July 21, 1861 – The first major battle of the war took place in northern Virginia.
Major General Irvin McDowell’s 30,000-man Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia, the largest force ever assembled on the continent, began advancing around 2 a.m. Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s division took the lead, with the men struggling to march in the dark. The force included the 12,000 Federals moving from their camps at Centreville southwest down the Warrenton Pike to launch a surprise attack the Confederate left flank.
McDowell had a solid battle plan, but exhaustion, lack of discipline, rough roads, and obstructed night vision impeded its execution. Moreover, McDowell was unaware that spies had informed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Army of the Potomac, of the Federal advance. This had enabled Beauregard to send for Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah to reinforce him.
Before dawn, McDowell sent troops to feint toward the Stone Bridge over Bull Run, a tributary of the Potomac River. Meanwhile, the two Federal flanking divisions conducted a roundabout march toward Confederates along the Sudley Springs Road. At 5:15 a.m., Tyler’s artillery opened fire on Confederates behind the Stone Bridge, initiating the contest. Confederate Colonel Nathan G. Evans responded by moving his small force to meet the threat.
Beauregard’s army held a line along Bull Run and guarded the vital intersection at Manassas Junction, with most of his troops on the right. Johnston’s reinforcements continued arriving from the Shenandoah Valley, and although Johnston outranked Beauregard, he approved the latter’s plan to attack the Federal right. The plan was based on Napoleon’s tactics at Austerlitz, but misinterpreted orders and a lack of coordination among inexperienced troops prevented the Confederates from attacking first. Thus, the Confederates were compelled to take the defense, which virtually negated Beauregard’s plan.
In Washington, Congress adjourned to allow members to stroll out to Centreville and witness the battle. Politicians, ladies, adventurers, newspaper correspondents, and many other spectators clogged the roads from the capital with carriages, gigs, omnibuses, and other conveyances that interfered with Federal operations. Some witnesses brought picnic baskets, wine, and binoculars with them, eager to see a decisive Federal victory.
When the artillery barrage subsided, McDowell issued orders for the Federals to assault the enemy left. Two Federal brigades under General Samuel P. Heintzelman did not arrive at Sudley Ford until 9:30 a.m. This gave Evans time to assemble about 900 Confederates to meet the Federals’ advance. Meanwhile, Federals feinted as planned toward the Stone Bridge and Mitchell’s Ford.
Evans’s men held strong against the Federals at Matthews Hill, where the war’s first heavy fighting took place. Confederate reinforcements from Bull Run led by General Barnard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow soon arrived to strengthen the defense. However, Heintzelman’s third brigade came up with other reinforcements around 12 p.m., and the Confederate line wavered. The Confederates were then flanked and compelled to withdraw. McDowell rode along his lines, standing in his stirrups and hollering, “Victory! Victory! The day is ours!”
McDowell sent telegrams to Washington proclaiming a Federal victory. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott expressed satisfaction to President Abraham Lincoln, who took his customary Sunday carriage ride with his son Tad and attended church. Lincoln visited Scott’s office later that afternoon, where Scott woke from a nap and reassured Lincoln that the Federals would be victorious. Late editions of northern newspapers reported a great victory.
Meanwhile, Confederates under Evans, Bee, and Bartow fell back to Henry House Hill, a key position on the field. Confusion over Beauregard’s orders had nearly left the hill undefended until Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s five Virginia regiments took it. Jackson employed tactics used in the Battle of Waterloo by placing his men just below the hill’s crest so they could fire over it without being exposed to enemy fire.
Evans, Bee, and Bartow joined Jackson on the hill after two hours of hard fighting on Matthews Hill. Jackson withstood an onslaught from some 18,000 Federals, enabling the other three commanders to rally their forces behind him. Bee hollered to his men, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally on the Virginians! Let us determine to die here and we will conquer!” Bee fell mortally wounded soon afterwards, but the nickname “Stonewall” stuck for Jackson.
The Confederates held firm against the attacks. McDowell, personally directing troop movements, deployed his men piecemeal rather than in one main thrust, which could have dislodged the Confederates. Meanwhile, Johnston’s Shenandoah Valley reinforcements continued arriving on the field.
