Battle of the Generals

Introduction

Seniority in the United States Armed Forces is determined by rank, date of rank, and in the case of two officers promoted to the same rank on the same date, by the last lineal number.  It sounds confusing, but it isn’t.  And it’s important because seniority determines assignments, tactical commands, promotions, and general courtesy.  In the early days, seniority determined appropriate honors rendered to senior officers (generally, field grade and flag rank officers).

In the modern-day, seniority works on two different levels.  For officers serving at different ranks, seniority is determined by rank.  An Army colonel is senior to an Army captain, and the captain is senior to a lieutenant.  The system extends across the armed services.  An Army major is senior to an Air Force captain, and a Navy commander is senior to both.  Whenever officers serve at the same rank, their seniority is determined by their date of promotion to that rank.  If two officers advance to the same rank on the same day, seniority is determined by the date of promotion to their previously held rank.

Seniority in the Civil War

Officer seniority was an issue in both the United States Army and Confederate States Army.  Some modern historians credibly argue that the pettiness of seniority and military etiquette did as much to damage the internal efficiency of the Confederate States Army as did any battle in which the Union won.  The Union Army experienced similar problems among its senior officers, of course, but in the Confederacy, the animosity and rancor among senior officers was debilitating.[1]

The Confederacy’s problem in this regard may have started with Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, who always had a high opinion of himself — a man who also graduated from the U. S. Military Academy (Class of 1828) and who distinguished himself in combat in the Mexican-American War.

Synopsis

Jefferson Davis

Davis (USMA Class of 1828) (23/33) was more politician than a soldier.  He resigned from the Army in 1835 to pursue plantation farming in Mississippi.  In that same year, both he and his wife Susan (a daughter of Zachary Taylor) contracted either yellow fever or malaria.  Susan died in 1835, and Jeff was slow to recover.  From 1836-1840, a somewhat reclusive Davis confined himself to the plantation.  He first entered Mississippi politics in 1840, serving as a state convention delegate through 1844.  As presidential elector in 1844, he campaigned vigorously for James K. Polk.  In 1844, he won a seat in the U. S. Congress.

In 1846, while still serving in the House of Representatives, Davis raised a volunteer regiment for service in the Mexican-American War and commanded it as a US Volunteer Colonel. However, he distinguished himself in combat during the war — at least sufficiently to convince President Polk to offer him a commission as a brigadier general, but Davis respectfully declined. His insistence on replacing his regiment’s muskets with the M1841 rifle caused a life-long feud with the U. S. Army’s Commanding General, Winfield Scott. He had a broader vision.

Following the war, Davis served as a U. S. Senator (1847-1851), as Secretary of War (1853-1857), and again in the Senate (1857-1861).

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on 9 January 1861, Davis sent a telegram to Governor John J. Pettus, offering his services as the pleasure of his home state.  On 23 January, Pettus appointed Davis to serve as major general of the Army of Mississippi.  At the constitutional convention (of southern states) in early February, delegates considered both Davis and Robert Toombs (Alabama) as a possible Confederacy president; Davis won handily, assuming his office on 18 February 1861.  Davis, himself, did not believe anyone was more qualified to serve the Commander-in-Chief of the Confederacy’s armed forces.

Creating the Confederated States of America was no easy task.  Established on 8 February 1861, the Confederacy initially included seven Southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas — soon joined by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.  Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland may have joined the Confederacy had it not been for the rapid occupation of those states by the Union Army.  President Jefferson Davis had his hands full trying to organize an effective government.  Of course, he needed an army, and he needed good men to lead it — and this is where the trouble began.

In selecting his most senior generals, the men who would lead the Confederate States Army, he chose Samuel Cooper, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnston, and P. G. T. Beauregard.  He would eventually choose another two to serve as full-general, but these were Davis’ initial selections.[2]

Samuel Cooper

Sam Cooper (USMA Class of 1815) (36/40), whom almost no one knows anything about, was, despite his northern roots (New York), an advocate of states’ rights.  His service in the U. S. Army was primarily that of a staff officer who eventually attained the rank of colonel.  He briefly served as interim Secretary of War in 1857 and, in this capacity, first formed a strong friendship with Jefferson Davis.  Cooper received two general officer appointments on the same day, first to brigadier general, and full general, on 16 May 1861.  Davis appointed Cooper as Adjutant General and Inspector-General of the Confederate States Army.[3]

