The long-awaited battle in northern Virginia that many expected to end the war was imminent. Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federal Army of Northeastern Virginia, sent his 1st Division under Brigadier General Daniel Tyler out of Centreville at 2 a.m. Up ahead was the Confederate Army of the Potomac, led by Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, and reinforced by Major General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah.
Tyler advanced toward the Stone Bridge over Bull Run as planned, while the 2nd and 3rd divisions under Colonels David Hunter and Samuel P. Heintzelman respectively followed Tyler before veering northwest. These 12,000 Federals would cross Bull Run at Sudley Springs and attack Beauregard’s left flank and rear. McDowell had a solid battle plan, but the exhausted troops struggled to march in the dark, and their lack of discipline and experience would hinder the plan’s execution. Moreover, Beauregard had been informed by spies that McDowell was planning to attack, and he had been reinforced by Johnston.
Beauregard’s army held a line along Bull Run and guarded the vital railroad intersection at Manassas Junction, with most of his troops to the right. The army mainly consisted of seven brigades led by Brigadier Generals Milledge L. Bonham, Richard Ewell, David R. Jones, and James Longstreet, and Colonels Philip St. George Cocke, Jubal Early, and Nathan G. Evans. Johnston’s army had four brigades under Brigadier Generals Thomas J. Jackson, Barnard E. Bee, Edmund Kirby Smith, and Colonel Francis S. Bartow.
Although Johnston was the ranking commander on the field, Beauregard was more familiar with the terrain and the military situation, so Johnston approved his 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 go on the defense, and Beauregard’s plan was rendered irrelevant.
In Washington, Congress adjourned to allow members to stroll out and witness the battle. By early morning, Centreville “gave the appearance of being ready for a monster military picnic.” Politicians, ladies, adventurers, newspaper correspondents, and many others clogged the roads leading out of the capital with carriages, gigs, omnibuses, and other conveyances that hindered Federal operations. One senator paid as high as $25 for a carriage. They brought picnic baskets filled with roast chicken, cornbread, biscuits, wine, and other spirits. Many brought binoculars so they could watch the sure Federal victory.
Tyler’s feint began at 5:15 a.m. when his artillery opened fire on the Confederate right at Mitchell’s Ford. Tyler then sent a brigade forward to attack Evans’s Confederates behind the Stone Bridge. Evans shifted forces to meet the threat while Hunter and Heintzelman continued their northwestern movement around the Confederate left. This was delayed due to Tyler’s men blocking the road leading to Sudley Springs. The first Federals did not reach Sudley Ford until 9:30 a.m.
By this time, Tyler’s “attack” had been so weak that Evans began suspecting it was a ruse. Evans then received a message from Captain E. Porter Alexander, Beauregard’s signal officer, who was observing the Federals at Sudley Springs: “Look out for your left, your position is turned.” Evans left a token force to deal with Tyler while he shifted about 900 Confederates northwest to Matthews Hill to defend the flank. The approaching Federal force numbered 10,000.
The first of the war’s heavy fighting took place at Matthews Hill, where Evans held strong against two Federal brigades until he was reinforced by the brigades of Bee and Bartow from Johnston’s army. However, a third Federal brigade came up around 12 p.m., and the Confederate line wavered. Soon the Confederates were flanked and forced to withdraw to Henry House Hill.
McDowell rode along the Federal lines, standing in his stirrups and hollering, “Victory! Victory! The day is ours!” A Federal noted: “General McDowell, our Commander-in-Chief, now came jingling on the field, waving, first his glove and then his hat, calling us ‘Brave boys’ and telling us, with the grand air of Caesar, that we had won the day. He passed away like a splendid dream.”
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, the remnants of Evans’s, Bee’s, and Bartow’s commands fell back to Henry House Hill, a key position on the field. The Federals might have taken the hill and destroyed the Confederate army had they launched a full-scale attack, but McDowell opted to attack with artillery instead. The rifled Federal guns were not suited for such a close-range assault, and many of the shots passed harmlessly over the Confederates’ heads.
This gave Jackson time to bring his brigade up as reinforcement. Colonel Wade Hampton’s Legion and cavalry under Colonel J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart came up as well. This new Confederate line numbered about 7,000 men. 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 the enemy guns.
