Battle of Bull Run - Centreville Heights

It is a popular, almost legendary, story that innumerable civilians armed with picnic baskets that followed the Union Army out from Washington City in July 1861 to watch the Battle of Bull Run, which was to be the climactic battle to create a short rebellion. On the night of July 20, 1861, the eyes of a nation and world were fixed on a small area some 25 miles from Washington City. In the woods, valleys and fields some 30,000 Union troops camped on the eve of the first major engagement of Civil War along the road leading through Centreville. Among the military throng that night was John Taylor, a politician from New Jersey, who, like a few other civilians, had come out early from Washington City. This future state senator watched the Union army assemble about 2:00 a.m. It was, he wrote, “one of the most inspiring and impressive sights of my life time”. From the fields on either side of Braddock Road and the Warrenton Turnpike, which ran east to west through Centreville, hundreds of soldiers tumbled from their camps and into column. Writing of the scene 32 years later, Taylor wistfully remembered that the cadence of the troops seemed to be measured by the unison of those hearts beating stoutly for their country’s salvation.

Battle of Bull Run - Centreville Heights

Taylor would soon have plenty of civilian company. As the Union army around Centreville stirred that July morning, Washington rumbled with an excitement rarely matched in the capital’s history. Early on the morning of July 21, 1861 many civilian and other would-be spectators found their way to the heights at Centreville, just five miles from the Battlefield. One of the spectators who came a little late in the afternoon was Major, Montgomery C. Meigs of the Union Quartermaster Corp. (Lead Engineer from West Point who built Historic Fort Wayne located in Detroit) He even had his driver park his buggy so that it pointed toward Washington City. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, a steady stream of would-be spectators found their way to the heights. They came in all manner of ways, wrote a Union officer, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback, or even on foot. Apparently, everything in the shape of vehicles in and around Washington had been pressed into service for the occasion. For most civilians present that day, the experience was less a visual feast than a forum for wanton speculation. In truth, many sightseers packed picnic baskets; but this was more a necessity than a frivolous pursuit on a Sunday afternoon. Centreville was a good 25 miles from Washington, a seven-hour carriage ride one way. The sightseers would need nourishment during their adventurous excursion and they could not rely on the hospitality of local Virginians, now citizens of a rival nation.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m., the most famous news correspondent on the field, William H. Russell of the London Times, crested the Centreville ridge. Russell recalled the slopes were covered with men, carts, and horses while spectators crowned the summit. Russell noted that they were all excited, especially one woman with an opera glass. She was quite beside herself when a louder-than-usual volley echoed from the distant battlefield. That is splendid, she exclaimed. Oh my! Is that not first-rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow.

To the west, a vast panorama lay before the audience: forest and field against the backdrop of the Bull Run Mountains, 15 miles distant. The civilian horde looked intently into the scene, but could divine little. Congressman Alfred Ely of New York, who had also just arrived, noted that the thick woods hid from our view all the troops, although the smoke of the battle was plainly seen, and the deep-throated roar of the artillery distinctly heard. Russell scanned the supposed battlefield intently with his glass, but, as he wrote in what would be the most famous recounting of the Bull Run disaster, I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting.

The numbers swelled by the hour to several hundred, this included Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, Senator Jim Lane of Kansas, the future Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Senator Benjamin F. Bluff Ben Wade who is the spiritual leader of the Committee on the Conduct of War and Judge McCook of Ohio.  Few of them had any real concept of the day’s battle plan of Union army commander Brigadier General Irvin Mcdowell. The heights were becoming a large gathering.

The naïve citizens, as the tale goes, then impeded the Union retreat, adding to the panic. Hollywood representations of Manassas have, unfortunately, perpetuated the notion that large numbers of civilians were actually under fire on the battlefield. Indeed, there were a few, like Gov. William Sprague of Rhode Island, who accompanied Burnside’s brigade and had two horses shot from under him on Matthews Hill. The majority of spectators, gathered on Centreville Heights were well out of harm’s way on which was some five miles from the fighting.

There was a handful of soldiers who were among the spectators, offering commentary and interpretation on the battle that was blocked by the woods and hills in front of them. At some point an officer rode up it was reported that “we’ve whipped em, we have taken their Batteries”. The crowd started cheering, Congressmen shook hands to them it seemed the battle was going very well. The view from this hill was not enough some of the Congressmen moved to a ridge about a mile south of Centreville where Capt. John Tidwell stationed a battery of cannons. Where the crowds surround his position, and questioned the men and the captain. Most of the sightseers were evidently disappointed at what they saw, or rather did not see, recorded Tidball. They no doubt expected to see a battle as represented in the pictures. Most of these civilians arrived at the overlook fired by good news and optimism. Judge McCook had been there all day with his son Edwin, his carriage parked only a few hundred yards behind the battle line of the 2d Ohio, in which another of his sons, Charles, toiled as an officer. While the intensity of events beyond the stream rose during the day, the mood at McCook’s outpost was relaxed–so much so that he invited his officer–son Charles to leave his regiment and lunch with him.