Albert Sidney Johnston

Albert S. Johnson (USMA Class of 1828) (8/41) had a most colorful background.  Davis regarded him as the nation’s finest field commander.  In addition to his service in the U. S. Army, Johnston served as a general officer in the Republic of Texas, as the Texas Republic’s Secretary of War, as a colonel in the U. S. Army during the Mexican-American War, and as a brevet brigadier general (permanent rank colonel) during the Utah War and commander of the Military Department of the Pacific.  He resigned his commission at the outbreak of the Civil War, initially enlisting as a private in the Los Angeles Rifles, a secessionist group in Southern California.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee (USMA Class of 1829) (2/46) was a Virginia aristocrat and an Army engineer of some distinction who served 26 years in that capacity before transferring to the Cavalry in 1855 as a lieutenant colonel.  Lee was prominent during the Mexican-American War as a staff officer and engineer.  He served in command of the Army detachment sent to quell disturbances at Harpers Ferry in 1859, and he commanded Fort Brown, Texas, in 1860-61.  When General David E. Twiggs surrendered U. S. forces to Texas after its secession, Lee returned to Washington, where he was appointed to command the 1st Cavalry Regiment and promoted to Colonel.  Two weeks later, President Lincoln offered Lee advancement to major general.  Lee declined the promotion and, upon the secession of Virginia, resigned from the U. S. Army.[4]

Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (USMA Class of 1829) (13/46) was from a distinguished family of Scots whose grandfather and father both served in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.  With his mother being the niece of Patrick Henry and his brother and father-in-law being members of the U. S. Congress, Johnston was politically well-connected.  Joe Johnston was the only Confederate general to have served as a general officer in the Union Army before his resignation to join secession.  This is important because Johnston, although in the same graduating class as Lee, was Lee’s senior officer in the Union Army.

When he returned home to Virginia, the governor offered him an appointment to the Virginia State Army as a major general.  Shortly after that, state officials notified him that Virginia only needed one major general, and so they decided to offer that commission to Robert E. Lee.  He could have, however, an appointment as a brigadier general, serving under Lee.  Given that Lee was junior to him in the Union Army, his proposal was unacceptable, and he declined the offer.

Jeff Davis thereafter offered Johnston a commission as brigadier general in the CSA, which he accepted.  Initially, Johnston’s assignment was command of the CSA forces at Harper’s Ferry.  Shortly thereafter, he assumed command of the Army of Shenandoah.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard

P. G. T. Beauregard (USMA Class of 1838) (2/45) was an Army engineer, brevetted to Captain in 1847 for excellence as a staff officer (planning officer) under General Winfield Scott during the Mexican-American War.  He served as an engineer for the next 13 years, repairing old forts and building new ones in Florida, Alabama, and Louisiana.  Beauregard was born in Louisiana to an aristocratic French-Creole family.  Well-educated in private schools, Beauregard was brought up speaking French, never learning English until he was twelve years old.

Beauregard’s brother-in-law was John Slidell, a prominent attorney, politician, and former United States Minister to Mexico (1844-46).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy.  Before assuming office, however, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department canceled his appointment.  Incensed, Beauregard promptly resigned his commission and returned home to Louisiana.

With his political connections, Beauregard expected the Governor of Louisiana to appoint him as the general officer commanding Louisiana state militia.  The appointment, instead, went to Braxton Bragg, who in turn offered Beauregard a colonelcy.[5]  Instead, Beauregard enlisted as a private in the New Orleans Guards but at the same time wrote to Jeff Davis offering his services as a general officer in the CSA.  A common rumor was that Davis was considering him as the Commanding General of the CSA — which infuriated Bragg to no end.  On 1 March 1861, Davis appointed Beauregard a brigadier general, the first general appointee in the CSA.  His first assignment was the command of Charleston harbor.  

Essentially, General Beauregard was the officer who initiated hostilities with the United States on 12 April 1861. After negotiations failed to convince the Commanding Officer, Fort Sumter, Major Robert Anderson, to surrender to Confederate authority, Beauregard ordered his artillery to bombard the fort — an assault lasting 34 hours. Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter on 14 April.  

Shortly after ordered Beauregard to assume command of the Alexandria Line at Manassas.  In July, Davis promoted Beauregard to full general, with seniority behind Joseph E. Johnston.

Back to Joe Johnston

Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) came from a distinguished family of Scots.  Both his grandfather and father fought in the American Revolution.  His mother was a niece of Patrick Henry.  His brother, Charles, served as a Congressman from Virginia.  He married Lydia McLane, whose father was a Congressman from Delaware.[6]  He was politically well-connected, an aristocrat of sorts and perhaps, full of himself.

