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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas



Sullivan Ballou was a successful, 32-year old attorney in Providence, Rhode Island, when Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers in the wake of Fort Sumter. Responding to his nation's call, the former Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives enlisted in the Second Rhode Island Infantry, where he was elected major. By mid-July, the swirling events in the summer of 1861 had brought Ballou and his unit to a camp of instruction in the Federal capital. With the movement of the Federal forces into Virginia imminent, Sullivan Ballou penned this letter to his wife. His concern that he "should fall on the battle-field" proved all too true. One week after composing his missive, as the war's first major battle began in earnest on the plains of Manassas, Ballou was struck and killed as the Rhode Islanders advanced from Matthews Hill.

Regrettably, the story of Sullivan Ballou does not end with a hero's death on the field of battle and a piercing letter to a young widow. During the weeks and months that followed the battle, Confederate forces occupying the area of the battlefield desecrated the graves of many fallen Federals. As a means of extracting a revenge of sorts against the Union regiment at whose hand they had suffered, a Georgia regiment sought retribution against the Second Rhode Island.

Supposing they had disinterred the body of Colonel John Slocum, commanding the Rhode Islanders during the battle, the Confederates desecrated the body and dumped it in a ravine in the vicinity of the Sudley Methodist Church. Immediately following the Confederate evacuation from the Manassas area in March 1862, a contingent of Rhode Island officials, including Governor William Sprague, visited the Bull Run battlefield to exhume their fallen sons and return them to their native soil. Led to the defiled body, the party examined the remains and a tattered remnant of uniform insignia and discovered that the Confederates had mistakenly uncovered the body of Major Sullivan Ballou, not his commanding officer. The remains of his body were transported back to Rhode Island, where they were laid to rest in Providence's Swan Point Cemetery

Of the tens of thousands of letters written in the days leading up to the First Battle of Manassas, certainly none is more famous than the last letter of Major Sullivan Ballou. As poignant as it is prescient, Ballou's epistle captures not only the spirit of patriotic righteousness that led many men to the enlistment office, but it also drives home the stark reality that casualties of war were not confined to the battlefield. There were hundreds of thousands of soldiers who would not return to their families over the next four years, leaving behind a Sarah, or a Willie and Edgar who would "never know a father's love and care." Very few, however, had the foresight or the eloquence to leave behind a legacy as touching as Sullivan Ballou's to his grief-stricken family.

Headquarters, Camp Clark
Washington, D.C., July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

Indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for any country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with care and sorrows, when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country.

I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death, and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country and thee.

I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in this hazarding the happiness of those I loved, and I could not find one. A pure love of my country, and of the principles I have often advocated before the people, and "the name of honor, that I love more than I fear death," have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables, that nothing but Omnipotence can break; and yet, my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistably on with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up, and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our boys grow up to honorable manhood around us.

Something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears, every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot, I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.

But, O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah, do not mourn me dear; think I am gone, and wait for me, for we shall meet again.

As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care, and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers, I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.



It had not been much of a "battle," little more than a skirmish by later standards but it put resolve and courage into the Confederates who had stood their ground. Richardson's 3,000 were repulsed by the 5,000 or more under the combined command of Longstreet and Early, and from that the entire Confederate line took heart. Indeed, some thought this was the battle, and the war was over, the Yankees repulsed. Beauregard knew better, of course, but he could also be thankful that McDowell's advance had been held up a day. It was a day that could prove crucial, for with the whole Union army on the verge of wetting its feet in the waters of Bull Run, he needed to buy time in the hope that Johnston could come from the Shenandoah.

Would Johnston come? There had been anxious days in the Shenandoah while events unfolded east of the Blue Ridge. General Patterson proved to be a slow, doddering, hesitant commander, who took his time about advancing on Harpers Ferry. But eventually he did get across the Potomac, while an understrength Johnston had no choice but to fall back before him. Able skirmishing and Patterson's temerity, however, worked to slow his advance thereafter, so that by the second week of July Johnston's Confederates were firmly planted at Winchester, twenty miles south of the Potomac, with the vital Manassas Gap rail line still in their control and no sign of Patterson advancing further.


