- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

When Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell’s Union forces attacked Confederates under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard near Manassas on July 21, 1861, the infantry on both sides was considered green and amateur. However, one small part of McDowell’s army was somewhat less green than the others: the battalion of U.S. Regular Army infantry.

This battalion of eight companies — two from the 2nd Infantry, five from the 3rd Infantry (the “Old Guard” of today’s U.S. Army) and one from the 8th Infantry — had been hastily pulled together at the same time that militia and other state volunteer troops were pouring into Washington in the weeks following the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Seven came from frontier duty, while the eighth took a more roundabout route.

As war loomed, Companies C and K of the 2nd Infantry were stationed at Fort Ripley, Minn., along the upper Mississippi River. Shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, the two companies were transferred to Fort Snelling near the new state capital at St. Paul. From there they moved by rail eastward and arrived in Pittsburgh by the end of May.

The 3rd Infantry was stationed in Texas in 1861, and when it became evident that that state would secede, Brig. Gen. David Twiggs, commander of the Department of Texas and a Southern sympathizer, promptly surrendered all the troops in his command under terms that would allow the U.S. forces simply to pack up and leave. The five companies of the 3rd that would fight at Bull Run — B, D, G, H, and K — left Texas in mid-April and sailed to Fort Hamilton, N.Y.

The final company of the battalion, Company G of the 8th Infantry, was, in fact “green.” By order of the War Department in July 1860, Company G had been broken up at Fort Davis, Texas, and its enlisted men distributed among the other companies of the regiment. This drastic action was taken in response to a disturbance in Company G originating in the murder of a Pvt. Pratt by a Texas citizen and a threat by the soldiers of Company G to lynch the killer and sack the town. The company was reorganized on May 1, 1861, at Fort Wood, N.Y., and consisted entirely of new recruits.

Command of the battalion fell to Maj. George Sykes, the leader of Company K of the 3rd Infantry, newly promoted to major and officially assigned to the newly organized 14th Infantry. Sykes, West Point class of 1842, had commanded his company since 1855. From command of this little battalion at Manassas, he would rise to the rank of major general and command a corps in the Army of the Potomac.

Although not nearly as raw as their counterparts in the state regiments, just slightly more than half the enlisted men in the Regular battalion had any appreciable experience. For example, of some 305 soldiers in the five companies of the 3rd Infantry, 134 had just joined the Army in the early months of 1861 and had received just a few weeks of training before joining the regiment in late April, and, of course, the privates of Company G of the 8th Infantry were all new recruits.

Still, the three regiments contained several dozen veterans, some of whose service dated to the war with Mexico, and these veterans provided a solid cadre for training and teaching the new recruits. What the new troops would learn from the veterans in those weeks would prove a vital advantage to the entire Army at Bull Run.

The Regulars had another advantage that few if any infantry on either side could claim: They were armed with the latest weaponry, the 1855 U.S. Rifle Musket. This weapon, manufactured at Springfield, Mass., and Harpers Ferry, was the first rifled musket produced for the Army and made specifically to fire the new .58 caliber Minie ball. It had an effective range of 400 yards — more than four times the range of the smoothbore muskets carried by the majority of the infantry that would fight along Bull Run, especially on the Confederate side.

Through the last weeks of June and the first days of July, the Lincoln administration, the War Department, the press and the public pressured McDowell to move against the Confederate forces in Virginia, whose advance positions were within 15 miles of Washington. Most of McDowell’s troops were members of 90-day militia units. They had responded to President Lincoln’s original call for volunteers after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and those 90-day terms were about to expire, leaving Lincoln with the prospect of having his Army simply go home without ever having fired a shot against the Rebels.

McDowell began to move, ever so slowly, in the first week of July — it was not until the afternoon of July 16 that the Regulars began the march from their camps in Arlington toward Fairfax Court House. Marching as the last unit in the column, the battalion encountered delay after delay, and it did not reach Fairfax until the next day. The soldiers remained there overnight and continued toward Centreville on July 18, camping about a mile east of that town around 7 p.m. They would remain there until 2 in the morning of July 21, when they formed up for the march to meet the Confederate army west of Bull Run.

