• Tim Murphy

The Battles of Manassas/Bull Run


During the summer of 1861, America was a nation in shambles. The election of Abraham Lincoln the year prior consequently resulted in a domino effect of secession by southern states, leading to the formation of the Confederate States of America in February 1861. In an effort to display legitimacy as a new nation, the C.S.A. fired upon Fort Sumter, South Carolina, later that April. The bloodless bombardment was viewed as an act of war, and with that, the Civil War had begun. The first major battle of the war took place on fields of Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861, but the two armies would meet again on the same ground in August 1862. Both engagements would result in unfathomable amounts of destruction and unprecedented Union defeats.

First Manassas: July 21, 1861

On July 16, 1861, Union General Irvin McDowell and his 35,000 recruits marched out of Washington D.C. to capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. The majority of his soldiers had enlisted as volunteers, expecting the war to be a harrowing, exuberant, and honorable undertaking. No one expected a long campaign, let alone a major battle to manifest. This nonchalant attitude, coupled with a lack of military discipline and battle-readiness, would prove detrimental to the green Union army.

Confederate leadership anticipated a Northern invasion and ordered the placement troops along railroad junctions to hinder Federal advances through Northern Virginia. The Confederate forces at Manassas Junction prevented General McDowell from marching directly to Richmond. On July 18, while the Union army was stationed at Centreville, McDowell dispatched General Daniel Tyler and a scouting party towards Bull Run with orders to report back any Confederate positions they observed. Tyler's men advanced to Blackburn's Ford (a crossing point on the creek) where they encountered concealed Confederate forces. An intense skirmish ensued resulting in Tyler's retreat.

Upon hearing about this engagement, McDowell and his staff strategized plans to attack the Confederates under better circumstances. The final Union battle plan had members of Tyler's Division engage the Confederate right flank at the Stone Bridge, serving as a distraction while the rest of McDowell's troops would maneuver around the skirmish and strike from behind.

Word quickly spread about the pending engagement between the two armies. On the morning of July 21, prior to the battle, the citizens of Manassas assembled on the outskirts of the battlefield to witness the "show," oblivious to the severity of the situation and unaware of the events about to unfold. At daybreak, Union guns positioned on top of Matthews Hill under the command of Colonel Ambrose Burnside and the 2nd Rhode Island opened fire. Confederate troops under the command of Colonel Nathan Evans returned fire, but did not move from their defensive position at Stone Bridge. At the same time, Confederate reinforcements arrived at Manassas Junction. Generals Joseph Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard marched to the battlefield as the Confederates were on the brink of defeat. The scattered regiments rallied behind the generals and fresh reinforcements and put up strong resistance against the Union artillery, although the forces at Matthews Hill were ordered to retreat.

Seeing the Confederate line fall back, General McDowell decided to pursue. At 1:30 pm, he ordered the US artillery batteries of captains Charles Griffin and James Ricketts to position themselves atop Henry Hill (across the road from Matthews Hill). The maneuver was conducted before the infantry could mobilize, which exposed their position too soon. The gleaming cannon barrels and colorful red uniforms made the artillerymen easy targets for Confederate sharpshooters. Ricketts himself was shot in the leg and later captured by the Confederate army.

While moving into position, Captain Griffin noticed a squadron of troops marching out of the woods. He wanted to concentrate artillery fire in that direction, but his commanding officer hesitated, unsure if the troops were friend or foe. The terms 'Blue and Gray' were hardly synonymous with 'North and South.' In fact, there were over 200 uniforms worn at the First Battle of Bull Run (not to mention...numerous soldiers wore nondescript civilian clothing), making it hard to distinguish sides. The unidentified troops marched within forty paces of Griffin's artillery, leveled their muskets, and fired point-blank into the Union army. They were members of 33rd VA, leading the Confederate charge on Henry Hill. The chaos and confusion, in addition to the indecisiveness of Union leadership, forced the Union army back to Sudley Road. The decimation of the US artillery on Henry Hill marked the turning point of the battle.

Around mid-afternoon, Federal troops made a desperate attempt to recapture their artillery equipment from Henry Hill. They managed to secure two pieces, but were soon overrun by a Confederate charge. Intense hand-to-hand combat ensued on the hill for about an hour with neither side having a clear advantage. In the state of disarray, one Virginia regiment remained composed. General Thomas Jackson and his men stood firm and held their ground throughout the afternoon. Upon seeing this sight, General Barnard Elliott Bee, commander of the Third Brigade Army of the Shenandoah, called out to his men saying, "Form! Form! There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!" Bee was killed shortly after reorganizing his troops, but his words are forever emulated in the nickname "Stonewall" Jackson.

