The Great Conspiracy

“Question.–While at Bunker Hill, the night before you left there,
were any orders issued to march in the evening?
“Answer.–I think there were such orders.”

“Question.–Did not General Patterson issue orders at Bunker Hill,
the night before you marched to Charlestown, for an attack on the
“Answer.-I think such orders were written. I do not think they
were issued. I think General Patterson was again persuaded not to
make an advance.”

Colonel R. BUTLER PRICE, Senior aide to Patterson, testified as

* * * * * * * * *

“Question [by Mr. Gooch].–Was it not the intention to move from
Bunker Hill to Winchester?
“Answer.–Yes, Sir. At one time General Patterson had given an
order to move from Bunker Hill to Winchester. He was very
unwilling to leave Johnston even at Winchester without attacking
him; and on the afternoon before we left Bunker Hill he decided to
attack him, notwithstanding his strong force.”

“Question.–Behind his intrenchments?
“Answer.–Yes, Sir; it went so far that his order was written by
his adjutant, General [Fitz John] Porter. It was very much against
the wishes of General [Fitz John] Porter; and he asked General
Patterson if he would send for Colonel Abercrombie and Colonel
Thomas and consult them on the movement. General Patterson
replied: No, Sir; for I know they will attempt to dissuade me from
it, and I have made up my mind to fight Johnston under all
circumstances. That was the day before we left Bunker Hill. Then
Colonel [Fitz John] Porter asked to have Colonel Abercrombie and
Colonel Thomas sent for and consulted as to the best manner to
carry out his wishes. He consented, and they came, and after half
an hour they dissuaded him from it.”

“Question.–At that time General Patterson felt it was so important
to attack Johnston that he had determined to do it?
“Answer.–Yes, Sir; the order was not published, but it was

“Question.–You understood General Patterson to be influenced to
make that attempt because he felt there was a necessity for
detaining Johnston?
“Answer.–Yes, Sir; to detain him as long as he possibly could.”

“Question.–That order was not countermanded until late on Tuesday,
the 16th, was it?
“Answer.–That order never was published. It was written; but, at
the earnest solicitation of Colonel [Fitz John] Porter, it was
withheld until he could have a consultation with Colonel
Abercrombie and Colonel Thomas.”]

It is about 1 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, July 18th,–that same
day which witnesses the preliminary Battle of Blackburn’s Ford–that
Johnston, being at Winchester, and knowing of Patterson’s peculiarly
inoffensive and timid movement to his own left and rear, on Charlestown,
receives from the Rebel Government at Richmond, a telegraphic dispatch,
of July 17th, in these words: “General Beauregard is attacked. To
strike the Enemy a decisive blow, a junction of all your effective force
will be needed. If practicable, make the movement. * * * In all the
arrangements exercise your discretion.”

Johnston loses no time in deciding that it is his duty to prevent, if
possible, disaster to Beauregard’s Army; that to do this he must effect
a junction with him; and that this necessitates either an immediate
fight with, and defeat of, Patterson,–which may occasion a fatal
delay–or else, that Union general must be eluded. Johnston determines
on the latter course.

Leaving his sick, with some militia to make a pretense of defending the
town in case of attack, Johnston secretly and rapidly marches his Army,
of 9,000 effective men, Southeasterly from Winchester, at noon of
Thursday, the 18th; across by a short cut, wading the Shenandoah River,
and then on through Asby’s Gap, in the Blue Ridge, that same night;
still on, in the same direction, to a station on the Manassas Gap
railroad, known as Piedmont, which is reached by the next (Friday)
morning,–the erratic movements of Stuart’s Cavalry entirely concealing
the manoeuvre from the knowledge of Patterson.

From Piedmont, the Artillery and Cavalry proceed to march the remaining
twenty-five miles, or so, to Manassas Junction, by the roads. The 7th
and 8th Georgia Regiments of Bartow’s Brigade, with Jackson’s Brigade,–
comprising the 2d, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33d Virginia Regiments–are
embarked on the cars, and hurriedly sent in advance, by rail, to
Manassas, reaching there on that same (Friday) afternoon and evening.
These are followed by General Johnston, with Bee’s Brigade–comprising
the 4th Alabama, 2d Mississippi, and a battalion of the 11th
Mississippi–which arrive at Manassas about noon of Saturday, the 20th
of July, the balance of Johnston’s Infantry being billed for arrival
that same day, or night.

Upon Johnston’s own arrival at Manassas, Saturday noon,–the very day
that Patterson ascertains that “the bird has flown,”–after assuming
command, by virtue of seniority, he proceeds to examine Beauregard’s
position. This he finds “too extensive, and the ground too densely
wooded and intricate,” to be learned quickly, and hence he is impelled
to rely largely upon Beauregard for information touching the strength
and positions of both the Rebel and Union Armies.

