First Battle of Bull Run, chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison

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First Battle of Bull Run


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First Battle of Bull Run

Though the Civil War began when Confederate troops shelled Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the war didn’t begin in earnest until the Battle of Bull Run, fought in Virginia just miles from Washington DC, on July 21, 1861. Popular fervor led President Lincoln to push a cautious Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Union army in Northern Virginia, to attack the Confederate forces commanded by Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, which held a relatively strong position along Bull Run, just northeast of Manassas Junction. The goal was to make quick work of the bulk of the Confederate army, open the way to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and end the war. The morning of July 21st dawned on two generals planning to outflank their opponent’s left. Hindering the success of the Confederate plan were several communication failures and general lack of coordination between units. McDowell’s forces, on the other had, were hampered by an overly complicated plan that required complex synchronization. Constant and repeated delays on the march and effective scouting by the Confederates gave his movements away, and, worst of all Patterson failed to occupy Johnston’s Confederate forces attention in the west. McDowell’s forces began by shelling the Confederates across Bull Run. Others crossed at Sudley Ford and slowly made their way to attack the Confederate left flank. At the same time as Beauregard sent small detachments to handle what he thought was only a distraction, he also sent a larger contingent to execute flanking a flanking movement of his own on the Union left. Spectators at Bull RunFighting raged throughout the day as Confederate forces were driven back, despite impressive efforts by Colonel Thomas Jackson to hold important high ground at Henry House Hill, earning him the nom de guerre “Stonewall.” Late in the afternoon, Confederate reinforcements including those arriving by rail from the Shenandoah Valley extended the Confederate line and succeeded in breaking the Union right flank. At the battle’s climax Virginia cavalry under Colonel James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart arrived on the field and charged into a confused mass of New Yorkers, sending them fleetly to the rear. The Federal retreat rapidly deteriorated as narrow bridges, overturned wagons, and heavy artillery fire added to the confusion. The calamitous retreat was further impeded by the hordes of fleeing onlookers who had come down from Washington to enjoy the spectacle. Although victorious, Confederate forces were too disorganized to pursue. By July 22, the shattered Union army reached the safety of Washington. The Battle of Bull Run convinced the Lincoln administration and the North that the Civil War would be a long and costly affair. McDowell was relieved of command of the Union army and replaced by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who set about reorganizing and training the troops.

Sullivan Ballou's Letter to his Wife



July the 14th, 1861

Washington DC


My very dear Sarah:


The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days - perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.


Our movement may be one of a few days duration and full of pleasure - and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine 0 God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing - perfectly willing - to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.


But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows - when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it as their only sustenance to my dear little children - is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?


I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last, perhaps, before that of death -- and I, suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart, am communing with God, my country, and thee.


I have sought most closely and diligently, and often in my breast, for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I loved and I could not find one. A pure love of my country and of the principles have often advocated before the people and "the name of honor that I love more than I fear death" have called upon me, and I have obeyed.


Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.


The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us. I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me - perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar -- that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.


Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world, to shield you and my children from harm. But I cannot. I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more.


But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the garish day and in the darkest night -- amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours - always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.


Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.


As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father's love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood. Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters. Tell my two mothers his and hers I call God's blessing upon them. O Sarah, I wait for you there! Come to me, and lead thither my children.




Sullivan Ballou would be killed during the First Battle Of Bull Run


John Merritt-1st Minnesota-Medal Of Honor

John G Merritt was born in New York, New York, on Oct 31, 1837. He was 23, when he enlisted in Company K and was made its 3rd sergeant. He was a strong man, who stood 6' tall. He had a light complexion, brown hair and blue eyes. He was slightly wounded at the battle of Bull Run, when he was shot in the left leg below the knee. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry at the battle. Here is the story in his words.

"I was a sergeant in Co K, First Minnesota Volunteers. The regiment broke camp at Centerville about three o'clock on the morning of Sunday, July 21, 1861. With a soldier's equipment and three days' rations, we realized before sunrise that is was going to be a hot day. After we had been on the march for about a couple of miles we turned off the main road to the right; we were delayed a good deal by fallen trees with sharpened points sticking towards us. Whenever we could we would double-quick, and, as the morning was very hot, the pace told on some of the men."

"John Ball, the orderly sergeant of Co K, was sick and I was acting as orderly sergeant. As sick as Ball was, he came on the field, and I saw him standing near the regiment while they were engaged, with his arms folded, apparently the most unconcerned person of the lot; he was a brave and fearless man. Captain Lester. Lieutenants Holtzborn and Periam were officers of the company."

