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First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861)

The Background:

Background of Bull Run Battle is that, the Confederate commanders were generals Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. Johnston, the highest-ranking U.S. Army general to join the Confederacy, was a Virginian, a West Pointer, and would prove himself the most adept retreater in Confederate service. If there were a decoration for “Retreater-in-Chief with Oak Leaf Cluster,” he would have deserved it. The Louisiana-born Beauregard was a man of many talents. He designed the Confederate battle flag, he was an engineer who had graduated second in his class at West Point, and he was the shortest-lived superintendent in the history of West Point, serving all of five days (23 to 28 January 1861) before it became apparent that having a Confederate in charge of training officers for the Union might be a mistake.

Against the Confederates was mustered the largest army ever seen on the North American continent. Under the command of General Irvin McDowell, another West Pointer, an Ohioan whose buckeye horizons had been broadened by a French education, was the Union army of Northeastern Virginia (which became the more famous Army of the Potomac). The Federal troops were inexperienced, but gaily dressed—some as French-Moroccan Zouaves, others as imitation Highlanders—and Lincoln was eager to see them put into action. So were civilians from Washington who turned out to picnic and watch the battle. They were given a heck of a show.


The Battle of Bull Run:

McDowell’s men struck the Confederates on the hot, humid morning of 21 July 1861, and steadily pushed back the Confederate left until South Carolina General Bernard Bee saw, over the ridge of Henry Hill, General Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s Virginians waiting to repel the Federals. Bee rallied his men with the cry: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here and we will conquer! Follow me!”2 At least that’s how he’s sometimes quoted. The National Park Service prefers: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians,” which certainly has a better ring to it. And there are some ignoble fellows who believe Bee’s actual sentiment was: “There’s Jackson standing like a dadburned stone wall! Why the heck doesn’t he do something!”

In fact, Jackson’s bayonets thwarted the blue-belly tide.

Hit on both flanks (William Tecumseh Sherman was hitting the Confederate right), the lines reformed around Jackson, who coolly appraised the enemy and intended to “give them the bayonet.” Confederate artillery proved useful too, as did musketry and saber thrusts. Jackson forced the federals back with a ferocious charge, but a sort of bloody equilibrium had been reached with the Federal and Confederate lines receiving continuous reinforcements. Finally, in the afternoon, the Yankees heard a banshee rebel yell piercing through the reverberating gunfire; then they saw Confederate Colonel Jubal A. Early’s men smashing into their right flank. Stunned and exhausted, the Federals fell back, and at the prodding of Confederate artillery, the retreat accelerated until it become a pell-mell Federal flight to the capital—soldiers with their rifles and packs; civilians with their picnic baskets.

What You Need to Know about Bull Run:

At the end of the battle, President Jefferson Davis rode to Henry Hill, where Confederate wounded, including Jackson, were being treated, and ordered: “I am President Davis! All of you who are able follow me back to the field!” Davis, who always preferred to ride to the sound of the guns, wanted to take his commander in chief responsibilities rather more literally than most presidents. The wounded “Stonewall” Jackson was game. He said: “Give me ten thousand men and I will take Washington tomorrow.”

But rain began to fall, mud began to form, and cooler—and wronger— heads thought that the dispersed and tired Confederates needed to rest and reform, not harry the retreating Yankees. In one way, it didn’t matter. If shocking the North was the intention, the North was well and truly shocked. The Northern war of aggression would be no picnic. In another more important way it did matter. What would have been the outcome had Stonewall Jackson ridden into Washington and captured Honest Abe at gunpoint? One can only wonder whether the North wouldn’t have said to the Southern states, “Er, gosh, sorry for the invasion of Virginia. Why don’t we call this whole war thing off? Oh, and may we have our president back?”