While the Federals could not take the hill, more hard luck befell them at around 2:30 p.m. when they had two of their artillery batteries near Henry House Hill captured by the 33rd Virginia, a Confederate unit wearing blue coats. The Federal gunners, mistaking them for comrades, had held their fire until the enemy was upon them. This turned the battle’s tide.
McDowell committed more Federal reinforcements, but they could not break the enemy line. Around 4 p.m., a Confederate brigade led by Colonel Philip St. George Cocke arrived and helped drive the remaining Federals from Henry House Hill. Meanwhile, a separate struggle developed west of the hill along Chinn Ridge. Colonel Oliver O. Howard’s Federal brigade, McDowell’s last fresh unit, stormed the ridge in hopes of flanking the Confederates on Henry House Hill. However, they were soon outflanked themselves by Confederates attacking from the southwest under Generals Arnold Elzay and Jubal A. Early.
The Federals, stunned by their reversal of fortune and exhausted in the sweltering heat, began an orderly withdrawal around 4:30. Beauregard sensed victory and ordered an attack all along the line. The Federals began breaking when the enemy advanced upon them hollering the “Rebel yell” for the first time. When a Confederate artillery shell destroyed a wagon to block Cub Run Bridge, the withdrawal became a chaotic rout, as panicked soldiers crashed into the civilian spectators in a mad dash back to Washington.
Many soldiers returned to Washington within a day, which was a day and a half quicker than it had taken them to march to the battlefield. Confederates captured some troops as well as some spectators, including Congressman Albert Ely of New York, who was hiding behind a tree. A Confederate soldier quipped, “The Yankee Congressman came down to see the fun, came out for wool and got shorn.” President Jefferson Davis sent Ely blankets in a gentlemanly gesture toward a prisoner of war.
Davis took a train from Richmond and Manassas to join in the fight, arriving in mid-afternoon. He tried to rally the remaining Confederates on Henry House Hill, many of whom were wounded: “I am President Davis! All of you who are able follow me back to the field!” Jackson also urged a renewal of the attack and an advance all the way to Washington. But rain began falling, turning roads to mud. Moreover, Johnston explained that the Confederates were just as disorganized and exhausted as the enemy. This evening, McDowell finally managed to establish a defensive line at Centreville made up of reserves.
This battle was enormous compared to the war’s earlier engagements in western Virginia and Missouri. Federals suffered 2,896 casualties (460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing). The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment suffered 180 killed or wounded, the highest casualty count of any Federal regiment. Even so, the Minnesotans had refused to retreat until ordered to do so three times. Confederates lost 1,982 (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing). They captured 28 cannon, 37 caissons, 500,000 rounds of ammunition, and nine regimental flags. While Confederates brimmed with confidence after the victory, the defeated Federals realized this would not be a “90-day war.”
When news of the defeat reached Washington, shock and panic prevailed, especially considering McDowell’s earlier assurances of victory. Lincoln returned from his carriage ride after 6 p.m. and read a message Secretary of State William H. Seward had left him from McDowell stating that the army was falling back in defeat. Lincoln hurried to the War Department, where a telegram awaited: “General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centreville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army… The routed troops will not re-form.”
Lincoln and his cabinet met in Scott’s office to review the details of the disaster as they trickled in. Scott ordered reinforcements to defend the capital. Later that evening, they met with eyewitnesses who relayed horrific accounts of what had happened. But after further assessment, a glimmer of hope came when the War Department reported: “Our loss is much less than was at first represented, and the troops have reached the forts in much better condition than we expected… the capital is safe.” Nevertheless, Lincoln did not sleep.
In Richmond, citizens celebrated victory as the official dispatches arrived. One dispatch came from the president himself: “We have won a glorious though dear-bought victory. Night closed on the enemy in full flight and closely pursued. JEFFERSON DAVIS.”
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Tagged: Abraham Lincoln, Army of Northeastern Virginia, Irvin McDowell, Jefferson Davis, Joseph E. Johnston, Manassas, Manassas Junction, P.G.T. Beauregard, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Virginia, Winfield Scott