Monday, July 18, 2011

The "Battle" of Blackburn Ford

Bull Run near Blackburn Ford in 1862
Not long after noon, Major John Barnard, the man who had built Fort Corcoran and Fort Runyon, arrived in Centreville about noon. He was the Chief Engineer for the Army of Northeastern Virginia, and Irvin McDowell had sent him to begin compiling what they knew of the Confederate position behind Bull Run, in anticipation of bypassing it and attacking the Confederates from behind. "I was engaged in questioning a [local man]," Barnard wrote in his report, "when intelligence was received that General Tyler had sent back for artillery and infantry, and that the enemy was in sight before him."

This was directly contrary to McDowell's orders to his First Division commander. Daniel Tyler was supposed to make G.T. Beauregard think that the army intended to attack directly on the road from Centreville to Manassas Junction, but not actually engage in battle. Instead he had ordered up his whole Fourth Brigade, under Colonel Israel Richardson and was preparing an assault. And he had sent for the artillery from Colonel Cump Sherman's Third Brigade, at the army's rally point in Centreville, to back up his own. Bayard mounted his horse and rushed forward down the soldier-choked road to find Tyler and get to the bottom of it.

Tyler had spent the last few hours trying to goad the Confederates into revealing the position of their men and guns, including by firing on their easily visible headquarters of Beauregard. But Confederate Brigadier General James "Pete" Longstreet had foiled Tyler's efforts. Noting that Tyler's rifled guns were far beyond the range of the 6-pound smoothbore "Napoleons" that were attached to Longstreet's brigade, he "ordered the guns withdrawn to a place of safety, till a fairer opportunity was offered them."

Barnard found Tyler and demanded an explanation. The Connecticut militiaman said that he had no idea yet of the size of the Confederate force in front of him and needed to know to accomplish the army's goal. Bayard retorted by pointing out it was clearly Beauregard's strong position blocking the road to Manassas Junction and that under no circumstances should it be assailed. As Tyler argued, Bayard conceded that a demonstration to better ascertain numbers "would favor what I supposed still to be the commanding general's plan of campaign."

By about 2:00 pm, Tyler deployed Sherman's guns to increase the bombardment and had Richardson prepare his men to defend in case the Confederates attacked. Artillery from the brigade of Brigadier General Milledge Bonham at Mitchell's Ford briefly took the bait and fired back, but the response was called off when it became obvious the new position was also out of range. "After ours had continued playing for about an hour and a half," Bayard wrote, "I thought it a useless expenditure of ammunition, and so stated" to Colonel James Fry, McDowell's chief, of staff who had arrived on the scene by that time. The guns stopped firing.

"I supposed that this would end the affair," wrote Bayard. "But perceiving the troops filing down towards the run, I thought it necessary to impress General Tyler with the fact that it was no part of the commanding General's plan to bring on a serious engagement." Bayard sent an engineer with the troops to see what he could see, while having another officer put down his previous statement to Tyler in writing. The scouting party (the 1st Massachusetts) proceeded down the Centreville Road (today, Old Centreville Road) experiencing only small arms fire. Bayard became alarmed that the advance would continue across Bull Run, but was reassured when Tyler had Richardson call the men back. The affair done, Bayard rode back to Centreville with Fry to report what they had seen to McDowell. He had left too soon.

Tyler ordered Richardson to make a stronger showing. He ordered two 12-pound howtizers from Sherman's brigade down the road to Blackburn Ford (today's VA 28), to within a few hundred yards of Longstreet's position, guarded by a squadron from the 2nd Cavalry. Under ineffective fire from Bonham's two guns, the howitzers reached the position and opened fire.

Blackburn's Ford - Scene of first skirmish and first aid station
Blackburn Ford today (Anstr Davidson)

It was the moment Longstreet had been waiting for. His 1st Virginia Infantry, opposite Blackburn Ford, opened up a volley of musket fire on the Northerners, and his five artillery pieces joined Bonham's to catch them in a vicious cross-fire. Richardson needed to deal with Longstreet's infantry quickly, or it could cross the ford and make short work of his gunners and horsemen. He called up the 12th New York and led them east of the road, to the left of the battery and ready to block any Confederates that crossed. Then he hurried back to collect the 1st Massachusetts and the 2nd and 3rd Michigan, to extend his line to the right of the battery, "when a very heavy fire of musketry and artillery was opened by the enemy along his whole line."

Richardson wasn't quite correct, it had actually only been two regiments of Longstreet's (the 1st and 17th Virginia) that had accompanied his artillery, and the New Yorkers had given almost as well as they had taken. Longstreet remembered mass panic among his men:
The first pouring-down volleys were most startling to the new troops. Part of my line broke and started at a run. To stop the alarm I rode with sabre in hand to the leading files, determined to give them all that was in the sword and in my horse's heels, or to stop the break. They seemed to see as much danger in their rear as in front, and soon turned and marched back to their places, to the evident surprise of the enemy.
The 12th New York fell back, but about twenty minutes later had returned to the top of the bluff that was Bull Run's northern bank. Met with another blast of fire from the two Virginia regiments, they again fell back. Longstreet felt confident now that victory was close, and sent to find out where the reinforcements from Colonel Jubal Early's reserve brigade that Beauregard had promised were. His own regiments were rapidly expending their ammunition and would need a time-consuming resupply. The New Yorkers came again and were driven back again, before the 7th Louisiana finally came up from Early's brigade. The Northerners came one more time, but, after another blast from the Southerners, they turned and fled. Richardson reported that they "had fallen back out of the woods in disorder, only parts of two companies, some sixty men in all, remaining in line, and retreating." The howitzers and the cavalry had fallen back too, leaving Richardson with the 1st Massachusetts completely alone and susceptible to an attack from Blackburn Ford, which was now further north than they were.