Despite Johnston’s promotion to full general in August 1861, he stewed over his lack of seniority.  On 12 September 1861, Johnston wrote a letter to President Davis to explain his point of view:

“It (the ranking of senior generals) seeks to tarnish my fair fame as a soldier and as a man, earned by more than thirty years of laborious and perilous service.  I had but this, the scars of many wounds, all honestly taken in my front and in the front of battle, and my father’s Revolutionary sword.  It was delivered to me from his venerated hand, without a stain of dishonor.  Its blade is still unblemished as when it passed from his hand to mine.  I drew it in the war, not for rank or fame, but to defend the sacred soil, the homes and hearths, the women, and children — aye, and the men of my mother Virginia, my native South.”[7]

Johnston additionally complained to Davis that the president’s rankings were “in violation of my rights as an officer, of the plighted faith of the Confederacy and the Constitution and the laws of the land. […] I now and here declare my claim that I still rightfully hold the rank of first general in the armies of the Southern Confederacy.”  President Davis responded to Johnston’s letter, accusing the general of being “one-sided” whose complaints were “as unfounded as they are unbecoming.”  President Davis did nothing to resolve this problem, and, to be honest, I’m not sure why Davis kept him on the payroll.

The long-held system of seniority and etiquette explains why Johnston refused to subordinate himself to Robert E. Lee and others.  At the time he resigned from the U. S. Army, Johnston was a regular Army brigadier general.  Lee, upon his resignation, was a colonel.  Ultimately, however, both Lee and Johnston ended up as generals in the Confederate States Army — and Lee ended up being senior to Johnson because he had served, albeit briefly, as a Confederate major general.

As for trying to understand Johnston’s pettiness, there are several possibilities to consider.  Johnston was obviously a prideful man and mindful (possibly obsessed) with his prerogatives as a senior military commander. There are no small egos among high-ranking military officers. The concept of teamwork probably didn’t apply so much during the Civil War as it does today.  Still, there were other issues, such as Johnston’s unwillingness to listen to the advice and recommendations of his subordinate commanders, his ability to admit to or take responsibility for serious errors in planning, judgment, and his inability to acknowledge that in some cases, he was out of his depth.

However, commanding a field army well is a gargantuan task.  It’s more than directing maneuver elements; there is also the question of logistics, which along with weather, is a war-stopper.  On the one hand, he must win the battles and do it with whatever manpower he has available to him.  Excessive battlefield casualties limit his next moves.  He has to control the battlespace, which means choosing the time and place to fight as much as he is able.  During the Civil War period, rural Virginia was still a wilderness.  Having only one plan up his sleeve simply won’t do.

A series of small battles took place in Virginia following the First Battle of Bull Run (also, First Battle of Manassas), many of which resulted in inconclusive outcomes: Greenbrier River, Camp Allegheny, Cockpit Point, Hampton Roads, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Eltham’s Landing, and Seven Pines.

Command and control were quite difficult in 1862. At Seven Pines on 31 May – 1 June 1862, General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that he thought were isolated south of the Chickahominy River.  Although Johnston’s Confederates did succeed in driving General McClellan’s forces back, as well as inflicting heavy casualties, his assaults were not well-coordinated.  

On 1 June 1862, Johnston was seriously wounded and evacuated from the field, relinquishing command to Major General Gustavus Woodson Smith.  President Davis rushed Robert E. Lee to assume command of Johnston’s Army of Northern Virginia within a day.[8]

In 1862, it was not likely that Johnston had a “deputy commander,” so the next senior general would usually “take charge” should the commanding general become a casualty.  Here’s the problem, though: Before Smith became a major general, he was a U. S. Army captain.  No general can effectively lead an army that has not led or fought a division — which goes a long way in explaining General Smith’s nervous breakdown on 1 June 1862.  President Davis’ decision was a good one, and General Lee retained command of the Army of Northern Virginia until the war’s end.

But Johnston’s problem wasn’t only with President Davis and General Lee; he had little regard for Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, as well.

In the spring of 1864, while in command of the Army of Tennessee, Johnston engaged William T. Sherman between Chattanooga and Atlanta.  By this time, John Bell Hood had lost two of his limbs and yet could ride twenty miles a day while strapped to his saddle.  General Hood was a fire-eater and had little patience with Johnston’s apparent timidity.  He may have wondered why a senior general needed so much encouragement to act.  It wasn’t that Johnston was afraid of being injured; he had more than a few scars from battle wounds — it was, instead, that Johnston was afraid to fail.  It made Johnston, in Hood’s view, far too cautious.  Ironically, on one of the rare occasions when Johnston acted decisively at the Battle of Cassville, General Hood demurred on the battlefield.

