Sunday, July 21, 2013


July 21, 2013


Manassas Junction, Virginia (JFK+50) The Union army under General Irwin McDowell* attacked the Confederate army under General P.G.T. Beauregard** 152 years ago today, July 21, 1861, 25 miles from Washington D.C.

                 First Battle of Bull  Run
                    by Kurz and Allison
              Library of Congress Image

The first major land battle of the Civil War was fought just north of Manassas Junction along a creek named Bull Run.

General McDowell had been under intense pressure to launch an attack despite commanding an army that was inexperienced and under-supplied.

He would later say...

"I wanted very much a little time, an opportunity to test my machinery, to move it around and see whether it worked smoothly or not."

*Irwin McDowell (1818-1885) was born in Columbus, Ohio and graduated from West Point in 1838.  He served in the 1st U.S. Artillery in the Mexican War but at the time of his appointment to command the Army of Northeastern Virginia in 1861 he had never commanded troops in battle.

After the defeat at Manassas, McDowell was replaced by McClellan but continued his military service until retirement in 1882.

              General Irwin McDowell
                  United States Army
                          NARA Photo

**Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (1818-1893) was born near New Orleans.  He attended West Point where he graduated 2nd in his class in 1838.  He fought in the Mexican War and afterward was put in charge of the defenses of Louisiana.

Having joined the Confederate army in 1861, President Jefferson Davis assigned him to strengthen the defenses of Charleston, S.C. and he became the South's 1st general officer.

Beauregard reluctantly gave his oath to the United States on Sept. 16, 1865.  He died in New Orleans.

              General P.G.T. Beauregard
                Confederate States Army
                             NARA Photo

The battle began with brigades of Federals under Colonels Burnside and Porter arriving at Sudley Ford at 9:30 a.m.  General Beauregard's brigades were positioned over a six mile front.

Federal troops crossed Bull Run at Sudley Ford and at 10:30 the entire Rebel line charged toward Burnside's and Porter's armies.

A Yankee counterattack, however, sent Confederates backward.  General McDowell felt certain the day was to be his.  He was wrong.

The Reb retreat had taken them to the Henry House farm.  As the Yanks moved forward, the Confederate line was reinforced by five regiments of infantry under General Thomas J. Jackson.***

General Jackson had his men form a line behind the crest of Henry House Hill where he was told by General Bernard Bee, "They are beating us back."

Jackson replied, "Sir, we'll give them the bayonet."

In an attempt to rally his retreating soldiers, General Bee pointed up the hill and exclaimed...

"Look, there's Jackson standing like a stone wall.  Rally behind the Virginians."

               Statue of Stonewall Jackson
        Manassas National Battlefield Park
                     Manassas, Virginia
             Photo by MamaGeek (2009)

While Jackson stood "like a stone wall," Bee's Alabama brigade was badly hit by Union artillery and Bee himself was shot off his horse and mortally wounded.

But thanks to the heroics of the Stonewall Brigade, the Confederate line was stabilized and reinforcements were on their way.

Soon that line was pouring fire into the bewildered Yankee troops, many of which "broke and ran."

One Federal officer said, "A panic had seized all the troops in sight."

A full Union retreat began at 4:30 in the afternoon and soon it worsened into a rout.  By the next day, half of McDowell's soldiers were well on their way back to Washington.

In the words of a reporter for the Brooklyn Standard named Walt Whitman...

"Returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic struck."

When President Lincoln was first told the bad news, he said...

"It's damned bad."

He was right.  The Union army had lost 470 dead, over 1000 wounded and almost 1800 missing.  

But while the Confederate army could boast of winning the first major battle of the war, their losses too were high.  387 dead, more than 1500 wounded and 13 missing.

                         Stonewall Jackson
                  National Portrait Gallery
                          Washington, D.C.
      Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid (2010)

***Thomas Jonathan Jackson (1824-1863) was born in Clarksburg, VA.  He began his studies at West Point last in his class but worked his way up to 17th at graduation in 1846.

Jackson served in the Mexican War where he rose from 2nd Lt. to Major.  After the war, he taught at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington.

During the Civil War, he commanded the "Stonewall Brigade" to success after success and became General Robert E. Lee's right hand man.

Stonewall, the nickname he earned for his gallant stand at First Manassas, was shot in the left arm at Chancellorsville in 1863.  The arm was amputated but the General died of pneumonia on May 10.

The battle was known as the Battle of Manassas in the South, but in the North they referred to it as the Battle of Bull Run.  Because another battle would be fought in the same geographic location later in the war, the names of the battles would become 1st and 2nd Manassas or 1st and 2nd Bull Run.

The Union Army's defeat in the first major battle of the war disillusioned Yankee soldiers and shocked Northern civilians.  As soldier/diarist George Templeton Strong wrote...

"Today will be known as BLACK MONDAY.  We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped by secessionists."

But the disaster served as a wake-up call in the North.  Historian James A. Rawley wrote...

"As they realized victory would not come readily, a new mood fastened upon Northerners.  An iron resolve entered the Northern soul..."


"The Civil War:  First Blood, Fort Sumter to Bull Run," by William C. Davis, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1983.