First Manassas, the Battle to End the War

by Robert Jenkins

Dalton-Whitfield Civil War

150th Commemoration Committee

It was supposed to be the one battle to end the War, a short War which would prove, each side believed, whether there would be one nation or two.  President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to serve for three months to suppress the rebellion and bring the erring sister states of the South back into the fold, he reasoned.  In response, Confederate soldiers from states all over the South began to converge at a small railroad crossing in Northern Virginia called Manassas Junction to oppose any Federal attempt to come into the Old Dominion as Virginia was known.

Soon, about 38,000 Federals began drilling around Washington, D.C. under the command of General Irvin McDowell, while another 18,000 Northern soldiers under General Robert Patterson moved into Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, at the mouth of the Shenandoah Valley.  Opposing these forces were about 22,000 Confederates at Manassas under General P.G.T. Beauregard (the same general who led the assault at Fort Sumter), and another 12,000 under General Joseph E. Johnston facing Patterson’s men in the Shenandoah Valley.

Urging an attack before the three month enlistments of his volunteers expired, Lincoln pressed McDowell for action.  McDowell told the President that his men were green and not ready to take offensive action.  Lincoln replied, “Yes, it is true that you are green.  But they (the Confederates) are green, also. You are all green alike.”  With this admonition, McDowell took his force out of Washington and into Virginia toward Beauregard’s army beginning July 16, 1861.

The Confederate leaders learned of McDowell’s plan and, not seeing any forward movement from Patterson’s force, began moving Johnston’s Army by rail to reinforce Beauregard’s men.  This was the first time in history that a railroad would be used to move men from one front to another during a military campaign.  Railroads would soon become widely used by both sides throughout the War to both supply and move forces.

By the time McDowell’s Army reached the northern bank of Bull Run, a small tributary behind which Beauregard had placed his men in defense, the bulk of Johnston’s force had joined the Confederates, making the size of both armies on the field roughly 30,000 to 35,000 men. After several days in which both armies probed each other across Bull Run, word quickly spread to the civilians in Washington that the grand battle to end the war would be fought on July 21st.  United States’ Congressmen and a number of Washington’s high society as well as their families, quickly rushed to the scene, bringing picnic lunches for the day as they expected to enjoy a day of festivities while watching the battle from a nearby hill.

General McDowell’s plan was to cross Bull Run to the northwest of the Confederate line, and then march down the left side or flank of the Southerners, rolling up their line as they went.  The plan was a good one, and it began well for the Northern soldiers as they surprised the Rebels with their turning movement on the morning of July 21st.  The surprised outnumbered Confederates on the left of their line tried to hold their ground and slowly gave way, fighting for every inch of the Virginia soil while the relentless Federal attack pressed on.  The sacrifice of the Southerners on the left gave time for additional troops from the right of the Confederate line to join them.  These forces included General Francis S. Bartow’s Georgia Brigade which contained three Companies from Rome, Georgia, General Barnard Bee’s South Carolina Brigade and General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginia Brigade which formed in reserve on a hill behind the Georgians and South Carolinians.

As the morning’s battle continued into the afternoon, the Federal attack was too large for the South Carolinians and Georgians (and the remaining Confederate forces which had begun the day on the left of the line), and they began to fall back across the Henry House farm and toward Jackson’s reserve line.  After pushing back the Confederates, however, the Yankees began to run out of steam.

General Joseph E. Johnston leading the Georgians at First Manassas

In a turning point during the battle, while Bee’s South Carolina troops and the Georgians under Bartow continued to try to slow down the advance of the Federals, General Thomas Jackson and his Virginia Brigade appeared behind them on a hill.  Trying to rally his men who were beginning to withdraw from the field, Bee exclaimed, “Look at Jackson’s Virginia Brigade, standing there like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here and we will conquer.  Follow me!”  The South Carolinians and Georgians, rallied, and the Virginians soon joined in the fray, shifting the momentum of the battle to the Confederates.  After the Federal advance stalled, Jackson sensed the time had come to launch a counter-attack.  Soon, additional Confederate forces that had just arrived by train from the Shenandoah Valley arrived and joined in Jackson’s attack.  Both Generals Bee and Bartow soon fell with mortal wounds, but Jackson continued the advance, sweeping the Federals from the field. In a battle filled with mistakes from both sides, in which only about half of each force actually saw combat, the Federals initially appeared to be the victors before the tide turned and the Southerners countered by pushing the Northerners off the field.

As the Yankees retreated, panic ensued, and the withdrawal quickly turned into a rout.  By day’s end, over 4,900 men, (about 2,000 for the South and 2,900 for the North), would be killed, wounded, and captured, including a number of men from nearby Rome, Georgia.  Companies A, E and H from the 8th Georgia had come from Floyd County, Georgia, and soon the bodies of the men who had died from the battle would pass through Dalton on their way toward their final resting place in nearby Floyd County.

As results of the battle spread, the South cheered and praised God for the victory, while the North began to understand and prepare for the cost that winning this War would toll upon them.  Both sides were shocked at the number of casualties incurred.  Soon, the butcher’s bill at the Battle of Manassas (or Bull Run as it became known in the North) would seem inconsequential when compared to the casualties incurred in other battles as at least twenty other battles would see more men fall.  The Battle of Manassas would not become known as First Manassas or First Bull Run for another year – until the Battle of Second Manassas or Second Bull Run would once again stain the soil of the beautiful Virginia countryside the following summer.

For the North, several generals would make their inaugural appearance in the War, including William Tecumseh Sherman who would one day make Georgia howl.  For the South, a legend had been born in the person of “Stonewall” Jackson who was rightly credited for reversing the Confederacy’s fortunes during the battle.  And in the homes and hearths of Southern homes, a war cry had also begun:  “Remember Bee and Bartow,” who had given their lives for the new Confederate Nation.

No Companies from Whitfield or Murray County had fought at First Manassas.  The Dalton Guards, Company B of Phillips Legion commanded by Captain Robert Thomas (Tom) Cook, were still in Georgia, at Camp McDonald near Big Shanty (today called Kennesaw).  Soon, they would be headed to Virginia to serve under General Robert E. Lee in his first field command as they attempted to repel Federal advances into Western Virginia, a region that would soon secede from Virginia and subsequently rejoin the United States.

General Francis S. Bartow, who was killed at First Manassas on July 21, 1861