First Battle of Bull Run Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although this first major battle of the U.S. Civil War resulted in a victory for the South, it had no important consequences for either side, except as a demonstration of the ferocity and scale of bloodshed that was to come in the war.

Summary of Event

Through the three months after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina, to start the U.S. Civil War on April 12, 1861, small fights but no major battles occurred from the Atlantic coast west to Missouri. Then, in July, in the vicinity of a watercourse in northern Virginia called Bull Run, Union and Confederate soldiers met in the largest battle ever fought to that time on the North American continent. That great conflict, the First Battle of Bull Run, which was called the First Battle of Manassas by Southerners, was the first of many bloody engagements that marked the road between Washington and Richmond, the capitals of the old Union and the new Confederacy. Bull Run, First Battle of (1861) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);First Battle of Bull Run[Battle of Bull Run 01] Beauregard, Pierre G. T. Johnston, Joseph Eggleston [p]Johnston, Joseph Eggleston;First Battle of Bull Run Virginia;First Battle of Bull Run [kw]First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861) [kw]Battle of Bull Run, First (July 21, 1861) [kw]Bull Run, First Battle of (July 21, 1861) Bull Run, First Battle of (1861) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);First Battle of Bull Run[Battle of Bull Run 01] Beauregard, Pierre G. T. Johnston, Joseph Eggleston [p]Johnston, Joseph Eggleston;First Battle of Bull Run Virginia;First Battle of Bull Run [g]United States;July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run[3480] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run[3480] Jackson, Stonewall [p]Jackson, Stonewall;First Battle of Bull Run Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Civil War[Civil War] McDowell, Irvin Stuart, Jeb [p]Stuart, Jeb;First Battle of Bull Run

With the decision, in May, 1861, to make Richmond Richmond, Virginia;and Confederacy[Confederacy] Virginia;Richmond the infant Confederacy’s capital, Confederate leaders began to strengthen their forces in northern Virginia. Confederate president Jefferson Davis brought his country’s military hero, General P. G. T. Beauregard, the conqueror of Fort Sumter, to help direct those forces. These troops could both threaten Washington, D.C., and protect Richmond, from a suitable distance.

Confederates forces were divided into two main groups: one, under Beauregard, numbering about twenty-four thousand troops, was centered on Manassas Junction, thirty miles southwest of Washington. The other, under General Joseph Eggleston Johnston Johnston, Joseph Eggleston , numbering about eleven thousand, was situated sixty miles west of Manassas, near Winchester, Virginia.

While the Confederates were establishing themselves in these positions, the North was beginning to build its own military machine. After the battle at Fort Sumter Fort Sumter Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Fort Sumter South Carolina;Fort Sumter Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers , President Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Civil War[Civil War] had issued an initial call for seventy-five thousand volunteers. Across the Union, armies were being formed. Directing this mobilization from Washington, seventy-five-year-old Winfield Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Civil War[Civil War] , the veteran of a half-century of military service and the U.S. general in chief, tried to make order out of chaos. Under Scott, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was placed in command of the Union forces stationed across the Potomac River in Virginia. From his headquarters in Arlington House, which had earlier been the home of Confederate general Robert E. Lee Lee, Robert E. [p]Lee, Robert E.;home of , McDowell McDowell, Irvin strove to weld his raw recruits into an effective fighting force.

Union troops retreating at the First Battle of Bull Run.

(C. A. Nichols & Company)

General Scott, who had more fighting experience than any other officer in the U.S. Army, developed a plan for the war known as the Anaconda Plan Anaconda Plan (1861) Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Anaconda Plan . According to his strategic concepts, the Union naval river fleet would seize the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers Mississippi River;and Civil War[Civil War] , Ohio River;and Civil War[Civil War] thereby dividing the Confederacy in two. The Navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War would then blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade all major Southern ports, stopping the exportation of cotton Cotton;and Civil War[Civil War] and the importation of war material. The South then would be strangled slowly in a vise-like grip—hence the name Anaconda Plan, after the great South American constrictor snake.

Under the Anaconda Plan, the North expected that there would be few Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);casualties casualties, and best of all, a wholesale bloodbath involving Americans would be avoided, making reconciliation easier. Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Civil War[Civil War] , who had worked well with the Navy Navy, U.S.;Civil War in the Mexican War, knew that it would take time to train the flood of volunteers Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union volunteers , and the longer that major combat could be avoided, the better it would be for all concerned. As a soldier, Scott thought primarily in military terms and did not have to face the tremendous political pressures that President Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Civil War[Civil War] was experiencing. Lincoln was determined to bring the conflict to a head more quickly. Except for the proposed naval blockade Civil War, U.S. (1861-1865);Union blockade , Lincoln rejected Scott’s plan in favor of the more direct, immediate attacks demanded by his Northern constituency. Eventually, however, the Union would gain, through bitter experience, a victory by a process that, in most essentials, resembled Scott’s original plan.

