The First Battle of Bull Run

Three months after the firing on Fort Sumter, the Confederacy and Union had produced armies capable of fighting and mobilized to northern Virginia; roughly halfway between Washington and Richmond. There, near a “sluggish, tree-choked river” known as Bull Run, the first major battle following the secession of the South would occur.[i] 

Soldiers from New York’s 41st Infantry Regiment near Bull Run.

There were approximately 35,000 men under the command of General Irwin McDowell of the Union army, who were positioned to protect Washington. Meanwhile, northwest of them, Robert Patterson, a veteran of the War of 1812, commanded approximately 14,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley, near Harpers’ Ferry.[ii]  On the Confederate side, P.G.T. Beauregard, the hero at Fort Sumter, commanded 23,000 men nearest to the town of Manassas.[iii]  Joseph Johnston held 11,000 men in the Shenandoah Valley, near Winchester, Virginia and in a position to fight General Patterson and his men.[iv]  McDowell, six feet tall, heavyset, a teetotaler, and someone known to eat an entire watermelon for dessert, was prepared to fight against his classmate from West Point, Beauregard.[v]  McDowell’s success was far from assured.

Beauregard, having a council of war with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, planned to break McDowell’s troops stationed ahead of him, then reinforce Johnston’s men in the Shenandoah Valley. Reinforced, Johnston’s combined army would march on Washington and overwhelm its defenses; a maneuver that would likely lead to peace negotiations and recognition of the Confederacy.

In Washington, on the eve of battle, Lincoln wrote in a message to Congress:

“So large an army as the government now has on foot was never before known, without a soldier in it but who has taken his place there of his own free choice. But more than this, there are many single regiments whose members, one and another, possess full practical knowledge of all the arts, sciences, professions, and whatever else, whether useful or elegant, is known to the world; and there is scarcely one from which there could not be selected a President, a Cabinet, a Congress, and perhaps a Court, abundantly competent to administer the government itself. Nor do I say this is not true also in the army of our late friends, now adversaries in this contest.”[vi]

In his artful prose, he outlined the stakes perhaps better than any contemporary commentator or analyst:

“Our popular government often has been called an experiment. Two points in it, our people have already settled—the successful establishing, and the successful administering of it. One still remains—its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. . . . This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy . . . can or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes.”[vii]

Irwin McDowell. By: Mathew Brady.

McDowell’s men had set out with “fifty regiments of infantry, ten batteries of field artillery, and one battalion of cavalry, shuffling the hot dust of the Virginia roads.”[viii]  With their equipment, the heat and the dust was oppressive, and some men wandered away from the column to pick berries as a reprieve from the march.[ix]  McDowell was not heartened: he wrote President Abraham Lincoln asking for more time to train, but Lincoln wrote him, “You are green, it is true; but they are green also. You are all green alike.”[x]

Beauregard observed that McDowell outnumbered him and requested that Davis send reinforcements, preferably from Johnston’s men in the Shenandoah Valley.[xi]  However, he did not expect there was sufficient time for reinforcements to make the journey to him. Davis, being a soldier in the Mexican-American War, took a more active role: he traveled to Manassas and secured a horse, marched toward the sounds of gunshots and plumes of smoke shouting to men fleeing past him, “Go Back! Do your duty and you can save the day.”[xii]  Some men shouted back to their president that the battle was already lost.

P.G.T. Beauregard. By: Mathew Brady.

Events had unfolded in an unfavorable way for Beauregard as Davis made his way from Richmond to Manassas. While the Confederates sat in camp drinking coffee and “quietly laughing and talking,” McDowell had kept guns booming for hours to create the appearance that he was going to be the aggressor.[xiii] Then, fulfilling his role as aggressor, he moved his troops into the woods to Sudley Springs.[xiv]  The men, deprived of sleep, “stumbled over logs and roots” only to have branches stab them as they made their way to camp for rest and preparation of their attack.[xv]

The Union troops made their advance, and Confederate intelligence had made Beauregard aware of the impending attack. When fighting began, there was a massive uproar of musketry, with smoke and a crescendo of noise surrounding the area, and wounded, dazed, blood-stained men emerged from the smoke.[xvi]  The sounds and smoke “were in terrible variance with the tranquil character of the landscape.”[xvii]  The superior numbers of Union men gave an advantage that manifested itself in pushing the Confederates back and onto the slopes of Henry House Hill.[xviii] There was a rumor that Patterson’s men would come from the Valley to reinforce McDowell, but ignoring this and acting on a report that McDowell was sending men across the Stone Bridge, Beauregard and Johnston moved toward the bridge. Shortly after the firing began, Beauregard received 9,000 men in reinforcements from Johnston and his men. General Patterson had failed to stop Johnston’s movement, allowing them to march 26 miles and take a railroad to reinforce Beauregard.[xix]  Although the reinforcements had traveled without rest or nourishment, they would make their presence felt in battle.