Johnston’s strategy involved a series of delaying withdrawals.  Force withdrawal is, on occasion, a worthwhile strategy if its purpose is to maneuver the enemy into a position of disadvantage.  Johnston, however, seemed to focus his efforts on avoiding battle rather than engaging the enemy.  Over several weeks, General Hood sent messages to Richmond that criticized Johnston’s behavior.  The issue came to a head when President Davis ordered General Bragg to travel to Atlanta to investigate Hood’s claims.

After meeting with Johnston, Bragg interviewed Hood and General Joseph Wheeler, who testified that they had urged Johnston to attack rather than withdraw.  Hood claimed that Johnston was ineffective, timid, and weak-willed, saying, “I have, general, so often urged that we should force the enemy to give us battle as to almost be regarded reckless by the officers high in rank in this army [Johnston and Corps commander, William J. Hardee] since their views have been so directly opposite.”

Of course, Hood’s letters were insubordinate and subversive, but at least in Hood’s mind, necessary if the purpose of the war was to win important battles.  Historians today claim that Hood’s letters were self-serving and not entirely honest.[9]

But Hood was not alone in his criticism.  General Hardee reported to Bragg, “If the present system continues, we may find ourselves at Atlanta before a serious battle is fought.”  Presented with the facts of Johnston’s behavior, nearly every Confederate general agreed with Hood, Wheeler, and Hardee.

On 17 July 1864, President Davis relieved Johnston of his command.  Davis initially planned to replace Johnston with Hardee, but Bragg urged that he give control of the Army of Tennessee to Hood.  While it was true that Hood had impressed Bragg, it was also accurate that Bragg harbored ill feelings toward Johnston from bitter disagreements during earlier campaigns.

Davis temporarily promoted Hood to full general and gave him command of the army just outside Atlanta.  The Confederate Senate never confirmed hood’s appointment.  The 33-year old John Bell Hood was the youngest man on either side to command an army.  In Lee’s opinion, Hood was “a bold fighter on the field, but careless off.”  But Hood was well known by his Yankee classmates as temperamentally reckless and rash; they would use that knowledge to their advantage.  Davis’ decision to relieve Johnston was controversial and unpopular — besides which, Hood could no more hold Atlanta than Johnston.

In Johnston’s letter to Davis after his relief, he remarked of Hood, “Confident language by a military commander is not usually regarded as evidence of competency.”  Of this incident, Mary Chestnut recorded, “We thought this was a struggle for independence.  Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis.”[10]  Even though eventually restored to command, Johnston could never forget the perfidy of Davis, Bragg, and Hood.  Johnston later wrote, “I know Mr. Davis thinks he can do a great many things other men would hesitate to attempt.  For instance, he tried to do what God failed to do — make a soldier out of Braxton Bragg.”

Johnston’s End

History remembers Joe Johnston kindly.  His battle history is second to none: Manassas, Seven Pines, Vicksburg, Dalton, Resaca, Adairsville, New Hope Church, Dallas, Picket’s Mill, Kolb Farm, Kennesaw Mountain, Peachtree Creek, Averasboro, Bentonville, Morrisville Station, and the Bennett Place.  For him, it was a long war.  He afterward published his memoirs in Narrative of Military Operations, which was highly critical of Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, and Braxton Bragg.

He also built a life-long friendship with his former enemy, William T. Sherman — the officer to whom he surrendered in 1865.  Sherman once opined, “No officer or soldier who ever served under me will question the generalship of Joseph E. Johnston.  His retreats were timely, in good order, and he left nothing behind.”  Afterward, because of Johnston’s gentlemanly behavior, he would not tolerate anyone speaking ill of Sherman in his presence.  When Sherman passed away on 14 February 1891, Johnston served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral, keeping his hat off during the burial rites to show his respect.  The weather was cold and rainy, and Johnston caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia.  Joseph E. Johnston died ten days later.  He was 84 years old.

