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A Battle — Outlook at Home and Abroad. Instead of a Confederate force at Manassas Junction early in May, there were sanguine people at Washington who thought there should have been a Union army at Gordonsville. The example of Lyon and Blair in Missouri seemed to encourage like boldness and promptitude in Virginia. Holding Manassas, the enemy covered all the railway communications with the Shenandoah Valley; holding Gordonsville, the Government would have controlled not these alone, but also the railway by Lynchburg into Eastern Tennessee. Secretary Chase, for one, believed the occupation of Gordonsville practicable, and urged it as the first military duty. The Lieutenant-General was not of this mind. Gordonsville, ninety miles from Alexandria by rail, was seventy miles from Richmond and well to the westward; the Rappahannock River was a formidable barrier to be encountered early on the way, and the work altogether was not to be done off-hand without preparation. After securing Fortress Monroe on the Peninsula, Scott chose to wait until the form of a popular vote on the ordinance of Secession had been gone through with before sending into Virginia, either Eastern or Western, so much as a company of soldiers. Meanwhile, Confederate armies
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had advanced far north and east of Gordonsville; across the Rapidan; across the Rappahannock; even within menacing distance of the national capital.
General Beauregard took command at Manassas Junction — twenty-seven miles from Washington — on the 2d of June; General Joseph E. Johnston, with a smaller force, held Harper's Ferry; and there was a brigade under General Holmes at Acquia Creek, on the Potomac below, in near communication with Fredericksburg. Beauregard advanced his outposts to Fairfax Courthouse, midway between Manassas and Washington, and eastward to Leesburg, near the Potomac above. For weeks there were only some slight collisions in this quarter; Patterson, sent with a force to oppose Johnston, tardily crossed the Potomac, and early in July occupied Martinsburg and Bunker Hill, ten miles from Winchester, to which Johnston retired.
In and around Washington an army of fifty-three thousand men, of whom three thousand were regulars, had been gathering since the 18th of April. The city had a decidedly military aspect. For weeks it was an evening pastime of visitors and residents of both sexes to drive to the camps at the hour of dress parade. When at length the troops on the Washington side began in July to cross the river, it was understood that serious work was at hand. To see a battle — an opportunity that might not occur again in a lifetime — was naturally an object of desire to many civilians, though the passes required were but sparingly given. There was no such general rush of people into Virginia as exaggerated accounts of the time would imply.
McDowell's army consisted of five divisions: First, D. Tyler's — brigades of Keyes, Schenck, W. T. Sherman and Richardson; second, D. Hunter's — brigades of Andrew Porter and Burnside; third, Heintzelman'sbrigades of Franklin, Wilcox and O. O. Howard; fourth, Runyon's — seven regiments of New Jersey troops, not brigaded for the field, but used in guarding communications; fifth, D. S. Miles's — brigades of Blenker and Davies. To the first division were attached Carlisle's, Ayer's, and Varian's batteries, and a company of the Second U. S. Cavalry; to the second, a Rhode Island battery, one company of the Fifth U. S. Artillery, and two companies of the Third U. S. Cavalry; to the third, two companies of the Second U. S. Artillery and one of the Second U. S. Cavalry; and to the fifth, a company of the Third U. S. Artillery. McDowell had submitted to the General-in-Chief a plan of operations, and an advance had been ordered to begin on the 8th of July; but that day found the army still unready; and even when the marching actually began, on Tuesday, the 16th, disorder and delay in the movement of trains and otherwise lost further time. The advance stopped for the night at Fairfax Courthouse, only reaching Centreville on the 17th. McDowell had disposed his forces with a view to capture the Confederate detachments at Fairfax Courthouse and Centreville, which seemed possible with prompt execution of his orders, but before morning both places were evacuated.
Soon came the report to Washington, in various forms and from different sources, that Richardson's brigade had been repulsed with severe loss at Blackburn's Ford, four miles beyond Centreville. Coming within a mile or two of Bull Run at that ford, a reconnoitering party learned that the enemy had a battery on the hither side of the stream, and so placed as to enfilade the road, while skirmishers occupied woods and houses in front. Tyler ordered forward the entire brigade, followed by Sherman as a reserve. The advance soon came under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery from Longstreet's command, and Richardson's men were not extricated without serious losses and disorder.
For the next three days McDowell's forces were encamped at and near Centreville. The enemy was in position along the south bank of Bull Run, guarding the fords from Union Mills to the Stone bridge — a distance of seven or eight miles. The three principal roads from Centreville crossing the stream were: that taken by Richardson on the 18th, leading due south to Manassas Junction; another bearing to the right to the Stone bridge, three or four miles above, and known as the Warrenton pike; and the third, to the left, crossing by a ford at Union Mills about the same distance below. From Bull Run the country ascends by a gradual rise towards Centreville, about four miles north — a straggling village overlooking the plains, which extend to Manassas Junction, near the same distance beyond the Run.
On the morning of the 21st, Ewell's brigade held the Confederate right near Union Mills, supported by Holmes' brigade, which had been withdrawn from Acquia Creek; and the commands of D. R. Jones, Longstreet, Bonham, and Cooke, with other forces, extended the line to nearly a mile beyond the Stone bridge, Evans being on the extreme left. Early's brigade was held in reserve within supporting distance of Jones and Ewell. The bulk of the Confederate force was on its right, without material change, during the last three days, of the positions taken, with the expectation that McDowell — as he in fact originally intended after a demonstration at Blackburn's Ford—would seek to turn the right of Beauregard's line. On this Sunday morning, however, both the opposing commanders were proceeding to execute newly formed plans, each having issued orders for an offensive movement.
Reporting to General Scott on Friday, after a “personal reconnoissance of the roads,” McDowell designated the Manassas Gap Railway as his present objective point, his aim being: “To destroy the railroad at or near Gainesville, and thus to break up the communication between the enemy's forces at Manassas and those in the valley of Virginia before Winchester." Beauregard, having massed his troops on the right — a large portion of Johnston's army having already arrived — had given orders for an advance from Union Mills with a view to outflank McDowell and move upon the capital, and was getting impatient at Ewell's unexpected delay in starting, when the sound of Union guns far away to his left caused an abrupt change of front. Instead of the march on Washington, there were now hurry and bustle to prepare for defense.
McDowell's plan required possession of the Stone bridge and the Warrenton pike, extending in a straight line from Centreville to Gainesville. Tyler and Hunter were to start in the early morning — the former taking up a position near the bridge, while Hunter should make a flanking detour, crossing above, near Sudley