Special Report

The Battle of Bull Run: The End of Illusions

Both North and South expected victory to be glorious and quick, but the first major battle signaled the long and deadly war to come

Scores of high-spirited civilians carried picnic baskets and champagne to the battlefield to watch what would turn out to be the first major land engagement of the Civil War. Shown here is the battlefield as it appears today. (Elan Fleisher / www.agefotostock.com)
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Tyler’s division marched toward Stone Bridge, where it would open a secondary attack to distract the Confederates. Meanwhile Union Brig. Gens. David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman started their divisions along the Warrenton Turnpike, then made a wide arc north and west toward an undefended ford at Sudley Springs, two miles above the bridge. They were to cross Bull Run there and drive down the opposite side, clearing the way for other commands to cross and join a mass assault on Beauregard’s unsuspecting left flank.

The going was slow, as McDowell’s brigades bungled into each other and troops groped along dark, unscouted roads. McDowell himself was sick from some canned fruit he had eaten the night before. But hopes were high.

In the 11th New York Infantry, known as the Zouaves, Pvt. Lewis Metcalf heard “the latest news, of which the very latest seemed to be that General [Benjamin] Butler had captured Richmond and the Rebels had been surrounded by General Patterson,” he later wrote. “All that we had to do was to give Beauregard a thrashing in order to end all the troubles.” When they slogged past blankets strewn on the roadside by sweltering troops ahead of them, the Zouaves assumed the bedding had been thrown away by fleeing Confederates and “set up a lively shout.”

About 5:30 that morning, the first shell, a massive Federal 30-pounder, whanged through the tent of a Confederate signal station near Stone Bridge without hurting anybody. That round announced Tyler’s advance, but the Confederates would not detect McDowell’s main effort for three more hours—until Capt. Porter Alexander, far back at Beauregard’s command post, spotted through his spyglass a flash of metal far beyond the turnpike. Then he picked out a glitter of bayonets nearing Sudley Springs. He quickly sent a note to Beauregard and flagged a signal to Capt. Nathan Evans, who was posted with 1,100 infantry and two smoothbore cannon at the far end of the Confederate line, watching Stone Bridge. “Look out for your left,” he warned. “You are flanked.”

Without waiting for orders, Evans rushed across the turnpike with two of his regiments and faced north to block the threatening Federals. Union Col. Ambrose Burnside’s brigade, leading Hunter’s division, crossed at Sudley Springs near 9:30 after an approach march of more than ten miles. There Burnside ordered a stop for water and rest, giving Evans time to position his skimpy defenders in a strip of woods along Matthews Hill. When the Yankees came within about 600 yards, Evans gave the order to open fire.

Burnside advanced close behind his skirmishers, followed by Col. Andrew Porter’s brigade. Soon after the first burst of fire, Burnside encountered David Hunter, riding back seriously wounded, who told him to take command of the division. Evans’ men fought doggedly as the much heavier Union force pressed them back toward the turnpike. Confederate Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee, ordered to the left by Beauregard, started setting a defensive line near what is now called the Henry House, on a hill just south of the turnpike. But when Evans pleaded for help, Bee took his brigade forward to join him. Col. Francis Bartow’s Georgia brigade moved up beside them. After an hour’s hard combat, Heintzelman’s Union division arrived. He sent Col. William B. Franklin’s brigade ahead, and the Union attack started to stretch around Evans’ line. Crossing near Stone Bridge, Col. William Tecumseh Sherman’s brigade joined the offensive. Assailed on both sides, Evans, Bee and Bartow’s men broke back for nearly a mile, staggering across Henry House Hill.

During this rising tumult, Johnston and Beauregard were near Mitchell’s Ford, more than four miles away. For two hours, they waited to hear the planned Confederate move against the Union left flank. But it never materialized. The would-be lead brigade hadn’t gotten Beauregard’s order, and others listened in vain for its advance. It was about 10:30 when Beauregard and Johnston finally realized the noise on their far left was the real battle.

Quickly directing more troops that way, they galloped toward the firing. When they reached Henry House, Jackson was bringing his brigade up through the disorganized troops falling back. Unless he held here, the Yankees could sweep down into the Confederates’ rear and collapse their whole army. Jackson threw up a defensive line just behind the crest of the hill, where the Federals could not see it as they gathered to charge. A bullet or shell fragment painfully wounded his left hand as he rode back and forth steadying his men, siting artillery pieces and asking Jeb Stuart to protect the flank with his cavalry. Barnard Bee, trying to revive his shaken brigade, pointed and shouted words that would live long after him:

“There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Whether Bee said those exact words or not—they were among his last—there and then Jackson acquired the nickname by which he will always be known. He earned it in the next few hours, as more reinforcements hurried from the rear, sent ahead by Johnston and directed into place by Beauregard. McDowell pushed two batteries of regular U.S. Army cannon far forward to pound Jackson’s left. Stuart, watching that flank, warned Jackson and then charged, his horsemen scattering the infantry protecting the Yankee guns. Suddenly the 33rd Virginia regiment came out of the brush and let loose a volley that swept the cannoneers away. “It seemed as though every man and horse of that battery just laid right down and died right off,” a civilian witness said.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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