Sources:

  1. Bonds, R. S.  War Like the Thunderbolt: The Battle and Burning of Atlanta.  Westholme Publishing, 2009.
  2. Bowman, S. M., and R. B. Irwin: Sherman and His Campaigns: A military biography.  Richardson Publishing, 1865.
  3. Davis, S.  Texas Brigadier to the fall of Atlanta: John Bell Hood.  Mercer University Press, 2019.
  4. Johnston, J. E.  Narrative of Military Operations: Directed, During the Late War between the States.  Appleton & Co., 1874.
  5. Jones, W. L.  Generals in Blue and Gray: Davis’s Generals.  Stackpole Books, 2006.
  6. Miller, W. J.  The Battles for Richmond, 1862.  National Park Service Civil War Series, 1996.
  7. Symonds, C.  Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography.  Norton, 1992.
  8. Woodworth, S.  Jefferson Davis, and His Generals: A Failure of Confederate Command in the West.  University of Kansas Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

[1] All senior officers in both the Union and Confederacy attended the same school, used the same textbooks, had the same teachers, and graduated within a few years of each other.  They served together in the various military departments, in the Indian wars, and in one capacity or another, in the Mexican-American War (1846-48).  Later, as senior field commanders, they all knew what their opponents were likely to do.  With few exceptions, they all had inflated egos.

[2] Prior to the Civil War, the senior rank of the Army (discounting George Washington) was Major General, although the position was often filled by brigadier generals.  With the expansion of the military during the Civil War, as massive number of combat commands, both Union and Confederate armies expanded their command structure to accommodate much larger units.  Depending on circumstances and the availability of general officers, Brigadier Generals commanded brigades (consisting of from three to five regiments); major generals commanded divisions (three or four brigades); lieutenant generals commanded corps (three to four divisions), and generals command armies (three to four corps).

[3] What we know about the internal workings of the Confederacy today we owe in large measure to Sam Cooper, who maintained concise records and later turned these documents over to the U. S.  government at war’s end.  

[4] Robert E. Lee was an intellectual, a gentleman, and a pro-Union southerner whose final decision to resign his commission and join with his state was prompted by his loyalty to his home state.  His last US Army rank was colonel, and that is the insignia he wore on his uniform throughout the Civil War, rather than the insignia of a full general.  In Lee’s opinion, he had done nothing to warrant his full-general rank. 

[5] Braxton Bragg may have been the worst general officer on either side of the Civil War.  He lost nearly every engagement, shifted responsibility for his failures to junior officers, excessively disciplined subordinates.  He detested LtGen Leonidas Polk, a subordinate, who had a close relationship with President Jefferson Davis.  Bragg’s failures as a field general are among the primary reasons for the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy.

[6] Joseph and Lydia Johnston had no children.  Lydia passed away in 1887; Johnston passed away of a heart attack on 21 March 1891.  

[7] Craig L. Symonds book, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography, W. W. Norton, 1992. 

[8] Union armies were named after rivers; Confederate armies were named after the places where the fought.  Earlier, however, both the Union and Confederates has an “Army of the Potomac.”  The confusion of this forced the Confederates to adopt a different naming convention.  

[9] Steven E. Woodworth wrote that Hood had, more than General Hardee, urged Johnston to withdraw his force.

[10] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, A Diary from Dixie.

This post previously published at Old West Tales.


Inglorious

Introduction

On 15 April 1861, two days after South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection against the laws of the United States.  In total, there were only 15,000 men in U. S. Army uniform —  hardly enough men to impose Lincoln’s will on eight seceding states, so to suppress the Confederacy and restore federal authority, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90-days service.  Apparently, Mr. Lincoln was thinking that forcing southern states into compliance would be an abbreviated affair.  He later accepted the voluntary service of 40,000 additional troops with three-year enlistments.  These combined actions increased the strength of the Army to around 200,000.  Whether prudent, Mr. Lincoln’s actions prompted four other states to secede.

In the North

During April, thousands of bright-eyed, excited, adventurous young men streamed into the nation’s capital to join the fight and defend the nation’s capital.  The Army’s General-in-Chief was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott.  His plan for suppressing the rebels was to send an army of 80,000 men down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans.  As the Army strangled the southern economy, the Navy would blockade all Southern ports along the eastern United States and western Gulf Coast of Florida.  The press was not particularly kind to General Scott or his scheme of maneuver.

In July 1861, thousands of young men were wearing army uniforms and encamped at various locations around the city of Washington.  With members of the press and politicians wagging their tongues daily, political pressure was building for Mr. Lincoln to do something.  Lincoln’s problem was that his Army Commanding General was 75-years-old.  Who would lead these young men into battle?  The president’s ultimate selection was both political and expedient.

Irvin McDowell was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1838.  McDowell was a competent staff officer with limited command experience.  In April 1861, McDowell was an Army major assigned to the office of the Adjutant General.  In less than a month, McDowell advanced from Major to brigadier general.  The staff officer suddenly found himself in command of the Military Department of Northeast Virginia and Army of Northern Virginia — on paper, around 35,000 men organized into five infantry divisions.  No one knew better than McDowell that he was entirely out of his depth.