Beauregard has now 21,833 men, and 29 pieces of artillery of his own
“Army of the Potomac.” Johnston’s and Holmes’s junction with him has
raised the Rebel total to 32,000 effectives, and 55 guns. McDowell, on
the other hand, who started with 30,000 effectives, finds himself on the
19th–owing to the departure of one of his regiments and a battery of
Artillery, because of the expiration of their term of enlistment,–with
but “28,000 men at the utmost.”–[Comte de Paris.]

On the evening of Saturday, the 20th of July, Johnston and Beauregard
hold an important consultation. The former feels certain that
Patterson, with his more than 20,000 effectives, will now lose no time
in essaying a junction with McDowell’s Army, and that such junction will
probably be effected by July 22nd. Hence he perceives the necessity of
attacking McDowell, and if possible, with the combined Rebel Forces,
whipping him before Patterson can come up to his assistance.

At this consultation it is agreed by the two Rebel generals to assume
the offensive, at once. Beauregard proposes a plan of battle–which is
an immediate general advance of the Rebel centre and left,
concentrating, from all the fords of Bull Run, upon Centreville, while
the Rebel right advances toward Sangster’s cross-roads, ready to fall
either on Centreville, or upon Fairfax Court House, in its rear,
according to circumstances.

The plan proposed, is accepted at once by Johnston. The necessary order
is drawn up by Beauregard that night; and at half past four o’clock on
Sunday morning, July 21st, Johnston signs the written order. Nothing
now remains, apparently, but the delivery of the order to the Rebel
brigade commanders, a hurried preparation for the forward movement, and
then the grand attack upon McDowell, at Centreville.

Already, no doubt, the fevered brain of Beauregard pictures, in his
vivid imagination, the invincible thunders of his Artillery, the
impetuous advance of his Infantry, the glorious onset of his Cavalry,
the flight and rout of the Union forces, his triumphal entry into
Washington–Lincoln and Scott and the Congress crouching at his feet–
and the victorious South and conquered North acclaiming him Dictator!
The plan is Beauregard’s own, and Beauregard is to have command. Hence
all the glory of capturing the National Capital, must be Beauregard’s.
Why not? But “man proposes, and God disposes.” The advance and attack,
are, in that shape, never to be made.

McDowell, in the meantime, all unconscious of what has transpired in the
Shenandoah Valley, and between there and Manassas; never dreaming for an
instant that Patterson has failed to keep Johnson there–even if he has
not attacked and defeated him; utterly unsuspicious that his own
lessened Union Army has now to deal with the Forces of Johnston and
Beauregard combined–with a superior instead of an inferior force; is
executing a plan of battle which he has decided upon, and announced to
his general officers, on that same Saturday evening, at his Headquarters
in Centreville.

Instead of attempting to turn the Enemy’s right, and cut off his
communications with Richmond and the South, McDowell has now determined
to attack the Enemy’s left, cut his communication, via the Manassas Gap
railroad, with Johnston’s Army,–still supposed by him to be in the
Valley of the Shenandoah–and, taking him in the left flank and rear,
roll him upon Manassas, in disorder and defeat–with whatever might

That is the plan–in its general features. In executing it, Blenker’s
Brigade of Miles’s Division is to remain at Centreville as a reserve,
throwing up intrenchments about its Heights, upon which to fall back, in
case of necessity; Davies’s Brigade of the same Division, with
Richardson’s Brigade of Tyler’s Division–as the Left Wing–are to
demonstrate at Blackburn’s Ford, toward the Enemy’s right; Tyler’s other
three brigades, under Keyes, Schenck, and Sherman, are to feign an
attack on the Enemy’s left, posted behind the strongly-defended Stone
Bridge over which the Warrenton turnpike, running Westward, on its way
from Centreville to Warrenton, crosses Bull Run stream; while the strong
divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman–forming McDowell’s Right Wing–
are to follow Tyler’s Division Westward down the turnpike to a point
within one mile and a half of the Stone Bridge, thence, by cross-road,
diverge several miles to the North, then sweep around gradually to the
West, and then Southwardly over Bull Run at Sudley Springs Ford,
swooping down the Sudley road upon the Enemy’s left flank and rear, near
Stone Bridge, rolling it back toward his center, while Tyler’s remaining
three brigades cross the bridge and join in the assault. That is the
whole plan in a nutshell.

It has been McDowell’s intention to push forward, from Centreville along
the Warrenton Pike a few miles, on the evening of this Military
conference; but he makes his first mistake, in allowing himself to be
dissuaded from that, by those, who, in his own words, “have the greatest
distance to go,” and who prefer “starting early in the morning and
making but one move.”

The attacking divisions now have orders to march at 2:30 A. M., in order
“to avoid the heat,” which is excessive. Tyler’s three immediate
brigades–or some of them–are slow in starting Westward, along the
Warrenton Pike, to the Stone Bridge; and this leads to a two or three
hours delay of the divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman, before they can
follow that Pike beyond Centreville, and commence the secret detour to
their right, along the cross-road leading to Sudley Springs.

