Davis, Jackson and Bravado at First Manassas

Another great stop on our Saturday tour of the First Manassas battlefield was this stream crossing.

manassas 13 Aug 11 048

The park trail, following the farm road, crosses Holkums Branch just north of the Bell family cemetery.  While a bridge nearby allows modern visitors to cross without wet feet, I opted to ford here in the spirit of the sequicentennial.

Our guide, Henry P. “Hank” Elliott, noted this as among the least visited yet most significant sites on the First Manassas battlefield.  As the battle raged, General Joe Johnston forwarded troops towards Henry Hill.  Most of those troops crossed Hockums Branch at this point.

But what makes the site even more significant was an event occurring in the later stages of the day.  At some time in the afternoon, Dr. Hunter Holmes McGuire attended a wounded General Thomas J. Jackson.  Jackson of course was fresh off “standing like a stone wall” on Henry Hill, but was suffering from a glancing wound to the middle finger of his left hand.  Instead of heeding the first doctor who prescribed amputation, Jackson waited his turn with Dr. McGuire.

At the same time, President Jefferson Davis was making his way out to the battlefield.  Davis arrived via train earlier.  After meeting Johnston at Portici, Davis rode on the farm road towards Henry Hill.  Stopping at Holkums Branch, Davis said some words of encouragement and urged the troops back onto the field.

Jackson didn’t recognize Davis or understand what he had said. So McGuire informed Jackson.  According to McGuire, Jackson then stood up, saluted and said, “We have whipped them; they ran like dogs. Give me ten thousand men and I will take Washington city to-morrow.”  (Thanks Jenny)

So a moment of bravado at an otherwise ordinary creek crossing.  But that event feeds into so many interpretations of the war.

If you prefer the “Lost Cause” here, the line might be “if only Davis had given Jackson those men!”  Or perhaps “see the opportunity was lost by Johnston and Beauregard.”

Others, looking to hedge back against the legend of Stonewall, might point out how unrealistic Jackson’s suggestion really was.  There was a significant number of uncommitted troops on the other side of Bull Run that would certainly contest a Confederate advance.  And besides, where would Davis find 10,000 fresh troops?

Personally, I think Jackson was only expressing what any seasoned professional would in that case.  Jackson’s response is what a commander, or in this case a national leader, wants to hear when assessing a situation – an unflinching willingness to move if ordered.  As such it is more a measure of Jackson’s professionalism and respect for his superior than evidence of some missed battlefield opportunity.

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