Following the election of Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln on November 6, 1860, the United States quickly began to unravel. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first Southern state to ratify an ordinance of secession. By February 8, 1861, seven states had followed suit, and six of them had banded together to form the Provisional Confederate Government. Three weeks later, the newly formed government established the Provisional Confederate Army, a volunteer force controlled by President Jefferson Davis. Although the Provisional Government later established a more permanent Confederate army, it never flourished, and the term “Confederate Army” became synonymous with the volunteer army.
As the Union dissolved, the seceding state governments began seizing federal property within their borders, including forts and arsenals. Following Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, he resolved to bring a halt to the illegal occupation of federal facilities. Events reached a climax in early April when South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens demanded the evacuation of four federal strongholds in Charleston Harbor. When the Lincoln administration refused, Confederate forces began shelling the federal garrison at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. The Battle of Fort Sumter plunged the United States into civil war.
Three days after the fall of Fort Sumter, President Lincoln issued a proclamation calling for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the Southern rebellion. Lincoln’s appeal prompted four states from the upper South, including Virginia, to leave the Union. Unwilling to let the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry fall into the hands of the Virginia militia, Lieutenant Roger Jones attempted to burn the facility on April 18, 1861 and then marched his command to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Later that day, Major General Kenton Harper marched nearly 2,000 Virginia militiamen into town. Aided by local citizens, Harper’s men extinguished the flames, preventing much damage to the facility.
On April 22, 1861, Virginia Governor John Letcher appointed Robert E. Lee as commander of all the state’s military and naval forces. Five days later, on April 27, Lee ordered Colonel Thomas J. Jackson to “proceed, without delay, to Harpers Ferry, Va., in execution of the orders of the governor of the State, and assume command of that post.” Upon his arrival, Jackson followed Lee’s instructions to organize the troops under his command “into regiments or battalions, uniting, as far as possible, companies from the same section of the State.”
Army of the Shenandoah
When Virginia’s forces joined the Provisional Confederate Army, the War Department assigned Brigadier-General Joseph E. Johnston to take charge of the troops near Harpers Ferry on May 15, 1861. Johnston arrived at Harpers Ferry and replaced Jackson on May 24. By June 1861, Johnston and other Confederate officials began referring to the troops under Johnston’s command as the Army of the Shenandoah, which by then numbered nearly 10,000 soldiers divided into four brigades and a cavalry unit.
Harpers Ferry Abandoned
At the time of Johnston’s arrival, Harpers Ferry faced potential threats from Union forces on two fronts. Major General George B. McClellan and the Army of the Ohio were moving toward the facility from the northwest, and Major General Robert Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah (USA) was threatening from the northeast. Johnston quickly concluded that his position was untenable and soon began lobbying authorities in Richmond to allow him to abandon Harpers Ferry and to move thirty miles southwest at Winchester, Virginia. Initially, Johnston’s superiors balked, but as Patterson’s army of 17,000 Pennsylvanians advanced on Harpers Ferry, they gave Johnston authority to use his own discretion regarding the situation. Johnston wasted no time in ordering the destruction of the armory and munitions works at Harpers Ferry on June 14, 1861, and then marching the Army of the Shenandoah to Winchester.
Battle of Hoke’s Run
On July 2, 1861, Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade encountered the lead elements of Patterson’s army, after the Northern units crossed the Potomac River at Williamsport and advanced toward Martinsburg, located approximately twenty miles northeast of Winchester. Jackson’s success at the Battle of Hoke’s Run briefly delayed Patterson’s advance. When the bulk of Patterson’s army came forward the next day, the Rebels withdrew. Patterson occupied Martinsburg on July 3. He then spent the next twelve days trying to interpret confusing orders from Washington regarding his next moves.
First Battle of Bull Run
Patterson’s orders were to engage the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah, at Winchester, and prevent Johnston from sending reinforcements to Manassas, where Major General Irvin McDowell was preparing for a major offensive against Brigadier-General P. G. T. Beauregard and the Confederate Army of the Potomac. By the time that Patterson advanced nearly halfway to Winchester on July 15, 1861, the ninety-day term of service of most of his command was about to end. Unsure if his men would stay to fight the Rebels after their enlistment expired, Patterson withdrew after a half-hearted demonstration in front of Winchester on July 16. Patterson’s failure to engage Johnston enabled the Confederate general to send reinforcements to Beauregard.
On July 18, 1861, advance elements of the Army of the Shenandoah left Winchester, on a forced march to Piedmont Station, the nearest point on the Manassas Gap Railroad. Led by Brigadier-General Thomas J. Jackson, the Rebel soldiers began boarding railroad cars to travel to Manassas Gap, approximately thirty miles away. Eight hours later, the first reinforcements from Johnston’s army arrived at Manassas. For the next two days, the lone engine on the Manassas Gap line shuttled between Piedmont Station and Manassas delivering soldiers from the Army of the Shenandoah, nearly doubling the size of the Confederate force that McDowell was about to confront.
When Johnston arrived at Manassas, on July 20, 1861, Beauregard had already developed a battle plan for defeating McDowell’s forces. Although Johnston was senior in rank to Beauregard, he deferred command of the forces in the field and approved Beauregard’s plans.
Both sides planned an offensive to begin on the morning of July 21, 1861, but McDowell struck first to begin the First Battle of Bull Run. Union soldiers crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford and attacked the Confederate left flank on Matthews Hill. Enjoying a huge numerical advantage, the Federals drove the Confederates back to Henry Hill. There, the stubborn Rebels held out long enough for reinforcements from the Army of the Shenandoah to arrive. As the day wore on, the Union advance stalled.
By late afternoon, the Confederates mounted a counterattack, driving the Union soldiers from the battlefield. As the Federal retreat disintegrated into a rout, McDowell’s troops, along with civilians who had turned out to witness the battle, scurried back to Washington. The spent and disorganized Rebel troops were too weary to pursue the fleeing Northerners.
The Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run left Johnston in command of the Army of the Shenandoah and the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Shenandoah ceased to exist as a separate entity when Confederate officials merged it with Beauregard’s army. Beauregard remained the de facto second in command, in charge of the 1st (and only) Corps of the Army of the Potomac at that time. On September 25, 1861, Johnston issued General Orders, No. 31 (AOP/CSA), reorganizing the troops that formerly made up the Army of the Shenandoah as the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Major General Gustavus W. Smith. In 1862, the soldiers of both corps morphed into the Army of Northern Virginia.