At 6:30 A.M., Tyler’s Artillery gets into position, to cannonade the
Enemy’s batteries, on the West Bank of Bull Run, commanding the Stone
Bridge, and opens fire. Half an hour before this, (at 6 A.M.), the
Rebel artillerists, posted on a hill South of the Pike, and 600 yards
West of the bridge, have caught sight of Tyler’s Union blue-jackets.
Those of the Rebel gunners whose eyes are directed to the North-East,
soon see, nearly a mile away, up the gradual slope, a puff of blue
smoke. Immediately the bang of a solitary rifle cannon is heard, and
the scream of a rifled shot as it passes over their heads. At
intervals, until past 9 A.M., that piece and others in the same
position, keep hammering away at the Rebel left, under Evans, at Stone

The Rebel response to this cannonade, is very feeble. McDowell observes
this. He suspects there has been a weakening of the Enemy’s force at
the bridge, in order to strengthen his right for some purpose. And what
can that purpose be, but to throw his augmented right upon our left, at
Blackburn’s Ford, and so, along the ridge-road, upon Centreville? Thus
McDowell guesses, and guesses well. To be in readiness to protect his
own left and rear, by reenforcing Miles’s Division, at Centreville and
along the ridge to Blackburn’s Ford, he temporarily holds back Howard’s
Brigade of Heintzelman’s Division at the point where the cross-road to
Sudley Springs Ford-along which Hunter’s Division, followed by the
Brigades of Franklin and Wilcox, of Heintzelman’s Division, have already
gone-intersects the Warrenton Pike.

It is 9 o’clock. Beauregard, as yet unaware of McDowell’s new plan,
sends an order to Ewell, on his right, to hold himself ready “to take
the offensive, at a moment’s notice,”–and directing that Ewell be
supported in his advance, toward Sangster’s cross-roads and the rear of
Centreville, by Holmes’s Brigade. In accordance with that order, Ewell,
who is “at Union Mills and its neighborhood,” gets his brigade ready,
and Holmes moves up to his support. After waiting two hours, Ewell
receives another order, for both Ewell and Holmes “to resume their
places.” Something must have occurred since 9 o’clock, to defeat
Beauregard’s plan of attack on Centreville–with all its glorious
consequences! What can it be? We shall see.

While Tyler’s Artillery has been cannonading the Rebel left, under
Evans, at Stone Bridge,–fully impressed with the prevailing Union
belief that the bridge is not only protected by strong masked batteries,
heavy supports of Infantry, and by abatis as well as other defenses, but
is also mined and ready to be blown up at the approach of our troops,
when in reality the bridge is not mined, and the Rebel force in men and
guns at that point has been greatly weakened in anticipation of
Beauregard’s projected advance upon Centreville,–the Union column,
under Hunter and Heintzelman, is advancing from Centreville, in the
scorching heat and suffocating dust of this tropical July morning,
slowly, but surely, along the Warrenton Pike and the cross-road to
Sudley Springs Ford–a distance of some eight miles of weary and
toilsome marching for raw troops in such a temperature–in this order:
Burnside’s Brigade, followed by Andrew Porter’s Brigade,–both of
Hunter’s Division; then Franklin’s Brigade, followed by Willcox’s
Brigade,–both of Heintzelman’s Division.

It is half past 9 o’clock; before Burnside’s Brigade has crossed the
Bull Run stream, at Sudley’s Ford, and the head of Andrew Porter’s
Brigade commences to ford it. The troops are somewhat slow in crossing.
They are warm, tired, thirsty, and as to dust,–their hair and eyes and
nostrils and mouths are full of it, while most of the uniforms, once
blue, have become a dirty gray. The sky is clear. The sun already is
fiercely hot. The men stop to drink and fill their canteens. It is
well they do.

McDowell, who has been waiting two or three hours at the turn, impatient
at the delay, has ridden over to the front of the Flanking column, and
now reaches Sudley’s Ford. He feels that much valuable time is already
lost. His plan has, in a measure, been frustrated by delay. He had
calculated on crossing Bull Run, at Sudley’s Ford, and getting to the
rear of the Enemy’s position, at Stone Bridge, before a sufficient Rebel
force could be assembled to contest the Union advance. He sends back an
aide with orders to the regimental commanders in the rear, to “break
from column, and hurry forward separately, as fast as possible.”
Another aide he sends, with orders to Howard to bring his brigade
across-fields. To Tyler he also sends orders to “press forward his
attack, as large bodies of the Enemy are passing in front of him to
attack the division (Hunter’s) which has passed over.”

It may here be explained, that the Sudley road, running about six miles
South-Southeasterly from Sudley Springs Ford to Manassas Junction, is
crossed at right angles, about two miles South of the Springs, by the
Warrenton Pike, at a point about one mile and a half West of the Stone
Bridge. For nearly a mile South of Sudley Ford, the Sudley road passes
through thick woods on the left, and alternate patches of wooded and
cleared lands on the right. The country farther South, opens into
rolling fields, occasionally cut by transverse gullies, and patched with
woods. This is what Burnside’s Brigade beholds, as it marches
Southward, along the Sudley road, this eventful morning.

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