I think it was William Tecumseh Sherman who best described Bull Run as, “one of the best-planned battles, but one of the worst fought.” And Sherman knew, since he was a Colonel in General Tyler's division, a spectator on the north side of the stone bridge while the battle raged south of the muddy meandering Bull Run. The fighting began about 9:30 that Sunday morning, 21 July, 1861, as the first federal soldiers wadded across Sudley Springs ford. They were the Second Rhode Island regiment, commanded by the tall, pleasant and amiable 38 year old Ambrose Burnside (above), an example of the Peter Principle a century before its enumeration. Brave, jovial, bright and easy going, he seemed a natural choice for command, but doubted his own competence, and proved it by becoming “obstinate and unimaginative” when given responsibility His men scrambled up the high southern bank of Bull Run in exactly the right place and moment to make Colonel Burnside a general.
Thirty minutes earlier the 1,000 men of General “Shanks” Evans battalion had been guarding the Warenton Turnpike where it crossed over that stone bridge at the northern base of Henry House hill. Now they were over a mile to the northwest, trying to throw out a skirmish line on the forested northern slope of Mathews' House hill.
Unable to see more than a few yards in any direction, the zouaves of the First Louisiana Volunteers regiment, under Major Chatham Wheat, took a volley of friendly fire from another rebel unit, killing 3 men. Many of these “Tigers” had been “filibusters” in William Walkers' 1857-58 attempt to establish a slave state in Nicaragua. Armies from Costa Rica, Salvador and Honduras had eventually crushed the slavers, and Walker had been hanged in Honduras in September of 1860. But even now the filibusters remained true believers in slavery, and were reforming behind a split rail fence just as Burnside's men moved out of the trees at the top of the embankment.
The first volley fired by Evan's brigade was “A perfect hail storm of bullets, round shot and shell “, according to Rhode Island Private Sam English. But Burnside's men held (above), and after a five minute fire fight, they drove the rebels fell back. Twice more, Evens led his men forward, using the brush and a corn field to disguise his meager force.
After about fifteen minutes, Colonel John Slocum led a New Hampshire and a New York regiment in a general assault. The 5,000 federal troops pushed Even's 1,000 man brigade off the hill top. The retreat was stopped at the bottom by the shallow creek called Young's branch, or the Chinn Branch.
From atop Henry House Hill, and seeing Major Evans preparing his men for a fourth assault, General Bernard Bee sent a note urging Evans to fall back. Instead Evans asked for help. General Bee gave into the impulse, and ordered his 2,000 man brigade forward, across the Warrenton Pike, splashing through the shallow Young's Branch, and alongside Even's brigade, up Mathew's House hill yet again. “Here is the battlefield,” he told his men, “and we are for it.”
The two sides stood within yards of each other, firing, reloading and firing again, the rebel assault blunted by more of McDowell's left hook climbing up from Sudley Springs ford. There were now close to 10,000 men battling on the Mathews' House Hill, the majority federal. And then, without warning, the rebels found themselves caught in a crossfire as federal troops suddenly appeared at their backs.
During the morning, Colonel William T. Sherman, a spectator on the north side of Bull Run, had seen a Confederate officer easily crossing Bull Run at a spot he noted. It was the hidden Farm ford. Just before noon, when General McDowell authorized Tyler's division to make an assault over the stone bridge (above), Sherman used his initiative to launch his regiment unresisted over his newly discovered ford. When Sherman's men fired into their backs, the rebel line crumpled, the survivors falling back to the crest of Henry House hill. General McDowell now arrived on Mathews' House hill, and ordered his artillery units to begin shelling the rebel positions, while his two divisions reformed for an assault on Henry House hill.
It was at this moment that Generals Beauregard and Johnston arrived on Henry House hill. The “Little Napoleon” began rallying Evan's exhausted soldiers at the crest, while Johnston rode toward the rear, to speed up the arrival of the rest of his Shenandoah battalions. At the same time, Thomas Jackson's 5 Virginia regiments arrived. But instead of forming on the crest of the hill with the others, Jackson formed his men just behind the crest and ordered them to lay down. Using the hill to protect his men from the federal cannon fire, was a trick the Duke of Wellington had used to defeat the real Napoleon at Waterloo.
Seeing McDowell pushing forward almost 9,000 men toward Henry House hill, a desperate General Bee urged Jackson to advance his brigade forward. But unlike Bee, Jackson stayed right where he was.
Bee complained to his staff, “Look, there stands Jackson. Like a stone wall”. Without Jackson's support the rest of the rebel flank began to give in the face of the advancing federal infantry.
Then, just before stepping into effective musket range, McDowell ordered his men to halt, and brought forward two batteries of cannon, the 5th U.S. artillery under Major Charles Griffin and the 1st U.S. artillery under James Ricketts, to blast the rebel line, point blank.
