Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marching on Manassas

McDowell's map of Northern Virginia from July 1861 (LOC)
"McDowell marched on the afternoon of July 16th, the men carrying three days’ rations in their haversacks," recounted James B. Fry, the assistant adjutant general and chief of staff for the Army of Northeast Virginia. "Provision wagons were to follow from Alexandria the next day." As the top staffer for Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, leader of the army sent by the Federal Government to crush the rebels around Manassas Junction, Fry would barely have slept the night before as he ensured every one of the five division commanders perfectly understood how their men were to get to the rally point at Centreville.

"One day... we received our first order to march to a field of battle," remembered Francis Fiske, the lieutenant colonel (thus second in command) of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry Regiment in Ambrose Burnside's brigade. Orders traveled from Fry who interpreted McDowell's will, to Second Division commander Colonel David Hunter, whose staff interpreted it into new orders suitable to get his two brigades moving. Those orders then reached Burnside and his Second Brigade, whose staff further refined them for the four regiments. One of these regiments was the 2nd New Hampshire, whose colonel, Gilman Marston, then had his staff further refine them for his companies (as a former Congressman, Marston probably had aides that were volunteers, but the poorer or less famous colonels wrote the next set of orders themselves). Lt. Colonel Fiske received the orders with the company commanders and other officers of his regiment.

"The order contained several instructions as to details," Fiske wrote, "Ending with one that the surgeons should take their 'amputating instruments.' I don't think I ever read any other sentence which made me feel so uncomfortable as that did."

McDowell's plan called for advancing along two lines, but the plan Fry passed on to the division commanders was more complex. The Third Division, under professional soldier Colonel Sam Heintzelman, was ordered to move south of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (along the path the Capitol Beltway now follows) as far as Accotink Creek (just west of Springfield) as a supporting column. The main thrust would come from the Second Division, which McDowell would accompany personally, going down the Little River Turnpike (VA 236) to Fairfax Court House. The Fifth Division, also headed by a professional soldier, would follow it. Further to the north, the not-yet-united First Division would unite at Vienna. The First Division had a militia general, as did the Fourth Division, which would hang back as a reserve.

Division commanders were allowed to choose the orders of their brigades, with the exception of the Second Division, where Fry specified that Burnside was to lead the march. July 17, the three columns were to converge on Centreville, the main thrust marching straight down the Warrenton Turnpike (VA 28) from Germantown, the First Division angling along any of several roads from the north, and the Fourth Division coming up from Burke. The men would march tentless, with only what they could carry and ammunition wagons, to be followed the next day only by "a small baggage train for each brigade" to carry their cooking materials. Two trains loaded with food would follow a day later, accompanied by a herd of cattle to feed the army.

McDowell clearly had asked Fry to ensure the orders could function as a remedial course in generaling to all the commanders. It is full of practical advice for how to carry out a march and a fight. "The three following things will not be pardonable in any commander," Fry wrote, clearly dictated by McDowell. "1st. To come upon a battery or breastwork without knowledge of its position. 2d. To be surprised. 3d. To fall back. Advance guards with vedettes [pickets] well in front and flankers and vigilance, will guard against the first and second." It also contains the prescient advice: "There is on many of our regiments nothing to distinguish them from those of the enemy, and great care must be taken to avoid firing into each other."

Before marching his unruly brigade out of Fort Corcoran on the Rosslyn estate, Colonel Cump Sherman took a few moments to write a farewell letter to his wife. "Whatever befalls me," he wrote, "I know that you appreciate what good qualities I possess and will make charitable allowances for defects, and that under your care our children will grow up on the safe side... Goodbye and believe me always most affectionately yours." Throughout the army countless men and boys were doing the same. Sherman sealed his letter, left it with the 28th New York which would remain behind to man the fort, and formed off his brigade to join the First Division at Vienna.

As the men were leaving their camps in Alexandria County, Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow was leaving Washington, DC as well. She was the widow of a long-time State Department employee, who had once been the belle of Washington, doted on by Dolly Madison. But Greenhow had also been close friends with John C. Calhoun, who convinced her of the justness of his doctrines of states' rights and secession. She maintained close ties with Southern-sympathizing Members of Congress and had already once passed information to Brigadier General G.T. Beauregard.

She counted the men, sewed the careful tally into her dress, and hurried off by different roads towards the Confederates under Theophilus Holmes at Aquia Creek. Holmes had the message to Beauregard by 8:00 pm, and Borey sent on the news to Brigadier General Milledge Bonham, his advance brigade based on Fairfax Court House, with instructions to fall back when McDowell advanced. He also sat down to draft a telegram he would send that night to Jefferson Davis, demanding that Holmes and troops from the army of Joe Johnston be transferred to him immediately.

Not that Beauregard really needed the information from Mrs. Greenhow to avoid being surprised, since McDowell's army was moving so slowly. When night fell on July 16 the army was less than half way to the first day's objectives, and Fry would have to lose another night's sleep re-planning the march for tomorrow in a way that both maintained the integrity of the three columns plan and found easier roads to travel.

Burnside's brigade managed to find some fields near Annandale to spend the night in. The 2nd New Hampshire took a cornfield as their bed and spent the night, which was, according to Fiske, "luckily a pleasant one, barring a slight shower." It was their first time spending the night without tents and outside of an established camp. They were "lying in the soft furrows, with knapsacks and saddles for pillows; not a bad bed, although primitive in its make up and appointments."

Print Sources:
  • Sherman: A Soldier's Life by Lee Kennet
  • Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

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