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Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas

   

It was about 12:30 when Johnston and Beauregard arrived on Henry Hill to survey the situation in person. Johnston himself took command of a part of the now leaderless and shocked Fourth Alabama and led it to the right of Jackson's line on Henry Hill. Now some of the scattered and confused men of Evans's shattered command began to reform around the nucleus of Jackson, and within minutes the Confederate line grew and strengthened in numbers and resolve, though still heavily outnumbered by the enemy. Had the Yankees pushed their advance vigorously once Heintzelman arrived, they probably could have walked over Henry Hill, Jackson included. By waiting too long, they gave the Confederates time, and now it would cost them.

STATUE OF STONEWALL JACKSON AT MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIEDL PARK. (NPS)

Now Johnston left Beauregard at the front and himself rode back to the rear to find more reinforcements and channel them toward the scene of fighting. Rapidly more men came, first the odd ex-governor of Virginia, William Smith, called "Extra Billy" thanks to his predilection for adding "extra" items to state appropriations. He brought three companies of the 49th Virginia, along with portions of other commands that he found along the way, men not afraid to follow him even though he held an umbrella over his head while riding, to ward off the sun. As Smith and others went into line around 3 P.M., the Henry Hill line was almost complete, but barely more than 3,000 strong. The timing could not have been better for now at last the Yankee attack appeared to be renewing, as two batteries rolled down across Young's Branch and moved up the slope of Henry Hill, preparing to soften the Confederate line prior to an infantry assault.

It was a foolish move for McDowell to make, for he sent the artillery forward with no infantry support. The cannoneers were isolated, alone, but unlimbered their guns and opened fire, initially concentrating on Confederates near the house of the widow Judith Henry atop the hill. She had refused to leave her home, and one of the first shots from the cannon almost severed one of her feet. She lay dying for the rest of the day, and afterward her son threw himself face down on the ground outside the house crying, "They've killed my mother."


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THE CONFEDERATES RALLY ON HENRY HILL (12:30-2:00 P.M.)
As the Confederates retreat from the fighting on Matthews Hill, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson moves his five Virginia regiments onto Henry Hill. Believing that the Southern army is in full retreat and that the battle is won, General McDowell orders his men to halt and reorganize along the Warrenton Turnpike. This lull in the fighting allows the Confederates time to strengthen their position on Henry Hill.

The Union artillery then dueled with Confederate batteries less than 300 yards away for nearly an hour as McDowell continued to take his time, all the while squandering his early advantage. Then at last, instead of sending his whole line forward and taking advantage of his strength, he made the mistake that generals would commit again and again throughout the entire war. He sent forward only one regiment at a time, first the colorful Eleventh New York "Fire Zouaves." As they came abreast of the two batteries, Jackson's line on the hill arose and sent a withering volley into them. Volley after volley crashed into them, and they finally fell back, leaving the cannon unprotected.

Just now, Jeb Stuart's Virginia cavalrymen came on the scene, putting the retreating zouaves to rout on the Sudley Road. Then one of Jackson's regiments rushed forward. It was the Thirty-third Virginia, men who happened to be wearing non-descript uniforms of varying colors. They rushed toward the guns, and Griffin at first delayed firing on them, warned by his superior that they might be fellow Federals. They discovered too late their mistake. The Virginians cut down more than fifty of their battery horses, making it impossible to get the guns away, and captured two fine cannon as the artillerymen scurried away for their lives. Seeing this success, Jackson ordered his whole line forward to clear the hill of Yankees, taking the other nine guns of Griffin's and Ricketts's batteries. At last the Confederates could sense that they had a chance of gaining the upper hand on a day that at first looked to be going all for McDowell.

AS THE DISORGANIZED CONFEDERATE FORCES MILLED ABOUT ON HENRY HILL, CONFEDERATE COMMANDER JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON RALLIED THE MEN BY PERSONALLY LEADING REMNANTS OF THE FOURTH ALABAMA BADE INTO THE FRAY. (BL)

Beauregard ordered a general attack, and as his line swept forward, the little general cried, "The day is ours! The day is ours!" In fact, the outcome was still very much open to whichever side took best advantage of its opportunities. McDowell stopped the Confederate advance, regrouped his own line, and then started sending in additional attacks of his own, though each time repeating the mistake of making them piecemeal rather than in overwhelming force. Still, more regiments were constantly arriving from the Sudley Ford crossing, and each went into line on the Federal right, gradually extending it below Henry Hill. In time the Federals would be able simply to overlap the Confederate line and force Beauregard to withdraw for fear of being surrounded or cut off from Manassas Junction.

CURRIER AND IVES PRINT GALLANT CHARGE OF THE ZOUAVES AND DEFEAT OF THE REBEL BLACK HORSE CAVALRY. (LC)

For the next two hours the battle seesawed back and forth with casualties mounting and no clear indication of who was going to win. Time after time the lost cannon of Griffin and Ricketts were retaken by the Federals, then captured again by the Confederates, each time before the guns could be manhandled to the rear by either side. And now, regardless of what Bee meant with the Stonewall remark, Jackson proved indeed to be an immovable object. When Sherman came into the Yankee line he sent an attack up Henry Hill that slammed into the Virginians and was stopped cold. Once more confusion over uniforms caused hesitation, for Sherman's Second Wisconsin wore gray, and Jackson's men at first were reluctant to fire on them, while fellow Yankees did shoot at them, thinking them to be Rebels. Eventually, however, the Confederates beat Sherman back.


