Monday, July 18, 2011

Setting the Stage

Union guard at Centreville, 1861
Shortly before midnight, Brigadier General Milledge Bonham roused his brigade and prepared them to march from Centreville. By the first minutes of July 18, the weary men who had retreated from Fairfax Court House the night before were back on the road, marching down the Centreville Road (VA 28) to join the rest of their Confederate companions at a defensive position set on Bull Run.

Bonham's retreat was part of a consolidation of Confederate forces to defend Manassas Junction. That morning, Colonel Eppa Hunton's 8th Virginia Infantry abandoned Leesburg and began a three day march to join the army. Brigadier General Theophilus Holmes received orders to leave a minimal defense at Aquia Creek and join Beauregard as well. But together only a few thousand men would be added from these forces, the real coup was in the lower Shenandoah Valley, where the Union army under Major General Robert Patterson had inexplicably pulled back almost to the Potomac River the day before. Confederate Brigadier General Joesph E. Johnston took the opportunity to send his cavalry as close to Patterson as possible so as to block his scouts. With this screen in place, he began loading his infantry into box cars at Winchester for transport to Manassas Junction.

In Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia, it was expected to be another day of maneuvers. Having led the army the day before, Ambrose Burnside's brigade spent the morning leisurely packing up camp at Fairfax Court House. Their sister brigade would take the lead for the Second Division today, and Burnside's men would be following after them, all traveling down the increasingly crowded Warrenton Turnpike (VA 29).

Having spent the night further to the west, around Germantown, the First Division was now set to be the vanguard of the army. It had originally been meant as a pincer wing to the west of Fairfax Court House, where McDowell had expected (hoped for) G.T. Beauregard to fight. The First Division was under the command of a Connecticut militia officer, Brigadier General Daniel Tyler. Tyler had graduated West Point in 1819 and resigned from the army in 1834 - well before the Mexican War - to run a series of railroads. A combination of civilian and military politics had mandated that McDowell give him an important command and he was already beginning to regret it.

"I am distressed to have to report excesses by our troops," he dashed off to the U.S. Army's top officer, Brevet Lt. General Winfield Scott when he reached Germantown and saw the handiwork of Tyler's men. "The excitement of the men found vent in burning and pillaging, which, however soon checked, distressed us all greatly. I go on to Centreville in a few moments."

Colonel W. Tecumseh Sherman led his unruly Third Brigade as part of Tyler's Division. Historian Lee Kennet collected accounts from the brigade on Sherman's fruitless efforts to control them:
He had his two aides police the column as much as they could, calling out "Colonel Sherman says you must keep in the rank," "you must close up," "you must not chase the pigs and the chickens," and so on. The soldiers would shout back, "who are you, anyway?" And as they passed up and down the column the aides were followed by catcalls.
When Burnside's brigade passed through the ashes of Germantown later that afternoon, he was appalled at the damage. Like many military men, Burnside was a conservative who sympathized with slave-owners, though not rebels. He shared the opinion of most of the country (expressed by Lincoln in his July 4 message to Congress) that a hot-headed few had forced the reasonable majority of Southerners to secede, and believed the devastation being wrought by Tyler's men would only drive those reasonable people into the arms of the extremists.

At about 9:00 am, Tyler's lead brigade entered Centreville, finding it completely abandoned by Bonham's men. It was the Fourth Brigade, under Michigan militia Colonel Israel B. Richardson, a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran that was highly regarded by Winfield Scott. Richardson turned his men onto the Centreville Road, towards Mitchell's Ford, and stopped them about a mile south of Centreville to fill up their canteens at a spring. That's where he was met by Tyler, who had come with orders received from McDowell an hour and a half before. "Observe well the roads to Bull Run and to Warrenton," McDowell had told him. "Do not bring on an engagement, but keep on the pressure that we are moving on Manassas. I go to Heintzelman's to arrange about the plan we have talked over."

McDowell was considering what to do now that Beauregard had refused to fight at Fairfax Court House. Still following his plan of June 29, he did not intend to directly attack the defenses the Confederates had been building for two months on the straight line from Centreville to Manassas, but he had to decide whether to go upstream or downstream. Tyler, Richardson, a squadron of cavalry (about 80), and two companies of infantry, left the rest of the brigade and continued down Centreville Road to scout out the Confederate position and see how to best convince Beauregard that McDowell was planning a direct attack.

Watching them from Yorkshire, the estate of Wilmer McLean (and today a neighborhood of Manssas Park), was Beauregard himself, along with his staff. Yorkshire was ideally located on some high hills above the Centreville Road from which all the key defended fords could be seen. Stationing himself there was Captain E. Porter Alexander, Beauregard's chief engineer, who had spent the previous two weeks teaching a set of hand-picked men in the art of signalling, specifically the new wig-wag system of using square flags to send messages long distance. From there he would be in a perfect position to let Bonham, now guarding Mitchell's Ford on Centreville Road, know what the Union was up to.
I had gotten a good point of view & had brought a chair from the house to make a good rest for my large spyglass & I was closely studying the rolling hills across the creek when I saw a group of Federal officers ride out on an open hill some 1,500 yards off & hold quite a consultation. Evidently, our position was most conspicuous with signs of life of all that they could see & they decided to wake us up & bring out some demonstration of our position.

Alexander's perfect position was also perfectly in sight of Richardson and Tyler. After chasing away Confederate pickets, Richardson's reconnaissance had discovered the position at Blackburn Ford manned by Brigadier General James Longstreet, which meant that if he kept proceeding down the Centreville Road towards Mitchell's Ford, Confederate artillery would be firing on his men's sides (called "enfilading" fire in military parlance). He deployed the two companies in a battle line across the road (along the path of today's VA 28, at the time Centreville Road proceeded down today's Old Centreville Road) and called up a battery of artillery to challenge the Confederates to shoot back and expose their positions. The McLean House made a perfect target, with all its bustle, and Alexander watched the Union men through his spyglass.
I watched with great interest as they while they loaded one gun, aimed it directly at us & then fired the first hostile shot I had ever heard. It howled about 40 feet directly over our heads & struck in the corn-field beyond us. Then I watched them load again & aim & the second shot fell short about 100 yards, striking in a peach orchard. Then they loaded three or four guns, taking quite a time & aiming carefully & then they fired all three simultaneously & in about five minutes all three arrived in a shrieking chorus.
All three landed on the grounds of the McLean house, one in the kitchen where McLean's slaves had been preparing dinner for the staff.
Fortunately, not a soul was touched, but there was a general stampede of all the horses hitched about the yard... & of a good many miscellaneous people--among them our darkeys, who tumbled out of the kitchen, & rolled over each other getting out of the way.* Our dinner was ruined by the mud daubing between the logs jarred out as the shell passed through both walls falling into the sliced up meat & dished up vegetables & we went without dinner that day.
They are recorded as the opening shots of the first major engagement of the war (a status that would probably not be agreed to by the handful of men already killed and wounded during the march of the previous two days).

This afternoon, the action continues at Blackburn's Ford.

*N.B. I believe that distorting the offensiveness of the past through cover-up, glossing over, or omission is a mistake and trusts his reader to condemn that which ought to be. In this case, for example, many accounts of the battle recount Alexander's humorous description of the ruin of Beauregard's dinner, but do the disservice of omitting that he also found amusement at the expense of blacks, and that this was condoned by American society. When people today fail to show sympathy for the butt of jokes of a similar nature, it is because they have overlooked or been deprived of this

Print Sources (see Books)
  • Alexander, 45-46
  • Kennet, 118
  • Burnside, 20

No comments:

Post a Comment