By the day's end, the Confederate battle line extended from Henry Hill to Chinn Ridge. The Union army was in hasty retreat back to Washington. Eleven hours of fighting resulted in 5,000 casualties (3,000 Union, 2,000 Confederate), 900 of which dead. Both sides realized that with staggering numbers such as these, the war would last much longer than anticipated.

In the aftermath, the Confederate army made a statement victory while the Federal army suffered an embarrassing defeat. McDowell's command of the Union army was relieved shortly after the smoke cleared from the battlefield. General George B. McClellan would take McDowell's place as leader of the Army of the Potomac and shift the focus of the war to the Virginia Peninsula in 1862. However, the two armies would reconvene on the fields of Manassas only a year later following the failure of McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.

Second Manassas: August 28-30, 1862

On the evening of August 28, 1862, weary Union troops under the command of General Rufus King encountered what they believed to be a small Confederate artillery force along Warrenton Pike. Brigadier General John Gibbon and the 2nd Wisconsin decided to pursue the enemy and attempt to drive them away. To Gibbon's surprise, they didn't find Confederate artillery, but lines of Confederate infantry under the command of Stonewall Jackson ready for battle. Gibbon immediately called for members of the 19th Indiana to move forward and form a battle line along Brawner Farm. The two sides exchanged in heavy musket fire until dusk blanketed the landscape. Of the 7,000 troops engaged in the firefight, nearly a third were listed as casualties by nightfall. The Second Battle of Bull Run had officially begun.

That night, General John Pope, commander of the 65,000-man Union army, mobilized all of his troops to the battlefield. With Jackson's position revealed, Pope believed that he could force the Confederate army into retreat by shear numbers, entrap them, and force Jackson to surrender. On the morning of August 29, Pope found that instead of retreating, Jackson fell back to strong defensive positions along an unfinished rail bed. In addition, General Longstreet arrived with 30,000 Confederate troops overnight. While the Union still outnumbered the Confederates, they were in for a much bigger fight than they originally expected.

Major General A.P. Hill and his men took up positions along Sudley Springs Ford and repulsed a series of bloody Union attacks throughout the day. The heaviest of these attacks occurred at the expense of General Maxcy Gregg's South Carolina Brigade. Gregg and his 1,200 men were positioned on a small rocky knoll on the Confederate left flank and withstood six separate Union charges. Despite breaking through the Confederate lines a couple times, the Union army was unable to take the rail bed.

On the morning of August 30, eighteen cannon under the command of Colonel Stephen Lee were positioned on the outskirts of Brawner Farm (an area called Battery Heights), linking the Confederate battle lines of Jackson and Longstreet. At 3 p.m. General Fitz John Porter and 6,000 Union troops stormed across the Dogan Farm to attack the Confederate position at an area called "the Deep Cut." The Confederate artillery on Battery Heights had a clear view of the assault. They concentrated their fire on the sea of blue running across the open field, which had a devastating effect on the Union onslaught, thinning the Federal ranks. Those who did make it across the field were met with leveling musket fire. The distance between the two armies was less than twenty feet. Close-quarter combat ensued. Some soldiers fixed bayonets while others resorted to throwing rocks since there was little time to reload muskets. After seeing his forces decimated, Porter ordered retreat.

Shortly after the retreat, Generals Lee and Longstreet ordered a Confederate counterattack. Thirty thousand troops crossed the rail bed and, with a rebel yell, chased the weakened and disorganized Union force back toward Henry Hill. Members of the 5th NY Zouaves tried to make a stand against the Confederates, but were decimated by musket volleys from the woods. They were overrun in less than ten minutes and suffered 123 deaths in that time, the most by one Union infantry regiment in any single action of the war.

The Confederate counterattack finally lost momentum at Chinn Ridge, where regiments of Pennsylvania Reserves and U.S. Regulars organized a stout defensive line. The fighting on Chinn Ridge lasted until dark, which delayed the Confederates from completely annihilating the Union army. While the Union ended up losing the ridge, they bought enough time for fresh reinforcements to organize along Sudley Road and Henry Hill. In the defense of Chinn Ridge, Fletcher Webster, son of famed statesman Daniel Webster and commander of the 12th Massachusetts Infantry, was mortally wounded. As he lay dying, he asked an unnamed member of the 8th Virginia Infantry to return his wallet to his family. The Southerner survived the war and honored Webster's request. A melancholy and sentimental tale to one of the most brutal battles of the war.

Battered and utterly defeated, Pope and his men retreated under cover of darkness back to Washington D.C. Once again, the Union army lost a major battle. For the Confederates, not only was this a major victory, it also provided an opportunity for General Lee to invade the North for the first time in the war.