Politics ruled the day, however.  With everyone clamoring for Lincoln to do something, he did.  He placed 35,000 men in uniform.  There was no time for much combat training, of course, and McDowell was at least smart enough to realize that this was a problem.  After voicing his concerns to Lincoln, the president told McDowell, “You are green, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” One can only imagine what McDowell was thinking about that sage advice.  But McDowell was more than out of his depth as a field commander.  Thanks to Confederate spy/socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Confederacy had a copy of McDowell’s battle plan for Manassas.

In any case, Brigadier General McDowell’s battle plan was exceedingly ambitious.  He intended to make a diversionary attack with two divisions, send a third against the Confederate flank, cut off the railway line to Richmond, push the rebels out of Manassas and save the city of Washington.  After reading McDowell’s battle plan, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the Alexandria Line, must have laughed.  McDowell couldn’t have accomplished that even with an experienced army.  He would be facing around 24,000 Confederate and state militia.

In The South

In 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson served as Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army.  When his home state seceded from the Union, Johnson resigned his commission and returned to Virginia.  Initially, Virginia officials offered Johnson a commission as a major general in the state militia but later rescinded it and instead offered him a commission as a brigadier general.  Virginia only needed one major general, and they preferred Robert E. Lee to Johnson.  Johnson’s problem was that in the Union Army, he was a brigadier general, while Lee was only a colonel.  Seniority matters, so, rather than serving under someone junior in rank, Johnson accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.

Johnson was a talented officer with considerable experience throughout his tenure in the U. S. Army, but there was between him and Confederate President Jefferson Davis a strained relationship.  Initially, Davis appointed Brigadier General Johnson to relieve Colonel Thomas J.  Jackson of his command at Harpers Ferry; he later ordered Johnson to assume command of the Army of Shenandoah.  In this capacity, Johnson would be in a position to support Brigadier General Beauregard at Manassas.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (also known as P. G T. Beauregard) was the brother-in-law of John Slidell, a lawyer, politician, and businessman.  Slidell previously served as U. S. Minister to Mexico (1844-45).  In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point.  Five days later, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department revoked Beauregard’s appointment.  Beauregard vigorously protested such treatment and soon after resigned from the U. S. Army and returned to his home in Louisiana.  Beauregard anticipated that the governor of Louisiana would offer him command of the state militia, but that position was instead offered to and accepted by General Braxton Bragg.  Bragg offered Beauregard a colonelcy, but there was an issue of pride once again, and Beauregard instead enlisted as a private in the Orleans Guards.

Again, President Davis came to the rescue and, on 1 March 1861, appointed Beauregard a Brigadier General and placed him in command of the defenses at Charleston, South Carolina.  Beauregard was the first general officer appointment of the Confederacy, but the process of general officer appointments was haphazard.  In a few months, Beauregard would become a full (four-star) general, one of only seven promoted to that rank, but he would end up junior to four others: Samuel Cooper, Albert S. Johnson, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnson.

On 12 April, Beauregard ordered the commencement of hostilities with Fort Sumter, a bombardment lasting 34 hours.  President Davis later summoned Beauregard to Richmond for a new assignment.  He would assume command of the Alexandria Line.[1]  Beauregard immediately began planning for the defense of Manassas, including a concentration of forces along with those of General Johnson at Harpers Ferry.  Johnson was senior to Beauregard, but he was unfamiliar with the Manassas area and ceded tactical planning to Beauregard.  President Davis had great confidence in Beauregard as a field commander, but less with his ability as an operational planner.  Beauregard tended to formulate overly complicated schemes of maneuver without due consideration for logistics, intelligence, and political realities.

Bull Run

There is nothing particularly glorious about battle except, perhaps, in the minds of those who’ve never experienced it.  When the fighting is finally over, there is, of course, deep gratitude among survivors, and a peculiar bonding takes place among those survivors — for a little while — until everyone returns home and the nightmares and guilt arrive.  The guilt isn’t reflective of what combatants had to do in combat.  It’s for having the audacity (or luck) of living through it.  Many of their friends didn’t.

No doubt, the young men of both armies, whether officer or enlisted, had similar thoughts.  Aside from the excitement of a great undertaking, no doubt caused by increased adrenalin, there was also fear — a fear so palpable, one can smell it. Ordinary people fear death, of course, but what concerned these youngsters most was the prospect that fear would paralyze them.  Fear is a powerful thing — no one wants to be a coward.  Youngsters worry about such things.  They fear that in an unannounced split second when it occurs to them that running away offers life and remaining behind guarantees death, they will choose to run away.  A reasonable person will conclude that remaining behind in a fight that they’re losing is an irrational response to utter chaos — but there is nothing rational about combat, and adrenalin is an equally powerful antidote.