Abraham Lincoln believed that the Civil War would be over in a few months, with the Union Army marching on Richmond by late 1861. Both sides hastily assembled armies and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell led his unseasoned Union Army across Bull Run against the equally inexperienced Confederate Army of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard. The Confederates won a surprise victory, particularly due to the efforts of Stonewall Jackson, and routed the Union. Both sides dug in their heels for a long war ahead.

Background to Bull Run and the Battle

  • Early military preparations
      1. General Winfield Scott, the U. S. General-in-Chief, develops an overall strategy to win the war.  The press dubbs it the “Anaconda Plan.”
      2. Both sides hastily try to assemble armies.  Most of the recruits have little or no military experience.  General Irvin McDowell is put in command of the Union troops near Washington. McDowell has been an army officer for over 20 years, but has never commanded troops in combat. 
      3. Many northern journalists and politicians demand that Lincoln send an army to put down the rebellion ASAP.  “On to Richmond!” becomes a rallying cry.
      4. McDowell tells Lincoln he needs more time to train, saying “My men and I are green and have little experience.” Lincoln replies “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.”
      5. The Union sends two armies into northern Virginia.  One, under McDowell, has 35,000 men and is deployed just south of Washington to protect the capital.  The other, with 18,000 men under 69-year old Gen. Robert Patterson, camps in the Shenandoah Valley (60 miles to the northwest of McDowell’s army—do a quick overview of Virginia geography).
      6. Opposing Patterson’s army in the Shenandoah is a force of 12,000 men under General Joseph T. Johnston, while McDowell is confronted by an army of 20,000 under P. G. T. Beauregard, the hero of Ft. Sumter.
  • Preliminaries to the Battle
      1. McDowell slowly marches his army toward Beauregard.  His goal was to cut the crucial railroad junction at Manassas and then march on to Richmond.
      2. Beauregard retreats to Manassas (Bull Run), where he could protect the railroad and the road to Richmond. Manassas is only 25 miles southwest of Washington.
      3. Beauregard deployed his army along a six-mile wide line near a creek called Bull Run. He sends a telegram to Johnston asking him to send reinforcements to Manassas.
      4. Many of Washington’s high society go out to watch the battle.  Many take picnic baskets and expect a quick Union victory.
      5. McDowell sent a division to probe the Confederate defenses near Blackburn’s Ford, near the Confederate right (the east side of the battlefield).  They were repulsed by a Confederate brigade under James Longstreet. (Fun Fact: Longstreet was assisted by Colonel Jubal Early). McDowell decides to try to cross the stream elsewhere.
      6. Meanwhile, in the Shenandoah Valley, Joseph Johnston’s army slips away from the Union Army under Patterson.  Johnston’s troops board rail cars headed for Manassas (Bull Run), in order to reinforce Beauregard. (This is the first time troops were rushed to a battle by rail).  Now the two armies near Manassas will be at equal strength.
    1. Excursus: Common Civil War Military Terms
      1. Infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  
      2. Infantry and cavalry units
        1. Company: 100 men commanded by a captain
        2. Regiment: 1000 men commanded by a colonel (10 Companies)
        3. Brigade: 4000 men under a brigadier general (4 regiments)
        4. Division: 16,000 men under a major general (4 brigades)
        5. Corps: 48,000 men (roughly) under a major general (3 corps, sometimes more)
        6. Army: Two or more corps plus supporting artillery and cavalry (100,000 or so men)
        7. These are beginning “on paper” strengths, but they became increasingly smaller throughout the war, as casualties were not replaced.
      3. Union, Confederate, Rebel, Yankee, Bluecoat, Greycoat, Federal.
      4. Volunteers vs Regular Army
  • July 21, 1861: Morning
      1. On July 21, McDowell sends several brigades to the Stone Bridge across the creek (on the Confederate left, or the west side of the battle).  Their job is to keep the Confederates busy while several other brigades go around the Confederate left in a flanking maneuver.
      2. These troops, inexperienced and exhausted from several days’ marching, make it to Sudley Springs, to the west of the Confederates and behind them.
