Color Confusion on the Battlefield

When the Civil War opened in the spring of 1861, so many men volunteered for military service, the war departments of both armies were soon overwhelmed. They experienced shortages of everything needed for their new troops, from knapsacks to guns to socks. Lifting some of this strain on supply for both armies was the fact that a considerable number of the troops that would make up the early armies were militiamen from the various states. These men were already uniformed and supplied for fighting. However, each militia unit had its own type of uniform, including its own unique colors. When all these colors mixed on the early battlefields it sometimes caused confusion.

During the Battle of Bull Run, one of the largest of the early battles, a pair of Union cannon batteries was firing at the Confederate line when a regiment of blue-uniformed soldiers appeared just 70 yards (65 meters) away from the Union artillery units. When the Union artillerymen realized these were not their comrades, but rather Confederate soldiers, it was too late. The Confederates fired at the Union artillery, killing them and silencing their guns. From that point on, the Northern attack wavered and fell into confusion.

The flags carried by various units could also be a problem, due to their similarities. Historian James McPherson notes the problem: "With 11 stars on a blue field set in the corner of a flag with two red and one white horizontal bars, the Confederate 'stars and bars' could be mistaken for the stars and stripes in the smoke and haze of battle." It was because of these similarities that General Beauregard, who commanded Southern troops during the Battle of Bull Run, designed a different flag. Beauregard placed 11 stars for the 11 Confederate states on the blue "X" of St. Andrew's Cross, set against a red field background. This flag would become the famous Confederate flag during the remainder of the war.

Run Stream a couple of miles upriver from the bridge, unseen by the enemy—almost.

Commanding Southern boys assigned to the railroad bridge was a South Carolinian colonel, Nathan "Shanks" Evans. (He earned his nickname from his skinny legs.) Evans was a hard-edged soldier who felt that McDowell's fake move toward the bridge was not the one to watch. Instead, he noticed dust rising above the trees along the route of the column along his left. Rather than wait, he ordered his forces forward. They managed to meet the Yankees out in open fields and delay the Federal attack long enough for two additional Confederate brigades to reach the fight. All along the ground north of the turnpike, a two-hour fight raged between 4,500 Southern troops and 10,000 Union men. Despite how inexperienced the troops on both sides were, they stood their ground well and fought as if they had done so before.

One problem for both sides was the inexperience of their officers, who missed opportunities on the battlefield and sometimes poorly coordinated their portion of the battle. Coordination was a constant problem between the units fighting on the same side. Some of the officers who were engaged in the fighting would one day become famous. On the Union side, such leaders as Oliver O. Howard, Ambrose E. Burnside, and William Tecumseh Sherman were on hand. The Confederate officers included not only Beauregard and Joe Johnston, but also the most flamboyant cavalry leader of the South, James E.B. "Jeb" Stuart. Historian James McPherson describes Stuart as "the dashing, romantic, bearded, plumed, and deadly efficient colonel." Then, there was Thomas J. Jackson, the oddball math instructor from the Virginia Military Institute. Jackson came to Bull Run commanding a Virginian brigade from the Shenandoah Valley, where Jackson would fight Yankees over and over again for the next two years.

As the two armies fought hard, the larger number of Yankee men was having an impact on the battle. Outnumbered Rebels were pushed across the turnpike and back to the sloping ground of Henry House Hill. (The rise was named for a local invalid widow named Judith Henry, who before the battle had refused to leave her home. She was later killed when an artillery shell hit her house.) Some Southern units simply gave up and fled to the Confederate rear in a panic. On neighboring hilltops, Northern supporters had come out of Washington to witness the great battle, which many thought would determine the outcome of the war that very day. Spectators had come out in wagons, in surreys, and on horseback. They included members of Congress and their families, carrying picnic lunches to enjoy during the battle and make a day of their Sunday outing. They were 2 miles (3 km) from the battle, so from their lookout point they actually saw little but smoke rising from the distant field. Had they been closer, they might have seen that General McDowell was about to pull off a stunning victory against Beauregard's Confederate Army.

Expectations of a Rebel defeat at Bull Run would soon be disproved. During the fighting, generals Johnston and Beaure-gard had sent reinforcements to strengthen the Confederate left flank and had even taken up positions at the front to direct the battle up close and personal. The temperatures rose to sweltering heights that day while the battle raged, with both sides launching attacks and counterattacks across Henry House Hill.

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