- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

"The capture of Washington seems now to be inevitable. The rout, overthrow, and utter demoralization of the whole army is complete. I doubt whether any serious opposition to the entrance of the Confederate forces could be offered," Edwin M. Stanton wrote five days after the Union defeat at the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861.
Frederick Law Olmstead found the returning Union Army "a most woe-begone rabble." London Times correspondent William Howard Russell echoed this judgment, adding: "Why Beauregard does not come, I know not, nor can I well imagine. I have been expecting every hour to hear his cannon. Here is a golden opportunity."
Why Confederate Gen. Pierre Beauregard did not, in fact, ever come and capture Washington in the summer of 1861 remains one of the more intriguing questions in Civil War historiography. The Union defeat took President Lincoln and the government totally by surprise, and they had no evacuation plan. A swift Confederate thrust into Washington well might have bagged Lincoln and most of his Cabinet, thus effectively eliminating further opposition to Southern secession.
The details of the Battle of First Manassas are familiar to Civil War enthusiasts. Union Gen. Irvin McDowell, with about 32,000 men, advanced into Virginia to discover Beauregard with about 25,000 men waiting for him on the south bank of Bull Run in Manassas. Beauregard, warned of McDowell's approach by the famous Confederate spy Rose Greenhow, planned to attack across the river on his right, turning McDowell's left flank. McDowell, however, struck first with a wide movement on the opposite flank, driving the Confederates left and center back in disarray.
Gen. Thomas J. Jackson earned his nickname of "Stonewall" and became a legend by holding the line and rallying the retreating Southern units. By midafternoon, both sides were pretty well played out, but the arrival of the last of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley turned the tide as Gen. Jubal Early's brigade drove the Union right flank back in disorder.
Falling back, the Union Army lost all cohesion. The retreat became a rout. Officers and troops alike fled, mixing with the civilians who had come out from Washington to picnic and watch the battle. Casualties on both sides were moderate compared to many later battles, but the Confederates achieved a more total victory than they were ever to manage again in four long years of struggle.
After a few hours, the Union Army no longer existed as an effective fighting force. It was, indeed, a golden opportunity for the South.
Why was there no Confederate pursuit of the beaten Union forces? Jackson is supposed to have said, "Give me ten thousand men and I will take Washington tomorrow."
Confederate President Jefferson Davis conferred with Beauregard and Johnston on the battlefield and asked their plans for the pursuit, which he clearly expected. However, there was conflicting information about just how badly beaten and disorganized the Union Army was. Some reports had the Yankees counterattacking. Beauregard and Johnston felt a pause was necessary to reorganize and rest the men.
The next day, it rained hard, making movement on the dirt roads difficult and discouraging any immediate advance. Davis returned to Richmond, and Beauregard began at once to complain loudly of inadequate supplies and support. His complaints had merit, but they were leaked to the press, which infuriated Davis and sparked a long feud between the two men. Johnston stayed clear of the quarrel and maintained correct if not cordial relations with Beauregard.
Not until early August did the army advance its main force from Manassas to Fairfax, establishing its picket lines on Munson Hill in the Arlington Heights (halfway between present-day Baileys Crossroads and Seven Corners). Confederate scouts actually reached the Potomac, north and east of Georgetown.
A good share of the Union Army encampments were still on the Virginia side of the river, and the Union soldiers hastily began fortifying their positions. Alexandria remained in Union hands, and redoubts and blockhouses had been built guarding the Virginia approaches to the Long Bridge (on the site of the present 14th Street Bridge) and the Aqueduct Bridge (where Key Bridge stands).
Beauregard hoped to lure the Union Army, now under Gen. George B. McClellan, into attacking him, but Johnston was nervous, feeling the Confederate position dangerously exposed. Neither army made a move, and the lull stretched on through August and September.
Beauregard worked on convincing Johnston of the need to move to the offensive, and in September, Johnston wrote Richmond asking that Davis visit his headquarters. Davis came and brought with him Gen. G.W. Smith, an old friend and protege of Johnston's who was serving as an adviser to Davis.
The fateful meeting took place Oct. 1 in the Fairfax County Courthouse (the building still stands), with Beauregard, Johnston, Davis and Smith present. According to the only "official" account of the meeting, written by Smith, there was general agreement that the army should "assume the active offensive" but disagreement about the requirements for so doing. At that moment, the army had about 40,000 men, but the two generals wanted another 20,000 trained, equipped soldiers to move into Maryland and then on Washington.
Johnston suggested that Davis shift troops from the Carolinas or elsewhere, arguing: "Success here saves everything; defeat here loses all." Davis liked the idea of an offensive but said reinforcements simply were not possible that the whole of the Confederacy was crying for protection and even if new recruits were available, the necessary arms and equipment were not.
Could not the army, Davis asked, launch a more limited "raid" into the North to harass and distract the Union? Johnston rejected this as militarily unsound, and the meeting ended with no clear plan. By mid-October, the army gave up its tenuous foothold on the Potomac, shifted its base back to Centreville and Union Mills and prepared to go into winter quarters.
What makes this meeting and the decision reached there of historical interest is that almost at once, all those involved realized they had made a mistake and started blaming one another for the outcome. The dispute continued for decades after the war. Davis said he had ordered a pursuit on July 21 on which the generals had failed to act, but both generals denied receiving such an order.
As to the Fairfax meeting, Davis argued that the generals had made impossible demands for reinforcements and supplies before undertaking any new action. On their side, Johnston and Beauregard agreed that Davis had been unwilling to run the political risk of stripping troops from the Carolinas to gain a great military advantage in Maryland, so they blamed him.
One has the feeling that Beauregard well might have been willing to take up Davis' suggestion for a "raid" into the North even without substantial reinforcements but that Johnston was firmly opposed. (Roughly a year later, Gen. Robert E. Lee, with Davis' blessing and an army not much larger than Beauregard's, did undertake such a move in the Antietam campaign.)
As 1861 wore on, Beauregard managed a transfer to the West, while Johnston continued in command in Virginia until he was wounded the next spring at the Battle of Fair Oaks near Richmond and was replaced by Lee.
Could the Confederacy have captured Washington after the Battle of First Manassas? The evidence of all the eyewitnesses in the capital at the time suggest that anytime through the first week in August the answer would have been yes.
Napoleon wrote that a general could make up for everything except lost time, and so it was for the South after First Manassas. The moment slipped away quickly.
McClellan arrived and worked 15-hour days getting the disorganized troops back into shape. Many of the units that had fought at Manassas were made up of "90-day" men, and they went home. By September, reinforcements arrived, and the new units were "three-year" men who became the core of what was called the Army of the Potomac.
McClellan was a superb organizer, and even by the time of the Fairfax Courthouse conference, the Confederates would have had a fight on their hands had they attacked Washington. Later events also showed, however, that McClellan had less talent in leading his army in a real battle than in training it, and he very well might have lost a battle with Beauregard.
If Lincoln, most of his Cabinet and the leading "radical" Republicans in Congress had been taken prisoner by the Confederates, it is hard to imagine the North forming any new government that would have continued the war. Even had Lincoln escaped capture, the loss of the capital would have been a mighty blow to Union prestige in Europe, where most of the leading politicians already favored granting legal recognition to the new Confederacy.
Could Lincoln have persuaded himself and the country to face hostilities with the European powers while the nation also was fighting for its life at home? This remains one of the great "what ifs" of Civil War history.

Warren C. Robinson is a retired academic and a Washington-based writer.

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