Bull Run Discovered
Modem detective work uncovers the spot where some 1862 images were made.
By 1860 George N. Barnard had a reputation as a talented and respected photographer. The outbreak of the Civil War found Barnard employed by Mathew Brady in his well-known Washington, DC, portrait studio. Brady’s numerous photographers received the task of filling the seemingly insatiable public demand for images of the war. An opportunity not to be missed by Brady came in March 1862 with the withdrawal of Confederate forces in and around Manassas Junction. By choice or assignment, Barnard found himself and fellow photographer James F. Gibson on the battlefield shortly after Union forces occupied the area. It is not known how long he remained in the area or how many photos he took. What is known is that at least ten photographs, mostly stereographs of landmarks such as Sudley Church, Stone House, the ruins of Henry House, and the Stone Bridge, of the battlefield have been credited to Barnard.
Arguably two of the most important of these photographs are of the epicenter of the battlefield, Henry Hill correctly identified for the first time here. One photograph captures Henry Hill looking westward from the James Robinson farm, across the fields of the Robinson and Henry farms towards the ruins of Henry House. The second photograph captures the Southern portion of Henry Hill, looking southwest from an area near the present day visitor center. The Confederate graves present in the left center portion of the photograph correspond with the present day copse of oak trees located just east of the visitors center parking lot.
Evidence supporting this first photograph’s interpretation is as plentiful as it is convincing. The single most important element is a dark feature on the horizon near the right of the image. Close examination reveals it to be the ruins of Judith Henry’s house. The chimney ruins, the tree behind, and the stack of wood planks to the right of it are all present in Barnard’s more famous and well-documented close-up of the Henry House ruins (above).
With the Henry House ruins identified, the question remaining was from what direction did Barnard take the image. This question can be answered by analyzing shadows. Shadows in the photograph suggest that the sun was behind or over Barnard’s left shoulder at the time the image was made. Based on the path of the sun in the March sky, the photograph could only have been taken facing east, north, or west, or some point between. The large shadow in the foreground also suggests the presence of a structure near the camera. Barnard may have even mounted his camera on a low roof to gain a better view. Potential structures neighboring the Henry farm to include structures associated with the Robinson, Conrad, Van Pelt, Lewis, and Chinn farms were evaluated. Excessive distance, interfering treelines or elevations and/or lack of landmarks (i.e., roads, streams, etc.) ultimately ruled out all locations with one exception – the James Robinson farm.
This conclusion is further supported by topography, vegatation, and fence lines. A ravine separated the Henry and Robinson farms and this feature is clearly evident across the center of the image.
Captain John Imboden’s Staunton Artillery took advantage of this depression to cover their withdrawal from the first position north of the Henry House on July 21. As Imboden subsequently reported, “By a very rapid movement up the ravine, we avoided the shells of three batteries that were now directed at us, sufficient to escape with three guns and all the caissons.” Vestiges of the oak grove, seen at the left of the 1862 image, remain on Henry Hill today.
The orchard and fencelines present in the right center of the photograph were mapped by Captain David B. Harris, General P.G.T. Beauregard’s topographical engineer, shortly after the battle. The historic fenceline is today marked by a row of trees. Similiarly the Robinson orchard is well documented by soldiers of Hampton’s Legion as well as newspaper accounts as being located between the Robinson and Henry farms.
After establishing the location where this photograph was taken, its true importance becomes evident. It was on the fields of the Henry farm that T.J. Jackson stood like a stone wall and the Battle of First Manassas was ultimately decided. The 4th Virginia Infantry, of Jackson’s Brigade, charged from the trees present near the upper left side of this photo and proceeded across the fields to Henry House yard.
An officer of the 2nd Mississippi recalled fighting a desperate delaying action in the orchard shown in the right central part of this photograph: “My men continued to advance and halt and fire as they retreated through the orchard down the hill…. The advance of the enemy was retarded and our escape secured by the firing of a portion of my men, which was kept up longer perhaps than was prudent or consistent with their safety.”
Unlike the first photograph, the second photograph offers no distinguishing features to aid in its identification. It was generally assumed that the graves located around the edge of the water hole were of Confederate soldiers. Beyond that, there is little that can be derived from the photograph. It was only as a result of a fortuitous discovery of a small notation on a Civil War era map that we are now able to accurately identify the location of where this photograph was taken.
Lieutenant Charles K. Dean, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry adjutant, visited the battlefield a month after Barnard took his photographs. There he drew a map detailing his regiment’s positions during the battle, as well as battlefield landmarks such as fences, roads, and Confederate positions. Dean recorded a small circular feature south and east of Judith Henry’s house, near the location of the present day visitor center. This feature was descried by Dean as a “small water hole surrounded by rebel graves.” Noting the obvious similarities between the water hole on dean’s map and Barnard’s photograph a comparision of the topography shown and around the visitor center was made. The seemingly nondescript topography in Barnard’s image proved to match that of the southern part of Henry Hill. The location of the water hole and Confederate graves were in an area presently occupied by a copse of oak trees located just east of the visitor center parking lot.
This interpretation is further supported by another photograph taken shortly after Barnard’s from approximately the same location of Barnard’s photograph, only facing in more of a south southeast direction. The topography in this later photograph is present yet today. As well the dating of the trees removed from the copse of oak trees suggest the current oak trees were saplings at the time of the battle, which is consistent with trees shown in Barnard’s photo. Also, to this day during significant rain storms water pools in the area around the copse of oak trees. Finally, the original negative numbers for Barnard’s Henry House ruins photograph, the graves photograph, an a panoramic view of the battlefield were 320. 321, and 322 respectively. This order suggests that Barnard was on Henry Hill when he took the Confederate graves photograph.
In the fighting, the 1st Minnesota Infantry formed in battle line from left to right across the background of the second photo.
The true importance of these photographs becomes apparent only after identifying the location from which they were taken. The fields shown in the background of both photos were actually the scenes of severe back-and-forth fighting throughout the afternoon of July 21.
Copyright Military Images Mar/Apr 2004
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