Manassas/First Bull Run

I started reading “Lee’s Lieutenants” by Douglas Freeman. Here is a battle description with some spiritual notes.

General Beauregard was the victor of Fort Sumter and was now the commander of the Manassas Confederate line in Northern Virginia. His victory at Fort Sumter had set the stage for an aura of invincibility. The press believed it, his men believed it; the only problem was he believed it. The phrase: “A legend in his own mind” fits. Our pastoral leadership uses the phrase: “The danger of believing your own press reports” to warn us to not let our egos get out of control. Every pastor will enjoy a prestige and spiritual boost just because he is the vessel that is dispensing the living word of God. This word is able d do the impossible – “dividing asunder soul & spirit” and “able to discern the very intents of the heart”. The congregation can feel the moving of the Spirit of God upon their hearts and minds and begin to associate it with the pastor; “You read my mail today, Pastor”.

The admonition is to be careful to give God the glory and not be puffed up in our own minds. We continue to labor in the word, studying and preparing to do our best according to our ability without receiving the compliments of the congregation in an unhealthy way. Acts 12:22-23 And the people kept shouting, "The voice of a god and not of a man!" 23 Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.

Beauregard, like many of his compatriots of the day, was filled with an admiration for Napoleon. The press described him as the reincarnation of Napoleon. As the two armies began to move closer to battle, Beauregard set up a grand Napoleonic maneuver of an overpowering sweep of his main force with a crossing of the Bull Run river on his right. He arrayed his forces with this plan in mind, strengthening his right, while believing his weaker left could hold their position. For him it was all about his offensive strike with little thought given to defense.

The problem was that the terrain defensively favored his right where he was strongest and the terrain was weakest defensively on his left where his forces were the weakest. A problem pastors have is that we major in our strengths without working to strengthen our weaknesses. Most pastors can maintain and even thrive to a certain extent living off the natural gifting they have. A pastor leads, counsels administers, preaches, teaches and has relationship with his congregation. He can be gifted in any one of these areas, and use that gifting to bless the church, but the man of God must be complete to take up the responsibility that God has placed upon him. He might be the great faith preacher that fails to get a complete understanding of the word of God in such a way that he can properly teach his congregation. He can be the great leader who doesn’t know how to relate to the weaker sheep. He can be the great one on one counselor but his books are in shambles. We can all be tempted to live off of our strengths, neglecting to strengthen our areas of weakness, we need to challenge ourselves to be the complete man of God. 2 Tim 3:16-17 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Beauregard issued written orders of the plan of attack. These orders were obscure enough to paralyze the officers that needed to follow them. KISS always works when you are communicating with someone. This ordered plan of attack was issued despite the fact that major portions of troops set to be part of the assault hadn’t arrived from the Shenandoah Valley yet. Before, the assault could be carried out the Federal forces were spotted moving against his weaker left flank. Beauregard now issued some new commands, still hoping to not lose his cherished Napoleonic assault, but now with two sets of competing orders, there was an element of even greater confusion among the officers who must carry out his plans. Because he wants to maintain the option of an assault on his left he commits his reserves to strengthen his left way early in the battle; losing the ability to move them to a key position as the battle unfolded.

Since Beauregard had strengthened his left with the reserves, he changes the orders for the right, from a demonstration of force (a fake attack) to an actual attack, crossing Bull Run and assaulting the Federal forces at Centerville. These commanding officers now have three sets of conflicting orders, with some with only two, but the effect is the same. With these confusing and contradictory orders some forces cross Bull Run to begin the assault while others are frozen in place. This could have been a disaster but turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the Federals had crossed Bull Run in strength beyond his left flank threatening to envelop his forces. So as the battle begins in earnest at the far left of Beauregard’s lines his troops “…were so scattered, so variously occupied, that orderly, united action of any sort was impossible”.

Beauregard now commands his forces on his right, some having crossed Bull Run, others waiting for the order to cross, to cross back over the Bull Run to the defensive side an await orders. Every leader must be careful to not waste the energy and confidence of his people by having them cross and re-cross wasting time and energy. We order to dig a hole and then we order to fill the hole. You can imagine the thoughts of the soldiers as they crossed Bull Run and then turned around and crossed it again. Some advice given by a fellowship leader was to make it count when you assemble your church folks to do something. We shouldn’t do things just to keep people busy, It is true: “without a vision the people perish” and Hab 2:2 2 Then the Lord answered me and said: "Write the vision And make it plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it.