Two untrained armies began moving toward one another in mid-July 1861.  Oh, they may have had enough training to know how to line up, and maybe even how to wheel right or left, but they didn’t know (or trust) their officers, they barely knew their NCOs, and they may not have known the name of the man standing next to them.  The bonding process among combatants had yet to take hold.  It was a time when there was no leadership — only followership.  How the man standing next to them reacted to gunfire or exploding artillery influenced how they, themselves, responded to such trauma.  Watching someone running to the rear was a powerful incentive to join him — and so too was witnessing the decapitation of the next man in line.  Panic in the ranks can arrive as fast as flood water, and no one is immune to its effects without intense training and prior experience on the line.

The morning of 16 July began shaping up as a genuine goat-rope; it only got worse as the day progressed.  Formed regiments milled around along the roads while their officers tried to organize them into a line of march, and the men waited patiently while their officers and NCOs struggled to figure it out.  Hurry up and wait is an American military tradition.

After hours of fumbling about, General McDowell finally led his army out of Washington.  It was the largest army ever formed on the North American continent —  around 28,000 men (18,000 infantry) present.  Army commanders mustered everyone they could get their hands on — even Marines.

With pressure from the War Department to bolster McDowell’s army, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for duty in the field.  In 1861, U. S. Marines were seagoing infantry; they were not trained for field duty.  Major John G. Reynolds assumed command of the Marine battalion and reported to McDowell.  None of the Marines had any field equipment — all of them were raw recruits.  The best they could do in the upcoming fight was to help resupply artillery units with powder and shot.

McDowell hoped to have his army at Centerville by 17 July, but the troops were unaccustomed to marching long distances.  The distance from Washington to Manassas was 30 miles.  En route, formations would bunch up along the road, stop, wait, and start again.  Some soldiers, bored with the walk (it was hardly a march), would break formation to wander off into an orchard to rest and pick apples from the trees.  They were an undisciplined lot and largely ignored the orders of their officers and NCOs to “get back in ranks.”

On 17 July, Beauregard encamped his army near Manassas — the men busily preparing their defenses along the south bank of Bull Run.  His left flank, under Brigadier General Evans, blocked the stone bridge.  General McDowell was initially confident that he would overwhelm a numerically inferior enemy and equally optimistic that Brigadier General Robert Patterson, whose orders were to engage General Johnson’s Army of the Shenandoah, would prevent Johnson from reinforcing Beauregard.

Weather and climate are among the more critical factors of warfare because it affects both strategy and tactics. July in Northern Virginia is hot and humid, and that’s what it was on 21 July 1861. Rain-swollen rivers impede the flow of troops and supplies.  Muddy roads bring everything to a halt.  Rain prevents muskets from firing — which often necessitated bayonets and hand-to-hand combat.  Wind and rain made everyone miserable.  The exposure to the elements made people sick.  Heat and humidity cause heat casualties.  In short, weather can be a war stopper.

By the time McDowell reached Manassas, he was under a great deal of stress.  The ninety-day enlistments of several regiments were about to expire.  He also received word from Patterson that General Johnson had slipped out of the Shenandoah Valley.  If true, McDowell would face 34,000 rebels rather than 22,000.  On the morning of 22 July, two of McDowell’s commands, their enlistments having expired, left the field.  Despite his pleadings, the soldiers had no interest in remaining on the field.  In McDowell’s mind, time was running out.  He began making rash decisions.  He was starting to panic, and his subordinate commander’s lost confidence in his leadership.

By the time the shooting started, Beauregard’s and Johnson’s armies were tied in with one another, and more reinforcements were on the way.  McDowell received a string of faulty intelligence.

The Battle

The Union forces began their day at 02:30 when two divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman (12,000 men) marched from Centerville toward Sudley Springs.  General Tyler’s division (8,000 men) marched toward Stone Bridge.  In many places, the road approach to Sudley Springs was inadequate for so many men, artillery, and supply wagons in many places being no more than rutted footpaths.  The Union advance slowed to a crawl.  Fording Bull Run did not begin until 09:30, and the Union advance was no surprise to the Confederates.  When the two forces finally engaged that morning, it was more of an exercise in maneuver warfare than frontal assault or envelopment.  McDowell’s commanders struggled to get their men in position.

However, when the Union forces finally did strike the Confederate line, the rebel line collapsed, sending inexperienced boys into a panicked retreat.  The Union might have pursued them were it not for the exceptional artillery support from men like Captain John D. Imboden.  McDowell’s failure to press his advantage gave the Confederates time to reform their line.