At 9 on the morning of July 21, the Regulars — now assigned to Col. Andrew Porter’s Brigade in Brig. Gen. David Hunter’s Division — crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford, then turned south down Sudley Road (today’s Route 234). Within a few minutes, they came upon the lead brigade under Gen. Ambrose Burnside engaged in a hot fight, outnumbered and in danger of breaking, and calling for help. “Sykes’ eight companies of Regulars hurried down from Porter’s column and soon restored the balance,” Harper’s Weekly reported.

The Regulars pressed forward, taking full advantage of their superior firepower to push the Rebels off Mathews Hill and through a patch of woods to Buck Hill, about a quarter of a mile north of Young’s Branch and the Stone House. “The [Rebels] didn’t like the taste of our long range rifles,” Lt. Eugene Carter wrote of the initial engagement. When the Union troops emerged from the woods on Buck Hill, they were hit with heavy fire from Confederates near the Robinson House. It was there that the Regulars suffered most of their casualties of the battle, and it wasn’t long before Sykes withdrew the battalion to the relative shelter of the woods.

Now the fighting shifted to its climactic phase on Henry Hill. As the battle raged to their south, the Regulars moved to support a battery of Rhode Island artillery on Buck Hill. “For more than an hour the command was here exposed to a concentrated fire from the regiments of the enemy, which seemed doubled when the guns of the Rhode Islanders opened,” Sykes wrote. At the end of that hour, Sykes moved the Regulars off Buck Hill to a position on Chinn Ridge, southwest of the intersection of Sudley Road and the Warrenton Turnpike.

It wasn’t long before the Regulars found themselves in the middle of a panicked rout, as the troops who had been fighting on Henry Hill decided they had had enough and began to stream off the hill along Sudley Road. A Harper’s Weekly reporter described it as “not a retreat; it was a flight; a rout as complete as any battle-field ever saw.”

Here the Regular battalion performed that service for which it is most remembered on that day: holding open the road so that the broken regiments of volunteers could escape. “The only real opposition to the pursuit of the Confederates was made by Sykes … who marched to the right straight through the crowds of flying troops, vainly attempting to rally them, threw themselves in the way of the advancing enemy, whom they held in check until the broken regiments had gained a fair start,” said Harper’s Weekly. “They then slowly retired, always showing a firm front, and covering the escape of those who were fleeing toward Sudley’s and the fords below. They were the last to leave the field, and the only force opposed to the enemy in this quarter.”

In slightly less dramatic fashion, Sykes reported that he had taken a position “on the extreme right, in front of several regiments of the enemy. I opened an effective fire upon them, and held my ground until all of our troops had fallen back and my flank was turned by a large force of horse and foot. I then retired a short distance in good order, and facing the enemy on the crest of a hill, held his cavalry in check, which still threatened our flank.”

The Regular battalion maintained its order during the withdrawal, “resisting the attacks of the rebel cavalry and artillery, and saving our panic-stricken people from the inevitable destruction which awaited them had not this body been interposed,” Porter wrote in his report.

The Regulars made it back to their old camp outside Centreville at 8 p.m., about 18 hours after leaving it. Their stay would be brief — the march back toward Washington resumed within half an hour, and the Regulars kept going until they reached Arlington around 9 the morning of July 22. The campaign of First Bull Run finally was over. In the fight, the Regulars had lost 83 officers and men killed, wounded or missing.

Some weeks later, McDowell accompanied President Lincoln on a visit through the camps of the Army around Washington. As he passed along the ranks of the Regular infantry, McDowell is said to have remarked, “Mr. President, these are the men who saved your Army at Bull Run.” Pausing to look over this small force of professionals, Lincoln replied simply, “Yes, I have heard of them.”

Lincoln and the nation would hear more of the Regulars in the bloody years ahead as they fought and died in all the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac. Newspaper artist A.R. Waud, who often found himself near the Regulars in action, summed it up this way: “The regulars always [did] well, and seldom [got] any credit, not belonging to any crowd of voters.”

Darrell Cochran of Alexandria and Gregory Kostka of Rockville are members of the 3rd U.S. Regular Infantry Re-enactors.

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