Not until July 16 did the Yankees show signs of making a tentative advance again. Patterson knew that McDowell was starting his march that day, and somehow he reasoned that by making a faint-hearted show of force in front of Winchester, he could keep Johnston pinned down and unable to reinforce Beauregard. But the whole thing backfired. Timid to the point of foolishness, Patterson's small demonstration against Winchester only left him convinced that he could not move further and that Johnston had 42,000 in his army instead of the 12,000 or more actually there. By magnifying enemy numbers almost three times in his imagination, Patterson defeated himself. As he and his staff officers slapped each others' backs and congratulated themselves that they had pinned down Johnston in spite of his superior numbers and that McDowell would now win a great victory thanks to them, they sat down intending to do nothing more during the campaign.

But then came an angry order from Scott that they were not to let Johnston fool them. They must attack him and keep attacking. On the morning of July 18, having already withdrawn from the Winchester area, Patterson put his army back on the road. "The enemy has stolen no march on me," he confidently wired to Washington. But then some of his volunteer regiments refused to go on, their 90-day enlistments having expired. Glad to have an excuse not to do anything, Patterson decided that he could not advance with a reduced and balky army. But he did not need to advance anyhow, he reasoned. "I have succeeded," he wired to Scott, "in keeping General Johnston's force at Winchester."

At that very moment, Johnston's Confederates were already on their way to Manassas. The Army of the Shenandoah had lived under constant threat of enemy advance for days, but as time wore on Johnston became increasingly convinced that Patterson did not have the stomach for a fight. When he found out that Patterson had actually moved his army seven miles away from Winchester after the halfhearted demonstration of July 16, Johnston realized that he would be able to get all or part of his command away if needed. On the seventeenth came a telegram from Beauregard announcing that Richmond had ordered Johnston to move to Manassas immediately. "Do so, if possible," said Beauregard, "and we will crush the enemy." Confirmation arrived early the next morning from Richmond itself. No one knew whether McDowell might attack the next day. If he did, Johnston could not possibly be there. If he did not, then still there might be time.



Early on July 18 reveille sounded in Johnston's camps. No one told the men where they were going, but hastily they packed their equipment, and then Jackson's Virginia brigade marched off southeastward toward Piedmont Station, the nearest point on the Manassas Gap line, "We are all completely at a loss to comprehend the meaning of our retrograde movement," one of his men complained to his diary. They would know soon enough. Jackson pushed them fast and then informed them of their destination. That put heart into the men and they marched with renewed vigor, knowing that every minute saved could be Confederate lives at Manassas. Not until 2 A.M., July 19. did they halt for the night at Paris.

Behind them came the other brigades, one by one, first Bee, then Bartow, and finally Kirby Smith, temporarily commanding Elzey's brigade since his own was not completely organized. Johnston himself rode ahead of the army toward Piedmont Station to arrange the trains to transport his men. When he arrived he met a messenger with word of the fight earlier that day at Blackburn's Ford. Now real urgency drove the Southerners. Sending back word to Beauregard that he was coming and that parts of his command would arrive on the morrow, Johnston worked throughout the night. When Jackson's column marched into sight around 6 A.M., July 19, some cars awaited them, and within a few hours the entire brigade was on its way eastward.

Exhausted after marching and riding sixty miles in the past twenty-eight hours, the Virginians collapsed on the ground, unaware as yet tat they had just made history . . .