      3. A group of Confederates learn of the Federals’ attempted flanking maneuver and rush to stop them.  The two forces meet at Matthew’s Hill. Despite being greatly outnumbered, the Confederates attack the bluecoats.
      4. Both sides rush more forces to the battle lines.  One Confederate brigade is led by General Barnard Bee.
      5. The Federals ultimately have many more men and cannon, but the Rebels hold them for two hours until they are finally forced to retreat to Henry Hill (to the east of Matthew’s Hill).  McDowell rides among his troops crying “Victory! Victory!”
  • July 21, 1861: Afternoon
      1. The Confederates reform on the back slope of Henry Hill.  There they are joined by a brigade under General Thomas Jackson. (Background on Jackson)
      2. Jackson’s troops are fresh and have a large number of cannon.  General Bee finds Jackson and tells him “General, they are beating us back!” Jackson calmly replies “Sir, we will give them the bayonet.” 
      3. The Union army, still on Matthew’s Hill, delays for two hours, then moves to attack the Confederates on Henry Hill.  But the attack is piecemeal, with only a few regiments attacking at a time.
      4. 11 Union cannon crews take up positions on both sides of the Henry House, which is on the top of the hill and in which an 84-year-old widow Judith Henry lies on her deathbed.
      5. The Union artillery are decimated by their Confederate counterparts.
      6. Union infantry move in but are driven off by Confederate cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart.
      7. Confederate infantry attack the Union cannon.  Jackson tells his men to “yell like furies!” (This is the origin of the “Rebel Yell.”) Union infantry rush to meet them, and the fighting goes back and forth.
      8. The Rebels, continually reinforced with fresh troops from Johnson’s army, gradually gain the upper hand and push back the bluecoats.
      9. Federal reinforcements arrive, but it is too little too late.  The Confederates are flanking them and quickly pushing them down the hill.
      10. The Federals retreat, cross back over Sudley Ford and the Stone Bridge, and retreat toward Washington.  The disorganized Confederates chase them, and the Federal retreat largely turns into a rout (define that).  Many of the civilians from Washington get caught in the retreat.
      11. Jefferson Davis arrives on the field and urges the army to pursue the Federals. But the Confederates are too disorganized and exhausted to pursue the Federals very far.
  • Result and Consequences
      1. Bull Run (or Manassas) was the bloodiest battle in American History up to that time.
      2. Union casualties totaled 2700, including approximately 500 killed, 1000 wounded, and 1200 captured or missing.
      3. Confederate casualties totaled about 2000, including about 400 killed, 1600 wounded, and 10 captured or missing.
      4. The Union army ends up demoralized and back in Washington, where they will have to regroup and undergo much training.
      5. Both sides now realized their opponents were determined to fight and would be no pushover.  The war would be much more deadly and longer than was originally believed.
      6. The South sees it as vindication for secession and proof that their soldiers were superior to the Yankees.


  • Trivia / Human Interest


    1. Neither side had standardized uniforms.  Some Confederates wore blue, while some Federals wore gray, red (Zouaves), or even plaid.  Some men had to wear civilian clothes. This led to confusion, with units of one side being mistaken for the other side, and even “friendly fire.”
    2. The North called it the Battle of Bull Run (after the nearest body of water), and the South called it the Battle of Manassas (after the nearest town)
    3. Generals McDowell and Beauregard were classmates at West Point, and before the war, he briefly served in under Joseph Johnston (then a regular army officer).
    4. Before McDowell marched toward Manassas, he made his headquarters in Arlington, VA, in Robert E. Lee’s home, which later became the site of Arlington National Cemetery.
    5. Judith Henry, the widow who owned the house, was killed by Federal artillery and her house was destroyed.  (The Confederates had set up a sharpshooter nest in the second floor of the house).
    6. Wilmer McLean Story  (Beauregard: “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House.”)


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