First Battle of Bull Run

U.S. #4523 pictures a reproduction of Sidney E. King’s painting, The Capture of Rickett’s Battery.

On July 21, 1861, Confederate forces won the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of First Manassas.

Both the Union and the Confederacy predicted a short war and an easy victory in the days following the attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Impatient Northerners pushed President Lincoln to attack the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia. Southern troops threatened the U.S. capital and Confederate First Lady Varina Davis sent out invitations to a reception at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Across the nation, young men who had never been more than a day’s ride away from home prepared for battle. Many arrived for service without uniforms, guns, or the skill to write a letter home. Union and Confederate officers scrambled to equip and train the men, while warily waiting to see which side would strike first. Residents of border states, which had mixed allegiances, provided the opposing sides with information on troop movement and military strategy.

Item #20004 – Winfield Scott was the Union commander before Irvin McDowell.

Abraham Lincoln pressed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell of the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia to move aggressively. Never one to share his strategy, even with his Commander-in-Chief, McDowell stalled, blaming his lack of action on his ill-prepared forces.

Ultimately forced to act, McDowell gathered 35,000 untrained Union soldiers on July 16, 1861, and marched toward Richmond. His plan was to move toward the west in three columns. While two of the columns attacked the Confederate line at Bull Run, the third would move to the south, cut the railroad to Richmond and attack the rear of the rebel forces. Major General Robert Patterson’s forces were dispatched to the Shenandoah Valley, where they were to engage Confederate troops under Joseph Johnston and prevent them from reinforcing Beauregard.

McDowell’s men traveled two days through sweltering heat before reaching Centreville, Virginia, where they rested and regrouped. In nearby Manassas Junction, an equally inexperienced Confederate army of 34,000 men under General Beauregard waited, protecting the vital supply line to Richmond.

U.S. #4523 FDC – 2011 Bull Run First Day Cover.

McDowell divided his troops, sending 5,000 men to the rear to protect his army. He then sent a division of 3,000 under Brigadier General Tyler to outflank Beauregard.

Frustration grew as McDowell’s complex plan encountered critical setbacks. Beauregard’s men drew a line along Bull Run River and guarded its fords, which McDowell planned to cross. Tyler’s division was drawn into a skirmish at Blackburn’s Ford and stalled. Patterson didn’t stop Johnston, and McDowell himself delayed long enough for most of Johnston’s troops to arrive at Manassas Junction by train and reinforce Beauregard before the fighting began.

After decades of heated debate and a humiliating Union defeat at Fort Sumter, many were anxious to watch the rebels whipped. Congressional families and Washington, D.C., elite traveled thirty miles by carriage to picnic as the two armies met at Virginia’s Bull Run River on July 21, 1861.

Item #M11549 pictures Johnston, McDowell, and battle scenes.

Logistics immediately worked against McDowell. Tyler’s division blocked McDowell’s main column’s advance and others found several roads to key crossings to be little more than cart paths. Instead of attacking the Confederates together, the two columns arrived hours apart.

Beauregard learned the offensive had begun when artillery rounds hit his headquarters as he ate breakfast. The Confederate general issued counterattacks, but some of his orders were communicated incorrectly. Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell was to lead the attacks at Union Mills Ford; however, the instructions he received were to “hold – in readiness to advance at a moment’s notice.”   Some 20,000 Union soldiers were moving toward Colonel Nathan Evans and his force of only 1,100 men before new intelligence prompted the Confederate officer to move them. With reinforcements, Evans’ men were able to slow the advance across Bull Run River until Colonel William Sherman found an unguarded ford and attacked their right flank. The Confederates were forced to retreat at 11:30 a.m.

U.S. #2975m – Johnston stamp from the 1995 Civil War sheet.

McDowell failed to press his advantage, which allowed Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brigade to arrive at noon, joined by the Hampton Legion and Colonel J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. Fighting continued throughout the afternoon. At 3 p.m., the 33rd Virginia overran the Union artillery. Major William F. Barry ordered his men not to shoot at the Confederate troops because their blue uniforms caused him to mistake them for Union soldiers.

