On the morning of July 21, 1861, Union troops in Centerville, VA were roused at 2:00 a.m. by the beat of drums. Few had slept at all. They were to fight that day in the first major battle of the Civil War. Many were full of bravado, itching to “whoop some Rebs”. But they were very green troops, and woefully unprepared.
Union General Irvin McDowell was well aware of the state of his Army. He had argued against an attack so soon, but President Lincoln disagreed.... "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike." he said.
To compensate for his lack of a well-trained army, McDowell had hoped for a surprise attack on the Confederate-held train station at Manassas Junction, just twenty miles southwest of Washington. From there, he planned to force a Southern retreat to Fredericksburg, and commence a slow, relentless march to Richmond.
But McDowell was not to have his hoped-for advantage of surprise. Washington socialite Maria Rosatta O'Neale, the “Rebel Rose of the Civil War” and a Confederate sympathizer, had informed Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard of the impending attack. Beauregard not only had sufficient time to assemble his own troops at Manassas Station – he also had time to summon General Joseph E. Johnston (fighting off a small diversionary attack in the Shenandoah Valley) to assist in the battle.
And so the stage was set.
McDowell planned a three-pronged approach. The major obstacle between Centerville and Manassas Station was the relatively small river of Bull Run. While shallow enough to walk across in many places, it's steep banks presented a real challenge to the movement of artillery and supply trains. A stone bridge built on the main road between the two towns (then called the Warrenton Pike) was the obvious crossing point. But McDowell knew that this bridge was narrow, and likely to be heavily guarded.
Another potential crossing point was located just a few miles to the east, at Blackburn's Ford. Here, the river banks were low, and pontoon bridges could easily be built. But the Confederates were sure to have placed a number of troops at this point as well.
McDowell's strategy, then, was to create the illusion of main thrusts at both the Stone Bridge and Blackburn's Ford. But the majority of his army would actually cross Bull Run at another location several miles west of the bridge – Sudley Springs. Scouting expeditions reported that this area was lightly held, and crossing conditions were favorable.
McDowell's four divisions were thus assigned: one division was to attack at the Stone Bride, another at Blackburn’s Ford, and the remaining two at Sudley Springs. It was a good plan, but a complicated one – demanding precise timing and coordination from untrained and undisciplined troops. As such, the plan fell apart almost immediately.
Three divisions marched down Warrenton Pike at 2:30 a.m. that morning – the Stone Bridge division, and the two Sudley Springs divisions. Progress was slow, and while the Stone Bridge division reached it target almost on schedule (5:30 a.m.), the Sudley Springs divisions was forced to march west, off the Pike, miles before the Bridge. Sleepy soldiers stumbled through the forests and cornfields in the dark. The Sudley Springs divisions began arriving at their targeted crossing point at about 9:30 a.m. - nearly two and a half hours late.
Confederate Generals Beauregard and Johnston, meanwhile, had positioned their headquarters on a high point just south of Blackburn’s Ford - two miles east of the Stone Bridge, and nearly four miles east of the main attack.
When fighting began early in the morning at Blackburn’s Ford and the Stone Bridge, Southern reinforcements were sent to those points. The roar of arms and artillery at the Ford and Bridge completely masked the sounds of the real battle beginning at Sudley Springs.
Only a huge cloud of dust, which became visible by mid-morning over the forest more than four miles away, revealed the true nature of the Union strategy. By 11:00 a.m., the unmistakable fury of the battle to the west was clear. Beauregard and Johnston reacted quickly. But the damage had already been done. Union troops had crossed Bull Run.
Fierce fighting pushed the Confederates further and further south – over Mathews Hill, across the Warrenton Pike, and finally to the high ground of Henry Hill. It was here that the Confederates made a bold stand. Despite a strong push by Union solders, General Jackson stood “like a stone wall'. Progress came to a standstill, and both armies fought furiously on that hill for most of the afternoon.
Then, at about 3:30 p.m., the Confederates began to advance. “Yell like furies!”, Jackson told his troops – and they did. The Rebel yell, first heard on Henry Hill, haunted Union troops for the rest of the war.
The Union retreat was disorganized and disastrous. Under heavy shelling, overturned carts blocked the escape of troops at the Stone Bridge and Sudley Springs. Union generals could not rally their troops for a counterattack, or even to maintain a disciplined retreat. Union soldiers, trapped by the mayhem in front of them, were captured by the thousands. Those lucky enough to cross Bull Run and head north for safety faced a long and difficult journey back to Washington.
Amazingly, the South did not press it's advantage. Southern generals found that it was as difficult to rally green Confederate solders celebrating victory as it was for Northern generals to rally green Union soldiers in defeat. A steady rain began to fall that night, and Confederate troops made no effort to advance.
Bull Run / Manassas was the largest, and bloodiest, battle in American history to date when it took place – a distinction that would be repeatedly and horrendously surpassed throughout the entire conflict. Union casualties were substantial by the standards of the day: 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing or captured. Confederate casualties were lower: 387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing.
The battle shocked both the North and the South. It was now very clear that the war would be a long and bloody affair. President Lincoln immediately requested five hundred thousand recruits for the North. Celebrations in the South were tempered by the knowledge that many more soldiers would die.
Perhaps General William Tecumseh Sherman understood it best when he wrote this:
“No body [sic], no one man can save the country. The difficulty is with the masses. Our men are not good Soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain sadly if they don’t get everything they want and a march of a few miles uses them up.
It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.”
On the morning of July 21, 2011, I woke very early and made my way to the Stone Bridge.
Although the sun was not yet up, it was already quite hot. The meadows and low lying areas along Bull Run were covered in a heavy mist. I parked my car just north of the Bridge, and walked a short distance along the old Warrenton Pike. This was the road that Union soldiers had marched on. It was 5:00 a.m.
Only the buzz of cicadas broke the silence there. I crossed the Bridge, and sat on the Confederate side. In a few hours, thousands would gather to listen as the Governor of Virginia officially commenced ceremonies recognizing the anniversary of Bull Run. Over the course of the next few days, many more thousands would watch as Civil War enthusiasts reenacted the battle. Souvenirs and official stamps would be sold. Period music would be played, and period fashion shows would take place.
But exactly one hundred and fifty years after the first shots were fired, in the first major battle of the worst war this country has ever faced, the Stone Bridge was utterly peaceful. I stayed on the bridge for an hour. I had it completely to myself.