The battle now moves entirely to the left flank of Beauregard’s line. The Federalist forces have managed a difficult march to cross Bull Run to the left of the Confederate forces with a highway in front of them, taking it would place them directly behind the Confederate lines. The Federalists had marched all night to make their crossing. The distance turned out to be 14 miles instead of 7 and they crossed at 9:30 in the morning instead of 7:00. They were supposed to have crossed at two locations, but were instead stacked up waiting to cross at the one location. Some units would never make the crossing, the problem with the slow crossing was that McDowell could never take advantage of all of his forces. Believe it or not it was a personality conflict between McDowell and Tyler that hindered operations. No more need be said.

The Confederate forces on the left facing the mock battle in front of them realized that the real threat was to their left. Several commanders, on their own, without communicating movement, moved to face the Federal forces that had crossed Bull Run to their left. These four columns of troops had left their ordered positions and had placed themselves at precisely the right points to meet the advancing federalist forces. Modern warfare stresses the fluidity of the battlefield and champions the need for moment to moment decisions by the commanders in the field. Civil War history is full of second guessing. The point is the following of orders. Had these 4 columns remained where they were ordered to be the day would have turned out much differently for the South. As it was, the leading commander of those units, Evans, was not given any special commendation after the battle. Maybe, the fact that he disobeyed orders in moving his troops had something to do with this. If his unordered movement had turned into a disaster, it would have surely been a court martial. The point is that victory covers a multitude sins on the battlefield, whereas defeat opens the door to finger pointing and recriminations. Proper communications are necessary on the battlefield and in the church.

The battlefield is a place of co-coordinating forces and movements. Thus, lies the truth that communication is of vital importance to victory on the battlefield. This battle would include the first time that a flagger communicated vital information in the midst of battle. A signal corpsman was able to notify Beauregard of the Federal crossing of Bull Run to his left. The enemy will always try to disrupt the  communication between friendly forces. We see this in marriage, church and business. The pre-cursor to the Civil War was the Baptist split over slavery, giving us the pro-slavery Southern Baptist and the social gospel Baptists of the North. Did the enemy of the gospel blind the leaders of the Baptists to what was really important, this effecting how they communicated with each other? Working together across denominational lines requires a Billy Graham. The real test is working and co-coordinating with your fellowship partners. We have all seen the communication process fail us, how do we handle it? What is your relationship like with your pastor? What is your relationship like with the pastor closest in proximity to you? When communication breaks down our friends can easily become our enemies as we lose sight of the real war we are involved in.

The Confederate general Johnston has arrived on the field of battle. He is the ranking general but is flowing with the decisions being made by Beauregard. Most of his troops are still in transit from the Shenandoah after giving the Federalist the slip. Beauregard is still hoping for his grand assault, but the sound of battle to their left makes his hopes immaterial. Johnston finally cannot contain himself: “The battle is there; I am going.” They are now riding together to the new front to their left. They are passing through the remnants of Evan’s men who met and blunted the Federalist advance, buying the South invaluable time. They reach some high ground and are able to get a big picture of what is transpiring. There is still a thin gray line opposing the advancing Federals. There is one column that has positioned itself strongly to anchor the far left position of the line. This is Jackson’s troops. This is where the famous nickname of “Stonewall” will be given to him as disorganized Confederate troops are encouraged to link up with Jackson who stands ready as a “stonewall”. Johnston and Beauregard now begin to rally the fleeing troops encouraging them to form lines to continue the fight. At this point, Beauregard asks Johnston to assume overall command as the ranking general and leave the battlefield. Johnston withdrew and set up a headquarters to direct troops. Beauregard would do a great job the rest of the day placing Confederate forces in the battle line as Johnston was able to send them his way.