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THE CAPTURE OF GRIFFIN'S GUNS (2:00-3:30 P.M.)
With the Confederate line stabilizing on Henry Hill, General McDowell orders Captains James Ricketts's and Charles Griffin's artillery batteries to Henry Hill. Without infantry support the Federal cannons are easy targets for Confederate sharpshooters. Captain Ricketts temporarily silences the sharpshooters, and the two sides then engage in a close-range artillery duel. Captain Griffin moves two of his cannons to the right of the Union line in the hopes of forcing the Confederates from their strong position on the southern edge of the hill. However, Griffin's guns are unsupported and in the confusion of battle a Confederate regiment is able to advance within 75 yards of the guns. The Southerners fire a point-blank volley at the battery, forcing Griffin to abandon his position and leaving his guns to the fast-advancing Confederates. The capture of Griffin's guns was the first success of the day for the Southern army and the turning point of the battle.

Then Sherman sent in the Seventy-ninth New York, called the Highlanders thanks to their plaid pants and tartans. Jackson was ready for them. "The first fire swept our ranks like a quick darting pestilence," said one of the Yankees. Colonel James Cameron, brother of Lincoln's secretary of war, Simon Cameron, fell mortally wounded early in the assault. Then many of the men mistook the Confederate flag—red, white, and blue—hanging limply on a staff, for the Stars and Stripes. They held their fire thinking that Jackson might be on their side. The delay proved fatal. And as Confederate fire drove them back in confusion, the Sixty-ninth New York—to be called the "Fighting Sixty-ninth"—just coming up, encountered the same wall of lead.

THE CAPTURE OF RICKETTS'S BATTERY PROVED A PIVOTAL MOMENT IN THE STRUGGLE FOR HENRY HILL. (PAINTING BY SYDNEY KING, COURTESY OF NPS)

Each time one of these regiments fell back, it jumbled the main Federal line as the fleeing attackers passed through. Sometimes men did not stop on the command to regroup but simply kept running in near-panic. Heintzelman tried to stop them, but then he went out of the battle with a painful wound. Indeed, so many officers were falling that there was no one for some of the men to turn to, and so they simply wandered back toward Sudley Ford, getting in the way of reinforcements still on the road, and spreading to them stories of the battle not going well for them. The final brigade to arrive at this point in the afternoon was Colonel Oliver O. Howard's. They had already marched ten miles or more that day in the heat and gathering dust, all the time hearing the growing din of battle ahead of them. Then they encountered the stragglers, and meanwhile Howard had not had the sense to allow the men to leave behind their heavy field packs. By the time they crossed Sudley Ford and approached the right of the Yankee battle line, perhaps a fourth of some of his regiments had dropped out from exhaustion.

At 4 P.M. Howard came on the field and was told to go to the right flank. He put his brigade in line, dressed the ranks, and ordered the first line forward. The fire from Elzey's line withered them, and as they began falling back, Howard sent forward his second line. It, too, was repulsed, and an alarming number of the men ran for the rear in panic until they got out of the fire. Meanwhile, over on the Confederate right, Keyes, too, had been handily repulsed, with the result that both of the Southern flanks were fairly secure, while the Federal line became increasingly shaky. More and more of the once distant Confederate brigades were being forwarded by Johnston. Bonham's regiments now came into line on the extreme left, and then at the most fortuitous possible moment, Bonham's men saw yet more troops coming their way from the rear. Kirby Smith had literally just jumped off the train from the Shenandoah and was bringing his regiments straight to the most vital part of the line after a grueling six-mile march from the depot. Along the way Smith encountered Johnston, whose only order to him was to "go where the fire is hottest."

CHARLES GRIFFIN (USAMHI)

Smith rushed forward through the stragglers and the wounded and about 4 P.M. took his place in the line, just in time for Smith himself to fall with a wound before he actually got into the fight. Elzey resumed command of his brigade then and took it through a wood to emerge with a wonderful view of Howard's now-exhausted Federals directly before him. At once he ordered a charge. "Give it to them, boys!" he shouted. The Rebels rushed forward as the terrified and demoralized Federals withdrew before them. By the time Elzey finished his charge, Howard and his men were nowhere to be seen. Beauregard rode up to congratulate Elzey yet neither appreciated yet just what had happened. Howard's retreat signaled the beginning of the breakup of McDowell's army.

