A Soldiers View of the Battlefield
First Bull Run
To set the scene for those not familiar with First Bull Run or Manassas, depending on the colour of one's uniform, the battlefield is in low rolling Virginia countryside, similar to area around Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire. Any decent book should have a good map, I used the one from "The American Civil War Source Book"1. Note the scale, it is a small battlefield. I shall walk you through the battle with my own observations, to give you some feel for battle, the conditions and also to bring out some points that I consider relevant.
The very first thing that strikes a visitor to the battlefield is its closeness, no amount of reading can portray the short ranges over the whole battlefield, let alone the distances between the battlelines. A modern soldier, standing in the Union line just west of Mathews House where the first engagement took place, could with a Warrior Armoured Vehicle, dominate the whole of the battlefield without moving! A quick burst from a 30mm cannon would carry over where the Stonewall Brigade stood in the late afternoon, and into the reserves that climbed up through the woods to the south of Henry House Hill. For those who have been to Weston Park, the distance from the first Union line west of Mathews House to the last Union line on Henry House Hill, is about the same distance from the family camp to the main living history camp.
Most of the Union Regiments had marched far and fast to get to the battlefield with little sleep the previous night. Little or no thought seems to have been given to feeding the troops before the battle. Medical preparations were almost non-existent and once combat had been joined what little cover there was, was completely overwhelmed2.Despite being in defensive positions prior to the battle, the Confederate troops that met the opening Union attack had themselves been hurriedly redeployed and were heavily outnumbered.
The initial engagement began around 11.30am, not at 7.30am as planned, on the high ground north of the Warrenton Turnpike. The first point here is that the Union line is on the crest of the high ground and the Confederate line is about 100 yards to the south and about 20-30 feet lower. The Union troops have the high ground and are numerically superior. In the first flush of battle the hot, tired and hungry Union troops push back the equally hot, tired and hungry Confederate line. At this point the battle lines run East - West parallel with the Warrenton Turnpike.
For the next 2 hours or so the battle followed a logical course, the superior numbers of Union troops pushed the Confederate lines south, down the gently sloping hill and across the Warrenton Turnpike, a distance of just over half a mile. The advancing Union troops overran the Confederate field hospital at the Stone House, which would change hands again later that day. The Confederates then broke contact and began to reform on the reverse slope of Henry House Hill, another half a mile above the Warrenton Turnpike. This was a classic manoeuvre in the style of Wellington at Waterloo, to save his infantry from the superior French Artillery. On that slope a Virginia brigade under the command of Thomas Jackson waited.
Meanwhile the Union Army, from the top down thought the day was won and the road to Richmond lay open. Besides which most of the soldiers had been on the road for over 14 hours and had been fighting for several hours. Dead and wounded lay all around the Confederate field hospital at the Stone House by the Warrenton Pike and doubtless many suddenly realised their own mortality. However, it was a very hot and humid day, and as you are all well aware, a wool uniform and full battle order is no fun on a cool day. Water is scarce and it is now just past midday, few have eaten anything since around 2.30am. The Union army regroups for the last assault up Henry Hill and then "on to Richmond!"
Thus the stage is being set for the second part of the battle. On the Union side we have troops who have carried the enemy before them and believe they have the day, or will do with one final effort. They still have superior numbers on the field, but are however tired, fearful (the second parachute jump is always the worst) and very thirsty. They have fought in terrible heat and much of the time they would have been almost overwhelmed by the noise, the smoke and the successive shocks of the deaths and the terrible wounds that they have Witnessed. Few if any thought that the war would be like this. Many would also be becoming aware that their officers were in no better shape than they were. Many believed they had done their part, now it should be the turn of others, but where were these others to be found?
On the Confederate side, were troops who have been pushed back all day, but are being reinforced, and are determined to defend their country against the Yankee invaders. Many are also tired, fearful and very thirsty, but the reinforcements bring fresh troops, more guns and ammunition; and are they not commanded by the hero of Fort Sumner?! Many will have the same thoughts as their foes, but they stand now in a new line with fresh troops. Despite giving ground they feel that their generals have a grip on the battle; they await the resumption of battle with some confidence knowing that more reinforcements are on their way. All they have to do is hold until fresh divisions arrive.
As the second phase of the battle begins a strange series of events unfold, a number of small but significant tableaux occur, each little more than moments of confusion, but the cumulative effect is devastating - for McDowell's men!
