Too Few Trains

The Reinforcement of P. G. T. Beauregard at First Manassas

By Charles T. Harrell © 1999
reprinted by permission of the author

Chapter 1

As Irvin McDowell's Federal advance towards Manassas Junction (1) began in mid July, 1861, the Confederate commanders opposing the Union's thrust in Northern Virginia were widely separated. The defending force at Manassas Junction under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard was dwarfed by McDowell's northern host and only by combining Confederate forces with those under General Joseph E. Johnston located in the far off Shenandoah Valley could the Confederates hope to stop the Federal onslaught. Not only were Joseph E. Johnston's and P.G.T. Beauregard's troop over sixty miles distant from each other, but also each was facing a superior enemy and physical terrain that had hindered peace time travel for centuries. The Southerner's only trump card was the rail link between the Valley of Virginia and Manassas Junction.

This railroad, the Manassas Gap, had been chartered by local farmers and merchants in 1851 to provide rail access between the fertile Valley of Virginia and the markets at Alexandria along the Potomac River. Under the leadership of Edward C. Marshall, Manassas Gap Railroad president and son of famed Chief Justice John Marshall(2), along with J. Ned Goldsborough, chief engineer, the iron rails were laid westward from Manassas Junction across the rolling Piedmont. By 1854 the railroad company had successfully crossed the Blue Ridge at Manassas Gap, extended through Front Royal where the South Branch of the great Shenandoah River divides, and reached Strasbourg where the railroad shops and headquarters were established. From there the railroad turned southwestward towards Mount Jackson.(3)

Much of the railroad was constructed by local farmers but some near Mount Jackson was built by the sweat of old Ireland. Robert H. Moore II writes that "a pure Irish strain which was provided by the Sons of Erin helped construct the Manassas Gap Railroad around New Market." Following Sumter, when "these immigrants composed the colorful 'Emerald Guard,' or Company E" of the 33rd Virginia Infantry that would achieve fame during First Battle of Manassas," a desperate shortage of labor led to suspension of additional track laying.(4) More rail, over 1,100 tons, was purchased by the Manassas Gap Railroad for expansion to its ultimate objective of Harrisonburg near the headwaters of the Shenandoah River. It was lost though as the iron rail remained in an Alexandria warehouse when the Federal troops occupied the town on May 25th, 1861.(5) As for motive power and rolling stock, all the Manassas Gap Railroad supplies were successfully evacuated from Alexandria before its occupation. Not so for the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, for they lost their company records, roundhouse, repair shops and two locomotives.(6) So, as our saga begins, a thin stretch of iron rail, the Manassas Gap Railroad, is the primary link between the principle Confederate Armies defending Virginia's northern boundary.

The situation just prior to First Manassas on the Potomac front consisted as follows: General Irvin McDowell's Federal forces of 37,000 were located in or around Alexandria and Washington, D.C. Opposing this force was General P.G.T. Beauregard's 22,000 Confederates near Manassas Junction twenty-five miles away. Sixty miles northwest, General Robert Patterson retained 20,000 Federals in the lower Shenandoah valley near Martinsburg and Harper's Ferry, Va. while his antagonist Joseph E. Johnston positioned his newly formed Confederate troops numbering 12,000 near Winchester.

Throughout June and July more and more southern troops converged on these staging points, mostly by rail, and some from as far off as Kentucky. Both Duncan's and Pope's Kentucky Battalions moved from their home state to the Confederate armies in Northern Virginia by rail. Although the perception of rail transport may seem safe, efficient, and desirable, the journey was often dangerous and unreliable. For example, Pope's Kentucky Battalion became involved in a train accident in far off Tennessee near Chattanooga. Apparently, they began descending a mountain, the train attained a high speed and jumped the track. An eyewitness indicated that "...just before they derailed, they had made 1.5 miles in 1 minute! There were several injuries, but no one was killed. There was one fellow who happened to be riding on top of the caboose, and when the train derailed it launched him high over some telegraph wires into a briar patch. His only injuries were that he was 'powerfully scratched.'"(7) Others arrived just in time to play a pivotal part in the battle including Hampton's Legion under the dashing command of an aristocratic South Carolinian, Wade Hampton, who had outfitted this unit from his personal funds. They had just arrived on the battlefield after a harrowing train ride from Richmond the previous night and morning, literally running to the battlefield from Manassas Junction six miles away.(8) Other Confederate troops continued to arrive sporadically during the days just prior to the First Battle of Manassas principally from Richmond and Lynchburg.

These reenforcements though, could not stem the Union onslaught alone. The only viable solution to stopping the advancing McDowell was combining the Army of the Shenandoah and Army of Virginia at or near Manassas Junction. The quandary was how? Johnston's army faced Patterson's superior force and to abandon Manassas Junction would leave the direct route to Richmond open and unprotected. Johnston would have to move quickly because knowledge of the Union movement had only been conveyed by southern sympathizers and spies in Washington to Richmond on July 16th.(9) By the early morning hours of July 18th, Johnston's army must be on the move to support Beauregard at Manassas Junction. President Davis telegraphed Johnston "General Beauregard is attacked; to strike the enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force will be needed."(10) Though, by the 18th the move seemed too late because General Daniel Tyler's Federal division began a movement toward Blackburn's Ford and attacked about noon. Stiff resistance by Generals James Longstreet and Jubal Early at the ford and a determined artillery duel between federal artillery and the newly formed Washington Louisiana Artillery convinced Tyler that a formulated plan was necessary and thus he withdrew and gave the Confederates a second chance to save their newly formed nation.(11)