At this time, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginia Brigade came forward in support of the re-organizing Confederate defense.  Jackson, accompanied by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry and Wade Hampton’s Legion, quickly set up a defensive line along the Henry House Hill ridgeline.  Hampton’s Legion thoroughly decimated the New York 79th, whose troops began a helter-skelter retreat.  The only Union soldier from the NY 79th who advanced under Hampton’s withering fire was Colonel James Cameron, the regimental commander.[2]  As Cameron advanced, his men abandoned him and ran to the rear.   Cameron was soon killed.

To shield his men from the Union’s direct fire, Jackson posted his five regiments on the reverse slope of Henry House Hill.  Jackson then placed thirteen artillery pieces to best defend the line, all out of sight of the Union troops.  The Confederate’s smooth-bore guns gave them an advantage over the Union artillery’s rifled guns because the Union guns were too close to their enemy’s positions and fired their more powerful pieces over the heads of the Confederate troops.[3]

Stonewall Jackson

When Confederate Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee (Commanding 3rd Brigade) complained to Jackson that the Union was driving them (forcing them back), Jackson calmly replied, “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.”  Bee then returned to his brigade and exhorted them, “There [pointing] is Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Let us rally behind the Virginians!”   

It was Jackson’s refusal to yield the line that gave him the nickname Stonewall Jackson.  Afterward, Jackson’s brigade launched a crushing assault against the Union line, capturing Union artillery and quickly sending hundreds of Union soldiers to the rear.  Jackson’s brigade devastated these troops with fire and bayonet.  Still, nothing spooked the Yankees more than the rebel yell, which Jackson (a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute) knew it would.  It was the first time Union troops heard the rebel yell, but it would not be the last time.  It was this daring assault that changed the course of the Battle of Bull Run.

At about 16:00, two Confederate Brigades (Early’s and Smith’s) assaulted Howard’s Union Brigade on Chinn Ridge and pushed it off the hill, delivering devastating casualties.  It was not long before the young boys dressed in Union uniforms decided to live another day.

McDowell’s decision to withdraw was anything but orderly.  Rather than controlling their men and easing their panic, Union officers were running foot races with their soldiers to see who could get back to the city of Washington first.  McDowell ordered Miles’ division to form a rearguard, but those troops were only interested in protecting themselves.  McDowell’s army didn’t rally until they reached the outskirts of Washington.  To President Davis’ great dismay, neither Johnson nor Beauregard pressed their advantage on the retreating Union.[4]  Had they done so, Washington might have fallen to the Confederates at the beginning of the war.

That evening, President Lincoln received his much-awaited report on the battle of Manassas, but it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear.  The message, in abbreviated form, was: “The day is lost.  Save Washington.”

Conclusion

This is the story of two numerically powerful armies, both untrained, both (for the most part) poorly led, and both leaving behind a large number of casualties.  McDowell lost 2,708 men (481 killed, 1,011 wounded, and 1,216 missing).  Generals Johnson and Beauregard lost 1,982 men (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing).  On the morning of 21 July 1861, the ranks of both armies contained young boys who were excited beyond measure and full of vinegar.  At the end of the day, some of those boys were broken, discouraged, or dead.  In one single day, the survivors had learned all they would ever need to know about combat.  It would never get any better, but it would get worse.  Whether north or south, everyone who fought that day knew that this one battle was only the beginning of unspeakable carnage.

There would be a second battle at Manassas — in about a year.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, E. P.  Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander.  Gary W. Gallagher, ed.  University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
  2. Beatie, R. H.  Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861.  Da Capo Press, 2002.
  3. Detzer, D.  Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861.  Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  4. Longstreet, J.  From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America.  Da Capo Press, 1992.

Endnotes:

[1] The Orange and Alexandria Railroad linked markets in northern and central Virginia.  Construction of the railroad began in 1850 and extended to Manassas and Gordonsville in 1851 and 1853.  It was a primary communication route between Richmond and northern Virginia.  The Alexandria Line became a strategic prize coveted by both Union and Confederate forces at Manassas, Bristoe Station, and Brandy Station.

[2] Brother of U. S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron.

[3] One casualty of the Union artillery was 89-year-old Judith Carter, an invalid, who was confined to her bed inside Henry House.  Miss Carter was killed when Union artillery targeted the house, thinking that rebel snipers were shooting from upstairs windows.

[4] Jefferson Davis observed the fight from the battlefield, arriving at around 15:00 that afternoon.