Clash at Blackburn's Ford

Feint: On July 18, 1861, a Union column was ordered to probe the Confederate right flank at Bull Run, but the reconnaissance unexpectedly turned into a sharp firefight and a rebel victory

First Bull Run/Manassas

August 01, 1999|By Andrew D. Faith | Andrew D. Faith,Sun Staff

In July of 1861 the Civil War was young.

The shooting war had started at 4:30 a.m. April 12 at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., where Confederate forces commanded by Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard of Louisiana bombarded the Union garrison and accepted its formal surrender April 14.

On April 15, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that an insurrection existed and calling out 75,000 militia from the Northern states to suppress it. The buildup for the First Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas as the South called it, had begun.

On May 24, three regiments of Union troops occupied Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac from the capital. The small Confederate garrison in the city fired a few shots and retreated, but Col. Elmer Ellsworth, 24, commander of a New York Zouave regiment, was shot to death by a Virginia civilian after lowering a Southern flag in the city.

On May 28, recently promoted Brig. Gen Irvin McDowell, 43, took command of the federal Department of Northeastern Virginia, and on June 2 the Confederate hero of Fort Sumter, Beauregard, assumed command of rebel forces in Northern Virginia, succeeding Brig. Gen. Milledge L. Bonham in what was variously known as the Potomac Department, the Department of Alexandria and the Confederate Army of the Potomac.

By mid-June, public opinion in the North was demanding action, and on June 29, McDowell presented his plans for attacking the Confederates at Manassas, Va., about 25 miles southwest of Washington, to a meeting of Lincoln's Cabinet.

McDowell's plan was part of an overall strategy for the region developed by Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott, 74, the commander of the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the war. Scott, a Virginian by birth, had been offered command of Confederate forces in Virginia, but his response had been, "I have served my country under the flag of the Union for more than 50 years, and as long as God permits me to live, I will defend that flag with my sword; even if my own native state assails it."

Scott envisioned sending Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson into the Shenandoah Valley to keep Southern forces there pinned down while McDowell attacked Manassas.

Patterson advanced to Martinsburg July 3, and the Confederates under Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston fell back before him. The Confederates had the same concept as Scott -- to contain Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley and shift their forces to reinforce Beauregard for the fight near Washington. Time would soon prove who was the better general in carrying out similar strategies.

'Forward to Richmond'

"Forward to Richmond" became the rallying cry of the Northern press, and on July 16 McDowell began to move his 35,000-man army toward Centreville, Va., where Beauregard awaited him with 22,000 men. The advancing federal troops consisted primarily of volunteers from New England, New York and New Jersey. Most of them had enlisted for three months, and their terms of service were nearly ended; the remainder were chiefly recent volunteers for three years' service and almost wholly untrained. The Union army also included about 800 regular Army troops and five companies of cavalry.

As McDowell and Scott planned the Bull Run campaign, they considered five avenues of attack against Beauregard's position at Manassas.

The first possible course was a flanking attack through Falls Church and Vienna. The second avenue would move by way of the Little River Turnpike through Fairfax Court House. The third path lay down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad line. The fourth approach was by way of a road south of the railroad line. And the last possibility was to move by water down the Potomac to Dumfries and then cross country to cut Manassas off from the South, an amphibious assault that McDowell ruled out as impractical with his inexperienced army.

McDowell and Scott settled on a plan to attack the eastern flank of the Confederate position with the intention of cutting Beauregard's Orange & Alexandria Railroad supply line and forcing him to withdraw to the Rappahannock River, 40 miles to the south.

McDowell's forces were divided into five divisions, commanded by Brig. Gens. Daniel Tyler and Theodore Runyon and Cols. David Hunter, Samuel P. Heintzelman and Dixon S. Miles.

The Confederate force against which this army was to move was stationed along Bull Run from Union Mills, where the Orange & Alexandria Railroad crossed that stream, to the Stone Bridge of the Warrenton Turnpike in the west, a distance of about eight miles. Bull Run formed a strong natural line of defense. Its banks were steep, rocky and wooded, and the fords were a mile or two apart, protected by entrenched Confederate positions.

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