|Fairfax Court-House in 1863, with Union soldiers posing.|
The Confederate camps were a frenzy of excitement. At last, the Yankees were coming."Notwithstanding they're numerical superiority, they can be repelled," Beauregard boldly assured his men. "And the general commanding relies confidently on his command to do it, and to drive the invader back beyond his intrenched lines." This new found confidence in victory had to do with a decision made in Richmond in the early hours of the morning to order the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah under Brigadier General Joe Johnston in Winchester to load onto trains and move to Manassas Junction. Beauregard had been requesting the union of the two forces for over a month, to the great resistance of provisional President Jefferson Davis (not taking any chances, Beauregard went ahead and telegraphed Johnston himself to relay the news).
Like Irvin McDowell's order of the previous day, Beauregard took the opportunity of his General Order to remind his men of a bit of basic soldiery. "Great reliance will be place on the bayonet at the proper juncture; but, above all, it is enjoined on officers and men to withhold their fire until directed." Untrained men, who carried only around thirty rounds of ammunition, were far more likely to shoot off all their rounds before the enemy even came into range (or shoot high when they did come into range). Forbidding them to fire until directed allowed the officers to make use of massing their combined force to create shocking bursts of violence that would stun their opponents and give them a chance to charge with bayonet and rout them. It was the tactic of Napoleon, which had conquered all of Europe for a brief time.
McDowell's men were up before dawn as well, stretching out their cramped bodies and back on the march again. Ambrose Burnside's four regiments formed up to lead the Second Division down Little River Turnpike (VA 236) from Annandale to Fairfax Court House (City of Fairfax), the main thrust of the army. The going was tougher than the day before, related Lt. Colonel Francis Fiske of the 2nd New Hampshire.
We had from time to time to remove trees which had been felled across the road to obstruct our march, and we invaded two or three rebel camps, which were hurriedly abandoned at our approach. Some of us could bear witnesses to the savoriness of some smoking hot dishes just served, though comments were made on the bad manners of the Rebs in not waiting to welcome us to the repast the had cooked for us.A row of blackberry bushes proved equally troublesome, as the men enthusiastically dropped out of line on the dusty dirt road to enjoy the fruit. The Confederates who Burnside's men were not chasing with any hurry belonged to the brigade of Milledge Bonham, the former Congressman from South Carolina who had been placed at Fairfax Court House and the surrounding countryside to act as a trip-wire for Beauregard's army.
"Early that morning," Bonham wrote in his official report about July 17, "I received from my scouts confirmation of what I had been hearing many hours previos, viz, that the enemy would probably advance on me that morning by the Alexandria , Flint Hill [Oakton], and, it was said, the Falls Church roads [today VA 236, VA 123, and US 29, respectively]." When, sometime between 8:00 and 9:00 Union artillery opened up from Flint Hill (artillery from the First Division's right hook column, coming from Vienna), Bonham's men enthusiastically took up their defensive positions behind carefully dug entrenchments, not knowing that their orders were to avoid a fight.
In fact, McDowell himself expected that Fairfax Court House would probably be the location of the battle and had spent the night carefully adjusting his plans to bring his three columns in a perfect striking position on the small community (Confederate Colonel Robert Rodes from Dick Ewell's brigade vividly reported skirmishes with the advance of Sam Heintzelman's Third Division on Braddock Road). But Bonham had already dispatched his baggage and supply trains to the other side of Bull Run and briefed all of the regimental commanders in secret of the retreat to the fall-back position at Mitchell's Ford. Still, he waited before giving the order.
About 9 o' clock, the enemy made his appearance in large force on the Flint Hill slope, and, deploying his columns, moved down toward the Court-House, his lines extending a great distance across the open fields... I awaited his approach till a part of his force arrived within a half mile of my works to be satisfied that his force was such "superior force" as I had heard it would be...Without any other form of observation, the best intelligence armies of the period could receive was from shooting at their enemy and seeing what shot back. Bonham's patience had already yielded important information for Beauregard: 1) Rose Greenhow's information was correct, a very large Federal force was marching from Alexandria, 2) they were at least two columns (and the report from Rodes would identify the third column), and 3) that there was not a column advancing from Falls Church. As Bonham gave the order to retreat to Mitchell's Ford by way of Centreville, all this information was rushed to Beauregard, whose staff sat down at his new, forward headquarters at an estate called Yorkshire near Bull Run, and carefully plotted the information coming in.
McDowell had actually attempted to improve on this time-proven system of intelligence by creating a balloon corps. Ever since Thaddeus Lowe had tested his balloon Enterprise at the DC Armory and impressed the President, a steady persuasive effort had been made by Lowe to spin the success into a U.S. Army contract (we would know it as "lobbying"). Lowe had been underbid in the final days of June by a man named John Wise, and huffily refused to collaborate with Wise on a joint venture. Wise, however, couldn't get his balloon working and the Army turned to another inventor named Allen, whose two balloons were both damaged at the headquarters of the new technology's biggest proponent, Daniel Tyler of the First Division, in Fall's Church. The morning of July 17, the army sent word to Lowe to inflate his balloon and join them, and he excitedly began filling it at the gas main at the Columbian Armory.
Back at Fairfax Court House, the Second Brigade of the Second Division formed up and prepared to assault the Confederate defenses. Ambrose Burnside rode out on horseback in front of his men, stretched out in battle lines and gave the order to load their weapons. He bellowed a final rallying speech about the perils they faced and the glory of their cause, and ordered the men forward. But when the first men of the brigade charged the entrenchments, they found them abandoned. Bonham had already given the order to retreat.
Francis Fiske was with the front of the 2nd New Hampshire when it moved into Fairfax Court House:
As we entered the town on the heels of the retreating rebels, we remarked a want of correctness in the flag which floated from the courthouse, and one of the men from the 2nd Rhode Island pulled it down and ran up one which had more stars and stripes on it.The failure to defend Fairfax Court-House gave McDowell reason to pause, and he sent back to Washington for the balloon to hurry its advance. The engineers' office decided to switch from Lowe's balloon to Wise's, and the now twice-burned inventor had to unhook his balloon so that Wise could inflate his from the gas main. In the meantime, McDowell halted Burnside's brigade, but kept other troops following close on the heels of Bonham's Confederates, mostly down the Warrenton Turnpike (VA 29). Though they stayed close, both sides avoided combat, all the way to Centreville. "At dark," Bonham reported, "our pickets were within a few hundred paces of each other."
Burnside's brigade remained put. Recalled Fiske, "The hard streets of Fairfax Court House, upon which we slept--those of us who could--the second night [of the campaign] made us think with regret of the soft furrows of the cornfield."