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 2

Johnston's position was precarious. He had only recently arrived in the Valley and assumed command of the assembled troops at Harper's Ferry on May 23rd, 1861 from Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson, later of Henry Hill fame. There was some resentment among the troops when Johnston superseded Jackson in command of the Valley army. Some believed Jackson had been slighted. Others thought's Johnston abandonment of Harper's Ferry and establishment of Army Headquarters in far off Winchester in mid June seemed a retreat.

To be sure, the enemy under Patterson had only started organizing when Johnston began his retrograde movement on June 15th,(12) but Harper's Ferry was a trap, and any seasoned military mind could understand why. The town was situated in a deep hole in the mountains. It was a strategic hole to be sure, with a high industrial base rarely seen in the south, but its machinery had been burned by the retreating federal force under Lt. Roger Jones(13) and what remained had been carted off by Jackson's men to Richmond. Surrounding Harper's Ferry and dominating the town are three high ridges. Maryland Heights, the tallest, and Loudoun Heights are the spine of the famed Blue Ridge that forms the eastern edge of the great Valley of Virginia, while behind the town is Bolivar Heights. A force that occupied any of these summits could fire with impunity onto the town as would be proven by Jackson himself in September 1862 prior to Antietam. There was no question garrisoning Harper's Ferry any longer. Johnston had the railroad bridge across the Potomac burned, all the captured rolling stock and locomotives which Jackson had captured during his fantastic escapade on May 23rd destroyed and the movement away from the Potomac began on June 15th.(14)

Headquartered in Winchester, Johnston's position was improved. His forces were twenty-five miles closer to his supply base and transportation was a mere fifteen miles away at Strasbourg. If Patterson were to advance, the Federals would have a lengthened supply line and if enticed to setting up Headquarters at Harper's Ferry, it would be Patterson trapped, and not the Confederates. For the next month, Johnston and Patterson would parry and thrust at each other north of Winchester to no avail. Skirmishes at Darksville, Falling Waters, and Bunker Hill in the lower Shenandoah Valley wholly convinced Patterson that the Confederates far outnumbered his own troops. Even after Johnston had stolen a day's march toward Manassas Junction, Patterson continued to believe that the Confederates opposing his troops in the Valley numbered 35,200.(15) As for Johnston's troops, it seemed that nothing they could do would entice the Union invader to attack. Samuel Buck of the 13th Virginia Infantry remarked that the Yankees "would not fight, [so] I went to Colonel Hill and asked permission to go to Winchester to have a tooth filled. The Colonel said 'No, Sergeant, wait until tomorrow. You may have it filled with lead before night(16)'" But still Patterson did not press Johnston.

Patterson though had far greater worries than that of Johnston's army. Patterson's was worried about his own Federal Army. Unknown to Johnston, as mid-July approached much of Patterson's army was disbanding, being comprised mostly of ninety-day volunteers called by the President Lincoln in April. By that eventful day of battle on Manassas' plains, Patterson's army had dwindled from 20,000 in late June to less than 6,000 effective troops in all the Valley department. Additionally, if it had been true that the anticipated battle near Manassas Junction had been effected on July 16th instead of July 21st, Patterson might have been hailed a hero, for Johnston remained in the vicinity of Winchester at that early date. But alas, we cannot endure the pains of speculation. Patterson did not press his advantage in mid-July and Johnston was able to slip away unmolested, bringing vital reenforcements to the beleaguered defenders arrayed against the gathering blue-coated storm along the banks of Bull Run.(17)