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Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas

   

The Confederates had built signal stations on high elevations, and from one of them signalmen spotted the Yankee advance and used their wig-wag flags to send Evans news of the move toward Sudley Ford. He realized at once that the enemy intended to attack the left flank of the Confederate army, namely his own tiny command. He sent word to headquarters at once and then took action on his own. The Yankees had to be stopped or delayed long enough for Beauregard to send reinforcements. Faced with three full brigades in his front and two divisions coming at him off to the left, Evans had but one thought. Outnumbered around twenty-to-one, he decided to attack.

A LOUISIANA TIGER (BL)


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE FIGHT FOR MATTHEWS HILL (10:00-11:30 A.M.)
Colonel Evans arrives on Matthews Hill shortly before Colonel Ambrose Burnside's brigade. After thirty minutes of fighting Evans's brigade gives ground grudgingly. Reinforcements under the command of General Barnard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow rush to Evans's assistance. As the two lines exchange volleys of musketry, two more Union brigades under Colonels William Sherman and Erasmus Keyes cross Bull Run and threaten to cut off the Confederate left from the rest of the army. The Confederate line disintegrates and the men begin streaming toward the rear.

The combative Confederate left a mere 300 men at the bridge to skirmish with Tyler's division and moved the balance northwest to a ridge called Matthews Hill. There he took cover in a line of trees, and around 10:15 when the head of Burnside's column came into sight across a field Evans opened fire. It took Hunter's column by surprise, and for the next several minutes the Yankees were in some confusion before they established a battle line. Then, incredibly, Evans charged right into the center of the Union line. Leading the attack were the colorful Louisianians of the First Battalion, dressed in their baggy striped zouave pants, with bowie knives in their hands. The attack could hardly turn back Hunter, but it did delay him, and that was all Evans hoped for. Around 11 o'clock the first reinforcements, portions of Bee's brigade, arrived on the field to strengthen Evans's paper-thin line, and soon thereafter Bartow arrived with two Georgia regiments. Now the Confederates totaled about 2,800 men, still a fraction of what the Yankees had, but enough to mount a spirited defense.

AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE (LC)

Again Evans readied an attack, then the small Confederate line swept up the southeast slope of Matthews Hill. This time they raced into an inferno. In fifteen minutes the Eighth Georgia was cut to pieces. Bartow's horse was shot from under him. The Fourth Alabama advanced alone after all the other Confederate regiments were halted in the rain of lead and found itself facing much of Hunter's line alone. "Our brave men fell in great numbers," a captain said days later. Soon they found the enemy advancing and faced Yankees in front and on both sides. They were almost surrounded and had to retreat under a galling fire. The Federals had the momentum. Evans would launch no more attacks. But he had bought time. Now he would start to pay for it with lives as the enemy came on.

COLONEL AMBROSE BURNSIDE (ASTRIDE THE REARING HORSE) URGED HIS MEN FORWARD IN THE FIGHT FOR MATTHEWS HILL. (LC)

THE TIMELY ARRIVAL OF BRIGADIER GENERAL BARNARD E. BEE'S BRIGADE MOMENTARILY CHEERED THE FEDERAL ADVANCE AT MATTHEWS HILL. (PAINTING BY DON TROIANI, PHOTO COURTESY OF HISTORICAL ART PRINTS. SOUTHBURY, CT)

The Confederates pulled back off Matthews Hill and across a stream called Young's Branch as they saw the first elements of Heintzelman's division start to come into line with Hunter. Worse, to their right they could see that Sherman had finally tired of waiting on the north bank of Bull Run and had crossed his men in a shallows upstream of the stone bridge. There was no choice but to pull back what little of Evans's command was posted by the bridge and consolidate all of the remaining Southerners on this part of the field. By now some of the regiments were in tatters. The Fourth Alabama had lost every one of its field officers, and the remnants were scurrying stubbornly up the slopes of Henry Hill just south of Young's Branch. Some distance behind his advancing line, McDowell saw the battle going his way despite the delays and setbacks of the morning, and took off his hat and rode along his lines shouting "Victory! Victory! The day is ours."

Perhaps not just yet, for Evans, Bee, and Bartow were not done resisting the Yankee push. Moreover, though taken by surprise, Beauregard and Johnston were reacting well. Thanks to Evans in particular, their battered left flank had held beyond all expectation. Now all across the ground below Bull Run brigade after brigade was on the march to the left, all intent on converging on Henry Hill. At that very moment the train bearing Kirby Smith's brigade was nearing the junction, and those men could be on the battle line in a few hours if the Confederates held out. The battle was out of Beauregard and Johnston's control, to be sure, but they were still in the fight. They both rode to the front to direct the placement of reinforcements as they arrived, and then while Beauregard remained there, Johnston went behind the lines to hurry forward each brigade as it came available. And up on Henry Hill itself, even as the battered defenders prepared to receive what looked like the strongest Yankee thrust yet, some looked to the rear and saw the approach of a fresh brigade. Thomas J. Jackson was on the way.

McDowell's "victory" was not won yet, not so long as those Rebels stayed put on Henry Hill, and now he concentrated on driving them from it. Shortly after 1:30 his line was stable enough to start the push across Young's Branch. Sherman and Porter formed the line. With them were two batteries of artillery commanded by Charles Griffin and J. B. Ricketts. Hunter had been wounded early and was out of action, but Heintzelman's division was arriving and starting to go into position on the right of Hunter's line, now commanded by Porter. At last the numerical advantage on this part of the field was starting to become manifest. Surely the Rebels could not resist a concerted onslaught by this gathering host.