Capturing the artillery turned the battle in favor of the Confederates. By 4 p.m., the last Union troops were driven from Henry Hill House to the hair-raising sound of the “rebel yell.” Two additional Confederate brigades arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, delivering more crushing defeat as the Union forces crumbled. Further chaos occurred as the retreating army reached crossings at Bull Run River. Soldiers dropped their weapons and ran, hundreds were taken prisoner by the Confederates, and frightened civilians trying to flee the violence clogged the roads to Washington.

Item #M11554 pictures Robert E. Lee, John Pope, and scenes from the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.

The first major land battle of the Civil War resulted in 460 Union and 387 Confederate deaths with thousands more injured and captured. The jubilation that had greeted the day dimmed quickly as both sides realized they were in for a long and bloody war.

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  1. The South had no chance to win. They were outnumbered 3 to 1 in
    manpower. The North had all the factories to manufacture artillery,
    guns, ammo, etc. The South had NO manufacturing base. The North had
    thousands of miles of Railroad, which Lincoln put to good use to
    transport men and materials. Also the Union had thousands of miles of
    Telegraph which Lincoln realized battle plan operations could be dispatched
    and theater commanders could tie into each’s plans. The South never did use
    this to their advantage and did not have an extensive system. Even with all
    that the South was able to hold of the vast superiority of the Union armies
    and fight a four year war, winning almost all the battles until the middle of
    1863. This was due to the fact that the South had most of the best trained
    Generals. Prior to the Civil War going to West Point was considered beneath
    many Northern families, who believed that West Point was far inferior to the
    other Northern colleges and universities. The Southern elite and other families
    looked at West Point as a great opportunity for an education especially since
    the Southern families considered a military career a most honorable occupation.
    With this training the Southern Generals tactical expertise was overwhelming.
    Unfortunately even the side with the overall tactical genius could not
    overcome the vast superiority of men and materials of the Union and therefore
    had to be buried under in the long run. Lucky for us the South DID NOT equal
    the Union in men and materials because they surely would have lost. Grant,
    Sherman, Sheridan and the rest would have been no match for Lee, Johnston,
    Beauregard and the rest in an equal fight. We would have been two separate
    nation fighting each other for land and the raw materials making each weak
    and ripe for conquest by a foreign power in WWI and WWII.

    1. Sherman went to West Point. Grant went to West Point. Sheridan went to West Point, but got kicked out. Sherman had the best strategy for the war. The U.S. should have a national holiday honoring Sherman’s March to the Sea.

      1. Sheridan was suspended for a year for fighting and then allowed to return to graduate with the class of 1853 instead of his original class, 1852. So he, too, was a ring knocker from Hudson High.

    2. Very well said, Kenneth. If America remained a divided nation by fighting each other continuously for land and raw materials, the outcomes of the wars in the following century would have been disastrous. I hope today’s leaders keep that in mind; like President Lincoln once said, “A house divided cannot stand by itself.”

  2. McDowell was correct when he stated that the Union Army was not prepared for war. Neither was the South. This country has never like, nor appreciated, a standing army. After every conflict, starting with the Revolutionary War, we have down-sized to the bare minimums so when the next conflict arose, it took about two years to “get ready”. Nothing has change and whatever there is said for “World Peace” there will be bullies and there will be war.

    1. Stu I do appreciate your candor. I might add the only deterrent to the “Next Big War” in play today, to deter the bullies that we are really aware and afraid of, is a numbered random code and 2 keys away…..the rest of it is just police actions and cowards with machine guns on pickup trucks causing collateral damages from both sides. All the 5 star generals in the world can’t seem to end it because it is harder to define enemy combatant hiding in plain site. Perhaps that is why the South persevered as long as they did, knowing the layout of the Southlands.

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