The Battle of Blackburn’s Ford July 1861

Gen. Irvin McDowell

On July 16th, 1861, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s Union Army began a march from Washington DC toward Centreville and Manassas Junction, Virginia. At this point in the three month old Civil War, there had been some smaller engagements between the two sides, but no large scale battles. McDowell had been under pressure to attack Confederate forces in Virginia and strike a fatal blow to the main Rebel army and end the war quickly.

McDowell’s army consisted of five divisions, one of which was under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler. On July 18th, McDowell ordered Tyler to advance on and capture Centreville. “Observe well the roads to Bull Run and to Warrenton” McDowell wrote in his instructions to Tyler. “Do not bring on an engagement, but keep up the impression that we are moving on Manassas”. Tyler captured Centreville without a fight; townspeople told Tyler that the Confederates had abandoned the town and were behind Bull Run.

Despite orders to the contrary, Tyler decided to lead a reconnaissance in force from Centreville to see if any Confederates were present between that town and Bull Run. Colonel Israel B.

Col. Israel Richardson

Richardson’s brigade consisting of the 1st Massachusetts, 2nd and 3rd Michigan, and 12th New York Infantry regiments would carry out the reconnaissance. Arriving at Blackburn’s Ford on Bull Run, Tyler observed an enemy battery on the other side of Bull Run, and assumed infantry was also present.

Despite multiple reminders from his staff (and McDowell’s staff) that he had been ordered not to bring on a general engagement, Tyler pressed forward with attempts to ascertain the size and composition of the Rebel force guarding Blackburn’s Ford. Tyler ordered a pair of 20 pounder rifled artillery pieces to open fire on the opposite side of Bull Run. He also ordered a battalion of 160 men (40 men from each of Richardson’s four regiments) under command of Captain Robert Brethschneider to deploy as skirmishers and advance on Blackburn’s Ford.

The Confederate forces on the other side of Bull Run consisted of the 1st, 11th, and 17th Virginia regiments, along with one battery of artillery, all under the command of Brigadier General James Longstreet. Although the Union shelling compelled the more limited range Confederate guns to retire, Longstreet’s infantry stayed put, hidden under cover. Tyler then sent three companies of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry forward toward the ford. The Virginians on the other side opened fire, and the Massachusetts men took cover and returned fire. With uniforms not yet standardized, the 1st Massachusetts wore gray uniforms, as did some other Union regiments in the campaign; though there was some confusion, other Federal units did not open fire on the 1st Massachusetts.

Richardson, an aggressive fighter who would be mortally wounded at Antietam 14 months later, asked Tyler for permission to attack with the rest of his brigade. The division commander continued to violate his orders not to bring on an engagement, and granted Richardson permission. He also advanced a section of artillery from Captain Romeyn B. Ayers’ Company E, 3rd U.S. Artillery, which shelled the Rebel position with cannister. But the forward position made Ayer’s artillery vulnerable to enemy fire, and the Confederates inflicted several casualties forcing the Federal gunners to pull back.

Perhaps finally realizing that he had far exceeded his orders and that things were getting out of hand, Tyler decided he had enough information on the size of Confederate forces at the ford, and that the Rebels were present in sufficient numbers that any attempt to drive them out and take the ford stood little chance of success. He rode over to Richardson to call off his attack, but it was too late; his infantry regiments had already begun to advance, with the 12th New York leading the way.

Longstreet requested reinforcements from General Jubal Early’s Brigade, which was nearby. Early sent the 7th and 24th Virginia, and 1st Louisiana regiments. Confederate fire drove off most of the 12th New York, with all but two companies breaking for the rear. The 1st Massachusetts and 2nd and 3rd Michigan, were on the right of the 12th New York. Longstreet sent two companies across Bull Run in a counterattack, firing into the Union left flank. With Federal reinforcements on the way, Richardson wanted to push his units forward, but Tyler ordered a withdrawal. Longstreet also called back the units he had sent across Bull Run, and did not pursue. The fighting ended with an exchange of artillery fire that did little damage to either side.

General Tyler filed this after action report on the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford:

Hdqrs. First Div. Dep’t Northeastern Virginia,
Washington City, July 27, 1861.

Sir: On the 18th instant you ordered me to take my division, with the two 20-pounder rifled guns, and move against Centreville, to carry that position. My division moved from its encampment at 7 a. m. At 9 a. m. Richardson’s brigade reached Centreville, and found that the enemy had retreated the night before—one division on the Warrenton turnpike in the direction of Gainesville, and the other, and by far the largest division, towards Blackburn’s Ford, on Bull Run. Finding that Richardson’s brigade had turned towards the latter point and halted, for the convenience of obtaining water, I took a squadron of cavalry and two light companies from Richardson’s brigade, with Colonel Richardson, to make a reconnaissance, and in feeling our way carefully we soon found ourselves overlooking the strong position of the enemy, situated at Blackburn’s Ford, on Bull Run. A moment’s observation discovered a battery on the opposite bank, but no great body of troops, although the usual pickets and small detachments showed themselves on the left of the position.

