauregard enough time to become a military genius.
At about 8:45 that Sunday morning, to the west of Manassas Junction on the rebel right, Captain Edward Porter Alexander (above) was watching through a spy class Tyler's movements 8 miles to the north, on the rebel left. It was obvious to him that Tyler had no real intention of launching an assault. But before he could tell Beaurgard that, out the corner of his eye, Alexander saw a glint of a brass cannon in the sunlight, and the sparkle of thousands of muskets moving toward Sudley Springs, further beyond the rebel left. Alexander sent a flag message to his operator at the Stone Bridge, “Look out for your left, your position is turned." He then followed that up with a note alerting Beauregard: “I see a body of troops crossing Bull Run about two miles above the Stone Bridge...I can see both infantry and artillery.”
Federal muskets were glinting in the sun only because McDowell's army had not yet learned how to march on a battle field. At 2:30 that morning a battalion each under Generals David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman, 12,000 men in all, marched south on the Warrenton Pike from Centerville. In the predawn blackness, just after crossing a bridge over Cub Run, they ran into the rear of General Tyler's 8,000 man division, which was stumbling forward to threaten the stone bridge over Bull Run. What followed was an exhausting two hours of standing, marching and counter marching before the flanking battalions could reach the Sudley Springs cross roads, and get clear of the mess. The delay meant Tyler's men were demonstrating for 3 ½ hours in front of the Warrenton Pike stone bridge, before Hunter's division even began crossing Bull Run at Sudley Springs at about 9:30. Which left them out in the open to be seen from Signal Hill by Captain Alexander.
The left flank of the rebel army rested on the stone bridge carrying the Warrenton Turnpike over Bull Run. It consisted of 1,000 men and a battery of artillery, commanded by the hard drinking, knock-kneed General Nathan “Shanks” Evans (above). And after reading Alexander's message, and matching it with his own assessment, Evans acted boldly.
He left 4 companies to guard the Stone Bridge (above), and led the rest of his brigade on a forced march to the north, first over Henry House Hill and then to Mathew's House hill. As always, Evens was accompanied by an aide, who carried on his back a small barrel of Even's favorite whiskey.
Even also sent word six miles back to Manassas Junction, demanding immediate reinforcement, where it found the rebel brigades from the Shenandoah Valley - the newly arrived 800 South Carolinans under General Bernard Bee, and the 1,000 Georgians under Colonel Francis Bartow. These two brigades began an immediate force march toward the Henry House Hill, followed by Colonel Thomas Jackson's brigade of Virginians.
It was not yet 10 a.m., Sunday, 21 July, 1861, and the first great battle of the American Civil was about to begin in earnest. And having shown himself to be a delusional commander, Gustave Toutant Beauregard was about to prove to be a great leader.
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