By 4:00 p.m. the politicians had lost most of their inhibitions about involving themselves with military affairs. Congressman Washburne, who was present on the ridge, even took it upon himself to reconnoiter for Colonel Robert C. Schenck’s Ohio brigade at the bridge. Washburne spotted the enemy, then beseeched Schenck to take a look himself. One journalist made his way to the Stone Bridge–now in Union hands–New York Herald correspondent Henry Villard frantically asked directions to McDowell’s headquarters. No one could tell him, and the journalist watched as the tide of blue-clad refugees crowded the Warrenton Turnpike. After 20 minutes, Villard spotted a staff officer, and asked for McDowell. You won’t find him, came the shocking response. All is chaos in front. The battle is lost. Our troops are giving way and falling back without orders. Get back to Centreville.

Not far from Villard and Washburne, Congressman Ely moved down the road for a better look. When he had gone about 100 yards, a bullet struck the ground near him. The congressman dodged out of the road and found refuge with some others behind a tree. He remained there for about an hour–long enough for the situation around him to change dramatically. About 5:30 p.m., Ely spotted a line of Confederate infantry coming toward him. Two officers approached Ely and asked who he was, Alfred Ely, What state are you from? the state of New York, replied Ely. Are you connected in any way with the Government? A Representative in Congress, answered Ely. The officers grabbed Ely and proclaimed him a prisoner. The two officers hustled Ely to their commander, Colonel E.B. Cash of the 8th South Carolina. When they announced the identity of their prisoner, Cash pointed his pistol at Ely’s head and stated “God damn your white-livered soul! I’ll blow your brains out on the spot!” The junior officers quickly interceded: Colonel, Colonel, you must not shoot that pistol, he is our prisoner. Still enraged, Cash grudgingly lowered his pistol, and the South Carolinians hustled Ely to the rear. He would spend the next six months in a Richmond prison, a political prize.

Atop the ridge, the remaining civilians sensed the unrevealing across Bull Run. Soon, Confederate cavalry charged up the hill, cutting off Charles McCook–visiting his father yet again–from his regiment. The elder McCook watched in horror as his son fled along a fence line with a Confederate officer on horseback chasing him. Charles kept him most manfully at bay with his bayonet, wrote Judge McCook a few days later. The Confederate demanded the young McCook’s surrender. No, never; no, never to a rebel, Charles declared. The horseman circled around McCook and shot him in the back, and someone in turn shot the Confederate officer. Judge McCook gathered up the mangled body of his wounded son, placed him on a makeshift bed in his carriage, and started a mournful ride back toward Centreville. Charles McCook would die within hours.

Once across Cub Run, the panicked mob became a flood, protected by a strong line of infantry and artillery just west of Centreville. Captain Tidball moved his battery to the Warrenton Turnpike and watched crowd go by. Tidball recognized the visitors of the morning, Senators Lane, Wilson, and Wade. Lane came by first, mounted on an old gray horse with a rusty harness.

Not far behind Lane was Senator Wilson, hot and exhausted. When Wilson he swabbed the sweat from his brow and growled, Cowards! Why don’t they turn and beat back the scoundrels? And finally, up the hill came Senator Wade, without the strength to do anything but drag his coat on the ground behind him.

The condition of most of the Union Army who had found their way back from Bull Run that day was not a total panic. The vast majority of civilians never reached Bull Run, they never even had glimpse of a Confederate soldier, and were not panicked by a stumbling mob of frightened Union soldiers. When word of the disaster filtered back to the large gaggle of spectators at Centreville, most of them simply mounted their buggies or horses and headed back toward Washington, albeit with some urgency. The real story is they did not panic, no shots were fired on Centreville Ridge were they first gathered. One brief spasm of panic infected part of the fleeing horde, but generally the civilian departure was orderly. (Russell noted this sliver of panic, and therefore it became famous.) Some arrived back in the capital during the night, hundreds more the next morning–all of them with tales of woe and fright. The spectacle of these woebegone civilians became an instant target for newspapermen and editorialists–most of whom had been hundreds of miles away during the battle, the lore begun.