First Bull Run Critical Decisions of the First Bull Run/Manassas Campaign: Decision #1

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Andy Cardinal

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Inspired by the "Decisions" series of books written by Matt Spruill (Gettysburg, Stones River, and Second Manassas; I believe some more are in the works), I have decided to try my hand at identifying the "critical descisions" of the campaign and battle of First Bull Run/Manassas. The decisions will be posted in no particular order. If anyone is inspired to post their own thoughts regarding critical decisions during the campaign or battle, your thoughts are very welcome.

CRITICAL DECISION: JOHNSTON RETREATS FROM HARPER'S FERRY

joseph-johnston-hero.jpg

(picture from History.net)
John Mosby later called it "the first great military blunder of the war." On June 14, Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah, began the evacuation of Harper's Ferry. He withdrew to Charles Town and then to Winchester.

Several days earlier, Johnston had expressed his concern about the untenable nature of his position at Harper's Ferry. He was concerned about a Union force then assembling in southern Pennsylvania under the command of Robert Patterson. A Union army advancing from Chambersburg and Hagerstown could easily outflank his exposed position by crossing the Potomac at Williamsport. Johnston was further alarmed by reports that George McClellan's force in western Virginia was advancing toward the Shenandoah Valley.

Both President Davis and his military advisor Robert E. Lee opposed the move. Lee wrote to Johnston on June 7 advising him not to give up Harper's Ferry. Lee told Johnston that Davis "places great value on our retention of the command of the Shenandoah Valley and the position at Harper's Ferry." Yet Johnston decided to do so anyway.

The move had several repercussions. First, it allowed Patterson the take Harper's Ferry without a fight. Harper's Ferry was a strategic location and Union control of the post secured both the Baltimore and Ohio railroad and the Chesapeake Canal for their use. It also gave Patterson's army a relatively unopposed entry into Confederate territory.

Second, the withdrawal was made against the expressed wishes of Davis. This was first in what would become a pattern -- Davis would distrust Johnston, who would often retreat when not forced to in the years to come. It became a persistent difference of opinion between the president and one of the most important field commanders. It poisoned the relationship between Johnston and Davis that would continue, and grow worse, as the war progressed. This poisoned relationship may be considered one of the key factors in the Southern defeat in the Civil War.

The third consequence, however, is a much more positive result of Johnston's decision. By locating his army around Winchester, Johnston's army was now in a position where they could move much more easily to support Beauregard's army then gathering at Manassas. Johnston's transfer of troops from Winchester to Manassas would prove to be the decisive factor in the Confederate victory at the battle.

Despite this positive result, Johnston ordered the evacuation one month earlier than would have been necessary for his army to reach Manassas in time to impact the battle.

Sources:
The Memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby
Narrative of Military Operations
The Early Morning of War
Joseph E. Johnston: A Civil War Biography
O. R.

See also https://civilwartalk.com/threads/june-7-1861-lee-warns-johnston-to-hold-harpers-ferry-the-union-advance.24550/
 
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Stone in the wall

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I don't see it as a blunder. Before becoming Harpers Ferry it was called simply 'The Hole"and it can become a trap with no way out. Before Johnson took command Jackson wanted to fortify Maryland Heights, he was stopped by Richmond. If the river isn't high Patterson could also cross troops at Shepherdstown. Patterson coming from the west, McDowell gets guns on Maryland Heights it's pretty much all over. Lee also should have known this as he was there at lest once (John Brown).
 

Andy Cardinal

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I don't see it as a blunder. Before becoming Harpers Ferry it was called simply 'The Hole"and it can become a trap with no way out. Before Johnson took command Jackson wanted to fortify Maryland Heights, he was stopped by Richmond. If the river isn't high Patterson could also cross troops at Shepherdstown. Patterson coming from the west, McDowell gets guns on Maryland Heights it's pretty much all over. Lee also should have known this as he was there at lest once (John Brown).
I agree... Plus, if Johnston had held Harper's Ferry indefinitely, he would not have been in a position to move to Manassas in time for the battle. I think Mosby's comment was part of postwar argumentation to downgrade Johnston's generalship.

Not only would Johnston's position be threatened from the west, the Northern army could also have advanced to Leesburg, which would have put the Harper's Ferry position at risk as well. This was a move being contemplated by Scott, Patterson and Charles Stone (commanding forces at Poolsville, Md) in early June) "Shanks" Evans was sent to Leesburg to defend the area and the threat never got off the ground. Stone took his brigade and joined Patterson's force instead.
 
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Stone in the wall

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I agree... Plus, if Johnston had held Harper's Ferry indefinitely, he would not have been in a position to move to Manassas in time for the battle. I think Mosby's comment was part of postwar argumentation to downgrade Johnston's generalship.

Not only would Johnston's position be threatened from the west, the Northern army could also have advanced to Leesburg, which would have put the Harper's Ferry position at risk as well. This was a move being contemplated by Scott, Patterson and Charles Stone (commanding forces at Poolsville, Md) in early June) "Shanks" Evans was sent to Leesburg to defend the area and the threat never got off the ground. Stone took his brigade and joined Patterson's force instead.
Good point, I hadn't even thought about troops coming from Leesburg or even Point of Rocks and taking Loudon Heights. Johnson also stands a way better chance by fighting at Winchester or some point between there and HF.
 

jackt62

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I too, do not see the evacuation of Harpers Ferry by Johnston as a blunder. Holding that place was untenable as was evidenced by the Union's failure to hold it in September 1862. As has been noted already, Johnston was well positioned to transfer his force to Manassas by rail in time to essentially turn the tide of battle. If there was a critical blunder, it was that of Union General Robert Patterson, whose instructions were to hold Johnston's force in place and prevent him from reinforcing Beauregard at Manassas. Patterson's inability to do so was the critical action that gained victory for the Confederacy.
 
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