Ruins of Judith Henry’s Home.

On the Union side, the men that camped at Sudley Springs made their way to the action. Colonel Ambrose Burnside led his Rhode Islanders in the advance of 13,000 Union men, and the fighting was intense, appearing to nearly lead to a breakthrough of the Confederates.[xx]  Then, the tide turned as Thomas Jackson and his Virginians aligned their guns and pushed the Union men back from the crest of Henry House Hill (named for Judith Henry, a bedridden widow who insisted on remaining in her home only to be killed in the fighting).[xxi] One Confederate general shouted to his men before being shot: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer.”[xxii]  Stonewall Jackson, as he would henceforth be known, had arrived at a critical moment and rallied the men around him with his calm certitude of success. When a man shouted that the day was against them, he responded, “If you think so, sir, you had better not say anything about it.”[xxiii]

Civilian spectators took in the sights with pleasure, as the clouds of smoke allowed, while seated on a nearby hill. One woman, looking through an opera glass, remarked: “That is splendid. Oh my! Is not that first-rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow.”[xxiv]  Congressmen, among the spectators, cried out: “Bully for us! Bravo! Didn’t I tell you so?”[xxv]

Meanwhile, amidst the clouds of smoke, a New York regiment of Fire Zouaves, flamboyantly dressed with baggy trousers and fez hats, formed up and prepared to take on the Confederate defense. J.E.B. Stuart, a Confederate colonel, mistook the Zouaves to be Alabamans and thought they were preparing to retreat.[xxvi]  Just as he was preparing to rally them for an attack, he realized his mistake and ordered his troopers to charge. Following orders, his troopers plowed through the Zouaves slashing at them, which caused the men wearing their fez hats to disperse. A group of Confederates watching on a nearby crest cheered at the progress their men had made.[xxvii]

Battle Map of the First Battle of Bull Run. Courtesy: The Civil War Trust.

By 3:30 in the afternoon, after most of the Union men had gone fourteen hours with little food or water in brutally hot temperatures, the Confederates had found a rallying point. Stonewall Jackson, realizing his troops’ swelling pride, ordered an advance on the Union defense and ordered them to “yell like furies.”[xxviii]  Each flank, as it advanced, let out a “weird halloo,” later to be known as the rebel yell; the sound of which could be equated to “twenty thousand foxhunters . . . closing on a quarry.”[xxix]  One Union veteran said after the war of the rebel yell, “There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it.”[xxx] The Union men, seeing that the Confederates had received reinforcements and were marching toward their line letting out their rebel yell, began to voice their concern: “Betrayed! We are betrayed! Sold out!”[xxxi]  As the Confederates pushed the line, the Union men broke and began running toward the back, dropping their arms as they went.[xxxii]  McDowell attempted to form a rally line at the back, near Centerville, to catch those in retreat and form them back up for a counter-attack, but the men did not share his optimism; they were not planning to stop until they reached the Potomac River.[xxxiii]  One congressman who had tried to stop the rout, wrote of those soldiers retreating:

“We called to them, tried to tell them there was no danger, called them to stop, implored them to stand. We called them cowards, denounced them in the most offensive terms, put out our heavy revolvers, and threatened to shoot them, but all in vain; a cruel, crazy, mad, hopeless panic possessed them, and communicated to everybody about in front and rear. The heat was awful, although now about six; the men were exhausted—their mouths gaped, their lips cracked and blackened with the powder of the cartridges they had bitten off in the battle, their eyes starting in frenzy; no mortal ever saw such a mass of ghastly wretches.”[xxxiv]

King Painting
Painting of the First Battle of Bull Run.

