Jackson stands firm at Henry Hill

Conclusion: Continuing Confederate reinforcements wear down Union troops on the western flank, and the federal soldiers' retreat turns to panic when they find the roads packed with spectators

First Bull Run/Manassas

August 01, 1999|By Paul Ruppel | Paul Ruppel,Special to the Sun

The defense of Henry Hill on the western flank of the Bull Run battlefield near Manassas, Va., became a critical event in the history of the young Confederacy in 1861. The Union army, led by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, was pushing back rebel soldiers on the left of the line and was threatening to flank all of Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard's Confederate Army of the Potomac.

Reinforcements from Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's Army of the Shenandoah and the strong line established by Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson to thwart the flanking movement saved the day for the Confederates.

Roughly at noon on July 21, 1861, Jackson's men arrived at Henry Hill. Jackson positioned his men on the reverse slope of this hill and told them to lie down. He had several reasons for using this tactic. The Union troops would not be able to see the rebels' position as they approached from Matthews Hill. The woodlands around them offered protection from the artillery fire, and they would be able to surprise the enemy when the Union troops charged ahead over the crest of the hill.

'Like a stone wall'

Confederate Brig. Gen. Barnard E. Bee's and Col. Francis S. Bartow's men were in disarray and were being pushed steadily off Matthews Hill. Bee rode back to Jackson and exclaimed, "General, they are driving us!"

Jackson replied sternly, "Sir, we will give them the bayonet."

Bee rode back to the front line and exclaimed, "Look, men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer! Follow me!"

Beauregard and Johnston continued to reinforce the Confederate left flank. They immediately deployed reserve units as they arrived from the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond, Va., positioning them on the left and right of Jackson's brigade. Many of these regiments were marched directly from the train into battle.

Two Union batteries of artillery were brought to the line to exchange fire with the Confederates. However, rebel troops managed to capture these Union artillery pieces. These cannon changed hands a number of times through the afternoon as the two armies surged back and forth. There were few, if any, entrenchments used in this battle, and most of the fighting involved volleys of rifle fire and a few bayonet charges.

When the 11th New York Regiment pushed forward, Jackson gave the order for Lt. Col. J. E. B. Stuart's 1st Virginia Cavalry to attack. The 150 horsemen charged through the New York regiment, causing disorganization and slowing its attack.

McDowell's troops regrouped at the base of Henry Hill and attempted a frontal assault. Jackson gave his men orders to hold their fire until the enemy was within 50 feet. The federal troops, who outnumbered the Confederates 2-to-1 on this line, charged once and received a heavy fire. They wavered before pushing forward again, and then once more almost up to the Confederate line. After their third unsuccessful push, the New York soldiers began a retreat down the hill.

Despite losing Bee and Bartow to mortal wounds, the Confederates held the momentum. They counterattacked vigorously, but this thrust was repelled when McDowell pushed four Union regiments forward to recover lost ground.

Rebel reinforcements

Beauregard was extremely concerned by reports of troops approaching from the southwest. He was concerned that Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson might have followed Johnston to Manassas and might be preparing to strike the weakened left flank of the Confederates. He was relieved to find that the approaching units were the fresh Confederate brigades of Col. Jubal A. Early and Brig. Gen. E. Kirby Smith moving onto the field. When Early's brigade approached federal regiments, it fired into the tired and confused troops.

The continuing reinforcement of the Confederate line turned the potential stalemate on Henry Hill into a rout. Almost all of the tiring Union regiments had taken a run at the Confederates on Henry Hill, but they could not drive them off. By 4:30 p.m., the federal troops began their retreat beyond Bull Run toward Washington.

The retreat was orderly at first, but when federal units crossed Bull Run, they found the roads packed with the carriages of congressmen and spectators who had come down to watch the battle. The retreat became frantic as spectators and soldiers alike headed for the safety of Washington. Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis triumphantly rode onto the battlefield as the battle was ending, encouraging his troops and commanders.

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