THE DEATH OF A YOUNG CADET

Charles R. Norris was a 17-year-old cadet at the Virginia Military Institute when the war opened in April 1861. While the older cadets were ordered out to Richmond to assist in training incoming volunteers Norris and some of his classmates remained in Lexington to guard the Institute and help train locally organized troops. Duty and the prospect for future service prevented the cadet from chafing at his assignment to a somewhat isolated post. Writing to his family in Leesburg, Virginia, he declared, "You need not send for me or want me to come home for I would not leave for a thousand dollars."

On April 22 Norris joined nine of his fellow cadets on a detail to accompany a shipment of ammunition to Harpers Ferry, where the men reported to Thomas J. Jackson, then in command of the post. Jackson, himself a former V.M.I. professor, valued the discipline and experience of the cadets and kept them on hand to drill the inexperienced soldiers of his newly formed brigade. Norris remained with Jackson's command through the early summer and was present when orders arrived to transfer the brigade to Manassas Junction. An officer's absence provided the cadet with an opportunity for greater service, and Norris assumed the role of acting captain of a company in the 27th Virginia Infantry.

CHARLES R. NORRIS (COURTESY OF CHARLES R. NORRIS, 3RD AND FAMILY)

When Jackson's Virginia brigade arrived on Henry Hill during the battle on July 21, the 27th Virginia took up position near the center of the Confederate line. As the battle reached its climax, the Virginians braved a storm of iron from Union artillery on the far side of the bill. When Jackson unleashed his troops on a charge to capture the enemy guns, Norris cried out to his men, "Come on boys, quick, and we can whip them!" While leading his company out onto the field, the boy captain was struck by a bullet or shell fragment and fell dead. The next day his older brother, Joseph, located Charles's body and carried the remains home for burial in Leesburg.

At his death on the battlefield, Charles Norris was wearing a V.M.I. cadet dress coatee. Proud of his school, he had traded garments with fellow student Charles Copeland Wight and chose to wear his new coat into battle. The coat he wore, long treasured by the Norris family, still bears evidence of his fatal wound and serves as a poignant reminder of one family's loss.


HARPER'S WEEKLY ILLUSTRATION COLONEL HUNTER'S ATTACK AT THE BATTLE OF BULL'S RUN.

On the far side of Henry Hill, the remnants of Evans's and Bee's and Bartow's commands took refuge. However, they had bought time for reinforcements to arrive, and now fresh troops started coming. First came Colonel Wade Hampton and the infantry of his South Carolina legion—a unit with infantry, cavalry, and artillery all in one. He went into line on the right of the Confederate front, his men still panting from having just arrived on a train from Richmond and then run to the front, and from the Warrenton pike to cover the withdrawal of the Confederates across Young's Branch.

Then came Jackson. He had his men up at 4 A.M. that morning, expecting to go reinforce Longstreet at Blackburn's Ford. But then later in the morning he heard the firing off to his left at the stone bridge. Like Bee and Bartow before him, he did not wait for orders, but assuming the battle to be there, he instantly put his brigade in motion. By about 11:30 he approached the scene of action and moved up the back slope of Henry Hill. Once on the crest, he put his five Virginia regiments in line just behind the summit, informed Bee of his arrival, and told his men to lie down and await either the attack of the enemy or instructions from Johnston.

Here a legend was born. Bee rode to Jackson when he heard of his arrival.

"General," he cried, "they are beating us back."

"Sir, we'll give them the bayonet," Jackson calmly replied.

Bee seems to have regarded the bayonet comment as an order—though he and Jackson held equal rank and seniority—and so he rode back to his command. The confusion was pervasive. A mere captain commanded the Fourth Alabama now, yet no one could find him at the moment. Disoriented, Bee did not even recognize some of his own men at first. Told at last who they were, he shouted, "This is all of my brigade that I can find—will you follow me back to where the firing is going on?" They said they would, and he led them back into the inferno. But before doing so, he almost certainly said something else, but none present ever agreed on precisely what it was. A few days later a newspaper man said he was told that Bee cried out, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer." A few days more, and people in Richmond spoke of Jackson's men being so staunch under fire that "they are called a stone wall."

Thus was born "Stonewall" Jackson. Yet no one knows for certain what Bee said, or what he meant exactly. The remark seems like testimony to Jackson's firmness under fire, yet at the time Bee said it, Jackson had not yet become engaged and had his men lying down behind the crest. Others thought it might not be a compliment at all, but rather a snide comment to the effect that while Bee's men were being mauled, Jackson kept his command out of the fight, immovable like a stone wall. Whatever the case, Jackson would be "Stonewall" for the rest of time.

WADE HAMPTON (VM)

BARNARD E. BEE (VM)

Bee later rallied his men and led them in a bayonet charge toward Griffin's and Ricketts's batteries. They came under a terrible fire, and then Bee plunged from his horse, mortally wounded. Only minutes later, on another part of the field, Bartow fell with a bullet in his breast. "They have killed me, boys," he cried. In minutes he was dead.

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