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The Great Day of Awakening: First Battle of Bull Run


As the great Civil War historian Bruce Catton once wrote, July 21, 1861 was “the great day of awakening for the whole nation, North and South together.” On that scorching hot Sunday, the amateur armies of Union Brigadier General Irvin McDowell and Confederate Generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston clashed along the banks of Bull Run creek, west of the crucial railroad junction at Manassas, Virginia, in the first major land battle of the American Civil War.

McDowell had wanted more time to train his raw and inexperienced troops before going into action, but with the enlistments of his ninety-day militia soon set to expire and the Northern public clamoring for his 35,000-strong army to march “Forward to Richmond,” President Abraham Lincoln decided that the time to act was now. “You are green, it is true,” acknowledged Lincoln, “but they are green, also; you are all green alike.”

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Common)

On July 16, McDowell’s “green” soldiers began the twenty-five mile journey from Washington to take on Beauregard’s army of some 20,000 Confederates concentrated around Manassas. Lumbering along very slowly, the Federals finally made contact with the enemy on July 18 and probed near the center of Beauregard’s line before being driven back. Meanwhile, 60 miles away in the Shenandoah Valley, Joseph Johnston’s 11,000 troops managed to slip away from Union General Robert Patterson and boarded trains bound for Manassas. Three of Johnston’s brigades arrived by the time the battle began and his fourth would arrive later that day.

Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph Johnston. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons - Beauregard, Johnston)

Beauregard had planned to attack at sunrise on July 21, but McDowell beat him to it, opening the contest at around 5:30 a.m. Many military historians concur that both commanders entered this fight with battle plans that were too complex for their inexperienced armies. However, McDowell’s strategy to turn the Confederate left flank did achieve initial success. While some Union regiments made a feint attack against a stone bridge along Bull Run, McDowell’s flanking column managed to ford the creek two miles upstream and struck the rebel left on Matthews Hill. The raw nature of the troops on both sides did not soften the severity of the fighting that raged throughout the morning. With Confederate troops eventually driven up the slopes of Henry House Hill and some regiments breaking and fleeing to the rear, the Northern reporters, politicians, and civilians who had traveled from Washington to watch the battle saw victory in sight. “It was a whirlwind of bullets,” reflected one rebel soldier. “Our men fell constantly. The deadly missives rained like hail among the boughs and trees.”

As Confederate troops fell back across Henry House Hill around noon, one of the war’s most infamous moments occurred. Commanding a fresh brigade of Virginians that had arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, a veteran of the Mexican-America War and a former professor at the Virginia Military Institute, moved his men into line just behind the crest of the hill. Trying to rally his broken brigade, General Barnard Bee pointed to Jackson and his troops, reportedly shouting, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” As historian James M. McPherson writes, “Jackson’s brigade stopped the Union assault and suffered more casualties than any other southern brigade this day.” Forged under fire, Jackson earned a nickname that would stick. Henceforth, he would be known as “Stonewall.” For their steadfastness at Manassas, his soldiers earned the moniker, the Stonewall Brigade.

There Stands Jackson Like A Stone Wall by Mort Künstler. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)

While the morning had belonged to McDowell, the Federals lost momentum around noon, halting their advance and reorganizing for a new attack. Taking advantage of the break in the action, Beauregard and Johnston personally helped rally shaken units and shifted reinforcements to the Confederate left. Fierce fighting resumed that afternoon and both sides furiously battled back and forth across Henry House Hill. By around 4 p.m., McPherson reports that the “rebels had an equal number of men in the battle zone (about 18,000 were eventually engaged on each side) and a decisive superiority in fresh troops.” Spearheaded by Johnston’s final brigade that had arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, the Confederates launched a counterattack all along the line, filling the air with a chilling scream that would come to be known as the rebel yell, smashing into the Union right flank, and breaking the back of McDowell’s exhausted army.

What started as an orderly Union withdrawal turned into a panicked rout. As McDowell’s army was falling back, his soldiers, wagons, and equipment got entangled with the throngs of spectators who had come from Washington to watch the battle. Those same people were now desperate to return to the safety of the capital. “Utter confusion set in,” recalled one of McDowell’s staff officers. “Pleasure-carriages, gun-carriages, and ammunition wagons…were abandoned and blocked the way, and stragglers broke and threw aside their muskets and cut horses from their harness and rode off upon them.” While many fled in terror, some troops, including units from the brigade of William Tecumseh Sherman (one of the many men on the field that day who was destined to play a major role in the war), formed a rearguard, slowing down what developed into a disorganized Confederate pursuit.

The entangled retreat of McDowell's army and the civilians who had traveled from Washington to watch the battle. (Photo Credit: The Old Print Gallery Blog)

That morning, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had commandeered a special train, traveling more than a hundred miles and reaching Manassas Junction in mid-afternoon. He feared the worst after encountering stragglers and wounded men as he rode to the battlefield, but any doubt about who had won the day was put to rest after Davis reached Joseph Johnston’s headquarters. “Our forces have won a glorious victory. The enemy was routed and fled precipitately,” read a telegram sent by Davis to Richmond. Davis wanted to mount a vigorous pursuit of the enemy, but his two commanders made it clear that their troops were in no shape to continue. “This victory disorganized our volunteers as utterly as a defeat would do in an army of regulars,” wrote Johnston to Davis in a private letter a few days later.

The first great battle of the war was over. The fighting had been a confused scramble, with some Federals wearing grey and certain Confederates dressed in blue. More confusion resulted from the similarity of the national flags carried by both sides, the Stars and Stripes for the Union and the “stars and bars” for the Confederacy. In spite of these circumstances that contributed to the outcome of this fight between amateur armies, Bruce Catton concluded, “For men who had never fought before, and who had been given no training of any real consequence, the Northerners and Southerners who collided here did a great deal better than anyone had a right to expect.”

Up Alabamians by Don Troiani, depicting Confederate General Barnard Bee on horseback, wearing the blue uniform from the army he had recently resigned from and calling upon the Fourth Alabama to meet the Federal onslaught head-on that morning. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani/The National Guard)

On July 22, McDowell’s defeated army slunk back into Washington. The price of the dispiriting failure cost the Union approximately 2,896 killed, wounded, captured and missing. On the Confederate side, the victorious rebels lost around 1,982 men. Although this casualty count would be dwarfed by later clashes, at the time, the First Battle of Bull Run, called the Battle of First Manassas by the South, was the bloodiest military engagement in American history.

The great day of awakening on July 21 opened the eyes of people across the divided nation. As McPherson notes, in the South, the result of the battle “produced exultation and overconfidence,” while in the North, it generated “panic and despair but also renewed determination.” One Georgian even went so far as to declare Manassas “one of the decisive battles of the world,” claiming, it “has secured our independence.” Jubilant as some Southerners were, however, the Union was far from finished. “The fat is in the fire now,” recorded President Lincoln’s private secretary, “and we shall have to crow small until we can retrieve the disgrace somehow. The preparations for the war will be continued with increased vigor by the Government.” Lincoln wasted no time after the defeat, immediately taking steps to build a professional army of three-year volunteers. The Civil War was truly just getting started.


American Battlefield Trust: Battle of Bull Run Facts & Summary.

National Park Service: The Battle of First Manassas.

The Civil War by Bruce Catton.

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