Monday, July 11, 2011

Beauregard On Edge

Col. Sloan's 4th South Carolina preparing fortifications on Bull Run
from the August 8 Harper's Weekly

By July 11, Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Army of the Potomac, was becoming very nervous. He had written his friend and former aide, Confederate Congressman Louis Wigfall on July 8 expressing his fears.
I believe we are about to be attacked by the enemy...probably by about 40,000 men! What do you suppose is my effective force to resist this attack? About 15,000 effective men! How can it be expected that I shall be able to maintain my ground unless reinforce immediately? ...Is it right and proper to sacrifice so many valuable lives (and perhaps our cause) without the least prospect of success?
But, as usual, Beauregard had ulterior motives.
I have to reply two or three times for the most essential things required here. To obtain anything with dispatch I have to send a special messenger to Richmond. Is this the way to direct and control operations of an army in the field? Cannot this evil be remedied? I am sure it could if properly presented to the President.

(A brief aside is needed on Wigfall: he was one of the pre-war "fire eaters" who gleefully pursued disunion. Born in South Carolina, he served as U.S. Senator from Texas until expelled for spying, then joined Beauregard as an aide at the grade of colonel in Charleston harbor. Remarkably, he negotiated the surrender of Robert Anderson and Fort Sumter completely without the authorization or knowledge of Beauregard, which created several additional hours of confusion as Beauregard futilely tried to renegotiate the terms.)

Beauregard was actually remarkably well informed, though he overestimated the number of troops available to his opponent, Irvin McDowell, by about 20,000 (he pegged his army at 35,000 with 15,000 in reserve -- in fact, the reserve troops would remain in defense of Washington and were overestimated anyway). He had also properly identified the build up to battle. McDowell had been scheduled to step off for Manassas Junction on the day Beauregard wrote his letter to Wigfall, but bureaucratic and logistical delays were making it impossible to move.

On July 11, Beauregard became nervous enough to contact provisional President Jefferson Davis directly, using a census of his overall forces as a pretext (he had 535 men operating 27 pieces of field artillery, 293 men specialized in the stationary heavy artillery, 1,425 cavalry, and 16,150 infantrymen, for a total of 18,401). Of these men, Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia was still in Leesburg defending Edwards' and Conrad's Ferries, and J.E.B. Sloan's 4th South Carolina had moved from Leesburg with the end of the Union's Rockville Expedition but only gotten as far as Frying Pan Church (next to today's Dulles Airport), weakening his Fifth Brigade considerably (both would arrive in time for the battle, though Sloan would fight for "Shanks" Evans instead).

I have every reason to believe the enemy will begin his advance from his present position, at or about Falls Church, tomorrow or the following day...To this I can oppose but 16,500, reserving 1,500 for camp guards, pickets, and the garrison of the intrenched camp here. In consequence, I have issued Special Order No. 100, enclosed herewith, concentrating my troops... in the hope of conducting the movement so as to induce the enemy to offer me battle in front of Mitchell's Ford, where his numerical superiority would be materially counterbalanced by the difficulties of the ground and my previous preparation there for the event.
"But I am, however," Beauregard continued, "inclined to believe that he may attempt to turn my left flank..." and then he sketched out a radically different scenario to the one he had spent over five weeks preparing for, involving McDowell marching to Frying Pan Church, marching to Haymarket to cut the Manassas Gap Railroad and separate Beauregard from the Army of the Shenandoah under Joe Johnston, then simultaneously attacking Johnston's and Beauregard's connections to Richmond, while supplied through a captured Leesburg and down the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. It was patently absurd.
Of course, if I had sufficient force, one less unequal to that of the enemy, I would not permit him, with impunity, to attempt so dangerous a movement on his part; but in view of the odds against me, and of the vital importance at this juncture of avoiding the hazard of a defeat, which would open to the enemy the way to Richmond, I shall act with extreme caution.

He continued his run-on paragraph with a somewhat melodramatic description of how he would fall back, first on Brentsville, then Fredericksburg, and the men who might stay behind to delay McDowell. Beauregard had concluded his earlier letter to Wigfall with the wistful lament, "if I could only get the enemy to attack me, as I am trying to have him do, I would stake my reputation on the handsomest victory that could be hoped for." His conclusion to his letter to Davis was considerably more dejected, despite a brave face:
In presenting the foregoing to the consideration of your Excellency, I wish it distinctly understood, however, that if the enemy should offer battle along the line of Bull Run, I shall accept it for my command, against whatsoever odds he may array in my front.


  1. These commmanders have shown a propensity for histrionics thus far - it sort of reminds me of the Red Badge of Courage. Sitting around and waiting for battle is far worse than being in battle because when waiting in anticipation, your anxieties get the best of you. Do think there was some of this going on with the commanders as well?

  2. The Red Badge of Courage is a good point of comparison, because the generals also went through a range of emotions before and during battle. Patterson around Harper's Ferry in July 1861, McClellan in February 1862, Pope before Manassas in August 1862, Burnside before Fredericksburg in December 1862, and Burnside again before the Crater in 1864 are all examples in the Eastern Theater of generals getting into trouble through anticipation before the battle.

    But Beauregard arguably has a unique pressure on him that exacerbates his own propensity for histrionics. I plan on going into his precarious position in Confederate politics a little bit later this week.