BRIGADIER GENERAL THOMAS J. JACKSON AND HIS BRIGADE ANCHORED THE NEW CONFEDERATE POSITION ON THE EASTERN EDGE OF HENRY HILL. (PAINTING BY DICK RICHARDSON)

Minutes before Beauregard had been in something of a panic himself. Off in the distance to his rear around 4 P.M. he spotted through his binoculars a cloud of dust obviously raised by a column of thousands of marching soldiers rushing to the front. Coming from the southwest, it could be more reinforcements sent by Johnston. But it might also be a new Federal column, perhaps even some of Patterson's army from the Shenandoah for all he knew. At the moment, barely holding his own against McDowell, he knew he could not withstand new assaults from a whole fresh enemy army. Tense minutes followed as Beauregard kept looking at the cloud, trying to make out flags. When the head of the group was perhaps a mile distant, he could see a flag, but it draped limply about its staff, unrecognizable. Then, just as Elzey started his attack, a blessed gust of wind unfurled the folds of the flag and Beauregard could see that it was Confederate. It was Jubal Early's brigade, arriving at precisely the right time and place.


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THE UNION LINE DISINTEGRATES (4:00-5:00 P.M.)
With the Confederates tightening their grip on Henry Hill, General McDowell directs Colonel Oliver O. Howard's brigade to Chinn Ridge. As these Union troops move into position they are confronted by Confederate reinforcements rushing up from Manassas Junction. These troops, led by Colonels Joseph Kershaw, Jubal Early, and Arnold Elzey, force the Federals off Chinn Ridge.

Together, Early and Elzey hit the exposed Federal right flank, while Stuart placed his cavalry on their extreme left and joined in the push. The Yankees fell back before them almost without resistance, and when Early crested a small rise he could see thousands of them fleeing in panic beyond the Warrenton turnpike. "We scared the enemy worse than we hurt him," Early recalled, but the effect was just as decisive. Howard himself confessed that "it was evident that a panic had seized all the troops in sight." Men ran in abject terror yelling, "The enemy is upon us! We shall all be taken!" Howard and other officers frantically, and futilely, rode along the lines and among the panicked groups trying to halt them. It was no use.

KURZ AND ALLISON LITHOGRAPH DEPICTING THE BATTLE. (LC)

ARNOLD ELZEY (LC)

Seeing what was happening, Beauregard seized the moment and ordered a charge by his whole battle line. Badly battered themselves, still the Confederates found the courage and energy to rush forward, and almost everywhere the Federals fell back with little resistance. "There were no fresh forces on the field to support or encourage them," lamented one of McDowell's staff, "and the men seemed to be seized simultaneously by the conviction that it was no use to do anything more and they might as well start home."

Now the impact of all the stragglers began to be felt as their numbers swelled, first by Howard's panicked men, and then by others from the rest of the line. Panic infected the whole army.

UNION ATTACK ON HENRY HILL. (BL)

If McDowell had not recognized that the battle turned against him sometime earlier when his attacks stalled and the Confederates dug in, he surely could see it now. His last hope had been an order for Tyler to move across a fresh brigade on the Confederate right. If he could get Keyes's regiments, followed by Schenck's around between Bull Run and Henry Hill, he might retrieve the situation by doing to Beauregard what the arrival of Elzey and Early had done to him. But before the movement was fairly under way a message came to Tyler that "the army is in full retreat towards Bull Run." Refusing at first to credit the report, Tyler soon saw for himself that it was true. Immediately Keyes was ordered to pull back. Now he would have to help cover the retreat of the army.

"As we emerged from the woods one glance told the tale; a tale of defeat, and a confused, disorderly and disgraceful retreat," groaned one of Keyes's infantrymen. "The road was filled with wagons, artillery, retreating cavalry and infantry in one confused mass, each seemingly bent on looking out for number one and letting the rest do the same." No remnant of regimental or brigade organization prevailed. The army had become a mob, deaf to orders or duty, intent on escape. "The plain was covered with the retreating troops," McDowell would report, "and they seemed to infect those with whom they came in contact. The retreat soon became a rout, and this soon degenerated still further into a panic."

IN THE EIGHT MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED THE BATTLE, OCCUPYING CONFEDERATE TROOPS DISMANTLED THE HENRY HOUSE AS THEY SEARCHED FOR FIREWOOD, BUILDING MATERIAL, AND BATTLEFIELD MEMENTOS. (LC)

Seeing what was happening before them, Beauregard and Johnston now started to order their forces forward, starting with those on the left of their line, racing after the fleeing Yankees. While Early chased Howard, Stuart's cavalry captured so many prisoners on the road back toward Sudley Ford that he had to stop, unable to move with all of the surrendered foemen on his hands.

Confederates in the center of the line started for the stone bridge, hoping to cross it and cut off the retreat of McDowell's men who were escaping via the roundabout Sudley Ford route. Johnston sought any remaining reserves to push them forward, ordering Beauregard to press the pursuit. If they could get to Centreville before the Yankees did, they would have McDowell cut off from Washington and with little option but to fight with a shattered army, or else disperse or surrender.

Fortunately for McDowell, one of his fresh brigades that never got into the fight was able to hold the road to Centreville, and then when a rumor of a Federal attack impending on the far right down near the Orange & Alexandria bridge came in, most of the pursuit was called off. The report proved to be erroneous, but it helped to save the Union army. The only remaining Confederates really pressing the chase were some Virginia cavalry, and they nearly caught up with the enemy to make one last assault.

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