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Manassas -- How the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford Shaped the Battle
The Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford shaped the Battle of First Manassas by discouraging the Union Army, altering the Union Army's battle plans and encouraging the Confederate Army.
The Confederacy's chances of successfully seceding from the Union were initially poor, as the Union had the obvious upper hand: the Union Army was considerably larger and better equipped; their commander was George McClellan, whose abilities were undoubted; the Union had the international advantage of being a recognized nation; finally, the Union had the lion's share of factories that could steadily mass produce ordnance for the Union forces. In sharp contrast, the Confederacy: was an agrarian society with far fewer people, fewer factories and considerable resentment at being reduced to "economic vassalage" by the North's industrialization; much of the Confederacy's fortune involved cotton and the reliance of foreign markets on that cotton; the Confederate Army was significantly composed of farmers who were eager to finish the war and get back home by Autumn for the harvest; Confederacy's first days were quite shaky, with anti-secessionist cabinet members, no established office space, little money even for its cabinet's office furniture, and continued reliance on the North for even Confederate currency. Clearly the Union was at least theoretically far likelier to win the Civil War. Understandably confident, the initially planned frontal attacks on Confederate forces.
Fortunately for the Confederacy, the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford deeply affected First Manassas. The untested Union forces, determined and resourceful Southern forces, and outcome of a Skirmish that consisted of relatively equal damage on both sides combined for the South and against the North. Seen as a humiliating defeat for Union forces, the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford succeeded in significantly altered both sides' approach to First Manassas. Though casualties were mutually light, Union confidence was considerably shaken. In addition, due to the Union failure at the Skirmish, Union McDowell decided against a frontal assault and opted to cross Bull Run Creek farther upstream, beyond the Confederate left flank, which ultimately allowed the Confederacy to withstand the Union onslaught, regroup and counterattack at First Manassas. Finally, Confederate leadership, Confederate forces and the people they represented all gained a significant amount of confidence from the Skirmish, assisting them in withstanding, counterattacking and ultimately winning at First Manassas. All these factors stemming from the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford ultimately lead to a debilitating a defeat at First Manassas. Thus the Confederate victory at the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford and the eventual Confederate at First Manassas led to wildly diverging reactions on each side of the conflict. Aptly representing the Confederate reaction to the Skirmish and First Manassas, Confederate President Jefferson Davis publicly boasted that the Confederate Army "has met the grand army of the enemy, routed it at every point, and it now flies, inglorious in retreat before our victorious columns." Meanwhile, an influential voice for Union abolitionists, New York editor Horace Greeley, performed a nearly 180 degree reversal of his prior strident stance and began to call for a speedy peace with the Confederacy. These representative Confederate and Union responses to the Skirmish and eventual First Manassas show the profound effects enjoyed by the Confederacy and suffered by the Union.
I. The Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford discouraged the Union Army
According to historians, the first great bloody battle of the U.S. Civil was the Battle of First Manassas,[footnoteRef:1] and as this paper illustrates, that first great bloody battle was significantly influenced by the Skirmish at Blackburn's Ford. At the war's inception, the Union had the obvious upper hand. The Union Army was considerably larger and better equipped than was the Confederate Army. Historians speak of the impressive spectacle of the massive Union forces drilling in full dress uniform at their Washington, D.C. encampment.[footnoteRef:2] What is more, their commander was George McClellan, a West Point graduate from Philadelphia whose abilities were undoubted, particularly by himself.[footnoteRef:3] In addition, the Union possessed the international advantage of being a recognized government in its own right.[footnoteRef:4] Finally, the Union had the lion's share of factories that could steadily mass produce ordnance for the Union forces.[footnoteRef:5] The Confederacy, on the other hand, was an agrarian society with far fewer people,[footnoteRef:6] fewer factories and considerable resentment at being reduced to "economic vassalage" by the North's industrialization.