Federal infantry now moved forward to attack. The Federals still had the numerical advantage, but they were sent up the hill piecemeal rather than in one overwhelming wave. The Confederates held firm until it finally appeared that they would waver under the pressure. Bee told Jackson, “The enemy are driving us.” Jackson replied, “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.” 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 “Stonewall” became Jackson’s nickname. The Confederate line held. Meanwhile, Johnston’s fresh 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., Cocke’s Confederates 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 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 Colonels Arnold Elzey and Jubal 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 as a gentlemanly gesture toward a prisoner of war.
William H. Russell, correspondent for the London Times, arrived on the battlefield during the Federal retreat. Having no knowledge of the courageous fight the Federals had put up earlier that day, Russell reported: “A more disgraceful rout was never witnessed. The retreat on their lines at Centreville seems to have ended in a cowardly rout–a miserable, causeless panic.” The southern press referred to the Federal retreat as “the Great Skedaddle.”
McDowell wired Washington just before 6 p.m. that he would try to make a stand at Centreville, but the Federals kept fleeing through that town all the way to the capital. McDowell wrote: “The larger part of the men are a confused mob, entirely demoralized. It was the opinion of all the commanders that no stand could be made this side of the Potomac.” When the Federals continued on past Fairfax Court House, McDowell reported that “many of the volunteers did not wait for authority to proceed to the Potomac but left on their own decision.”
Davis took a train from Richmond to 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!” But the battle was already over. Davis did not yet know the Federals had been routed, and the sight of so many exhausted, straggling Confederates left him unsure who had won. The president met with Johnston and was told that the Confederacy had won a resounding victory. Jackson 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 battle was enormous compared to the war’s earlier engagements in western Virginia and Missouri. It lasted over seven hours, which was a remarkable feat of bravery for such untrained troops. Neither side deployed their forces effectively; only about 18,000 troops saw combat out of the combined total of 60,000 men in both armies. Federals suffered 2,896 casualties (460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing). The 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment had 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.
In Richmond, members of Davis’s cabinet anxiously came in and out of the War Department offices at Mechanics Hall hoping for an update. Finally that evening, Davis sent a message to his wife Varina, which she passed on for Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin to verbally relay to the rest of the members: “We have won a glorious but dear-bought victory; the night closed with the enemy in full flight, pursued by our troops.” Celebrations erupted, and the Richmond Examiner reported:
“This blow will shake the Northern Union in every bone; the echo will reverberate round the globe. It secures the independence of the Southern Confederacy. The churches of this city should be open to-day and its inhabitants should render God their thanks for a special providence in their behalf; for yesterday morning the fate of Richmond, with many other fates, trembled in the balance.”
While Confederates brimmed with confidence after the victory, the defeated Federals realized that this would not be a “90-day war.” Shock and panic spread through Washington, especially considering McDowell’s earlier assurances of victory. President Lincoln had taken an evening carriage ride, confident of success. When he returned to the White House at 6 p.m., his secretary John Nicolay recalled that Secretary of State William H. Seward came into Lincoln’s office “with a terribly frightened and excited look.”
Seward announced: “The battle is lost. The telegraph says that McDowell is in full retreat, and calls on General Scott to save the capital.” Lincoln read the telegram to which Seward referred: “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 went to General-in-Chief Scott’s office to hear Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas read the dispatches as they trickled in. Thomas had the unfortunate chore of informing Secretary of War Simon Cameron that his brother James, colonel of the 79th New York, had been killed in action. Scott tried to ease the panic by sending an assuring message to McDowell: “We know that you and your experienced officers will do all that is proper and possible. We are not discouraged.”
But Scott could not hide his frustration at a White House meeting, where he said, “I have fought this battle, sir, against my judgment… I deserve removal because I did not stand up, when my army was not in condition for fighting, and resist it to the last.” Lincoln testily replied, “Your conversation seems to imply that I forced you to fight this battle.” Scott quickly backtracked: “I have never served a president who has been kinder to me than you have been.”
Scott ordered reinforcements to defend the capital. Later that evening and through to next morning, Lincoln 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.”
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