The National Park

I began my tour of the battlefield at the Henry Hill Visitor's Center. The park center offers visitors tickets for guided bus tours, free public lectures, and a small museum filled with artifacts recovered from the surrounding fields and soldier biographies from both battles. Outside of the visitor's center, there is a 1-mile walking tour of Henry Hill and the events that unfolded during the First Battle of Bull Run. The trail passes by the position of Ricketts' Battery and to the site of the Henry House. The original house was destroyed during the war and the one in its place was built in 1870. In the yard is the grave of Judith Carter Henry--the only known civilian casualty of the battle (killed by Union artillery fire on her property). Behind the house is the First Bull Run Monument. Union troops at Fairfax Court House erected the monument on June 11, 1865, to honor the dead at First Manassas. It is one of the oldest Civil War memorials in existence.

The trail loops around the open fields to the foundation of the Robinson House. The property belonged to James Robinson, who was the third-richest free black man in Prince William County, VA, at the time of First Manassas. The house was also the site of Union General Franz Sigel's headquarters during the Battle of Second Manassas. The trail finishes at the site of Griffin's Battery, where General Stonewall Jackson earned his famous nickname.

To explore the battlefield of Second Manassas, I took the self-guided driving tour--an eighteen-mile, twelve-stop excursion! My first destination was the Brawner Farm on the far west end of the park. It was here that the opening shots of Second Manassas were fired on August 28, 1862. The house currently standing at the site is not the original farm house. Excavations have taken place here in recent years and archaeologists have found a literal treasure trove of Antebellum and Civil War artifacts and the foundation to the original house. Overlooking the fields of Brawner Farm is Battery Heights about 1/3 mile to the east. The 4th U.S. Artillery occupied this position early in the battle, but Confederate artillery would man this ridge by battle's end.

My third stop was the Stone House, located at the intersection of US 29 (formerly Warrenton Pike) and Sudley Road. This iconic building was General Pope's headquarters and a Union field hospital. Behind the house stands Matthews Hill, the site of Union artillery during the barrage on the unfinished railroad. Further up the road is the Sudley United Methodist Church and Sudley Springs Ford. On the morning of August 29, the townsfolk were about to begin daily services at the church when the Union army launched their attacks on the rail bed. Wounded men began to pour back behind the lines and the church was converted into a field hospital. The area behind Sudley is also where Gregg's South Carolina brigade held Jackson's left flank through the repeated Union attacks.

Turning down Featherbed Lane, I reached my sixth destination: the unfinished railroad bed. Amazingly, even after 150 years, the earthworks are still in existence. The Deep Cut of the rail bed lies just a few hundred yards away down the road. It was there on August 30 that the ill-fated Union charge occurred, resulting in a bloody and disorderly retreat of Federal troops. Overlooking the Deep Cut stands the Groveton Monument. Like the First Bull Run Monument, this marker was dedicated on June 11, 1865, and adorned with artillery shells. However, over the years, treasure hunters and vandals have stripped the monument of its decorations.

My eighth stop was the Groveton Confederate Cemetery, which inters 500 Southerners, many of whom are unidentified and placed in trenches according to state affiliation. The graveyard was constructed in 1867 by the Bull Run and Groveton Ladies' Memorial Association, and originally held Union and Confederate dead. Many of the Union dead have since been re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Stop nine of the tour was the New York Monuments, commemorating the bravery of the 5th, 10th, and 14th NY regiments during the hasty Union retreat to Chinn Ridge--the tenth stop on the tour. On Chinn Ridge, the Union army made a desperate attempt to slow the Confederate counterattack. Also located at the site are the ruins of the Hazel Plain plantation house and the Hooe Cemetery.

Stop eleven was the site of the Portici Plantation. The Confederate army commandeered the home as headquarters during First Manassas. During Second Manassas, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed on the property. In late 1862, the house was destroyed by fire. Nothing remains of the home today, but there are trails you can walk to visit its original location. My final stop was the Stone Bridge, site of the Confederate resistance at the First Battle of Bull Run and of the Union retreat after Second Bull Run.

What I thought would be a short trip to the battlefield turned into a five-hour educational adventure! I had an absolute blast touring and exploring the landmarks across the park. It's quite overwhelming to fathom that all this pivotal history took place on these 5,000 acres in the span of just thirteen months. There were also countless miles of pedestrian/horse trails around the battlefield I wasn't able to explore due to time constraints, but I plan on going back soon to check them out!

I would also like to take a moment to address the importance of our national and state parks. Thanks to the effects of a recent government shutdown and continued defunding of the park system, I noticed that many of the amenities and services Manassas once offered were no longer in operation. The park was practically devoid of staff (except for the visitor's center) and all of the houses on the battlefield were closed to public access. Our nation's parks are integral to understanding America's past and appreciating its landmarks. Without park rangers, proper funding, and regular maintenance, these natural and historic sites are at a greater risk of being lost and forgotten forever. I urge you all talk to your local and state representatives and ask them to support greater budget and resource appropriations to the park system. Doing so may just help preserve America's legacy.

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