Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 1861: On the Road to Manassas

In northwestern Virginia, General George B. McClellan's Ohio regiments defeated Confederate troops at Philippi, VA on June 3, 1861; at Rich Mountain on July 11; and at Carrick's Ford on July 13.    At Carrick's Ford, Confederate General Robert S. Garnett was the first general killed in battle in the war.  Garnett was later replaced by Gen. Robert E. Lee.

On July 15, Gen. Irvin McDowell's Federal Army of the Potomac was finally ready to move toward Fairfax Court House, VA from Arlington Heights.  The Army consisted of fifty infantry regiments, ten batteries of artillery (55 guns), and one battalion of cavalry [approximately 30,000 men and 1,450 officers].  McDowell's regiments held evening parades celebrating McClellan's victories.

After the parades, each regiment received their marching orders for the morning.  Fairfax Court House was thirteen miles from Arlington - one day's march - but McDowell's orders were for the march to begin in mid-afternoon. McDowell wanted his troops to march a few miles to the outer pickets, stop for the night, and resume the march to Fairfax in the morning.    Troops were ordered to travel in "Light Marching Order."

At Fairfax Court House, Confederate Gen. Milledge Bonham waited with 5,000 soldiers.  McDowell's troops were spread out in a number of camps throughout the District of Columbia and Virginia. Brigadier Gen. Samuel Heintzelman's division was in the area of Alexandria. Colonel Ambrose Burnside's Brigade was in the District of Columbia. Brigadier Gen. Daniel Tyler's division, the largest in McDowell's army, was in the western side of the expedition moving toward Vienna, VA. Colonel David Hunter's division and Colonel Dixon Miles' division marched toward Annandale, VA - eight miles from Fairfax Court House.  McDowell expected a four-to-one superiority over Confederates of Bonham's command.

On July 17, three of McDowell's divisions marched on Fairfax Court House.  Gen. P. T. G. Beauregard sent a telegram to President Jefferson Davis reporting his outposts were under attack by Federal troops and McDowell's army was on the march.  Davis ordered Gen. Joseph Johnston to give Gen. Robert Patterson's Federal troops the slip and move his troops eastward to reinforce Beauregard's troops at Manassas Junction.  Beauregard expected McDowell's army to attack on July 18 and warned Davis there was not enough time for Johnston's army to reach Manassas.  However, the attack did not come on the 18th or the 19th.

On July 17, Brigadier Gen. Tyler's lead troops arrived at Fairfax Court house in late morning.  Gen. Bonham ordered his regiments to retreat. Three companies of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment, under the command of Lt. Colonel J. W. Jones, were ordered to act as a rear guard.  Bonham's troops retreated to Centerville. 

The lead units of the Federal army entered Fairfax Court House, VA at 11:30 a.m. - with Colonel Burnside's Rhode Islanders in front.  Gen. Tyler's division stopped outside town when his men saw Bonham's soldiers moving westward out of Fairfax Court House.  Tyler ordered his troops to take the right fork in the road, bypassing the town, in hope of intercepting the retreating Confederates at the hamlet of Germantown - located between Fairfax and Centerville.  Bonham's regiments escaped Germantown only a few minutes ahead of Tyler's troops.

McDowell and his division and brigade commanders were unsuccessful in curbing some of their men from ransacking and/or burning houses, stealing or vandalizing property, and killing farm animals in direct violation of the Articles of War. 

McDowell set up his headquarters in Fairfax Court House.  He decided to delay his advance on Manassas Junction to await his supply wagons.

Gen. Johnston's army arrived by train from the Shenandoah Valley to Manassas Junction while McDowell waited for his supplies.  The additional Confederate troops were a surprise to McDowell and his troops when they finally advanced. 

copyright 2011: Jay C. Richards

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