It is way far past hot. My kitchen window thermometer, in the shade, reads 97. The ”heat index” is 110. Out of curiosity, I checked Weather.com for the Manassas National Battlefield Park and it’s 99 there today – real temp, not heat indexed.
There was no weather.com 150 years ago, but you can bet that Patrick Farrelly – my great-grandfather – felt the heat. The 35,000 Union forces under McDowell had been marching for three days moving toward Manassas. They lumbered over unfamiliar land, making wrong turns at times, stopping too often. The force was largely made up of fresh volunteers, gung-ho for their first battle, but undisciplined and untried. It was amplified by a smaller band of US Regulars under the command of George Sykes, which included Patrick’s company, 2nd infantry, Co. C. They’d been called to Washington by President Lincoln in the late spring of 1861 – the 2nd, Companies C and K were closest to the east, stationed at Fort Ripley, Minnesota, where things were relatively quiet. To get there, they traveled by boat down the Mississippi river to Cairo, IL, then up the Ohio river, eventually landing in Pittsburg and traveling the remaining 300+ miles on foot to Washington. Marching for days was nothing new to them.
Most of the non-commissioned US Regular Army in 1861 were immigrants – Irish, English and German. They’d joined for a variety of reasons, just as immigrant recruits do today. It was a steady job when jobs were hard to come by, it was a way to show you were a real American, and there was some hope of a faster track toward citizenship. They put up with a lot and they were proud of that. They spent endless hours drilling, polishing, drilling, polishing, drilling, drilling, drilling…
Now they were in Virginia, marching away from the Capitol and this was the real thing. Or promised to be. It would be a short battle, a short war, their generals had assured them. But first, the endless marching in the heat. What occupied Patrick’s mind mile after mile, his feet aching, his throat dry, moving ever closer to an event he couldn’t possibly imagine? Did he look at the fields and think about home – the rolling hills and drumlins of the Irish midlands? Did he ever just want to turn back or did the pre-battle adrenaline carry him?
Eventually the river of men turned off the Warrenton Turnpike and headed north for Sudley Road, moving slowly toward a small creek called Bull Run and the beginning of real war. They set up on either side of the road on Matthews Hill. They were late. They should have been at this point in the dark hours of pre-dawn on July 21, but it was already 10 am, and the sun was hot on their wool uniforms. Smarter soldiers rationed the water in their canteens despite their thirst. The goal was to turn the flank of the Beauregard’s Confederates who were holding the stone bridge below. They were about to meet men with rifles and similar worries from South Carolina and Louisiana.
A few years ago I stood on the fields of the National Battlefield Park at Manassas and looked out from the top of Matthews Hill, where Patrick first engaged in actual fire. After a shaky start, from this hill, the Union was not just pushing back, but routing the forces of Confederacy. The Army Regulars fired their rifles alongside volunteers from Massachuettes and Rhode Island and drove Evans’ men of South Carolina down the hill and across the creek. They thought they’d done it. This would be the end of a short war – and early victory was just a matter of pushing them further back and calling it a day. Glory was at hand.
But the tide changed. When timing was everything, sections of the massive Union army moved slowly and hesitantly. Across the road on Henry Hill, without adequate infantry to back up their artillery, the battle turned in the afternoon, creating destruction, confusion and chaos. Screaming men and screaming horses. The non-uniform battle dress of volunteers on both sides caused troops to fire on their own men. Eventually the southern onslaught caused the inexperienced Union volunteers to panic and run; Sykes Regulars, including Patrick and his fellow soldiers of Company C, were left to cover the retreat, forming square with the discipline born of army regimentation. They had some help from the volunteers of the 69th, the Irish Brigade, but in the end they were alone. This was not the hoped for glorious battle, not the way things were supposed to go. This was the beginning of the Civil War.