The Confederates had won, and their elation was evident. Upon encountering President Davis, Jackson proposed he receive another 10,000 men and immediately march on Washington.[xxxv]  However, when Davis spoke to Johnston and Beauregard, he learned the extent to which the men were confused, hungry, and tired. As a rain shower turned dirt to mud and drizzled on the dead and wounded, Davis recognized that marching on Washington was not possible in the wake of the battle. The elation brought on by victory was not only evident near the battlefield: in Richmond, the general feeling was that the war had been won and independence was “a fact beyond all doubt.”[xxxvi]  Residents of Richmond could witness their army’s success without leaving town: a three-story tobacco warehouse was converted into a prison where citizens could bribe guards to “glimpse at a real life Yankee.”[xxxvii]

As much elation as Davis felt, Lincoln was equal in his level of anxiety. Lincoln had gone for an afternoon carriage ride, believing when he left that a Union victory was imminent based on the reports.[xxxviii]  He returned from his ride at sundown and learned from the Secretary of State that McDowell “had been whipped and was falling back,” which was confirmed in a War Department telegram.[xxxix]  The next morning, Lincoln saw through the White House windows, as rain poured down, soldiers stumbling past and sleeping in the streets as women offered them coffee.[xl]  In fact, regiment after regiment of “New Yorkers, Michiganders, Rhode Islanders, Massachusetters, Minnesotans,” marched toward the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue without “knapsacks, crossbelts, and firelocks” and many without shoes or coats.[xli] One soldier, a pale, young man who looked exhausted and had lost his sword, when asked what happened to the whole army, said, “That’s more than I know. They may stay that like. I know I’m going home. I’ve had enough of fighting to last my lifetime.”[xlii]

While the Confederates had lost nearly 2,000 as casualties, the Union tally was over 3,000; 387 dead Confederates and 481 dead Union men.[xliii] Stonewall Jackson, in a letter to his wife, credited the victory and glory “to God alone.”[xliv] While the Confederate wounded outnumbered the Union, the Confederates had scored a more subtle yet perhaps more important victory: capture of 28 artillery pieces, 37 caissons (or ammunition wagons), 500,000 rounds of ammunition, 500 muskets, and nine flags.[xlv]

A Burial Site of Union Soldiers Following the First Battle of Bull Run.

William Tecumseh Sherman, after reassembling his Union brigade, wrote: “Nobody, no man, can save the country. Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don’t perform, complain sadly if they don’t get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up. It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.”[xlvi]  An English journalist profoundly noted in the London Times, “So short lived has been the American Union that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.”[xlvii]  In the Confederacy, the Richmond Whig concluded: “The breakdown of the Yankee race, their unfitness for empire, forces dominion on the South. We are compelled to take the sceptre of power. We must adapt ourselves to our new destiny.”[xlviii]

The defeat placed the Lincoln administration under fire as well. Edwin Stanton, soon to be Secretary of War, wrote:

“The dreadful disaster of Sunday can scarcely be mentioned. The imbecility of this Administration culminated in that catastrophe—an irretrievable misfortune and national disgrace never to be forgotten are to be added to the ruin of all peaceful pursuits and national bankruptcy as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months. . . . The capture of Washington seems now to be inevitable—during the whole of Monday and Tuesday it might have been taken without any resistance.”[xlix]

General McDowell, perhaps unfairly, lost credibility with Lincoln and his administration after the defeat at Bull Run. With that being the case, Lincoln had to search for someone to replace him; someone that could show more boldness in strategy and deliver the results that the Union expected. While many on the Union side had expected a swift victory and end to the rebellion, the First Battle of Bull Run showed that the war was more likely to be long-lasting.

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 340.

[ii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 57.

[iii] See id. at 56.

[iv] See id.

[v] Id. at 73.

[vi] Id. at 62.

[vii] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. IV, 426, 439.

[viii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 70.

[ix] See id. at 71.

[x] Id.

[xi] See id. at 72.

[xii] See id.

[xiii] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 104.

[xiv] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 75.

[xv] See id.

[xvi] See id. at 77-78.

[xvii] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 108.

[xviii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 341.

[xix] See Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 104.

[xx] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 78.

[xxi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 341-42.

[xxii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 78.

[xxiii] See id. at 79.

[xxiv] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 108.

[xxv] See id. at 108-09.

[xxvi] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 80.

[xxvii] See id.

[xxviii] See id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 344 citing Bruce Catton, Glory Road: The Bloody Route from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg (Garden City, NY, 1952), 57.

[xxxi] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 80.

[xxxii] See id. at 81.

[xxxiii] See id. at 82.

[xxxiv] Albert Riddle, quoted in Samuel S. Cox, Three Decades of Federal Legislation, 1855-1885 (Providence, 1885), 158.

[xxxv] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 83.

[xxxvi] See id. at 84.

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] See id.

[xxxix] Id. at 84-85.

[xl] See id. at 85.

[xli] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 111.

[xlii] See id.

[xliii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, 85.

[xliv] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. I, 114.

[xlv] Id.

[xlvi] Id.

[xlvii] Id.

[xlviii] Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, Vol. I, 221.

[xlix] Id. at 115.


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