Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Farewell to Centreville: Johnston Takes the Army South

Last week I examined the extensive preparations that Gen. Joseph Johnston made to evacuate the Confederate lines around Centreville.  Concerned about enemy activity in the region, and facing a multitude of logistical challenges, Johnston began to transport supplies to Gordonsville on February 22, 1862.  His efforts continued into March.  Johnston was consumed with worry that he might not be able to pull it all off before Gen. George McClellan had the opportunity to strike first, and he made sure that President Jefferson Davis heard about the numerous difficulties that plagued his every move.

Johnston Finally Issues the Order to Withdraw

On March 5, Johnston got word of increased Union activity across the Potomac from Gen. W.H.C. Whiting's division at Dumfries.  This was all that Johnston needed to hear.  The cautious general was convinced that a Union attempt to turn his right flank was a real and imminent possibility.  (In fact, Confederate scouts had merely picked up on movement associated with an aborted plan to attack the Confederate batteries blockading the lower Potomac.) Johnston issued orders for the army to withdraw from Northern Virginia.  As for any stores remaining in Manassas and elsewhere, the commander felt that "the space of fifteen days was time enough in which to subordinate an army to the Commissary Department."  (Johnston, B&L, 257.) 

Johnston directed Whiting to fall back to Fredericksburg on the morning of March 7.  D.H. Hill was to take his brigade from Leesburg on the same day and move south of the Rappahannock River.  The four divisions encamped around Centreville received orders to withdraw on the morning of Saturday, March 8.  Given the large amount of supplies remaining at Manassas Junction, Johnston decided to delay the evacuation so that the army had a little more time to collect as much as possible from the depots before moving out.  The baggage trains were sent ahead of the divisions, and on Sunday evening, March 9, the divisions finally got underway and slipped into the night.  (OR, 1:5, 526-27; Johnston, Narrative, 102-03.)

Despite Johnston's efforts, a large amount of provisions and other supplies remained at Manassas.  The soldiers were given permission to take what they could carry as they moved through the railroad junction.  Many soldiers helped themselves to food and whiskey for the long march ahead.  Civilians were also invited to come in and take what they could before the remainder was destroyed.  

The Confederates Move Out and "Little Mac" Moves In

The divisions of James Longstreet and G.W. Smith moved southwest along the Warrenton Turnpike, while divisions under Richard Ewell and Jubal Early followed the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.  Longstreet's division alone stretched "4 or 5 miles," and the wagon train "was at least three miles in length."  (in Cutrer 82.)

Johnston dispatched Jeb Stuart's cavalry to screen the retreat and act as a rear guard.  The troopers made sure that nothing at Manassas remained for the Union Army.  They wasted no time in torching the storehouses and other railroad buildings.  Tom Goree, an aide to Longstreet, wrote home about the losses:
You can form no idea of the amount of stores, etc. that could not be moved back, and which it was necessary to destroy, not only public but private stores.  There was at least one million dollars worth of heavy baggage belonging to the soldiers which it was impossible to get away.
We burned several thousand barrels of flour, a great deal of corn, hay, etc., and at least one million pounds of bacon. . . . (in Cutrer 81.)
Trooper William Blackford, who played a role in destroying the remaining supplies, remembered that "the smell of fried bacon was wafted for twenty miles."  (Blackford 60.)  Private Edgar Warfield of the 17th Virginia spoke for many men when he lamented that "[o]ur regiment, although it could ill afford the loss, had to give up most of its baggage."  (Warfield 67.)
"Bull Run, Virginia. Ruins of Stone Bridge," by George Barnard, March 1862 (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Barnard and James Gibson, who worked for Matthew Brady's studio in Washington, headed to Manassas and Centreville following the Confederate evacuation.  The two men and their assistants have left a priceless photographic record of the destruction associated with the withdrawal.
"Centreville, Virginia. Quaker Gun," by George Barnard, March 1862 (courtesy of Library of Congress).  Union forces occupying Centreville after the retreat found that the Confederates had armed some fortifications with wooden cannon.  The story of the so-called "Quaker guns" reached the Northern papers and proved an embarrassment to McClellan.
The Confederate losses were not confined to Centreville and Manassas.  Johnston destroyed a meat packing establishment at Thoroughfare Gap whose existence had given him a bit of heartburn as he prepared to evacuate.  The Confederates also blew up the Stone Bridge at Bull Run to delay any Yankees who dared to pursue.  Most significantly, Johnston was forced to abandon the heavy artillery along the lower Potomac.  Many of the guns were destroyed by the retreating Confederates, although the Union Army later managed to salvage some of the pieces.
"Manassas, Va. Orange and Alexandria Railroad Wrecked by Retreating Confederates," by George Barnard & James Gibson (courtesy of Library of Congress).  According to photographer Alexander Gardner, the Confederates burned a railroad bridge south of Manassas before two trains were moved to safety.  The Confederates set fire to the trains, and only six cars survived.  This photograph shows one of the damaged locomotives, as well as the remaining cars.   Ruins of various buildings are visible to the left.
Before long, McClellan received news about an alleged Confederate withdrawal and ordered the Army of the Potomac to advance.  Johnston, however, was long gone when the Union Army entered Centreville and Manassas on March 10.  The New York Times reported that the junction "presented a scene of the utmost desolation, a mass of charred and blackened ruins."  (N.Y. Times, March 12, 1862.)  Burned railcars smoldered on the tracks.  Union soldiers found abandoned knives, sabers, clothing, tents, and other equipment.  The Philadelphia Press observed that "[b]etween Centreville and Manassas the road was strewn with hundreds of dead horses, who had evidently died of starvation."  (Phila. Press, March 13, 1862.)  The Confederates were soon replaced by fugitive slaves, who fled in "droves" to the newly established Union lines around Manassas. (N.Y. Times, March 12, 1862.)

