The Sound of Guns at Bull Run – The Battle of First Manassas

Rickett's Cannon at dawn - Manassas National BattlefieldJuly 21, 2009 marks the 148th anniversary of the Battle of First Manassas.  Called Bull Run, in the North, for a creek that meanders through the rolling hills of Fairfax County, Virginia, the Battle of First Manassas ignited the American Civil War.  While there had been other battles (Big Bethel and Falling Waters), Bull Run was the first major coordinated battle of the American Civil War.  After the firing on Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, US President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 state militia troops to quell the insurrection of the southern states.  While eleven states had voted for secession, it was Lincoln’s belief that the union was insoluble – a pact that the seceded states could not break.  In other words, the Confederacy was not a sovereign country.

By early July, both sides were anxious for a battle – a battle they both believed would quickly end the hostilities.  The North believed the South would quickly come back into the union, while the South believed they would quickly be recognized as an independent nation.  Lincoln, having appointed US Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to command the Army of Bull Run Creek - Manassas National BattlefieldNortheastern Virginia, garrisoned at Washington City, ordered his commander to attack the Confederate forces of CSA Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, camped near Manassas Junction.  Lincoln, frustrated with the inactivity of his armed forces, offered advice to his commander, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also.  You are green alike.”(i)  Foreshadowing the tentative nature of future commanders in the eastern theater, McDowell was very concerned about how his soldiers would react in battle.  Pressured by Lincoln, and growing demands from the northern populace, to attack quickly, McDowell left the environs of Washington City and pushed west, on July 16.  His initial plan was to attack the Confederate forces at Bull Run, in a diversionary move, while his primary objective was to move around Beauregard’s right flank, placing a portion of his army between Beauregard and his supply line, to the south.

Typically war planning is done secretly, behind closed doors.  However, in Washington D.C., in July 1861, there were no secrets.  By Friday, July 19, dignitaries, civilians and the Confederate forces knew a battle was brewing.  On Sunday morning, July 21, after changing his tactical plan, McDowell’s five divisions attacked Beauregard’s Confederate forces.  Believing they would witness a grand spectacle, similar to a carnival, many civilians followed the Federal forces in their buggies, many with their picnic baskets packed.  These unfortunate civilians would witness the largest battle, thus far in the United States, and would become part of the first rout of the Civil War.

The following battle narrative is from my other website, BattlefieldPortraits.com.

Battle of First Manassas
(also known as First Bull Run)

Location: Manassas, VA
Dates: July 21, 1861
Union Commander:  Irvin McDowell, Brigadier General
Confederate Commander:  P.G.T. Beauregard, Brig. General
Joseph Johnston, Brig. General

Battle Summary:
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, the Commonwealth of Virginia promptly pulled out of the Union, bringing the Confederate territory right to the Potomac River – and Washington D.C.  In order to protect the capitol, US General Winfield Scott put Brigadier General Irvin McDowell in charge of the Washington defenses.  While regiments from the northern states arrived in Washington D.C., Irvin McDowell built extensive defensive lines south of the Potomac - on Confederate soil.  Having taken the heights of Arlington and the city of Alexandria, McDowell went to work training his “green” troops.

Further west, at a rail junction near Manassas, Virginia, CSA Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, victor of Fort Sumter, started to bring together seven infantry brigades to defend against what was believed to be an inevitable Federal advance on Manassas.  The remaining Confederate defenders were operating in the Shenandoah Valley, under the command of CSA Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston.

Watching over these troops, in the Shenandoah Valley, were troops under US Major General Robert Patterson.  Patterson’s small army was instructed to demonstrate against Joseph Johnston’s army to prevent them from reinforcing Beauregard’s troops at Manassas Junction – an assignment he would ultimately fail.

By early July, pressure began mounting for McDowell to put his gargantuan army (the largest army on U.S. soil up to that time) in motion against the Confederates – winning what was assumed to be one massive battle, before moving “On to Richmond.”  McDowell, like George B. McClellan after him, wanted more time to train and drill his troops, but the astute Lincoln reminded him that his troops were no “greener” than the rebels at Manassas Junction.

By mid-July, McDowell had reorganized his army of sixty regiments and batteries, into brigades. These brigades were organized into five divisions, commanded by: Brigadier Generals Daniel Tyler and Theodore Runyon and Colonels David Hunter, Samuel Heitzelman and Dixon Miles.  All of McDowell’s division commanders were older than him.

On the Confederate side, Beauregard had organized his army into seven infantry brigades with artillery attached to each brigade.  His commanding lieutenants were: Brigadier Generals Richard S. Ewell, James Longstreet, David R. Jones, Milledge Bonham and Colonels Nathan “Shank” Evans, Philip St. George Cooke and Jubal Early.  On the whole, the rebel commanders had significantly more experience than the Union commanders.

