Today is the 150th anniversary of the first large scale battle of the American Civil War -First Bull Run – or as those friends of mine in the south would call it – First Manassas. Prior to this battle, many people, north and south, believed the war would be short – perhaps decided by one battle. The first secretary of war for the Confederate States of America, LeRoy P. Walker, was so bold as to predict, “…that all of the blood shed as a result of secession could be wiped up with a handkerchief.”(i) No one could predict the outcome of the First Battle of Bull Run. Little did anyone realize that Lincoln’s demand that US Brigadier General Irvin McDowell march his Army of Northeastern Virginia to Manassas would ignite the most brutal fratricidal war in history – with perhaps the exception of McDowell himself who wanted more time to train his “green” volunteer troops. President Abraham Lincoln was equally aware of the deficiency in drill and training, responding to McDowell, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also, you are all green alike.”(ii)
As McDowell marched his army of nearly 35,000 men from Washington City on July 16, 1861, CSA Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant (P.G.T.) Beauregard was aware of the tenuous situation facing his Army of the Potomac. With roughly 22,000 troops, Beauregard was concerned that he would be overrun by the larger Federal army before reinforcements could arrive from the Shenandoah Valley. McDowell’s tactical plan was to march his army in three columns towards Bull Run Creek and place the largest portion south of the Confederate right flank – effectively severing the Confederate supply line with Richmond and forcing the Confederate general to move his army south of the Rappahannock River – the next defensible line available to him. This would serve to provide some relief for the beleaguered national capital and demonstrate the power of the Federal forces Lincoln had assembled to “save the Union.”
On July 18, in an effort to put his plan in motion, McDowell ordered Brigadier Daniel Tyler to initiate a flanking movement against the southern flank of Beauregard’s forces. This would result in what would best be described as a skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford. Tyler would retreat after his division was beaten back by Confederate forces under the command of CSA Brigadier General James Longstreet. While total losses would be less than 200, McDowell was forced to change his battle plan.
On July 21, McDowell put his new plans in motion. Orders were drafted for Tyler’s Division to make a demonstration at the Stone Bridge, along the Warrenton Turnpike, while two other divisions, commanded by brigadier generals David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman, would utilize Sudley Springs Ford to turn the left flank of the Confederate line. The battle would begin at approximately 5:15 a.m. with artillery rounds being fired from Tyler’s Division into the Confederate forces guarding the Stone Bridge. The Rebel field commander, Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans, quickly realized the bombardment was a feint and sent the majority of his command west to protect against a movement from the north. By 11:30 a.m., Evans new position, near Matthews Hill, was hard pressed by Federal forces. Pulling back from the Warrenton Turnpike, he would return to the main Confederate line near the Henry House. McDowell believed victory was within his grasp with his forces closing in around the small hill dominated by the Henry residence. Unfortunately, the momentum of the battle changed drastically with the arrival of CSA Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah.
Johnston had been tasked with preventing a large scale incursion of the Shenandoah Valley by forces under the command of US Major General Robert Patterson. Patterson had received a similar directive in anticipation of McDowell’s advance on Manassas Junction: keep Johnston’s forces engaged in the Shenandoah Valley to prevent a move to reinforce Beauregard. In this Patterson failed miserably. Johnston was able to quickly mobilize his army and arrived at Manassas Junction late on the morning of July 21. This quick deployment was made possible by the first successful military use of a railroad. Thus, when Confederate fortunes appeared bleak near Henry House Hill, the tide turned.
Recently promoted and little known Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson would arrive at Henry House Hill around noon. With the vastly overwhelmed Confederate line now disintegrating, the timing could not have been better. Jackson quickly conferred with Brigadier General Barnard Bee, who would soon be killed in action, and was advised, “The enemy are driving us.” To this Jackson responded, “Then, Sir, we will give them the bayonet.”(iii) Jackson’s brigade quickly entered the confused fray, surprising the Federal forces and quickly changing the complexion of the battle. By 4:00 p.m., repeated Confederate assaults along the Henry House Hill line would force the retreat of the Union line. Realizing the fight had turned against him, and unable to organize his fear stricken army, McDowell ordered a general retreat across Bull Run Creek. Thus ended the First Battle of Bull Run which would repeat itself fourteen months later when another Federal force, the Army of Virginia, would retreat pellmell all the way back to the defenses of Washington City.
With news of the battle reaching the general population, moods changed. The combined losses at Manassas were staggering: nearly 5,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured. No longer was it believed that the war would be over quickly. Patriotic fervor would quickly swell the ranks of armies north and south, east and west. Across the south people rejoiced in the streets while its commanders, Beauregard, Johnston and Jackson were extolled as heroes. And while the Confederate victory was not solely the result of the actions of Thomas Jackson, he would earn the sobriquet, Stonewall – a moniker that would become synonymous with him – even today. Meanwhile in the north a quiet determination took hold. Quickly, a new army leader would emerge: Major General George B. McClellan. While he brought order to the somber, defeated ranks a new mantra would appear in the press and be voiced by northerners, “On to Richmond.” Little did the populace know, nor could they in their worst dreams imagine, the toll the war would take over the coming three years: 620,000 dead Americans and many more disfigured and forever scarred. July 1861 would forever herald the start of a new phase in the story of America – a story that still defines us today – a story of death, anguish and brothers fighting brothers – but most importantly a new birth of freedom.
While I could not attend today’s sesquicentennial activities at Manassas National Battlefield Park, my heart will never forget the last and final sacrifice which our patriots made on the bloody fields near Henry House Hill.
For a more in depth narrative of the First Battle of Bull Run click HERE.
To view my collection of photos of Manassas National Battlefield click HERE.
(i) Gipson, Lawrence H., Third Millennium Library paper, “The Collapse of the Confederacy.” To read this paper, click HERE.
(ii) McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, published by Oxford University Press on November 6, 2003, Pg. 336.
(iii) Robertson, James I, Jr., Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, published by MacMillan Publishing in 1997, Pg. 264.