The Battle of Bull Run

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!”

Battle of Bull Run | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Battle of Bull Run | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

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.”

—–

Sources

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 46-49; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 94-95, 102, 104-05, 108; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 40-43; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6177-87; Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29, 133-35, 141, 146-48, 150; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 59-60; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6444-55; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 84-85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 47-49; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2675-87; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 73; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 97-100; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498, 675; 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. 345; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 105, 107, 130; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 62-69; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 90-92, 537

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24 thoughts on “The Battle of Bull Run

  1. […] squadron easier. It also boosted northern morale, which had been shaken by the recent defeats at Bull Run and Wilson’s […]

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  2. […] hill along the Warrenton Turnpike about seven miles from Manassas, on the northern edge of the 1861 Bull Run battlefield. Pope continued concentrating his army, still confused about Jackson’s […]

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  3. […] west along the unfinished line of the Manassas Gap Railroad toward Sudley Mill, and ending on the Bull Run battlefield of the previous year. Pope sought to trap Jackson between his Federals and those of […]

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  4. […] had finally run out of patience with his lack of initiative in keeping Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates from joining Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Bull Run. General George Cadwallader, one of Patterson’s brigade commanders, was also […]

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  5. […] Battle of Bull Run took place near Manassas, […]

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  6. […] Army of the Potomac would maintain the strategic initiative by resuming the offensive after the Battle of Bull Run, but Johnston, the army’s ranking officer, cited a lack of supplies as a reason not to advance. […]

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  7. […] moved inland to occupy various points, including the town of Hampton. However, after the Federal defeat at Bull Run, Butler was compelled to send many of his men north to help defend Washington. This prompted him to […]

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  8. […] like Bull Run a month earlier, the second major battle of the war ended in Confederate victory. The Federals […]

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  9. […] they would know the Federals’ positions. Conversely, most Federal prisoners had been taken in the Battle of Bull Run, so they would most likely return to northern Virginia and not help Rosecrans. While the plan was […]

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  10. […] the Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had combined the Armies of the Potomac and the Shenandoah […]

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  11. […] efforts ended in late October when Beauregard submitted his official report on the Battle of Manassas (i.e., Bull Run). Before Davis could read this report, excerpts had been submitted to the press that […]

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  12. […] Beauregard submitted his official report on the Battle of Bull Run, Davis had written to him expressing annoyance that Beauregard had allegedly glorified his role in […]

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  13. […] with capturing Port Royal, would finally shift the war’s momentum after defeats at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s […]

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  14. […] Jackson suggested that if his army would attack Romney, the Federals would conclude that Johnston had weakened himself by sending reinforcements to the Valley. This could induce Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac to move against Johnston. If so, Jackson could hurry east to reinforce him, just like at Bull Run. […]

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  15. […] articles about Baylor’s leadership, or lack thereof. The editor called Baylor’s move “a Manassas… without a fight or even a sight of the enemy.” Baylor confronted the man on December 12, and […]

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  16. […] prospects were promising going into 1862. They had won impressive military victories at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Lexington, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. Independence seemed likely, as the correspondent […]

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  17. […] proposed a second overland advance toward Manassas Junction, partly to avenge his defeat at Bull Run last July. Franklin, a McClellan ally, proposed an idea similar to McClellan’s secret plan in […]

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  18. […] victories at Fort Sumter and Bull Run the previous year had made him the Confederacy’s top military hero. But since then, he had become […]

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  19. […] rout, as the Confederates fell back in multiple directions. This resembled the panicked retreat at Bull Run, except this time it was the Confederates who […]

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  20. […] unimpressed with McClellan’s “hollow victory.” After McDowell gave him a tour of the Bull Run battlefield, McClellan directed the army to fall back to Alexandria while he pondered his next […]

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  21. […] the men moved out, it was immediately clear that this was not the same army that had been routed at Bull Run last July. This was a well-trained, well-disciplined army of men who moved with precision and were […]

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  22. […] casualty totals at Shiloh exceeded the total of Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Fort Donelson, and Pea Ridge combined. The total casualties sustained by both […]

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  23. […] the Battle of Bull Run in July, there had been no major military moves by either side thus far. The Federals had just […]

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  24. […] had once been hailed as the hero of Fort Sumter and Bull Run. But after questionable performances at Shiloh and Corinth, Davis was fed up with him, and now […]

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