"We could hear the sound of cannon very distinctly about eight o'clock, and by ten o'clock we could plainly hear the sound of musketry; by that time we knew we were going to have a fight. After I was satisfied that such was going to be the case, and being desirous of obtaining military distinction, I applied to Lieutenant Holtzborn, of my company, for the privilege of selecting four men for the purpose of capturing the first Confederate flag we could get. The lieutenant told me it was a hazardous undertaking, but said, after consultation with Captain Lester, I had permission. Sergeant Dudley, Privates Durfee, Grim and one other, whose name I have forgotten, readily consented to my proposal. and all agreed to follow me and to stick to one another under any circumstances."

"Before going into action, the whole regiment divested themselves of knapsacks, haversacks and blankets, and piled them in one large heap beside the road, thinking of course we would be back in a couple of hours-as soon as we had 'crushed the Rebellion'. I and my four men in particular carried with us but our ammunition and guns. After we supplied ourselves with water, and everything now being ready, orders were given to 'Forward!' and we immediately filed through a cluster of trees, where the dying and wounded were being brought on stretchers and blankets. Everything was at the height of excitement, as the roar of cannon and the incessant volleys of musketry were very heavy, and the occasional stray shot coming among us, you can rest assured the regiment was on the alert."

"I never shall forget the first sight of dead, wounded and dying. Pity and sympathy, mingled with a feeling of fear, made me realize in an instant we were approaching death. But the feeling passed away as soon as it came."

"So far as my recollection goes, when we got out into the open space we were ordered to the other side of the field, and in marching over, double-quick, we passed directly in front of our artillery, which was heavily engaged. It was very laughable and amusing to see some of the men jump and squat down, trying to dodge, in all manner of ways, the cannon shots from the Rebel guns; and I was not slow at the dodging business myself. One of my company would constantly run out of the ranks and up to the captain and say 'Has the fight commenced yet? Has the fight commenced yet?' He was not long in finding out when the fight did commence."

"Arriving at what seemed to me the extreme right, we formed in line in a ravine, near some cavalry, and awaited orders."

"It was now about half past one o'clock. We were soon ordered forward, and as we advanced rapidly to the brow of a plateau we knew we were soon to meet the enemy, face to face, at short range. Just before we got to the top of the plateau the bugle sounded 'lie down'. With fixed bayonets and loaded rifles we were ready and anxious for business. In about a couple of minutes the bugle sounded 'stand up'; no sooner had we done so and were well in line when the command 'Forward!' was given. That brought us directly in plain sight and directly in front of 'Rebs'. We were not more than thirty or thirty five yards apart; in fact we were so close that for a minute we did not know who they were (I saw, at about this time General Heintzelman riding in plain view of the enemy). We saw their colors and all fired immediately; in less than half a minute they gave us a round. We were ordered to lie down and load; then we were ordered to stand up and fire. We had given them three or four rounds and they were slowly falling back, a little confused. When the smoke and dust would break away we could see them and their colors as plain as you can see a man across the street. Just at this time a single gun from Rickett's Battery came directly to the rear of K Company, unlimbered, and in less than half a minute gave them a round of grape and canister. The artillerymen immediately reloaded and gave them another dose of the same medicine. The second round threw them into utter confusion, and it was at about that time myself and the men named above advanced double-quick on the Rebel color-bearer. We had no trouble in reaching him, as the smoke and dust had not risen, and from his actions I thought he was under the impression he had been captured."

"The man who carried the colors was about five feet ten or eleven inches, dark complexioned, with black hair, slight mustache and black eyes; he with the others around him, wore gray clothes and black slouch hats; someone was trying to form them. The color-bearer had his coat unbuttoned, with his hat on the back of his head. As I got within a couple of feet of him I commanded him in a peremptory manner to surrender, and at the same time Dudley, Durfee and myself cocked our guns. I grabbed the colors out of his hand; he and one or two more said, 'Don't shoot! don't shoot!'

"The flag was a red one with a white stripe running through the middle of it, with blue in one corner and some stars on it. As soon as I grabbed the colors out of the Johnnie's hands I told him to follow me quick, and at the same time told my men to get back to the regiment as soon as possible. Dudley, Grim and myself were laughing at the easy thing we had done, and all of us running for the regiment as fast as we could go, when-bang! bang! bang! came a volley after us, killing Grim and the comrade whose name I have forgotten, and at the same time a dozen or more of the Rebs ran after us, some of them hollering 'Kill the d----d black abolition, red shirt Yankee,....' and at the same time gave us another round. From the sound it seemed as if a regiment was firing at us. That was the shot that killed young Durfee and wounded me in the leg; another bullet went through the breast-pocket of my shirt and shivered my pipe in pieces. I dropped my gun but held on to the flag, and was going about as fast on one leg as most men generally go on two; but before I had gone ten feet I was hit over the head with what I thought was the stock of a musket. It knocked me down but did not knock me senseless, They immediately pulled the flag out of my hands and fell back on the run."

As they did so, Dudley came back to me (he had run ahead some little distance), helped me up and assisted me along as fast as I could go. How Dudley and I escaped with our lives seems almost incredible, and looks now as if we had been hedged about with some halo of good luck."

"From the firing of the gun of Rickett's Battery to the time I was shot, not more than five or eight minutes had expired. What we did, we did quick and without ceremony, and if we could have kept them off from us half a minute longer we would have been safe. As soon as we got back to the regiment and I realized the fact that I could not walk and was bleeding very fast, I took my suspenders off and tied them as tight as I could above the wound, to keep from bleeding to death; and at the same time asked Lieutenant Holtzburn, who happened to see me, to have some one assist me to the rear. This was during some change of position of the regiment."

"He ordered Sergeant Dudley and Private [George] Durfee, a twin brother of the one who had just been killed, to carry me off. I put an arm round each of their necks and held on to them as they hurriedly walked along."

"As soon as we got to the foot of the hill I feinted away on a spot where some horses had been standing. I was brought to by Dudley throwing some dirty water in my face. This immediately straightened me up, and taking hold of them as before we hurriedly moved off. By the time they got me to a house, which being used as a temporary hospital, I began feeling sick at my stomach and very feint. Surgeons were dressing the wounds of some of Ellsworth's Zouaves, Michigan and Massachusetts men, and giving them stimulants. They gave me two or three swallows, which settled my stomach and made me feel better. The next things I knew I was being pulled up and yanked along as fast as we could go. All commenced to move at a break-neck gait. The retreat had commenced. And of all the helter-skelter, pell-mell, devil-take-the-hindmost gang I ever saw, or heard tell of, or ever read about, that crazy crowd beat them all. They all went as if a cyclone had struck them. All was confusion, all disorder and every one acted as if the Johnnies were determined to have a Yankee apiece for supper; and some of them would pass by and look at the wounded that were being carried and helped off, as much as to say, 'They can have you, but by golly they shan't catch me!' I don't believe there ever was a greater stampede of troops than there was between that house and the bridge. Dudley and Durfee saved my life without a doubt. Durfee would have abandoned me to Dudley's charge some time before if I had told him the truth about his brother, about whom he was constantly inquiring. And here was an instance where 'evasion' seemed better than telling the truth. His brother, as brave and daring a fellow as ever shouldered a musket, and very quiet and modest at all times, made a remark just before I grabbed the colors out of the color-bearer's hands that I shall never forget. 'Sergeant,' said he, 'when you take it, hold on to it,' and in less than a minute he was shot dead. Had I told his brother he had been killed or wounded he would have returned to his assistance immediately, and that would have been the last of me."

"I was the only one of the three that had any money, and we finally succeeded, after several attempts, in persuading a teamster, with a four-horse wagon, to let them put me on the off-wheel horse, by giving him four one-dollar gold pieces and some sutler's tickets. Dudley remarked, 'Give him all you got, as we might as well go broke here as anywhere.' Riding the off-wheel horse brought my wounded leg between the two horses and on top of the wagon tongue; this caused me so much pain, I had to turn round on the horse so as not to have my leg hurt between the two horses. With one hand holding on to the root of his tail, and the other hand behind me grasping the end of the hanes, bare-headed, with a heavy red woolen shirt on (the whole regiment wore blue and red flannel shirts), all open at the collar and the sleeves rolled up, my face covered with blood and dirt, hair sticking straight up and matted full of old leaves and grass and 'sacred soil,' and with the worst looking wounded leg you ever saw, you can imagine what a pitiful but ludicrous sight I must have presented. There must be lots of men living yet who saw me just as I have described. I am sure I have not half described my appearance on that horse."