Meanwhile, the recruits pouring into Washington were totally ignorant of war and had not the slightest idea of drill, military discipline, or camp sanitation. At the beginning of the war, different units in the Northern and Southern armies wore both gray and uniforms—a situation that would lead to dangerous confusion on the battlefield. Moreover, both sides used a bewildering variety of weapons. Some Rebels and Yankees arrived in their camps with antiquated flintlock muskets and obsolete smoothbore muskets. Officers on both sides were still studying their drill manuals as they put their troops through the required formations. With many units bringing cooks from the best restaurants in New York and New Orleans, opposing army camps took on the air of summer outings rather than schools for war. Scott knew that these “green” attitudes would spell disaster when the issue was finally joined on the battlefield.

While Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;and Civil War[Civil War] and McDowell wanted time to organize and train their troops, Northern public opinion demanded action. A clamor arose for the Union to march an army to Richmond to put down the rebellion in order to teach the Rebels a lesson. President Lincoln also urged offensive movement, for he believed the North had to attack to win. Finally, upon Lincoln’s order, McDowell’s untried army of about thirty-five thousand men moved south to challenge Beauregard’s Confederates. No American had ever before led so large an army into battle.

With his army drawn up behind a small stream named Bull Run, Beauregard knew about McDowell’s advance. To reinforce the defending army, the Confederate government ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to come to Beauregard’s aid. Johnston began shifting his troops eastward, but before Beauregard could launch his attack, McDowell McDowell, Irvin struck. On the morning of July 21, he ordered his army across Bull Run and hit Beauregard’s left flank. His well-planned assault drove the Confederates back in chaos and confusion.

The inexperienced troops on both sides fought well, but the Union soldiers steadily forced the Confederates to retreat toward Henry House Hill, the commanding topographical feature on the battlefield. As the advancing Union regiments approached the hill, they ran into elements of Johnston’s army. Johnston had used the railroad to transport his soldiers—a first in warfare—which enabled him to move rapidly to make his junction with Beauregard. Just as the Confederate line on Henry House Hill seemed about to break, General Bernard Bee of South Carolina pointed to a Virginia brigade on the crest and shouted to his beleaguered comrades that it was standing like a stone wall against the Union onslaught. General Thomas Jonathan Jackson’s stand saved the day for the Confederate troops and earned the general the enduring sobriquet Stonewall Jackson, Stonewall [p]Jackson, Stonewall;First Battle of Bull Run Jackson.

With Johnston’s fresh troops, the Confederates began advancing. Initially, the Northern units withdrew in an orderly fashion. Suddenly, however, Union units were attacked with great violence by Colonel Jeb Stuart’s Stuart, Jeb [p]Stuart, Jeb;First Battle of Bull Run First Virginia Cavalry. Heat, weariness, and lack of water and food began to take their toll, and the Northern troops began, often with no orders, to withdraw from the field. Officers tried with varying degrees of success to keep the troops on the field, while some took charge of the withdrawing regiments to ensure some semblance of order. When Confederate artillery fire caused the blocking of a key bridge, the retreat became a rout. Caught up in the Union rout were dignitaries from Washington, including congressmen, who had come down to enjoy a Sunday picnic in the countryside while watching the gallant Northern boys “whip the Rebels.”

Significance

Although the Confederates had defeated their enemy and possessed the battlefield, they could not press their advantage. They were too exhausted and too disorganized to mount a major pursuit and threaten Washington, D.C. Although the Confederates had administered a smashing defeat to the Union, like most of the battles that were to follow, this one was indecisive, for it produced neither a serious military disadvantage for the North nor any advantage for the South. The First Battle of Bull Run was widely celebrated in the South, but it was Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;Civil War[Civil War] and the North that began a serious training and supply program for their troops. In this, the Union gained a slight advantage from the battle.

Although it would be dwarfed in size and ferocity in the months ahead, this first great battle clearly demonstrated that the North and the South were faced, not with a romantic adventure, but with a real and brutal war.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Catton, Bruce. Mister Lincoln’s Army. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951. Classic, well-written narrative of the start of the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, William C. Battle at Bull Run. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977. Still one of most detailed accounts of the First Battle of Bull Run, filled with personal detail.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983. Well-illustrated account that balances campaign history with personal accounts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Detzer, David. Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004. Comprehensive narrative of the First Battle of Bull Run, drawing on all available sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McDonald, JoAnna H. We Shall Meet Again: The First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run), July 18-21, 1861. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Thorough, scholarly analysis of the First Battle of Bull Run.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peskin, Allan. Winfield Scott and the Profession of Arms. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2003. Comprehensive biography of the leading Northern army commander at the start of the Civil War. Peskin portrays Scott as a visionary military manager who anticipated significant changes in technology and business principles and adapted U.S. Army practices in response to these changes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, T. Harry. P. G. T. Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955. Still the major work on Beauregard to date.

Establishment of the Confederate States of America

U.S. Civil War

Union Enacts the First National Draft Law

Battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga

Sherman Marches Through Georgia and the Carolinas

Surrender at Appomattox and Assassination of Lincoln

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