Johnston Surprises President Davis

As Union troops occupied Manassas, Johnston's men continued their march unmolested.  Goree told his mother that "we had a great deal of bad weather," but at least the men experienced "very little sickness."  (in Cutrer 82.)  The four divisions that had set out from Centreville finally crossed the Rappahannock on March 11.  Longstreet and Smith pushed on to Culpeper Court House, while Ewell and Early set up camp close to the river on either side of the O&A Railroad.  (Johnston, Narrative, 103-04.)

On March 13, Johnston finally informed Davis of the withdrawal of his army from Centreville.  Perhaps Johnston's tardiness in reporting the date of the evacuation stemmed from his fears about a leak, but his behavior also smacks of passive-aggressiveness.  The news took the Confederate President by surprise.  In fact, on the very day after the evacuation, he had written to Johnston that reinforcements were on the way.  (OR, 1:5, 1096.)  Davis appeared particularly upset by the abandonment of supplies:
'Tis true I have many of alarming reports of great destruction of ammunition, camp equipage, and provisions, indicating precipitate retreat; but, having heard of no cause of such a sudden movement, I was at a loss to believe it. (OR, 1:5, 527.)
Johnston refused to shoulder any of the blame for the supplies that he left behind.  After all, he had warned Richmond about stockpiling massive amounts of provisions at the front.  When all was said and done, out of more than 5 million pounds of provisions, "[a]bout one million pounds . . . was abandoned, and half as much more was spoiled for want of shelter."  (Johnston, B&L, 257.)   In any event, the Confederate government had "collected immediately on the frontier five times the quantity of provisions wanted" and was "responsible for the losses." (Johnston, B&L, 257.)  Goree privately agreed, writing on March 23, 1862 that "the authorities at Richmond are to blame for permitting such a vast amount of stores to accumulate upon us," despite Johnston's protests "time and again."  (in Cutrer 82.)

The Confederate Army's adventures around Washington were finished for now.  At one time, the lines had extended all the way to Munson's Hill, where the advanced outposts could see the unfinished dome of the Capitol.  Johnston pulled his men back once, and then again, where they settled down for a long winter in Centreville.  As spring approached, Johnston left the region altogether, and prepared to defend Richmond from a more feasible location.  The ball was now in Little Mac's court.

George B. Abdill, Civil War Railroads: A Pictorial Story of the War Between the States, 1861-1865 (1999 ed.); Gary E. Aldeman, Manassas Battlefield Then & Now: Historic Photography at Bull Run (2011); Russel Beatie, Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March-May 1862 (2007); W.W. Blackford, War Years with Jeb Stuart (1993); Thomas W. Cutrer, Longstreet's Aide: The Civil War Letters of Major Thomas H. Goree (1995); Jubal A. Early, Autobiographical Sketch and Narrative of the War Between the States (1912); Joseph E. Johnston, Narrative of Military Operations (1874); Joseph E. Johnston, "Responsibilities of the First Bull Run," Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 1 (1887); New York Times, March 12, 1862; Philadelphia Press, March 13, 1862; Philadelphia Press, March 14, 1862; Philadelphia Press, March 17, 1862; Stephen W. Sears, To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992); Craig L. Symonds, Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography (1992); Edgar Warfield, Manassas to Appomattox (1996): Jeffry Wert, General James Longstreet: The Confederacy's Most Controversial Soldier (1993); Mary Alice Wills, The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C., 1861-1862 (1975).

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