The Bull Run Campaign Begins

June 29, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln held a special cabinet meeting in which Major General Irvin McDowell explained his plan to invade northern Virginia, crush the Confederate army, and capture Richmond.

Major General Irvin McDowell | Image Credit:
Major General Irvin McDowell | Image Credit:

Five days earlier, McDowell had responded to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s request to submit a strategy on how to defeat the Confederates in Virginia. McDowell’s plan was very specific, with two assumptions:

  • Major General Robert Patterson’s Federals in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia were too far west to join forces with him;
  • Patterson would occupy Leesburg, Virginia and thus keep General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah from linking with the Confederate Army of the Potomac in northern Virginia under General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Estimating Beauregard’s strength at 25,000 men, McDowell proposed to first advance on Vienna and then on to Manassas with at least 30,000 troops plus 10,000 in reserve. The Federals would march in three columns:

  • The first would move from Vienna to disperse Confederates around Centreville and Fairfax Court House;
  • The second would move from Alexandria on the Little River Turnpike to cut the Confederates’ retreat;
  • The third would move down the Orange & Alexandria Railroad to Manassas.

This plan required McDowell’s army to be heavily reinforced and the railroad to be rebuilt. It made little note of the earlier plans suggested by either Patterson or Scott, and it greatly relied on Patterson preventing Johnston from moving east.

McDowell further explained this plan at the cabinet meeting on the 29th, as the growing impatience among northerners had prompted Lincoln to call his commanders together to finalize plans and set a date for when the offensives would begin.

Scott expressed uncertainty about McDowell’s strategy; the general-in-chief reiterated his unpopular “Anaconda Plan” to blockade the coastline and seize control of the vital Mississippi River. However, Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs argued that by the time that Scott’s plan was implemented, northern fervor for the war would wane. With McDowell’s plan, the 90-day volunteers would be used before their service terms expired.

McDowell tacked a map to the wall and offered several invasion options. Lincoln and his advisors approved one: based on the presumption that Beauregard would gather up to 35,000 Confederates at Manassas, McDowell would lead his army in three columns westward to seize Fairfax Court House, 16 miles away, and then Centreville, five miles further.

Two of three columns would create a diversion before the supposed enemy center at a creek called Bull Run, while the third column would move around the Confederate right, cut off the railroad to Richmond, and threaten the enemy rear. This would force the Confederates to fall back to the Rappahannock River. However, it had a heavy dependence on Patterson’s 15,000 Federals occupying Leesburg to prevent Johnston’s 11,000 Confederates from moving east to reinforce Beauregard.

This was a sound plan for a veteran army, but it would be difficult for inexperienced officers and soldiers to execute. Scott still expressed skepticism that this single campaign would end the war, and McDowell requested more time to train his three-month volunteers.

Ultimately Lincoln overrode Scott’s objections and denied McDowell’s extension request, telling him, “You are green, it is true, but they are green, also; you are all green alike.” McDowell’s request for 30,000 men was granted, and his campaign was to begin by July 9.


Sources; Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 110-11; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 53; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6433; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 40-41; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 88-89; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 335


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