Suspecting from the natural strength which I saw the position to possess that the enemy must be in force, and desiring to ascertain the extent of that force and the position of his batteries, I ordered up the two rifled guns, Ayres’ battery, and Richardson’s entire brigade, and subsequently Sherman’s brigade in reserve, to be ready for any contingency. As soon as the rifled guns came up I ordered them into battery on the crest of the hill, nearly a mile from a single battery which we could see placed on the opposite side of the run. Ten or a dozen shots were fired, one of them seeming to take effect on a large body of cavalry, who evidently thought themselves out of range.

The battery we had discovered on our arrival fired six shots and discontinued fire. Finding that our battery did not provoke the enemy to discover his force and his batteries, I ordered Colonel Richardson to advance his brigade and to throw out skirmishers to scour the thick woods with which the whole bottom of Bull Run was covered. This order was skillfully executed, and the skirmishers came out of the wood into the road and close to the ford without provoking any considerable
fire from the enemy.

Desiring to make a further attempt to effect the object of the movement, and discovering an opening low down on the bottom of the stream where a couple of howitzers could be put into battery, I ordered Captain Ayres to detach a section, post it himself on the ground I pointed out to him, and sent a squadron of cavalry to support this movement.

The moment Captain Ayres opened his fire the enemy replied with volleys, which showed that the whole bottom was tilled with troops, and that he had batteries established in different positions to sweep all the approaches by the road leading to Blackburn’s Ford. Captain Ayres maintained himself most gallantly, and after firing away all his canister shot and some spherical case with terrible effect, as we afterwards learned, withdrew his pieces safely and rejoined his battery. This attack on Captain Ayres accomplished the object I desired, as it showed that the enemy was in force and disclosed the position of his batteries, and had I been at hand the movement would have ended here; but Colonel Richardson having previously given an order for the Twelfth New York to deploy into line and advance into the woods, in

Romeyn B. Ayers, pictured as a general later in the war

an attempt to execute this order the regiment broke, with the exception of two companies, A and I, who stood their ground gallantly, and was only rallied in the woods some mile and a half in the rear. The fire which the regiment encountered was severe, but no excuse for the disorganization it produced.

Having satisfied myself that the enemy was in force, and also as to the position of his batteries, I ordered Colonel Richardson to withdraw his brigade which was skillfully though unwillingly accomplished, as he requested permission with the First Massachusetts and Second and Third Michigan Regiments to charge the enemy and drive him out. It is but justice to these regiments to say that they stood firm, maneuvered well and I have no doubt would have backed up manfully the proposition of their gallant commander. After the infantry had been withdrawn, I directed Captain Ayres and Lieutenant Benjamin who commanded the two 20-pounders, to open their fire both on the battery which enfiladed the road leading to the ford and on the battery which we had discovered in the bottom of Bull Run, which we knew to be surrounded by a large body of men. This fire was continued from 3.15 until 4 o’clock, firing 415 shots. The fire was answered from the enemy’s batteries, gun for gun, but was discontinued the moment we ceased firing.

The concentrated position of the enemy, and the fact that the elevation of our battery and the range were both favorable, induce the belief that the enemy suffered severely from our fire, and this belief is confirmed by the fact that the ensuing day, until 12 m., ambulances were seen coming and going from and to Manassas, two miles distant.

In closing this report, it gives me great pleasure to call to your attention the gallant conduct of Colonel Richardson; Captain Brethschneider, who commanded the skirmishers; Captain Ayres; Lieutenant Lorain, who, I regret to say, was wounded; Lieutenants Dresser, Lyford, and Puller, attached to Ayres’ battery, and Lieutenants Benjamin and Babbitt, in charge of the two 20 pounder rifled guns, all of whom displayed great coolness, energy, and skill in the discharge of their official duties. Herewith you will find a list of casualties.

With great respect, your obedient servant,

DANIEL TYLER,
Brigadier-General.

Brigadier-General McDowell,
Commanding Department Northeastern Virginia.

Tyler reported 83 total casualties, including 19 killed, 55 wounded, and 26 missing. The 1st Massachusetts and 12th New York suffered the bulk of the casualties, though no units were unscathed.

1st Massachusetts Infantry in Action at Blackburn’s Ford


General Longstreet filed this report on his Confederate forces at the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford:

Sir: I have the honor to report that in obedience to the orders of the general commanding, I took my position at this ford on the 17th instant, my brigade being composed of the First, Eleventh, and Seventeenth Regiments of Virginia Volunteers. My line of defense being quite extended, I threw out a line of skirmishers to the water’s edge, covering my entire front, holding strong reserves in readiness to defend with the bayonet any point that might be violently attacked.