The gunners positioned themselves with blue coated infantry to guard their flanks. As the 11 federal guns began firing across 300 yards at the 13 cannon supporting Jackson's brigade, the blue coated troops on one of the federal gunner's flank suddenly let loose a murderous volley on the gunners. (above) They were in fact 250 blue coated men of Arthur Cumming's 33rd Virginia regiment, part of Jackson's brigade. At Cumming's command, his troops then charged the federal guns. Almost 50 of the rebels died in the assault, and almost half were wounded. But the federal battery was captured and turned on the federal line when Jackson's entire brigade stood and began returning the federal volleys. The federals charged, retook the guns, then lost them again, then retook them a third time. But the rebel battle line had stabilized alongside Jackson.
Rushing back and forth across his weakening battle line, Beauregard kept his men shooting. Then he saw the end approaching – more federal troops coming in on his left. General Beauregard was about to order a general retreat.
But the advancing troops were in fact the final Shenandoah brigades, part of Kirby Smith's battalion, and Jubal Early's from over on the rebel left. Together they were able to outflank the federal troops, and Beauregard ordered a general advance.
Under pressure across the line, the federal left began to crumble, and with Tyler refusing or unable to feed any more troops over the narrow stone bridge, General McDowell ordered a withdrawal.
The federal retreat was brilliantly handled at first. There was some panic when a rebel artillery shell landed on the bridge over Chub Run, and among the Washington elite who had gone forward to watch the fight, but in truth the image of a panic (above) has been greatly exaggerated. The exhausted federal troops could not be stopped at Centerville, but that was because the reserves were too weak to protect the retreating men. But the federal army largely stayed in good order, covered by Colonel Sherman's regiment. And the rebels were in no condition themselves to make the bad federal position, any worse.
It had been the bloodiest day in American history to date. There were 460 federal soldiers dead on the field, and over 1,100 wounded, many of whom would later die. Worse, there were 1,300 missing or taken prisoner. Confederate losses were about 390 killed, 1,500 wounded and just 13 missing. In terms of blood, the battle had been pretty much a draw. And by later battles the cost had been low. But this was only the first blood, the first major battle of a war that was too soon dwarf the effort this day.
The hero of the battle was clearly Colonel Thomas Jackson (above), hereafter known as “Stonewall Jackson”. The accusation became an honor in large part because General Bee, who uttered it, was dead on Henry House hill.
On the federal side the villain was equally clear – General Robert Patterson (above). He was supposed to have held Johnston's men in the Shenandoah Valley. He did not. It could have been he could not. But as early as 19 July, the day after the “battle” of Blackburn's ford, and two days before the battle of Bull Run, Winfield Scott had ordered Patterson back to Harpers Ferry, and relieved him of command. Scott already knew, and McDowell already knew on that date, that Johnston's 10,000 men were heading for Manassas Junction. But the approaching loss of the 90 day militia made the battle of Bull Run mandatory. And the north had come very close to winning it despite Johnston's reinforcement of Beauregard
The “Little Napoleon”, General Gustave Toutant Beauregard (above), was hailed as the hero of the Battle of Manassas Junction – Confederates always named their battles after the nearest town, the union after the nearest river. But within a few weeks Beauregard had so insulted President Jefferson Davis and his fellow officers, the Little Napoleon would be transferred first to the west, and later out of the war entirely. The man who sent the warning of the federal flanking movement, Captain Edward Porter Alexander, would come to command all artillery in the rebel Army of Northern Virginia, and conduct the largest bombardment of the war, on the afternoon of the third day at Gettysburg, preparing the way for the doomed Picket's charge.
Of the union veterans of Bull Run – the federal fight – William T. Sherman (above) would end the war, having carved his name across the deep south, all the way from Atlanta, Georgia, to North Carolina.
Ambrose Burnside would lend his name to the fuzz on his cheeks – sideburns- and had already designed the standard cavalry carbine used during the last 2 years of the war, although he would not profit from it. But promoted to the his level of incompetence, over all commander of the federal Army of the Potomac, he would be most remembered as man who pointlessly sacrificed thousands of federal lives at Fredricksburg.
And Major Charles Griffin (above), the man who lost his battery at Bull Run, would rise to the rank of Major General, and be a witness at Appomattox Court House when Robert E. Lee would surrender the rebel army of Northern Virginia , and end the war.
Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the pro-slavery fanatic, would be arrested in Washington for betraying McDowell's plans. At the end of May 1862 she would be handed over to the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis welcomed her in Richmond, and credited her with winning the battle, in part because it downplayed Beauregard's efforts. But then what to do with her? He shipped her to Europe, where she attempted to convince the Europeans that slavery was not evil. Much of the royalty, who did not think much of their own people, welcomed her. But the disapproval of the working classes prevented the blue bloods from doing more than inviting her to parties, and buying her book.
In September 1864, the lady was returning home. Outside of Wilmington, North Carolina, the last open harbor in the rebel south, her ship ran aground, and Rose insisted on setting out for shore in a row boat. The boat over turned and Rose Greenhow, the queen of antebellum Washington society, disappeared beneath the waves. Her body washed up on shore the next morning. She had been pulled under by the $2,000 in gold she had carried sewn into her dress, earned for her white-washed defense of the indefensible