The Tactical Operations Center
What a difference a year makes; does it?
Originally published in the Washington Times Civil War Times on 24 January 1998

Mention Gettysburg, and there’s instantaneous recognitions. A 1993 movie brought the battlefield to the forefront of popular awareness as emblematic of the bloody struggle. However, Antietam was far bloodier, and the twilight of the Confederacy really began north of the small town of Sharpsburg.

Mention Bull Run (or as the Confederates called it, Manassas), and the reaction you’ll probably get is: “Yeah, the first battle, where Stonewall Jackson got his name.”

But beyond the first battle was the second battle, which occurred one year later, on virtually the same ground, with much the same results as the first. Woven into and beyond these two battles is a synergy that presents an insightful view of the war. This can be gained by walking the same ground and viewing these two similar, yet disparate, battles from different vantage points.

Manassas was critical railroad juncture, on the direct line from Washington to Richmond. It also provided a link to the Shenandoah Valley. Logistics is one of the most often overlooked aspects of warfare; even the vaunted Robert E. Lee is widely regarded as a poor logistician. But during the Civil War, railroads and junctions were perhaps the most fought over locations, outside of the two capital cities. Roads were poorly constructed affairs, and moving anything by foot, horse, or wagon was a tortuous affair at best.

While railroads represented vital lines of communication and supply, junctions such as Manassas became natural supply depots, with warehouse and loading ramps already in existence. Thus, in the summer of 1861, the Confederate army deployed along Bull Run, protecting Manassas, rather than moving closer to Washington. After all, the farther you are from your supply lines, the more tenuous your logistics chain.

One year later, before Second Bull Run, the Rebels had pulled back to the Rappahannock River, the Army of Northern Virginia’s moat. Since nature (and warfare) abhors a vacuum, the Army of the Potomac had occupied Manassas and established a sizable supply depot. This depot was Stonewall Jackson’s objective after the Battle of Cedar Mountain.

Operational strategy dictates that if you threaten your enemy’s logistics, you force him to withdraw to protect his lines of communication. This, then, was the contested area, and the battles were not so much for positions as they were for a logistical advantage or the protection of that advantage.

The two armies met each other at Bull Run for the second time in 12 months, a comparatively short interim, but to the veterans, North and South, a lifetime. Both armies had improved considerably, both in quality and quantity. Command and control had improved; training and drill had become standardized, as had uniforms and equipment.

At First Bull Run, the battle was essentially a clash between armed mobs. The Rebels had been much more ably commanded by such veterans as Jackson, Longstreet and J.E.B. Stuart than the Northern soldiers were. These men, significantly, also would be present 12 months later at Second Bull Run. In addition to this legendary trio, Robert E. Lee was their commander.

At Second Bull Run, both armies were made up of professionals in every sense of the word. While command of the Army of the Potomac was still Mr. Lincoln’s crapshoot, the Federals had capable brigade and division commanders. Men such as Joseph Hooker and Ambrose Burnside, though demonized for their conduct later at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg respectively, were outstanding division commanders at Second Bull Run. John Reynolds, later killed at Gettysburg, also was present that day.

The important thing to bear in mind is that both armies and their leaders improved proportionately with time and experience. While the Federal army was markedly butte in the second performance, the Confederate army also was better. The Confederates had reached their full stride by Second Bull Run, but it would also take the Federals another year to catch up to their opponents- leadership, experience and logistics would tilt the balance in favor of the Federals at Gettysburg.

The conduct of the two Manassas collisions was remarkably similar. First Bull Run began as a flank battle. While Union commander Irvin Mc Dowell was forcing the Rebel left at Sudley Church, Confederate General Joe Johnston was doing the same at Blackburn’s Ford on the Yankee left. The result was a defensive battle, fought on top of the Henry House Fill by Stonewall Jackson’s Virginia brigade, reinforced by James Longstreet in the afternoon.

Twelve months later, after his corps had destroyed the federal supply depot at Manassas Junction, Jackson withdrew to an unfinished railroad cut to take up a strong defensive position within sight of the Henry House Hill.

As the Federal army began its pursuit of Jackson, marching down present day Route 29, Jackson, fearing that the Federals would pass and flank his concealed position, pushed a force out to engage the Yankees. General John Pop, think he had nailed down the elusive Jackson, eagerly deployed the army to engage the Rebels. Just when Jackson’s men were running out of ammunition and had resorted to throwing rocks, James Longstreet’s corps arrived on Jackson’s right.

A concerted attack by John B. Hood’s division flanked the Federals and forced a precipitous withdrawal to Henry House Hill. Under repeated attack from Longstreet and with Stuart’s cavalry coming in from the vicinity of present day Interstate 66, the Federals retreated over the Stone Bridge.

Two battles fought on virtually the same ground, by the same armies, under almost identical conditions, with the same result. Why?

The keys here are leadership and experience. At First Bull Run, Jackson’s physical presence and leadership on the field shaped the face and outcome of the battle. By Second Bull Run, both armies were different, yet the same. Both had improved and were manned by veterans of First Bull Run, Jackson’s Valley Campaign, the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days and Cedar Mountain. Both sides had competent, able brigade, division and corps commanders- yet this was a battle of wills between John Pope and Robert E. Lee.

Trained, motivated and adequately equipped men, with indefinable thing we call unit cohesion; will fight until they can fight no more. But their energy must be directed positively, or it goes nowhere. The Federal army lost First Bull Run because of a lack of coordination, a piecemeal commitment of untrained, untested and undisciplined units into the fray. It lost Second Bull Run because Pope, intimidated by the presence of Lee, Jackson and the flank threat of Stuart, sent his veteran units into the fight piecemeal.

Throughout the battle, Pope continuously worried about his line of retreat, anticipating that Stuart would cut him off from Washington. Commanders on both sides during both battles were focused on protecting their own capitals and logistical chains while threatening their opponents’.

Manassas, with its two separate, yet similar battles, represents the Civil War in a microcosm. The battles show the development of the two armies at the strategic, operational and tactical levels. Our knowledge of the war, both how and why it was fought, is deepened with an understanding of the complexities of Manassas.

Today it is fashionable to talk about technology and how well equipped our soldiers are. What the battles of Manassas teach us is that there is no substitute for experience and no excuse for having poor leaders without the courage to commit themselves completely when the time calls for it.

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