The fighting went back and forth as first one side would gain the high ground and the advantage then the other, both sides fighting heroically. A key turning point was the disabling and capture of a key Federal artillery unit. This unit was ready to blast away at an approaching column when the commander was led to believe that it was an approaching friendly unit in blue, it turned out to be a Virginia unit, also in blue, and it wasn’t until a volley from the approaching unit cut down all of the artillerymen that the truth was known. “Time and chance happen to them all”. The Federalist line of assault kept lengthening to the Confederate left, as Johnston kept sending troops to Beauregard who kept placing them to his left to prevent the left flank from being turned. The question was now which side would be able to bring their reserves to the Confederated left for the decisive blow?

At this decisive moment Johnston’s troops from Shenandoah arrived. Johnston was also directing the troops who had been poised to make the assault on the right to the new front. Now with the lines equally arrayed against each other an approaching column was seen coming from the West. Beauregard was ready to call a general retreat assuming it was Patterson’s union troops. Patterson had conflicting orders, he was to defend Washington DC from Johnston’s troops and join his forces with McDowell’s for the battle. His only way of fulfilling this order was to stay in constant conflict with Johnston’s forces, but instead he had been bluffed into defensive positions while Johnston’s troops made it over to the battle. Was this now Patterson’s troops arriving after discovering Johnston’s troops had left? It turned out to be Early’s brigade taken from the right flank all the way to the key spot of the battlefield, on the Confederate left. Now with key reinforcements in place, and a new sense of destiny and victory, the Confederate forces moved forward all along the line, forcing the Federals back and eventually creating the panicked route and retreat all the way back to Washington DC.

What was Patterson thinking? Even though he had contradictory orders he had been expected to engage and stay engaged with the Confederate forces. You cannot win if you are not willing to fight. This would be a recurring problem with Union generals until the arrival of Grant. 1 Cor 9:26-27 Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. 27 But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. Patterson was left behind fighting the air.

Orders are now given for the forces on the Confederate right to cross Bull Run and cut off the Federalist retreat at Centerville. Bonham and Longstreet advance with Longstreet’s troops having the easier time of it. Longstreet’s troops were in formation marching along the highway to Centerville when Bonham’s disorganized troops appeared from the left of the highway. Bonham, as senior officer, insisted that his men be formed ahead of Longstreet’s to force the retreat. This was not the moment to insist on protocol. Longstreet should have been given the green light, recognizing the reality that his troops were able to get the job done faster. This slowed down the advance enough for a Union line to form that included artillery. Longstreet insists that the attack be carried forth, Bonham isn’t so sure. They both are aware of the rumor that is flying up and down the Confederate lines of a Federalist advance across the Bull Run on their right. This rumor effectively halts the pursuit of the fleeing Federalist troops when Beauregard believes it and orders a concentration of troops at Union Mills Ford to face a non-existent attacking force.

Seeing ghosts and rumors are part of life. Acting on rumors is a pastor’s folly. Longstreet was faced with a rumor of an attacking Federalist force and a picture of reality right in front of him. The picture in front of him was of a beaten Federalist force on the run. His comment was that he knew a retreat when he saw one and the Federalists were beaten and needed to be attacked at once. All to no avail the ghost won, the rumor triumphed at that crucial moment for the South.

For many the war was now over, the South had won, they had secured independence. Jefferson Davis, the South’s president, was unable to wait in Richmond and was now on the battlefield trying to understand the events of the day. He wondered about the possibility of pursuit. He ate dinner with Johnston and afterwards began to write his report. Beauregard shows up acknowledging the rumored attack on the right. Davis asks the generals if any Confederate forces were pursuing the enemy. No. Could pursuit be renewed in the morning? With weary troops the generals hesitated in answering. Then news comes to them describing the utter chaos of the Union retreat through Centerville.

Davis right there begins to write out the command ordering the freshest troops to immediately move into Centerville. That is when the nickname of the man who gave them the report, a Major Hill, is given as a reminder to the men present. His nickname was “Crazy Hill” because of his excitable nature. The nickname describing a character flaw was enough to allay Davis from ordering the difficult night march. Character matters on the battlefield: Eccl 10:1  Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment, And cause it to give off a foul odor; So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor.

Here is an animation of the battle.

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About hansston

Pastor a church in Sparta.
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One Response to Manassas/First Bull Run

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