The Tactical Operations Center
Sherman's Baptism of Fire
Originally published in the Washington Times Civil War Times on 25 July 1998

The name William Tecumseh Sherman primarily summons vision of Atlanta burning and the celebrated, or infamous, March to the Sea. What is less known is that Sherman got his first taste of Civil War combat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861.

Sherman, a West Pointer had resigned his commission and was the superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning and Military Academy when Louisiana secede in January 1861. Resigning at the academy, he made his way to Washington, where his brother, Senator John Sherman of Ohio, introduced him to President Lincoln. After initially turning down a position in the War Department, Sherman was appointed colonel of the 13 th Regular Infantry on 14 May 1861.

Soon he was in command of a Union brigade, the Third of the First Division in General Irvin McDowell’s army, assuming command just two weeks before it began the march to Manassas on 15 July. The brigade was composed of four volunteer regiments: the 13 th New York, the 69 th New York, the 79 th New York and the 2d Wisconsin. This assorted assembly of militiamen was a microcosm of the entire volunteer Federal army.

The Federal army moved slowly over the Chain Bridge out of Washington, following present day Route 123, converging on Centreville. Sherman had no illusions about what his men faced, even though he was not a combat veteran. The Second Seminole War had been over by the time then-Lieutenant Sherman had arrived in Florida. By the time he made it to Mexico, the Mexican War had been over. Nevertheless, Sherman knew that his men were ill prepared for the first time they would hear the cannon roar and watch men die.

On 21 July, Sherman’s brigade was deployed in line on the western side of Bull Rin, south of present Route 29, overlooking the Stone Bridge. That morning, as the vanguard of the Federal army was marching down Sudley Road in order to flank the Rebel army, a Southern major had crossed Bull Run in an act of bravado, yelling epithets at the Yankees. As he withdrew, Sherman, on horseback, followed. The Southern officer unwittingly showed him a ford in the river. Sherman used this valuable knowledge later that morning.

At about 10 a.m. Sherman’s men watch as Captain Nathan “Shanks” Evans Confederate brigade pulled back from its defensive position to meet the Union threat to the Rebel flanks coming down Sudley Road. As Evans brought the Federal advance to a halt on Matthew’s Hill, Sherman, under orders from his division commander, pushed the 69 th New York over Bull Run at the ford he had discovered earlier, in an attempt to hit Evans’ right flank.

Under pressure from the front and flank now, Evans withdrew from Matthew’s Hill, past the Stone House and up the Henry House Hill, where an eccentric VMI professor was waiting.

Sherman was right behind the retreating Rebels. After receiving orders to join in the pursuit form General McDowell himself, the tall Ohioan placed his regiments in columns and advanced them east over Matthew’s Hill and up the Henry House Hill. The 13 th NY led the brigade, with the 2d Wisconsin, 79 th NY and 69 th NY in echelon behind.

When the 69 th crested the hill, just east of the Henry House, Thomas Jackson’s brigade of Virginians opened fire. The New Yorkers paused to return fire, then continued on. Bu this time, however, Rebel artillery had found the range, especially those posted on Chinn Ridge to the west. The enfilade fire, normally devastating, was lessened by the sloping ground, which provided some protection to Sherman’s men.

As Sherman reached the top of the hill, mounted on his horse, he saw for himself the Rebel’s position and the disorganized and retreating Federal regiments already cut up by Jackson’s brigade. Realizing that sunken Sudley Road offered cover from Rebel fire, he ordered the 2d Wisconsin, with the rest of the brigade following, to execute a right flank march and continue advancing, using Sudley Road.

In the meantime, the 13 th NY was holding its position about 110 to 165 yards in front of Jackson, with the two sides exchanging volleys of musket and rifle fire.

The 2d Wisconsin moved up Sudley Road, probably about as far as today’s visitor center, when Sherman ordered a left flank march. The men from Wisconsin came up out of the comparative safety of Sudley Road and attacked Jackson’s left. After making two assaults against withering cannon and small arms fire, the 2d Wisconsin fell back in disorder.

Sherman turned his attention to the 79 th NY and pushed it forward over the same ground. He may be faulted for committing his units piecemeal, but his lack of maneuvering space, especially south of Sudley Road, and his order from McDowell did not provide much leeway.

The fate of the 2d Wisconsin befell the 79 th NY. After what Sherman termed a “severe” contest, the New Yorkers broke. Sherman had one regiment left, the 69 th NY. He committed it to the attack, and the story was the same: The Federals moved forward, crested the hill, exchanged fire with Jackson and were pounded by Rebel artillery. The unseasoned New Yorkers also retreated. Other Federal units on Henry House Hill and Chinn Ridge suffered the same fate.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, the inevitable result was clear to Sherman. With the officers left of his brigade, Sherman pulled back over the crest of the Henry House Hill and began rallying and reorganizing his survivors. As the Federal army retreated over the Stone Bridge, Sherman formed the remnants of his brigade into a square to cover the army against a cavalry pursuit, which was not long in coming.

A Confederate cavalry unit charged from the vicinity of the Robinson House, hoping to disperse Sherman’s force and gain the bridge and the exposed rear of the Federal army. Still on horseback, Sherman commanded from the center of the square, staying visible to his soldiers, as he had all day. Fire discipline was excellent, considering what the soldiers had already been through. Only when the cavalry neared did he give the order to fire. It required only one close range volley to break the Confederate momentum. The Rebel horsemen same so close that one soldier lost his rifle after a horse impaled itself on his bayonet, then turned and galloped away with the rifle stuck in its side.

Sherman’s tenacious rearguard action allowed the beaten Union Army to get over Bull Run and back to Centreville in comparative safety. That night, Sherman received orders to continue his retreat to Washington. Tired and nearly despondent, he labored to collect and get the stragglers back to the capital. His benefactor, Senator Thomas Ewing, later said that Colonel Sherman was the last man to leave the field.

The days that followed were gloomy for both Lincoln and the Union. Sherman and most of the other Federal officers thought they would never be given a second chance to command in battle.

But his performance at Bull Run had gained Sherman respect and credibility. He was promoted to brigadier general, as was Virginian George Thomas, who also would make an enduring reputation in the Western campaigns of the Civil War.

While Bull Run was a disaster for the Union Army, William T. Sherman emerged as one of the few stars. He kept his composure under fire, led his brigade from the front, maneuvered his troops competently in front of a stubborn Southern defense and provided an effective rear guard.

His leadership would be matched during his next big battle- Shiloh. Throughout the war, Sherman never stopped learning, never stopped growing as a combat leader, and emerged as one of the luminous generals of the war.