Gen. James Longstreet CSA

At 11.30 o’clock a. m. on the 18th my pickets reported the enemy advancing upon the ford in heavy columns of infantry and a strong artillery force. At 12 m. the pickets retired without firing. My artillery (two pieces) were placed in convenient position, with orders to retire the moment it was ascertained that our pieces were commanded by those of the enemy. The first shot from his battery discovered the advantage of Lis position, and our artillery was properly withdrawn. A fire from the artillery of the enemy was kept up about half an hour, when their infantry was advanced to the attack. He made an assault with a column of three or four thousand of his infantry, which, with a comparatively small force of fresh troops, was with some difficulty repelled. A second and more determined attack was made after a few minutes, which was driven back by the skirmishers, and the companies of the reserve thrown in at the most threatened and weakest points. I then sent a staff officer to Colonel Early for one of the reserve regiments of his brigade. Before the arrival of that regiment a third, though not so severe, attack was made and repulsed. Colonel Hays, Seventh Regiment Louisiana Volunteers, came in and promptly took position in time to assist in driving back the enemy the fourth time, when I ordered the advance, and called on Colonel Early for the balance of his brigade. The passage of the stream was so narrow and difficult, however, that I soon found it would be impossible to make a simultaneous movement, and ordered the troops that had succeeded in crossing to return to their positions. A few small parties, under command of Captain Marye, Seventeenth Regiment Virginia Volunteers, who behaved with great gallantry, met parties of the enemy on the other side of the stream with the bayonet, and drove them
back. Colonel Early, with the balance of his brigade, Seventh Regiment Virginia Volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Williams, and the Twenty-fourth Regiment Virginia Volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Hairston, arrived in time to receive the fire of the last attack, but had not been placed in a position where they could fire with effect upon the enemy.

The presence of these regiments probably intimidated the enemy as much as the fire of the troops that met him. Immediately after this attack the enemy’s infantry retired, and his artillery was opened upon us. The battery under Captain Eshleman was called for, and flew into position—four 6-pounders and three rifled guns. The action was thus continued for one hour, when the enemy fell back upon Centreville, some three miles. I am pleased to say that our young artillerists proved themselves equal, if not superior, to the boasted artillerists of the enemy.

Captain Eshleman was severely wounded early in the action. We lost under their artillery six—one killed, five wounded, and one horse wounded; whilst we have reason to believe that the loss of the enemy during the same fire was very much greater. Our loss from the various attacks of the infantry columns was sixty-three killed and wounded. We have no means of learning positively the probable loss of the enemy. Prisoners taken then and since report it from nine hundred to two thousand. These statements were made to myself and members of my staff’ by the prisoners—the first estimate by a private, the latter by a lieutenant.

I have had command of the brigade so short a time, and have been so busily occupied during that time, that I have been able to make the acquaintance of but few of the officers; I am, therefore, unable to mention them by name, as I would like to do, and must refer you to the detailed reports of the regimental commanders. The officers seemed to spring in a body to my assistance at the only critical moment. To discriminate in such a body may seem a little unjust, yet I feel that I should be doing injustice to my acquaintances were I to fail to mention their names—not that I know them to be more distinguished than some others, but that I know what I owe them. Colonel Moore First Regiment Virginia Volunteers, severely wounded; Colonel Garland, Eleventh Regiment Virginia Volunteers, and Colonel Corse, Seventeenth Regiment Virginia Volunteers; Lieutenant-Colonels Fry, Funsten, and Munford; Majors Harrison (twice shot and mortally wounded), Brent, and Skinner, displayed more coolness and energy than is usual amongst veterans of the old service. I am particularly indebted to Lieutenant-Colonel Munford and Major Brent, who having a spare moment and seeing my great need of staff officers at a particular juncture, offered their assistance. Surgeons Cullen, Thornhill, and Davis, Assistant Surgeons Murray, Snowden, and Chalmers, were in the heat of the action much oftener than their duties required, and were exceedingly active and energetic. Lieut. F. S. Armistead, acting assistant adjutant-general, and Lieut. P. T. Manning, aide-de-camp, were very active and gallant in the discharge of their duties. Capt. Thomas Walton and Capt. Macon Thompson, volunteer aids, under their first fire and in their first service, are worthy of their newly-adopted profession. Under a terrific fire these staff officers seemed to take peculiar delight in having occasion to show to those around them their great confidence in our cause and our success.

I inclose the reports of the different commanders, and refer to them for the names of the killed and wounded of their commands.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your most obedient servant,

JAMES LONGSTREET,
Brigadier-General.

Col. Thomas Jordan, Assistant Adjutant- General.

This relatively small scale early action of the Bull Run Campaign, fought between inexperienced troops on both sides, was a Confederate victory that gave the Rebel forces a boost of confidence before the much larger Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas as it was named by the Confederates, three days later. That Rebel victory in the first large battle of the conflict showed that the war would not be a quick victory for either side.

Sources:

History of the First Regiment Massachusetts Infantry by Warren H. Cudworth

The Maps of First Bull Run by Bradley M. Gottfried

McDowell’s Advance to Bull Run by James B. Fry. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 2

A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas by Ethan S. Rafuse


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