First Bull Run Union Division and Confederate Brigade Commanders

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023-2024, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2023 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

As Ed Bearss recounts it in his book Fields of Honor, “McDowell was under political pressure to do something dramatic…enlistments of the Union Army’s 90-day volunteers were about to run out. When he complained to the President that his men were ill prepared to assume the offensive at this point, Lincoln famously replied, ‘You are green it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike.'” And so it was that the First Battle of Bull Run would ensue shortly thereafter.

But if the soldiers were green, it necessarily implies that their commanders were also green and it is worthwhile to explore how they fared. A lot has been written about First Bull Run army commanders Irvin McDowell, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Joseph Johnston throughout the war, so instead this history brief is a brief look at the lesser-known Union division commanders and the Confederate brigade commanders engaged in the battle, not so much to analyze the things that they did or did not do due to their greenness, but rather more so what they did after Bull Run. This history brief highlights one of the Confederate commanders and two Union commanders.

Nathan Evans

Confederate Nathan George Evans was from South Carolina and graduated from West Point in 1848 (35th in a class of 38 that included John Buford). While there, he was nicknamed “Shanks” due to his spindly and skinny legs. In 1861, he was commissioned a colonel and commanded a brigade on the far left of the Confederate line at Bull Run. His quick response to the various Union thrusts helped hold the rebel line just long enough on Matthews Hill. After Bull Run, he was in command of the rebel defense nearby along the Potomac River and was credited with holding back a Union attempt to cross at Ball’s Bluff. He received formal thanks from the Confederate Congress and a Gold Medal from South Carolina. As time passed, his brigade became known as the “Tramp Brigade” since it was assigned to so many different commands and in numerous battles including Second Bull Run, South Mountain, Antietam, and, out west, Vicksburg.

Unfortunately, he developed a reputation for crudeness, profanity, and especially drinking. S.C. Gwynne, in his book Rebel Yell, notes that “a Prussian orderly followed Evans about, carrying a gallon jug of whiskey Evans called his ‘Barrelita.'” At Ball’s Bluff, Evans garnered a comment by one of General Longstreet’s staff that, “General Evans is one of the bravest men I ever saw, and no doubt a good officer when sober.” As the war progressed, Evans’ drinking put him into the Confederate war department “doghouse.” While once again under the command of Beauregard in North Carolina, Evans refused to attack. He was court-martialed for intoxication but was acquitted. However, Beauregard was relentless in his condemnation of Evans’ behavior and placed him under arrest. When Evans was released, Beauregard asked that Evans be sent to another theater. Confederate Army Adjutant and Inspector General Samuel Cooper corresponded with President Jefferson Davis to bring Evans in front of an examining board to determine fitness for duty. Washed up, Evans’ career was over. After the war, Evans became a high school principal in Alabama.

Ed Bearss, once again from his book Fields of Honor, described the prominent roles that were assigned to two of the Union commanders. According to Bearss, “The Union plan is that Daniel Tyler is going to lead the march out of the Centreville encampment, move down the Warrenton Turnpike, and demonstrate against the bridge to keep the Confederates thinking that this is where the attack will come. Then the turning column, the division commanded by David Hunter in the lead, …will march along circuitous roads passing to the north, and cross Bull Run at Sudley Ford beyond Sudley Church, positioning them to carry out their mission and turn the Confederate left.” These two Union division commanders are the focus of the remainder of this history brief.

Daniel Tyler

Daniel P. Tyler was born in Brooklyn, Connecticut and graduated from West Point in 1819 (14th in a class of 29). At the start of the Civil War, Tyler volunteered and eventually was appointed to command a division in McDowell’s army. Tyler managed to be partly blamed for the Union loss at Bull Run for not including Sherman’s brigade in a crucial assault. He was sent to the Western Theater where he commanded a brigade during the Siege of Corinth in 1862. Later he commanded garrisons at Harpers Ferry, Baltimore, and Delaware. He resigned from the army in April of 1864. After the war Tyler moved to Alabama, established an iron manufacturing company, and became president of the Mobile and Montgomery Railroad. Most uniquely, one of Tyler’s granddaughters, better known as Edith Carow Roosevelt, was the wife of our 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt.

David Hunter

A real “man of action” and true abolitionist was David “Black Dave” Hunter, whose division headed the Union turning movement. Hunter was a grandson of Richard Stockton, who was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Hunter graduated from West Point in 1822 (25th in a class of 40). In 1860, he was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, from where he exchanged letters with none other than Abraham Lincoln regarding Hunter’s anti-slavery views. This led to friendship, with Hunter being invited to ride on Lincoln’s inaugural train from Springfield, Illinois to Washington. It is said that Hunter was injured in Buffalo on the way to Washington while being pressed by a thronging crowd eagerly craning their necks for a closer look at the president-elect. This political connection next led to Hunter being appointed brigadier general heading a division at Bull Run, where he was wounded in the neck leading the attack on Matthews Hill. Thereafter, he went west with General John C. Frémont and became involved with the controversy surrounding Frémont’s attempts to emancipate slaves. Next, Hunter returned east, where he presided over the court-martial of General Fitz John Porter and participated on committees investigating the loss of Harpers Ferry.

After the battle of Fort Pulaski and through 1862 and 1863, Hunter embarked upon a personal mission to enlist black soldiers from occupied areas of South Carolina. He formed a regiment, which he was ordered to disband, but which he kept after all with approval from Congress. He further created controversy by issuing an order to emancipate slaves in several southern states. These were rescinded, but they became sufficiently widely known for Confederate President Davis to issue a direct order to his armies that Hunter was to be considered a “felon to be executed if captured.” In 1863, Hunter fired back in a letter sent to Davis attacking him for abuse and brutal mistreatment of captured U.S. soldiers of color.

In the Valley Campaign, Hunter succeeded Franz Sigel in command of the Army of the Shenandoah. As Stephen Sears recounts in his book Lincoln’s Lieutenants, General Ulysses Grant directed Hunter to make his way to Lynchburg “living on the country,” which Sears says Hunter interpreted to mean “pillaging and burning…and in Lexington putting the torch to VMI,” with Hunter’s chief of staff noting that “soldiers were plundering dreadfully” up and down the valley. Such activity along with other aggressiveness led him to relinquish command under pressure. His Civil War chapter ended gracefully and solemnly however – he served in the honor guard at Lincoln’s funeral and was president of the military commission that tried assassination conspirators.

These three commanders, Nathan Evans, Daniel Tyler, and David Hunter, are among the people who are, in their greenness or otherwise, the subjects of the Roundtable’s 2023 field trip to Manassas, Virginia, expertly planned by Roundtable President Bob Pence.

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