It was a hair-raising trip for some, many of the boys being on a train for the first time in their lives, While the officers grumbled at the slow pace of the engine, the men marveled at the speed of their progress. At every town and hamlet along the way, townspeople turned out to cheer them on while the women waved their handkerchiefs, It took them eight hours, but finally they saw smoke in the distance that signaled their approach to Manassas Junction. It rose above Beauregard's campfires. They had come in time. Exhausted after marching and riding sixty miles in the past twenty-eight hours, the Virginians collapsed on the ground, unaware as yet that they had just made history, being the first soldiers ever to make a major territorial shift by rail from one war zone to another.

Behind them came the others. There was only one engine on the Manassas Gap line, so Bartow had to wait for the train to return to Piedmont Station before he could embark his brigade. They would travel all night, not reaching Manassas until daylight July 20. At that same time Bee boarded his brigade, thanks to Johnston finding another train somewhere, and this engine moved at seeming light speed, getting Bee's brigade to Manassas shortly after noon that same day. That still left some elements of Bee's, Bartow's, and all of Elzey's brigade—commanded by Smith—awaiting transportation, with Smith's own command hurrying on as well. It was 3 A.M., July 21, when the next train left, carrying most of Elzey's brigade, and behind them would come one last train bringing some of the remnants. They could not arrive before dawn, July 21, at the earliest. Meanwhile, Johnston's cavalry, commanded by Colonel James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart rode hard for thirty-six hours and reached Manassas late July 20.


Jefferson Davis, Beauregard, and Johnston had achieved a small miracle. In barely forty-eight hours they put together a concentration that came close to doubling the strength of the army along Bull Run, doing it virtually under the guns of the enemy, completely fooling Patterson in the Shenandoah, and even deceiving McDowell as to the meaning of the sound of the train whistles coming into and going out of Manassas Junction. Davis rushed other isolated units to the front from elsewhere in Virginia, too. For the first time in history, railroads served decisively in warfare. Now their combined 34,000 troops were almost the equal of McDowell's 35,000, testimony to the foresight of Robert E. Lee and General Cocke, who originally conceived the scheme.

Now it was up to Johnston and Beauregard to capitalize on their good fortune and planning. Johnston's commission made him senior, and he immediately assumed overall command. However, Beauregard had been on this ground for weeks, knew the defenses and the troops there emplaced, and he had the best knowledge of what McDowell had done to date. Moreover, Beauregard had a plan. A would-be Napoleon, the Louisianian always had a grand scheme, and now he assumed that Johnston would go along with his plan to attack McDowell. Simply put, Beauregard meant to push most of his brigades across Bull Run early on July 21, with most of his strength—including Johnston's troops—on his right flank. They would push around the Federal left flank and cut off McDowell from his line of retreat via Fairfax Court House. That done, they could disperse or destroy the Yankee army while leaving it nowhere to run. Johnston readily agreed, perhaps not realizing that in so doing he was yielding much of his ability to influence the ensuing battle to his subordinate.



It was not a good plan. It put two-thirds of their army on the right side of their eight-mile-long line, leaving the left very thinly defended, and Sudley Ford entirely uncovered. One and one-half brigades were left to cover three miles all by themselves, including the best fords and the stone bridge, along a stretch where Bull Run was shallow enough to wade across in places not usually fordable.

But Tyler's demonstration at Blackburn's Ford had convinced Beauregard that McDowell intended his main attack there or at nearby Mitchell's Ford in the center of the Confederate line, and once believing that he knew what an opponent thought, Beauregard could not or would not change his mind. Should McDowell strike the weaker side of his line before Beauregard got his own plan into motion, all the fruits of Johnston's arrival might be lost.

Worse, Beauregard bungled the written orders instructing the several brigades as to their positions and movements. They were far too complex, and in one case the wording was so ambiguous that, read literally, it ordered one brigade to attack another Confederate brigade! Nevertheless, when Beauregard gave Johnston a copy of the order to sign at 4:30 A.M., July 21, the Virginian did not question it, another case of abrogating his responsibility to his subordinate. They were committed now. All they and their soldiers could do was try to get a little more sleep before the opening of the battle to save Virginia and the Confederacy.

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