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 3

Evading detection by Patterson was Johnston's primary concern as he moved the Army of the Shenandoah toward the heavily pressed Beauregard at Manassas Junction. Keeping the movement of 12,000 armed soldiers secret along with protecting Winchester was a daunting task to say the least. Employed for this daunting task were the vital services of J.E.B. Stuart and Turner Ashby, both names synonymous of great cavalry commanders but still unknown outside the circles of their own commands. Johnston kept his cavalry so close to the enemy that no move by his opponent could go unreported. It was Stuart that reported Patterson's move toward Winchester on July 15th that stalled at Bunker Hill, nine miles north of the city. Again it was the cavalry that reported Patterson's retrograde movement toward Smithfield on July 17th, then toward Charlestown that accorded Johnston the belief of the Union's commander intent of demonstrating in order to hold the Confederates in the Valley instead of a bonafide Union movement against Winchester. Then the fateful telegram arrived early on the morning of July 18th from Richmond ordering "if practicable" to make the move to reenforce Beauregard at Manassas Junction.(18)

To protect Winchester from any direct attack, Johnston called out 2,000 local militia under General Carson and General Meems. They were to man a few large caliber naval guns which chief engineer W.H.C. Whiting had positioned to protect Winchester shortly after the movement from Harper's Ferry in mid-June. Additionally, an abnormally large number of sick were on hand with the Army of the Shenandoah. Samuel Cooper, Confederate States Adjutant and Inspector General, instructed Johnston to send his "sick and baggage to Culpeper Court House or Warrenton" at his discretion. Discretion, the situation's urgency with news of McDowell's attack at Blackburn's Ford on July 18th, and the lack of suitable transport from Winchester forced Johnston to leave his sick, nearly 1,700 in number at Winchester under the dubious protection of the local militia. Following the war, Johnston strongly defended his actions in Century Magazine stating "There being seventeen hundred sick, this part of their transportation would have required more time than the transfer of the troops to Manassas, which was the important thing."(19) So, Johnston's gamble paid off, the militia guarded the sick, Patterson's army retreated, Stuart's Cavalry screened the proposed movement, and the Army of Shenandoah achieved an open window for a strategic move toward Manassas Junction.

The Army of the Shenandoah started the movement by the most direct route toward Manassas about noon, July 18th with Jackson's brigade in the lead. The distance to Manassas Junction was nearly sixty miles and would take an average army four or five days forced march. Accordingly, Johnston pushed his little army to the extreme. Many regiments were unaccustomed to marching. The 11th Mississippi Infantry had made the long journey from their home state by railroad to Strasburg a few months before. Even from Strasburg, these young soldiers were transported by wagon to Winchester and then Harpers Ferry some complaining "the Confederacy could have furnished her soldiers more comfortable vehicles!"(20) They were rudely awakened by the army's first forced march, and it went poorly. J. W. Brown, a private in Duncan's Kentucky Battalion marching with Jackson's command wrote to his father, "We broke up camp at Winchester, Va. on the 18th of June (July) and made a forced march, marching all day and all night, of thirty miles..."(21) To some men in the ranks, it looked like Johnston was again retreating. One of Jackson's men wrote in his diary, "We are all completely at a loss to comprehend the meaning of our retrograde movement." Soon though, Johnston informed his army of the true nature of the march, which lifted their spirits a great deal.(22)

To shorten the time and fatigue of the march, Johnston considered other options to marching the distance to Manassas Junction. As previously noted, the Manassas Gap Railroad was the primary link between the two armies and Johnston, knowing time was precious, considered its use in transporting the bulk of his infantry to Manassas. He sent his chief engineer officer Major W.H.C. Whiting ahead to Piedmont Station, the closest and most direct station in the path of the moving army to "ascertain if trains, capable of transporting the troops to their destination more quickly than they were likely to reach it on foot, could be provided there." Whiting reported that there could be and that the movement of the infantry should take no longer than twenty-four hours. This would cut the marching time by one full day and allow for the infantry to arrive at Manassas Junction rested instead of fatigued. The artillery and cavalry, though, would remain on the hilly roads because proper rolling stock was not available for these weapons and equipment.(23)

Jackson's troops marched the farthest on July 18th, reaching Paris, just east of Ashby's Gap in the Blue Ridge seventeen miles distant of Winchester. The remaining brigades under personal command of Johnston remained west of the gap and camped along the Shenandoah River. Typically the march was peaceful and civilians along the route were treated with respect. Yet the sheer number of troops taxed some neighborhood's good will. Mrs. Wm. Fitzhugh Randolph related to her nephew Randolph H. McKim of the 10th Virginia Infantry, "What am I to do? The soldiers have been coming in ever since five o'clock, and thy have eaten up everything I have in the house, and still they keep coming." Randolph advised his aunt to "Put out the lights and shut the doors and you will soon be at peace." Mrs. Randolph followed the advice and they were bothered no more.(24) Jackson must have grasped the gravity of the movement, because he allowed his men only a short rest before marching during the early morning hours of Friday, July 19th the remaining six miles to Piedmont Station on the Manassas Gap Railroad.(25)