Sgt. 1st Class Raymond Drumsta
27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team
SARATOGA SPRINGS – New York Soldiers fought, some died, and others learned to fight better, at the First Battle of Bull Run, the bloody opening slugfest that foreshadowed future Civil War slaughter.
Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who earned his own nickname at the battle, dubbed the Union's 14th Regiment New York State Militia "red legged devils" during one of their repeated charges against his troops.
Although these reputations lived on after Bull Run, about 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded there, along with the illusion of a quick, painless war.
Opposite flanking movements planned by the antagonists could have made the engagement into a savage do-si-do, but ill-timing and other factors turned it into a back-and-forth fight that ended in the utter route of the Union Army.
Bull Run was an innocuous watercourse before Confederate forces, under the command of Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, dug in along it in July 1861. Bearing down on the 20,000 Confederates defending an eight-mile line were 35,000 Federal troops led by Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who intended to defeat the rebels, take the railhead at Manassas and push on to the Confederate capital of Richmond, thus ending the war.
Beauregard planned to attack north and west toward Federal forces massed at Centerville, while McDowell planned a shallow flanking attack on the Confederate left as a feint to draw rebel attention from his main effort – a wide, swinging, flanking move north, west and south around the Confederate left.
Union forces stole a march on the rebels, starting off around 2:30 a.m. July 21 and kicking off their diversionary attack on the Stone Bridge about 3 1/2 hours later. However, a bad road slowed the Union's main effort to the north, letting the rebels detect the move around 8:30 a.m. – a full hour before the Union troops even crossed Bull Run.
Abandoning their own flanking maneuver, the Confederates hastily shifted troops north, to Matthew's Hill, to meet the threat on their left. While Union troops assaulted the hill around 10 a.m., other Union troops at the Stone Bridge stopped their feint, crossed Bull Run at another fording site and joined the attack, leaving a third of their force to guard the bridge.
Confederates fought hard and reinforced their position, but Union troops eventually drove them off Matthew's Hill southeast to Henry House Hill. Jackson arrived there to reinforce the disorganized rebels around noon, and though the tone of the remark has been disputed, one of Jackson's fellow generals pointed to him and shouted, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer," thus giving Jackson his nickname.
The battle then evolved into a short-range artillery duel and a series of attacks and counterattacks for artillery positions on Henry House Hill. The 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment reinforced Union artillery positions, retreated after clashing with Jackson's troops, fought off a Confederate cavalry attack and joined the 14th Regiment New York State Militia, also called the 14th Brooklyn, for another assault on the hill.
Like the 11th, the 14th was a Zouaves unit, and they impressed W. W. Blackford, an aide of Col. J. E. B. Stuart, Confederate cavalry commander.
"Col. Stuart and myself were riding at the head of the column as the grand panorama opened before us, and there right in front, about 70 yards distant, and in strong relief against the smoke beyond, stretched a brilliant line of scarlet – a regiment of New York Zouaves in column of fours, marching out of the Sudley road to attack the flank of our line of battle," Blackford recalled. "Dressed in scarlet caps and trousers, blue jackets with quantities of gold buttons, and white gaiters, with a fringe of bayonets swaying above them as they moved, their appearance was indeed magnificent."
Jackson also seemed impressed, as the 14th, charging up the hill several times with the 11th and the 69th Infantry New York State Volunteers, exploited Confederate weaknesses, capturing and recapturing the artillery positions again and again.
"Hold on boys! Here come those red legged devils again!" Jackson said at one point.
While the Confederates were apt at reinforcing their positions, Union leaders fed their forces into the fray piecemeal, diminishing their effectiveness. These forces included the 79th and 13th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, and the 38th New York Infantry Regiment. During the last of its three charges, 79th Soldiers mistook a rebel flag for a union banner and stopped firing.
"As we lowered our arms and were about to rally where the banner floated, we were met by a terrible raking fire, against which we could only stagger," one veteran recalled. The Confederates advanced in the late afternoon, attacked Federal positions on Chinn Ridge, causing Union troops to retreat then flee pell-mell away from Bull Run, through Centerville and back to Washington.
The 69th, 79th and 11th fought a rear-guard action during the retreat. During this fight, the 11th suffered its heaviest casualties of the battle. About 450 Union Soldiers died in the battle, compared to about 390 rebels. The Union sustained 1,100 wounded and 1,300 missing or captured, while the Confederacy suffered 1,500 wounded and 13 missing.
After the battle, some of the New York Soldiers mutinied over poor conditions, pay and leadership that August, and almost two dozen 79th Soldiers were sent to prison for their part in it.
Although New York tried to change its designation to the 84th New York Volunteer Infantry after the battle, 14th Regiment New York State Militia Soldiers, Brooklynites and McDowell successfully fought the change.
"You were mustered by me into the service of the United States as part of the militia of the state of New York known as the 14th," McDowell said. "You have been baptized by fire under that number and as such you shall be recognized by the United States government and by no other number."
"Baptized by Fire" became the regiment's motto.
More than 500,000 New Yorkers enlisted in the Army and Navy during the four years of the Civil War and 53,114 New Yorkers died. Throughout the period of the Civil War Sesquicentennial observance, the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs will produce short articles about New York's Civil War experience researched by the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
For more information, visit the New York State Military Museum Civil War Timeline web site at http://dmna.state.ny.us/civilwar.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs