Semper Fi at First Bull Run | HistoryNet MENU

Semper Fi at First Bull Run

By Kendall J. King
12/10/2015 • America's Civil War Magazine

AS MARINE MAJOR John G. Reynolds marched his battalion over the Potomac Long Bridge on the afternoon of July 16, 1861, he must have wondered what lay ahead for his Marines. A Mexican War veteran, Reynolds had seen Marines serve with distinction in that war 14 years earlier, and now he fully expected his command to do the same. Still, as an officer with 35 years of military service under his belt, Reynolds worried about the green troops under his command. True, they were Marines, but as they headed toward their first fight in a new war, across a small Virginia creek called Bull Run, he had some doubts that could only be answered when the bullets began to fly.

The order to the commandant had been specific: ‘You will be pleased to detail from the barracks four companies of eighty men each, the whole under the command of Major Reynolds with the necessary officers, noncommissioned officers and musicians for temporary field service under Brigadier General [Irvin] McDowell. The Marines were to join Union forces moving to oppose the Confederates positioned at Manassas, Va. From regiments of brand-new volunteers to U.S. Army regulars, every available Union soldier was being rushed toward the impending fray, and the Marines were no exception.One part of the Confederate Army had already occupied Manassas, a day’s march of 26 miles from Washington, D.C. General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Southerners, about 23,000 strong, were astride an important railroad junction and in position to threaten the capital itself. The remainder of the Confederate forces, 15,000 men under General Joseph E. Johnston, were in the vicinity of Harpers Ferry, 70 miles northwest of Manassas.

The Confederate Army, split as it was into two separate wings, seemingly invited attack, and the Union commander was being pressured from all sides to take quick and decisive action. McDowell needed to act quickly to defeat the divided Confederates while he still commanded an army. Many of the 90-day Union volunteer regiments in his army, called into service in response to Confederate seizure of Fort Sumter two months earlier, were nearing the end of their enlistments, and many of the new replacement regiments were not yet combat-ready. Nevertheless, recognizing the need for urgency, the Lincoln administration rushed additional reinforcements to McDowell from all parts of the Union. Raw young recruits from New York, New England, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota poured into Washington, camping in a sea of white tents visible in every direction from the Capitol dome.

The arrival of new troops in Washington reflected the growing sense of panic within both the government and the Union Army. With a teeming Rebel army mere miles away, an understandable sense of urgency gripped the president, his cabinet and U.S. Army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, an aging hero of the Mexican War. Scott, in particular, was obsessed with protecting the capital, to the point of resisting McDowell’s plan for taking the war to the Confederates in Virginia and advising instead that he consider making a large-scale assault down the Mississippi River to split the Confederacy in two. McDowell, in turn, refused to consider Scott’s counter suggestion, and Lincoln eventually intervened, ordering flatly that the Union Army take the offensive-immediately.

Under direct orders from the president, McDowell drew up a plan for dividing his army into three columns to converge on the Rebels from three different directions north of Manassas. The plan was a good one, but it required at least twice as many men as McDowell then had at hand-hence the tumultuous influx of new recruits in Washington.

The Marine Corps of 1861 reflected the turmoil of the times. Its 48 officers and 2,338 enlisted men had a wide range of experience levels, from aging veterans to raw recruits. Having grown by 25 percent between 1860 and 1861, the Corps swelled once again as the Civil War started. Indeed, the influx was so rapid that new troops at the Washington Navy Yard had to be berthed in the stables. Since many veteran Marines still served aboard ships or were deployed at U.S. shore installations throughout the world, few experienced Marines remained in Washington to help preserve the Union. As a result, untested new recruits filled out the ranks of Reynold’s force.

The Civil War influenced the number and quality of Marine officers available for duty, as well. Although the total number of Marine officers remained essentially the same after the war started, the experience level of the officers declined. Twenty Marine officers resigned from service, electing to join the Confederacy in the spring of 1861. More critically, among the ranks from first lieutenant to major, nearly half of the officers headed South. Thus it was that half of Reynolds’ Marine officers marching to face a hostile enemy had been commissioned within the previous two months.

It took time for the new Marine units to be integrated, however hastily, into the Army, and in the meantime, Lincoln, Scott and the cabinet members fretted. The target date for the offensive, July 8, passed without a whimper. McDowell, sitting in his camp, complained to his staff that he had no opportunity to test my machinery, to move it around and see whether it would work smoothly or not. Unfortunately for McDowell, he did not have the luxury of a test run. Scott, fuming at the delay, told Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler that there was no excuse for an unfortunate result in the upcoming campaign, since McDowell had superior numbers and equipment in his favor. McDowell, however, did not see it that way. I wanted very much a little time, he said later, all of us wanted it. We did not have a bit of it. The answer was: ‘You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are all green alike.’

Finally, on July 15, final orders were given for an advance the next day. Brigadier General Samuel Heintzelman would lead one wing of the army down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to a point below the Confederate army at Manassas. Brigadier General David Hunter would head toward Centreville, a village directly northeast of Bull Run. And Tyler would head for Vienna, where he would proceed west to block the Little River Turnpike and the Rebel line of retreat. On to Richmond! was the informal, if overly optimistic, watchword of the campaign.

Reynolds formed his men into a battalion and trooped out from the Washington Navy Yard with the rest of the army on July 16. In addition to four companies of 320 privates, the battalion included 12 officers, 17 noncommissioned officers, two drummers and two fifers. None of the privates had been in the service for more than three weeks, and only 16 Marines had had significant experience. Still, the leaders were seasoned Marines. Besides Reynolds’ 35 years of service, his second-in-command, Major Jacob Zeilin, had been in service for 30 years. Of the remainder, only three other officers, nine noncommissioned officers and two musicians could be considered veterans.

The Marines were attached to Colonel Andrew Porter’s brigade of the 2nd Division. The brigade numbered 3,700 men and included a militia regiment from New York, the 8th New York; two volunteer regiments, the 14th and the 27th New York; a battalion of Army regulars; a cavalry detachment; and an artillery battery from the 5th U.S. Artillery under Captain Charles Griffin. Porter recognized only too well the rawness of the Marines, but still complimented them: Through the constant exertions of their officers [they] had been brought to present a fine military appearance. He assigned Reynolds’ battalion to support Griffin’s battery. By accompanying the artillery, Griffin reasoned, the Marines might be shielded from the heaviest fire, and their inexperience might not become a factor.

The Union army’s march toward Manassas took twice as long as expected, with one day of travel lost when field rations were not packed as ordered. It was not until July 21 that the Federals arrived near Centreville, where the Confederates guarded the lower crossings of Bull Run. McDowell’s plan was to make a feint against the Confederate positions on Bull Run with half of his army while marching the remainder of his force upstream. There, at a ford near Sudley Springs, the soldiers would cross Bull Run, presumably turning the flank of the preoccupied Confederates. The Marines and the rest of Porter’s brigade would be a part of the Union flanking force.

Speed was the key to the successful execution of McDowell’s complex plan. Unfortunately, in 1861 there were few units in the green Union Army that could move fast enough to make it work without a total loss of organization. Still, that was the plan, and the soldiers moved out as rapidly as possible, some of them singing Dixie as they moved into Virginia.Porter’s brigade and the Marines did their part, falling into marching order at 2 a.m. Despite the early start, the marchers suffered immediate delays and could not keep to the attack timetable. Columns became hopelessly disorganized, mixing with other units on the road and becoming confused in the dark; other regiments lost their way completely. It was not until midmorning on the 21st that the first Union elements actually crossed Bull Run.

Even as the congestion cleared, the Marines discovered another challenge to their march. Griffin’s battery contained six horse-drawn cannons that raced ahead of the brigade whenever they could to make up time. In Reynolds’ own words, The battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength. Double-quicking their way through the dark, the Marines lost much of their freshness, particularly as the morning turned into a typically hot July day in Virginia. Once the Marines crossed Bull Run, they rested half an hour while the remainder of Porter’s brigade caught up. Meanwhile, the first Union brigade to cross the creek, Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s, advanced toward the Confederate flank near Sudley Ford. Only a part of Colonel Nathan Shanks Evans’ Confederate brigade protected the left side of Beauregard’s army against the initial Union onslaught. McDowell’s plan just might work.

Burnside’s men engaged the Confederate line while Porter moved his men up on Burnside’s right. Griffin’s battery pushed ahead of Porter’s column, followed closely by the Marines, and started firing from a range of 1,000 yards. Griffin’s six guns, four rifled 10-pounders and two howitzers, quickly silenced a Confederate battery and then continued forward, advancing to the right as the Confederates started to yield under the intense pressure.

Griffin’s artillery again aggressively pushed forward, with the Marines close behind, while Burnside’s brigade forced the Confederates back. Still, the Confederate lines responded with intense and deadly fire as more Southern troops arrived to defend the flank. Burnside’s men, tiring after several hours of vicious combat, began to lose their initiative, faltering and withdrawing on their own to replenish their ammunition. The majority of Burnside’s brigade retreated to Sudley Ford and were no longer a factor on the battlefield. Porter’s men, however reluctantly, now were in the Union front.

Although one of Porter’s regiments followed Burnside’s exodus to the rear, the remainder of the brigade, including Griffin’s guns and the Marines, continued to fight ferociously. Additional Union brigades began to fill gaps as the battle progressed into the afternoon and the Confederate lines shifted about a mile to the rear. The Union army, despite its late start and early confusion, surged onward, ready to carry the day. Confederate resistance stiffened, however, as reinforcements from Johnston’s force arrived from Harpers Ferry by train. As they climbed down from the train, Beauregard hastily sent the new forces forward to bolster his left flank. Eventually the Confederates, under the implacable leadership of Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, rallied on Henry House Hill in a stubborn defense that earned him the nickname Stonewall, and the hill became the focal point of the battle. At 2 p.m. Griffin’s battery and a second artillery battery, under Captain J.B. Ricketts, were ordered to occupy Henry House Hill, supported by infantry and Marines. Griffin’s cannons were not well to the front, but they fired harmlessly over the Confederates, who were sheltered on the opposite side of the hill. Meanwhile, the Union artillery was suffering under heavy Confederate return fire.

The Marines covering the artillery were exposed to the same concentrated fire and rapidly began losing men of their own. Still, they remained in support of Griffin’s battery as the action grew hotter around Henry House Hill.

As the fighting continued, an infantry regiment was observed closing in on Griffin’s guns. At the same time, the 14th New York Infantry was moving up to protect the battery’s flank, and the unknown regiment was thought to be a similar reinforcement, but from a different Union division. Griffin wanted to open fire on the blue-uniformed force, but major William F. Barry, McDowell’s artillery chief, ordered him to hold his fire. Suddenly, murderous fire of musketry and rifles erupted against Griffin’s men. The supposed reinforcements were the 33rd Virginia, whose commander, Colonel Arthur Cummings, had disobeyed an order from Jackson that he hold his position. Still wearing blue uniforms from prewar days, the 33rd Virginia was able to advance to within 70 yards of the Union right flank. The casualties they inflicted on the Marines were the first confirmation of their hostile intent.

The Union force resisted for a short time, but the surprise attack was devastating. Both artillery batteries suffered severely, bearing the brunt of the attack, and Griffin desperately attempted to remove his guns. But the Confederates came storming on, swarming over his artillery and supporting infantry. The 14th and 27th New York regiments broke and fled, followed by other supporting regiments. The Marines, in spite of the efforts of their officers, broke as well. Without support, Griffin’s battery was overrun, losing a quarter of its men and half of its horses. That was the last of us, Griffin reported later; we were all cut down.

Reynolds managed to rally his Marines, and they returned to the fight. Again, however, the Confederate pressure was overwhelming, swamping the support troops and the Marines who still continued to fight. One Marine officer was killed and Major Zeilin was wounded, but action continued around the artillery battery. In all, possession of Griffin’s guns was contested three times. Finally, at 4 p.m., the Marines broke one last time, contributing to the general route of the Union army.

The First Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas) had ended with a surprising Confederate victory and a humiliating Union flight. Eventually, however, most of the Marines managed to return to Washington. Reynolds caught up with the largest group of the battalion, about 70 Marines, during the withdrawal. Overall, his battalion lost nine Marines killed, 19 wounded and six missing.

Reynolds gamely praised his men for their good conduct, considering their lack of combat experience, but it was an unavoidable fact that his young Marines had fled the battlefield. The Marine commandant would later report to the secretary of the navy that it is the first instance recorded in its history where any portion of [the Corps’] members turned their backs to the enemy. Historians would characterize the Marines’ performance at Bull Run as a dismal-and atypical-example of battlefield panic.

Surprisingly, there were no recriminations against the Marines at the time. Reynolds was promoted to lieutenant colonel a few days later and continued to serve throughout the war. One of his officers, 2nd Lt. Robert Huntington, would not only fight in other theaters in the Civil War but also would lead the attack to capture Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the Spanish-American War, 37 years later.

Major Jacob Zeilin recovered from his wound at Bull Run and commanded the Marines during joint action against Charleston, S.C., later in the war. In 1864, he was selected as the seventh commandant of the Marine Corps, promoted ahead of four more senior Marines, including Reynolds. In 1867, Zeilin was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the first Marine to hold that rank.

Although not a proud moment in Marine Corps history, the performance at Bull Run had extenuating circumstances. Three weeks of training were clearly not enough. Reynolds reported that his Marines had barely learned facing movements before they marched off to war. Although the 90-day volunteer regiments were not veterans either, even they had trained longer than three weeks. As a result, the Marines were probably the least experienced soldiers in McDowell’s entire amateur army at Bull Run.

Despite their brief training time, the Marines’ fighting effort at Bull Run compared favorably with that of other units. At the forefront of the battle, the Marines suffered losses that were comparable to the overall 18 percent casualty rate suffered by Porter’s brigade at Bull Run. Marine casualties were also nearly equal to those of the Regular Army battalion, then the most experienced unit in the Union Army, and were greater than many of the larger infantry regiments in the battle. Overall, the Marine’s performance in action equaled the majority of the other units in Porter’s brigade.

Because of their inexperience, the Marines had been assigned as an artillery escort, supposedly to remain behind the lines. Ironically, this secure assignment led to their repeated involvement in the most severe action of the battle. Although the dismal outcome of the battle may not have been what Major Reynolds had anticipated only five days before, his own Marine battalion had fought hard and well on the shores of Bull Run. He could take some pride, at least, in that.

This article originally appeared in the September 1996 issue of America’s Civil War.

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