The Bull Run Aftermath

July 22, 1861 – News of yesterday’s Confederate victory spread throughout North and South. Southerners celebrated while northerners resolved to continue the fight.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:
Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit:

Rain began pouring on the battlefield on the night of July 21. The chaotic Federal retreat had compelled Confederate President Jefferson Davis to order a pursuit all the way to Washington, reasoning that such panicked troops could not defend the capital. But the rain prompted Davis to modify his order to begin the pursuit the next morning.

In a late-night meeting between Davis and his top commanders, Generals Joseph E. Johnston and P.G.T. Beauregard, the commanders argued against any pursuit at all. They explained that their men were too disorganized and exhausted to advance, especially in the heavy rain and mud. They did not have enough food or ammunition for another major battle, and they lacked the equipment needed for what could be a long campaign against Washington. Moreover, the Davis administration had maintained that the Confederacy would fight only to secure independence, not to conquer the U.S.

The generals provided intelligence showing that Washington’s defenses were too strong to penetrate. Davis, not wanting to override the commanders who knew their troops best, relented. Meanwhile, Confederates continued gathering their wounded, burying their dead, and rounding up prisoners. The captured Federals and civilians would be transported to Richmond and treated as prisoners of war as leverage against threats from the Lincoln administration to execute Confederate captives as traitors or pirates.

Davis awarded Beauregard a promotion from brigadier to full general for his battle performance:

“Sir: Appreciating your services in the battle of Manassas, and on several other occasions during the existing war, as affording the highest evidence of your skill as a commander, your gallantry as a soldier, and your zeal as a patriot, you are promoted to be a general in the army of the Confederate States of America, and, with the consent of Congress, will be duly commissioned accordingly.”

16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain
16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Bing public domain

In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln met with his cabinet on the night of the 21st and listened to eyewitness accounts of the Federal disaster. Emma S. Edmonds, a Federal field nurse at Georgetown Hospital, described the post-battle chaos:

“Washington at that time presented a picture striking illustrative of military life in its most depressing form… Every bar-room and groggery seemed filled to overflowing with officers and men, and military discipline was nearly, or quite, forgotten for a time… The hospitals in Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown were crowded with wounded, sick, discouraged soldiers. That extraordinary march from Bull Run, through rain, mud, chagrin, did more towards filling the hospitals than did the battle itself… Measels, dysentery and typhoid fever were the prevailing diseases after the retreat…”

Federal troops continued straggling into Washington the following day. Walt Whitman, poet and correspondent for the Brooklyn Standard, wrote:

“The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22nd–day drizzling all through with rain… The sun rises, but shines not. The men appear, at first sparsely and shame-faced enough, then thicker, in the streets of Washington–appear in Pennsylvania Avenue, and on the steps and basement entrances… Amid the deep excitement, crowds and motion, and desperate eagerness, it seems strange to see many, very many, of the soldiers sleeping–in the midst of all sleeping sound…”

Many panicked soldiers hurried to the railroad station to take trains back home, but Federals officials put the railroads under heavy guard. Some troops nearly swamped a boat coming from Alexandria by rushing onto its decks. Northerners learned of the Federal fiasco in the newspapers, and gloom pervaded the northern states. A New Yorker wrote, “Today will be known as BLACK MONDAY. We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped.”

Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federals at Bull Run, rode into Arlington and issued orders posting troops to defend Washington, just across the Potomac. General-in-Chief Winfield Scott also ordered Federals to garrison the forts surrounding the capital and assigned 15,000 men for McDowell to post on the Virginia side of the river in defense. The rest of McDowell’s army now fell under Major General Joseph Mansfield, who commanded all troops in the capital.

Northern pundits and officials offered many reasons for the defeat. Some blamed Major General Robert Patterson for failing to stop Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard; this had been remedied just before the battle when Scott removed Patterson from command. Others blamed Scott for going through with the battle even though the green Federals troops were not prepared; few acknowledged that Scott had not wanted to fight in the first place but only succumbed to pressure from the northern public and the Lincoln administration. Others blamed McDowell and his officers for a lack of leadership. McDowell had actually performed well during the battle, but his strategy had been too complicated for such inexperienced soldiers to execute.

Lincoln finally concluded that the Federals had fought bravely and would have won the battle had Johnston not arrived with reinforcements. The Federals may have been routed, but they could be reorganized and trained to fight again. A correspondent for the London Times reflected most northerners’ sentiment by predicting: “This prick in the great Northern balloon will let out a quantity of poisonous gas, and rouse the people to a sense of the nature of the conflict on which they have entered.”

In the Confederacy, southerners celebrated the dramatic victory on the 22nd. Confederates at Manassas collected the vast quantity of arms, supplies, and equipment that the retreating Federals had left behind. Many soldiers expressed astonishment at the extravagant stores they found, especially since they were almost out of food.

Davis met with Johnston and Beauregard once more on the night of the 22nd, where the question of whether to pursue the Federals came up again. The rains had turned the roads to mud, and the Potomac River had swelled, making it very difficult to cross. Not only were the Confederate troops just as inexperienced as the Federals, but they were hungry and tired as well. And regarding Washington’s fortifications, Beauregard said, “They have spared no expense.” Unaware of the chaos and panic sweeping the capital at that time, the men resolved once and for all not to pursue.

In Richmond, the Provisional Confederate Congress received Davis’s dispatches from the battlefield. Based on these, Congress approved resolutions thanking God and calling on citizens to offer thanksgiving and praise to God for the victory at Manassas. The resolutions also condemned the bloodshed caused by the Federal invasion and offered to the families of those who died in battle assurance that “the names of the gallant dead as the champions of free and constitutional liberty” would be remembered in the people’s hearts.

In the North, the mood was balanced between grim determination to continue the struggle and hopeless despair. Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Daily Tribune, exemplified the latter. Greeley had been one of the most vocal supporters of destroying the Confederacy before the battle; his newspaper had published the war cry, “On to Richmond!” But on July 29, Greeley wrote to Lincoln stating that he now had a change of heart after “my seventh sleepless night–yours, too, doubtless.”

He wrote, “You are not considered a great man, and I am a hopelessly broken one… Can the rebels be beaten after all that has occurred, and in view of the actual state of feeling caused by our late awful disaster?” If the Confederacy could not be defeated, Greeley advised, “do not fear to sacrifice yourself to your country… every drop of blood henceforth shed in this quarrel will be wantonly, wickedly shed, and the guilt will rest heavily on the soul of every promoter of the crime.”

Greeley recommended negotiating an armistice “with a view to a peaceful adjustment.” He then asserted that in New York City, “the gloom… is funereal–for our dead at Bull Run were many, and they lie unburied yet. On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair. If it is best for the country and for mankind that we make peace with the rebels at once and on their own terms, do not shrink even from that.”



Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 95;; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 6177-87, 6293, 6305-16, 6730; Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 150-52; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 59-61; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6455; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 52; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 98-100, 102; 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, 347; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 121, 130; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q361

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