[footnoteRef:7] Much of the South's fortune was tied up in cotton and many of its hopes for successful secession were wedded to Britain's and France's reliance on the South's cotton exports.[footnoteRef:8] In the Confederacy's ill-fated estimation, stoppage of cotton exports would create financial "upheaval" for Britain and France, as hundreds of thousands of workers were thrown out of work by the lack of cotton, which would compel Britain and France to intervene on the side of the Confederacy.[footnoteRef:9] Furthermore, the Confederate Army was significantly composed of farmers who were eager to finish the war and get back home by autumn for the harvest.[footnoteRef:10] Perhaps the Confederate Army's greatest strength was its military leadership. Robert E. Lee had been the Union's first choice to lead its Army; however, Lee declined due to his loyalty to his home state of Virginia and merely one day after Virginia's secession from the Union stated, "I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children."[footnoteRef:11] Joining Lee in the struggle for the Confederacy were other military leaders, such as P.G. T Beauregard[footnoteRef:12] and Jeb Stuart,[footnoteRef:13] West Point graduates who nevertheless fought for the Confederate Cause. Given all the factors working for and against the Union and the Confederacy, the Union was at least theoretically far likelier to win the Civil War. [1: Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric Burns, and Ken Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History, 1st Edition (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990), 266.] [2: Ibid., 69-70.] [3: Ibid., 57 and 69-70.] [4: Woodworth, 68-69.] [5: Ibid., 130.] [6: Ibid., 349.] [7: Ibid., 83.] [8: Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America's Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011), 67.] [9: Ibid.] [10: Ward, et al., 68.] [11: Ibid., 52.] [12: James Longstreet, From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America (Kindle Edition) (Philadelphia, PA J.B. Lippincott Company, 1896), 16.] [13: Ward, et al., 140.]
Despite all the above-mentioned factors, as of July 16, 1861, the Union Army was a volunteer force that had not fought a major battle of the Civil War.[footnoteRef:14] On that same date, a Union Army force of 35,000 -- 37,000 men left Washington, D.C. And marched into Virginia.[footnoteRef:15] As some historians note, the Union march was a "brilliant spectacle" of well-armed, well-dressed masses of men.[footnoteRef:16] The Union Army force, led by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, intended to launch a frontal attack on the Confederate Army of the Potomac, a force of approximately 22,000 men, led by Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, at Manassas, an important railway junction.[footnoteRef:17] In an ironic thread that was found among opposing Generals throughout the Civil War, McDowell and Beauregard were classmates of West Point's Class of 1842.[footnoteRef:18] Most of the Confederate forces were massed near Bull Run but also had detachments north of Bull Run Creek who were observing the Union Forces.[footnoteRef:19] [14: William C. Davis, Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 61-2; Ward, et al., 61.] [15: Ethan S. Rafuse, A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 73.] [16: George F.R. Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and The American Civil War (New York, NY: Grossett & Dunlap, 1943), 102.] [17: David Detzer, Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (New York, NY: Harcourt Press, Inc., 2004), 97-98.] [18: Longstreet, 16.] [19: Detzer., 98.]
When McDowell left Washington, the Confederate detachments retreated and joined the main Confederate Forces.[footnoteRef:20] Beauregard expected to be attacked either on the 18th or 19th near Mitchell's Ford and continued to request reinforcements from Joseph E. Johnston's forces in the Shenandoah Valley.[footnoteRef:21] Early in his military career, Johnston became known for being "unimaginative but dependable," earning him his nickname of "Old Reliable,"[footnoteRef:22] a sobriquet that proved true for Blackburn's Ford. In addition to his natural reliability, Johnston realized that he could move his troops by railroad, which would obviously greatly hasten their movements.[footnoteRef:23] Beauregard anticipated that the Union Forces would cross Bull Run Creek only at one or more of 7 fords and/or bridges due to Bull Run's steep banks and other impenetrable approaches; consequently, on July 17, 1861, Beauregard ordered Confederate forces to abandon Centreville and conceal themselves behind the wooded positions near the 7 fords of Bull Run Creek, increasing the Confederacy's possibility of victory.[footnoteRef:24] Even Blackburn's Ford required a fording force to descend the banks, cross the Creek, and then climb the opposite banks.[footnoteRef:25] The Union Army forces reached Fairfax Courthouse on July 17, 1861.[footnoteRef:26] [20: James Reasoner, Manassas (The Civil War Battle Series, Book 1) (Nashville, TN: Cumberland House Publishing, Inc.,…[continue]
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