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First Battle of Bull Run


The First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of First Manassas, was the first major land battle of the American Civil War. Fought on Sunday, July 21, 1861, Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell led around 35,000 troops against the principal Confederate army of approximately 20,000 men, which lay at and around Manassas Junction, some twenty-five miles from Washington, behind a meandering little river known as Bull Run. The Union attack on that scorching hot day achieved initial success against Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard’s forces, but the arrival of most of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army from the Shenandoah Valley helped to turn the tide in favor of the Confederacy. When the last Confederate brigade from the Shenandoah Valley detrained and spearheaded a counterattack, McDowell’s army was driven back in a defeat that turned into a rout. The fight on July 21 was the great day of awakening for the whole nation, North and South together. After Bull Run, the days of dreaming that the war would be short, glorious, and bloodless were over.

“FORWARD TO RICHMOND!” demanded Horace Greely’s influential New York Tribune in every issue beginning on June 26. Despite the mounting public pressure to take the fight to the enemy, most of the men under General McDowell’s command were ninety-day militia, essentially civilians in uniform. Before launching an attack against the principal Confederate army, McDowell pleaded for more time to train his raw troops. “You are green, it is true,” President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged, “but they are green, also; you are all green alike.” Understanding that the enemy’s troops were just as raw and that the enlistments of the Union’s ninety-day militia would soon expire, Lincoln believed that action had to be taken. On the afternoon of July 16, McDowell and his troops moved out.

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as it set out from Washington, the inexperience of McDowell’s army was evident. The militia regiments wore a variety of uniforms, many of which were dressed in gray. From top to bottom, no one knew anything about the mechanics of handling a large army on the march. Whether it was wandering into a field to pick blackberries, visiting a well for drinking water, or simply taking a breather in the shade, the men were raw indeed. Although his troops were “green,” McDowell had to count on his men to execute his battle plan. The general’s strategy was to feint against the undefended bridges and fords along Bull Run west of Manassas, while sending an attack column around the Confederate flank to cross at an undefended ford to make the real attack. It was a good plan, but for amateur soldiers who would be under fire for the first time, executing this strategy would be no easy task.

When Confederate President Jefferson Davis learned of the Union army’s advance toward Manassas, he ordered General Joseph Johnston to leave behind a small holding force in the Shenandoah Valley and join General P. G. T. Beauregard by rail with the rest of his troops. He also ordered Brigadier General Theophilus Holmes, who commanded 3,000 men at Fredericksburg, to take them to Manassas. Due to his seniority of rank, General Johnston would be in command of the united Confederate armies.

Joseph Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. (Photo One, Photo Two: Wikimedia Commons)

The great battle finally took place on July 21, 1861. Although it was done slowly and with confusion, McDowell’s flank move was executed, putting a solid segment of the Union army across Bull Run. It initially looked like the Union was going to break through, but Johnston’s reinforcements arrived in time to enable Beauregard to hold off the attacks made by McDowell’s forces. At one point that many would remember, Brigadier General Barnard Bee sought to rally some of the wavering Confederate regiments. Close by, he saw a Virginia brigade of Johnston’s troops, standing fast and maintaining a sharp fire. Led by a former Virginia Military Institute professor, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, the brigade was a sight to behold. “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!” shouted Bee, gesturing with his sword. “Rally behind the Virginians!” Bee was mortally wounded that day, but his words gave birth to a great name. “Stonewall” Jackson would make his presence felt across many more battlefields throughout the war.

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The last of Johnston’s brigades detrained at Manassas in midafternoon and helped spearhead a counterattack that turned Union defeat into a rout. After McDowell’s beaten army had crossed Bull Run, they ran headlong into hundreds of Washington civilians who had been watching the battle while picnicking on the fields east of the river. As Union wagon trains, ambulances, reserve artillery, and disorganized stragglers began to take the road back to Washington; the civilians were also trying to escape, creating the father and mother of all traffic jams.

Jefferson Davis commandeered a special train and with a single aide, traveled northward more than a hundred slow, frustrating miles to reach the battlefield. The Confederate president arrived at Manassas Junction in midafternoon. He wasted no time, borrowing a horse and riding toward the sound of the guns. When Davis encountered stragglers and wounded men, he feared the worst and tried to rally them. “I am President Davis,” he shouted, “Follow me back to the field.” Some of the men did. When Davis reached Johnston’s headquarters, he found the general sending reinforcements to the front and it was clear that the Confederates were triumphant. The president wanted to organize a pursuit of the beaten enemy, but upon reflection and further consultation, Davis concluded that in the darkness and the disorganized confusion of the battle’s aftermath, an effective pursuit was impossible.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the inexperience of the soldiers, most Northerners and Southerners had performed far better than anyone had a right to expect. Some Union men wore gray that day and there were Confederates who wore blue. The inconsistency of uniforms only added to the confusion of the brutal struggle on July 21.

“Stonewall” Jackson wearing his rumpled blue VMI uniform at the First Battle of Bull Run. Painting by Don Troiani. (Photo: The Horse Soldier)

The Union suffered around 2,896 killed, wounded, and missing at Bull Run. Confederate losses came to around 1,982. For those who had expected a short and bloodless war, these numbers were shocking. The battle had a powerful psychological impact in both the North and South. For the Confederacy, victory produced exultation and overconfidence. A Georgian pronounced Manassas “one of the decisive battles of the world.” It “has secured our independence.” In the North, defeat produced panic and despair, but also renewed determination. On July 22, President Lincoln ordered that a telegram be sent to the victorious General George B. McClellan in western Virginia summoning him to Washington, where he would be placed in command of a reorganized army of three-year volunteers newly named the Army of the Potomac. Gone were the days of the amateur armies. After Bull Run, both sides got down to business.


The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

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