July, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. For three months thereafter, small fights but no major battles occurred from the Atlantic coast west to Missouri. Then, during 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 Manassas, or Bull Run, 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.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, at Charleston, South Carolina, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. For three months thereafter, small fights but no major battles occurred from the Atlantic coast west to Missouri. Then, during 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 Manassas, or Bull Run, 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.

With the decision, in May, 1861, to make Richmond the infant nation’s capital, Confederate leaders began to strengthen their forces in northern Virginia. President Jefferson Davis brought his country’s military hero, General Pierre 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. The Confederates 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 E. Johnston, numbering about eleven thousand, was situated sixty miles west of Manassas, near Winchester, Virginia.

Union Preparations

While the Confederates were establishing themselves in these positions, the North was beginning to build its military machine. After the battle at Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln 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, veteran of a half-century of military service and general in chief, tried to make order out of chaos. Under Scott, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was in command of the Union forces stationed across the Potomac River in Virginia. From his headquarters in Arlington House, which had been the home of Robert E. Lee, McDowell strove to weld his raw recruits into an effective fighting force.

Scott’s Plan

General Scott, who had more experience than any other officer in the United States Army, developed a plan for the war known as the Anaconda Plan. According to Scott’s strategic concepts, the Union fleet would seize the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, thereby dividing the Confederacy in two. The Navy would then blockade all major Southern ports, prohibiting exportation of cotton and importation of war material. The South then would be strangled slowly in a vise-like grip (hence the name Anaconda Plan). There would be few casualties, and best of all, a wholesale bloodbath involving Americans would be avoided, making reconciliation easier.

Confederate fortifications at the first Battle of Bull Run, which the Confederacy called the Battle of Manassas. (National Archives)

Scott, who had worked so well with the Navy in the Mexican War, knew that it would take time to train the flood of volunteers, and the longer combat could be avoided, the better it would be for all concerned. Scott, a soldier, thought in military terms, and he did not have to face the tremendous political pressures that Lincoln was experiencing. Except for the naval blockade, Lincoln rejected Scott’s plan in favor of more direct, immediate attacks demanded by his Northern constituency. (Through bitter experience, the Union would eventually gain victory by a process that, in most essentials, resembled Scott’s original plan.)

The troops pouring into Washington were totally ignorant of war, and they had not the slightest idea of drill, military discipline, or camp sanitation. Many Northern units wore gray uniforms, and many Southern troops wore blue uniforms. For both sides, there was a bewildering variation in weapons. Some Rebels and Yankees arrived in their camps with antiquated flintlock muskets and obsolete smoothbore muskets. Officers on both sides read the drill manual while putting their troops through the required formations. With many units bringing cooks from the best restaurants in New York or New Orleans, the opposing 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 and McDowell wanted time to organize and train their troops, Northern public opinion demanded action. A clamor arose for a march 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 moved south toward Beauregard’s Confederates. No previous American had ever taken so large an army into battle.

The Battle

Beauregard, with his army drawn up behind a small stream named Bull Run, 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 transferring his troops eastward, but before Beauregard could launch his attack, McDowell 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.

Union troops retreating at the first Battle of Bull Run. (F. R. Niglutsch)

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 J. Jackson’s stand saved the day for the Confederate troops and earned the general the sobriquet “Stonewall.”

With Johnston’s fresh troops, the Confederates began advancing. Initially, the Northern units withdrew in an orderly fashion. Suddenly Union units were attacked with great violence by Colonel Jeb Stuart’s 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 have a Sunday picnic in the countryside and watch the gallant Northern boys “whip the Rebels.”

Aftermath

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. The Confederates had administered the Union a smashing defeat, yet, like most of the battles that were to follow, this one was indecisive, for it produced neither serious military disadvantage for the North nor advantage for the South. The First Battle of Bull Run was widely celebrated in the South, but it was Lincoln 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.

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