Longstreet could see this clearly and demanded to know where the rest of the reinforcements he had asked for earlier were. Unable to wait, he ordered the 1st and 17th Virginia across the narrow ford, but it was beyond their capabilities. In his later account he explained "the Fourth Brigade, in their drills in evolution, had not progressed as far as the passage of defiles."

It was at this moment that Early arrived with the 7th Virginia and opened "fire at anything and everything before them," according to Longstreet.
I thought to stop their fire by riding in front of his line, but found it necessary to dismount and lie under it till the loads were discharged. With the Federals on the bluff [the 1st Massachusetts], and Early's tremendous fire in our rear soldiers and officers became mixed and a little confused. Part of my men got across the Run and partially up the bluff on the enemy's side; a body of Union soldiers were met at the crest, where shots were exchanged, but passing the Run, encountering the enemy in the front, and receiving fire from our friends in the rear, were not reassuring.

While Longstreet collected his men and got Early's men firing at the right targets, Richardson had reached Tyler and reported that the 12th New York had fled (which should have been apparent to Tyler since some were running right past him). He proposed charging with his other three regiments to take Longstreet's position, since two were still fresh and the 1st Massachusetts was only lightly engaged. Tyler replied that he had accomplished his objective of seeing if the Confederates were defending in a strong position, something Bayard had told him was plain several hours earlier. Richardson's men should fall back to the hill Tyler was watching from, covered by artillery, until nightfall.

In Centreville, meanwhile, Sherman had been sent for. His brigade was marched forward as "support" for Richardson, in case he or the Confederates had successfully crossed Bull Run and extra troops were needed. The men jeered at any fleeing New Yorkers they encountered, but became more disconcerted when they got in range of the Confederate artillery that was answering Tyler's covering barrage. Men in the 79th New York (Cameron's Highlanders) remembered jumping at every shot and trying to somehow dodge the shots. Sherman rode on his horse among them and told them they were wasting their time, since by the time they heard the shells they had already passed over.

Hardly had the words passed his lips when a big shot or shell came crashing through the trees and but a few feet above him; down went his head, close to the pommel of the saddle, and when he raised it again it was to confront a line of grinning faces. 'Well boys,' said he, a broad smile softening his rather hard features. 'You may dodge the big ones.'
Longstreet's men were for the most part hidden from the Union fire by the bluff of Bull Run that they had struggled so hard to get up earlier in the evening. His gunners weren't so lucky and had to endure the hour long bombardment. The final losses of the affair occurred when Beauregard heard a rumor that McDowell planned on crossing downstream and ordered Early to march under the cover of the bluff to the position. Instead, he took the direct route, and Tyler's gunners took aim on the dust his men's feet kicked up and scored several direct hits. 

When Tyler withdrew his men to just south of Centreville for the night, Richardson had had 19 men killed, 38 wounded, and found 26 missing, for a total of 83 casualties. Longstreet's casualties were 68, including the colonel of the 1st Virginia.


James Fry summed up Blackburn Ford after the war in the context of the more famous battle a few days later thusly:
This unauthorized reconnoissance, called by the Federals the affair at Blackburn’s Ford, was regarded at the time by the Confederates as a serious attack, and was dignified by the name of the “battle of Bull Run,” the engagement of the 21st being called by them the battle of Manassas. The Confederates, feeling that they had repulsed a heavy and real attack, were encouraged by the result. The Federal troops, on the other hand, were greatly depressed. The regiment which suffered most was completely demoralized, and McDowell thought that the depression of the repulse was felt throughout his army and produced its effect upon the Pennsylvania regiment and the New York battery which insisted (their terms having expired) upon their discharge, and on the 21st, as he expressed it, “marched to the rear to the sound of the enemy’s cannon.” Even Tyler himself felt the depressing effect of his repulse, if we may judge by his cautious and feeble action on the 21st when dash was required.
Longstreet evaluated it also after the war, concluding:
The effect of this little affair was encouraging to the Confederates, and as damaging to the Federals. By the double action of success and failure, the Confederate infantry felt themselves christened veterans.
Richardson and Tyler's official reports are matter-of-fact, and place no judgment on the action. But Sherman wrote home to his wife that night with trepidation:

I am uneasy at the fact that the volunteers do as they please, and on the slightest pretext bang away. Danger from this desultory firing is greater than from the enemy as they are always so close, whilst the latter keep a respectful distance.
Beauregard wrote in his official report a week later:
Brigadier-General Longstreet... equaled my confident expectations, and, I may fitly say that, by his presence at the right place, at the right moment, among his men, by the exhibition of characteristic coolness, and by his words of encouragement to the men of his command, he infused a confidence and a spirit that contributed largely to the success of our arms on that day.
McDowell's message to the Winfield Scott's chief of staff the next day glossed over the event, instead explaining about his time with his army's left wing, under Colonel Sam Heintzelman, where he decided he would not be able to cross the Occoquan River with enough troops to beat Beauregard:
Whilst with Heintzelman I learned that [Tyler's] advance had become engaged with the enemy... By the time I got over... the firing on both sides had ceased. I have directed General Tyler to make a report of the affair, which I will forward when it comes to hand.
Jefferson Davis telegraphed Beauregard perhaps the most important commentary on the battle:
McRae's regiment, N.C., goes to you this evening. Barksdale's Mississippi regiment goes to you from Lynchburg. Further regiments have promise of transportation in the morning. Hampton's Legion and others will go as soon as possible. God be praised for your successful beginning. I have tried to join you, but remain to serve you hear as most useful to the times.
Davis had decided to support a fight at Manassas.

Print Sources (see Books section):
  • Kennett, 118-119
  • Longstreet, 22-25

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