The Federal line swept up a fairly gentle slope of about 400-600 yards and a rise of about 100 feet, around Henry House, and renewed the battle. The fighting seesawed across the flat top of the hill with attack and counterattack adding to the carnage. This was the hour and Jackson the man! Confederate General Bee rallied his North Carolinians with the immortal cry "Look there is Jackson with his Virginians, standing like a stonewall"3. The Confederate line holds. The top of Henry House Hill is littered with dead and wounded, they lie where they fall, again there are no resources to help the wounded4 . Many a man, on both sides, will have prayed "Oh Lord, just a little heroic wound", I doubt many prayers were answered.
An artillery battery of two 3in rifles moves out to the southern end of the Union lines on the hill, here the battlelines are so close the battleground is almost triangular, with its open end to the north. The battery can almost enfilade the entire Confederate line, some infantry, the 11th New York, the Fire Zouaves, are ordered to support the battery, but they are very tired, they have already been engaged and badly mauled. Their officers take too much time in getting their men to the line, they never make it. Fate, in the form of the 33rd Virginia at this time dressed in blue, takes a hand. Jackson orders the 33rd, to his left flank, they emerge over the slope less than 40 yards from the 2-gun battery and on its right flank.
Confusion reigns on the Union right flank, who are these troops, are they the protective infantry the gunners are expecting? "They must be, look they are dressed in Union blue!" Wrong! The 33rd Virginia fire a volley and charge; remember this is an unblooded regiment and must have had a strength of over 600 men; the range was somewhat less than 40 yards. It was devastating, the gunners all became casualties, the guns were taken - and the Union flank is now in the air! At the same time the Zouave Regiment is forming up near the lost artillery, winded and surprised; Confederate cavalry under JEB Stuart slashes into them, the unit disintegrates, the rout has begun. Nine more guns are lost as the Zouaves scatter. More Confederate reinforcements are brought up; as Union soldiers ask "Where are our reserves"5. The Union high command has no longer any control on the battle, whilst the Confederate generals have a very good idea of what is going on and what they need to do.
Beauregard orders a general counter attack and for the first time in the war the fearsome rebel yell is heard. The right flank is in the air, it is closest to the Confederate line, it breaks, companies, then regiments and finally brigades falter, then flee. The Union soldier stares about in shock, "we were winning - what has happened?" The noise, smoke and fear add to his uncertainty, his training has not covered this eventuality. The only sure thing he knows is that everyone else seems to be running to the rear and this seems like a good time to join them.
In the space of about 30 minutes, a mistake in recognition, and the battle is lost. Of course it is not quite as simple as that. I hope to have shown some of the incidents that may well have contributed to the outcome. The battle took place on two hill tops and the valley between. With little more than a mile on each side north/south and east/west. Of the 4500 men fallen that day, 387 dead wore grey, 481 wore blue and some 1500 Yankees marched south, under guard!6 It must have been a shattering experience for any man to have fought on that battlefield. All most Union troops wanted to do was get away, they feel betrayed by their officers, how else could everything have gone so wrong? Many shout their dismay out loud as they fled7.
Those of us who stand in line, stand by the cannon or sit high with sabre drawn, know the noise, the smoke and excitement. Some also know the other feelings that our forebears felt, the tightening of the stomach, dryness of the throat, the fear. It all vanishes once combat is joined there is simply too much else going on to worry. It is only the pauses, rests, halts or quiet times that give one time to think; but there are few of those in a pitched battle. It is said that our deepest instincts are to fight or flee, one so close to the other; it is small wonder that when the Union flank went, the whole army collapsed. Only the best trained and most experienced soldiers will stand when their fellows run; at Manassas neither side had enough training or experience. But it is also probably true to say that the Union High Command lost the battle by their own inexperience, as much as the Confederates won. It was to take the Army of the Potomac some 2 years to learn; not how to fight, but how to win.
- The American Civil War Source Book, Philip Katcher, 1992, Published by Arms and Armour Press, edition 1998. ISBN 1-85409-464-5.
- Field Medical Services at the Battles of Manassas, Horace H Cunningham, Published by University of Georgia Press 1968. ISBN 0-935523-17-0.
- The History and Battlefields of the Civil War, John Bowen, 1991, Published by Quarto Publishing plc. ISBN 1-85627-940-5.
- The Civil War, An Illustrated History, Geoffrey C Ward et al 1990, Published by Alfred A Knopf Inc. ISBN 0-394-56285-2.
- The Civil War, A Narrative, Volume 1, Shelby Foote, 1986, Published by Pimlico 1994. ISBN 0-7126-9802-7.
About the author. Currently he is a Sharpshooter, but was a regular soldier for 22 years and served on operations in Northern Ireland, Central America and during the Gulf War with 7 Armoured Brigade; he has "Seen the elephant." The battlefields described have all been visited by the author. Remember "No matter which side you are on, the colour of adrenalin is brown".
Nic Cole, Co H, 2 USSS
The above article first appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, August 2000