"We arrived at Centerville about nine o'clock at night. I was helped off the horse by a regimental surgeon under some trees. The poor old horse was nearly exhausted, but was immediately remounted by a soldier who rode off. Surgeons were taking care of the wounded. They looked at my wound and told me I had better have my leg amputated at once, but I would not consent to it. I was suffering very much from pain, and was nearly exhausted from loss of blood; nothing in the world kept me up but excitement. A four-horse wagon drove up and the soldiers that were being cared for were helped in. The confusion and hurry was still great. I begged them to let me get in the wagon, but an officer refused, saying there was no room for me. I crawled to the wagon and got in over the wheel while others were being helped in the back end. I stayed in the wagon, although I was ordered out two or three times; they were in too big a hurry to put me out. Off they drove as fast as they could get along. There were seven of us in the wagon, all badly wounded; the driver and the soldier on the seat with him were not wounded: one drove and hollered, while the other whipped and cursed. It was very dark and I think it was raining. The road was still full of wagons, ambulances and straggling troops. We would go very fast at times, and then would stop for a few minutes until the teams ahead of us moved on. I think the driver was the worst scared of all of us, for he tried to drive by, and drive over, everything, uphill and down, over stumps, logs and rocks; we were continually being thrown or tossed from one side of the wagon to the other."

"We arrived at Fairfax Courthouse about midnight. I laid my head on a big fat fellow who had sprawled out at full length on the bottom of the wagon. We had been quarrelling all night about interfering with one another's wounds. I supposed the fat fellow had gone to sleep, and taking advantage of his position I laid my head on his stomach and immediately went to sleep myself. I thought it was the softest pillow I ever used. I don't know how long I laid there-perhaps half an hour; we all went to sleep. We were awakened by being jolted about in the wagon, which was going downhill at a lively gait; all were complaining about our wounds; two or three were groaning and whining. When the team would walk we would all go to sleep again-two or three of us using the fat man as a pillow as before. I had a dispute with one of the men about my place on the fat man's stomach and made him move his head along and I resumed my former place. We laid as best we could in that position until daylight, when we discovered we had been using a dead man for a pillow; the poor fellow had died about the time we left Fairfax, as he was very quiet at that place."

Sergeant Merritt survived his ordeal at Bull Run. He was sent to the E Street Hospital. The doctors once again had wanted to amputate his leg. They were debating whether to take it off above or below the knee. John continued to argue that he wanted to keep his leg. Finally the doctors relented; John gradually recovered and was able to walk once again. Thirty days later he was back with the regiment. He was then detached from the regiment and acted as in the capacity of "Commissary Sergeant" of General Stone's Division up to the time of General Stone's arrest. After that Merritt had charge of the Ordinance Store for Lt Church Howe, one of General Sedgwick's "A. D. Camp." On March 15, 1862, he wrote to Minnesota Senator James W Grimes asking for his help in securing in a Union regiment from any state or possibly service in an artillery battery.

Nothing came of the request and he stayed in the regiment though not with it. He was not with the regiment when they fought at Gettysburg. He was detailed to serve at the office of the 2nd Brigade Quartermaster from Sept. 1862, until Jan. 1864. He was eventually mustered out with the regiment after three hard years of service. He was mentioned by 1st Sgt James Wright of Company F, when Wright described a banquet held in Washington for the regiment before they left for home.

"The return of Col Colvill to the regiment for the first time since Gettysburg was one of the events of the evening. Most men in his condition would have felt it impossible to be present. He could not walk or stand and was carried in by two of the stalwart members of the regiment, Captain Tom Sinclair and Sergeant Johnny Merritt."

Long after the war, he received the bronze medal, with a letter.

War Department, Washington, April 1, 1880.

Sir: I transmit to you the enclosed Medal of Honor, which as the inscription shows, is from "The Congress to Sergeant John G Merritt, Co K, 1st Minnesota Volunteers."

This medal is awarded to you under the provisions of law for gallantry at the battle of Bull Run, in July, 1861, where you were wounded while in advance of your regiment.

In connection with this award I find occasion to remember with renewed pleasure and gratitude the patriotism of Minnesota's citixens, who in answer to my call as governor, at the first dawn of the war period, valiantly responded with cheers, the trumpets and the drums of the First Minnesota Regiment, of which you were a member.

Alexander Ramsey, Secretary of War.

7th Georgia Marker

Groveton Confederate Cemetery Manassas National Battlefield Park

Contributor: bruceyrock632
Created: October 20, 2013 · Modified: April 9, 2015

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