The Marine detachment at Bull Run
Although most United Stated Marines operated with the fleet during the Civil War, one group saw action with the army at the Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861. Major John G. Reynolds was ordered to take four companies from the Marine Barracks in Washington for temporary field service under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell.
These companies were almost all new recruits. The Corps had rapidly expanded with the outbreak of the war, and most veteran Marines were with the fleet or at shore installations. Half the Corps’ company officers had resigned to head south with their seceding states, so most of Reynolds’ officers had been commissioned less than 60 days.
Reynolds’ battalion consisted of 12 officers, 17 noncommissioned officers, 320 privates, and four musicians. Reynolds’ second in command, Major Jacob Zeilin, had 35 years of service, but only three other officers, nine noncoms, and two of the musicians were veterans. All of the privates had been Marines for less than a month, and Reynolds reported that they had barely learned facing movements. They may have been the least experienced troops on the field at Bull Run.
The Marines advanced across Bull Run with Colonel Andrew Porter’s Brigade, covering Griffin’s Artillery Battery. The assignment to cover the artillery had probably been given to keep the raw troops out of the front lines. but at the height of the battle the 33rd Virginia Infantry advanced on their flank. Still wearing pre-war blue uniforms, the 33rd Virginia was able to advance unmolested against the Union units until they opened fire just 70 yards away.
After a short time, the Union infantry broke for the rear, the Marines included, and the Union batteries were overrun. The Marines rallied twice and tried to retake the batteries, but after Major Zeilin and Lieutenant Hale were wounded and Lieutenant Hitchcock was decapitated by a cannonball, they finally broke for a third time and joined the general rout of the army. Part of the battalion again rallied for three quarters of an hour at the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike and the Sudley/New Market Road, helping to cover the retreat of the army.
Although the Marine Commandant would report that it was the first recorded instance of the United States Marines turning their backs on an enemy, there were no repercussions. Major Reynolds was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and Major Zeilin would recover from his wound to eventually become the seventh Commandant of the Corps and the first Marine to hold the rank of Brigadier General. The casualties taken by Reynolds’ battalion (9 killed, 19 wounded, and 6 missing) were comparable to those of the volunteer units around them, and nearly equal to those of the battalion of U.S. Regulars, the most experienced troops on the field.
After Bull Run, tens of thousands of volunteers filled the ranks of the Army, and the Navy’s mission of blockading the huge coastline of the Confederacy offered plenty of employment for the Marines. Bull Run was to be first and only major land battle for the Corps in the Civil War.