Leaving the Washington D.C. defenses on July 16, McDowell moved to Fairfax Court House, arriving on July 17.  Brigadier General Tyler was sent on July 18 to seize Centreville and probe beyond, to determine rebel placements and strength.  Tyler ended up running into James Longstreet’s troops at Blackburn Ford, which proved a very unproductive recognizance.  McDowell, undeterred, moved his army into Centreville, where he devised his plan of attack.  It called for a two pronged advance, with one division feinting attack at the Stone Bridge, on Warrenton Turnpike, while two divisions hit the rebel left flank, after crossing Sudley Ford, from the north.

Having arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, troops under Joseph Johnston began to pour into the Manassas area.  As Johnston was the senior commander, it was agreed that Beauregard would command the field forces, with Johnston in overall command of the theater.  The troops arriving at Manassas, with Johnston, were under the command of a little known brigadier general, Thomas J. Jackson.  These troops joined troops already at Manassas under the command of Beauregard.

Stone Bridge - Manassas National BattlefieldEarly on the morning of July 21, McDowell put his plan into motion.  Troops under Daniel Tyler demonstrated against the rebel commander at the Stone Bridge, Nathan Evans.  Evans recognized the movement as a feint.  Leaving a small covering force at the Stone Bridge, he relocated his troops south of Matthews Hill where he expected the Union attack to begin.  His troops, roughly 900 strong, were attacked by close to 6,000 troops – two Federal divisions.  Being vastly outnumbered, Evans was quickly pushed back to another rise that would become famous – Henry House Hill.  Here Evans, and other troops under Beauregard, including a brigade under CSA Brigadier General Barnard Bee, were joined with a brigade of Valley men under Thomas Jackson, having recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley.  These men faced an immediate artillery threat from a battery of Federal artillery placed adjacent to the Henry house.  While shells and musketry shrieked into the Confederate line, Bee noticed Jackson on his horse, calmly directing his brigade.  At this point, to rally his troops, he uttered the words that would Thomas Jackson Monument - Manassas National Battlefieldimmortalize Jackson in the south, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.  Follow me.”  Ironically enough, Brigadier General Barnard Bee was killed there.  This rallied the demoralized rebels.

After a one hour pause in the fighting, while the armies prepared for one final assault, massed Confederate artillery knocked out Federal artillery commanded by Captain James B. Ricketts, who would be shot four times and then captured.  While the Union guns were disabled, a fierce infantry fight took place around them.  During the final infantry push, Beauregard’s troops were joined by troops under Jubal Early, Arnold Elzey and J.E.B. Stuart, tipping the balance in favor of the Confederates.  They pushed the Union troops from the field, past wealthy Washington D.C. citizens and politicians who had come out to see the “show.”  With the roads leading east clogged, the retreat turned ugly with many buggies and wagons overturned as the troops tried to get to the safety of the Washington D.C. defenses.

Additional Resources:

Mike’s Photographic Essay on First Manassas
Mike’s article on Second Manassas

Campaign: First Manassas

Outcome: Confederate Victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 35,000
Confederate: 33,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 2,896 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 1,982 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
While the losses were not large, compared to later battles, citizens of the North and South were ill prepared for the long casualty lists.  The country was baptized in fire and realized this war would not be won in one quick battle.  The north realized that the resolve of the south could overshadow their lack of manufacturing and technology.  The south became bold and believed that their armies could defeat any army thrown at them from the north.  In its aftermath, the loss at Bull Run, and subsequent retreat, made Lincoln’s administration realize that the army, soon to be called the Army of the Potomac, needed a professional commander that could bring organization to the battered soldiers.  Fresh off a win against rebel forces, in what now is West Virginia, against his future nemesis Robert E. Lee, Lincoln tapped the “young Napoleon,” George B. McClellan to lead the reformation of his army.  Writing his wife, shortly after his promotion to command the Army of the Potomac, McClellan stated, “…I seem to have become the power of the land.”  While overly confident in his abilities, McClellan did significantly improve the moral of his troops and they came to love him.  However, he will always be known as having what Lincoln called, “the slows.”

In the south, the Confederacy continued to build its army, soon to be called the Army of Northern Virginia.  Joseph Johnston, would command this army, protecting Richmond, until McClellan would be pushed into action, during the spring of 1862, in what would become the Peninsula campaign.  Johnston would be severely injured in this campaign, at Seven Pines, and Robert E. Lee would push McClellan from the “Gates of Richmond” and the peninsula in the Seven Days battles.  By then, it was known throughout the north, and the south, that the war would rage for years.

(i) Eicher, David J., The Longest Night, published by Simon & Schuster, September 2001, Pg. 79.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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