Civilians and soldiers on both sides of the war thought the conflict would be swift and decisive. The southerners, fueled by their convictions and need for independence, was equally matched by the northerner’s enthusiasm to preserve the Union and future of their nation. Yankees believed they could whip the uncultured farm boys, while the Rebs thought their skill with a gun would put the pansy Yankees to shame.
The battle at Manassas – or Bull Run as it’s also known – proved them both right and wrong in all sorts of ways.
Firing upon Fort Sumter in April of 1861 was, figuratively speaking, like throwing down the gauntlet. It was the Union’s first show of aggression against the Confederacy and both sides were spurred into action. Troops were called for across the country. Farmers, shopkeepers, students, teachers, politicians, and veterans alike flocked to their recruiting stations. Companies and regiments formed and by June and July, forces were in place.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis moved the capitol of the newly formed country from Montgomery to Richmond, presumably to be closer to all the action. Robert Lee was not in command of the armies at this time, but served as a military advisor to Davis. Instead of Lee, the Army of the Potomac (the first name of the later christened Army of Northern Virginia) was headed by Joseph Johnston. Also in command of his own detachment of the army was Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard (P.G.T Beauregard for short). Beauregard had made a name for himself after the fall of Fort Sumter and played a decent role in the first couple of years of the war.
On the Union side, things were a little heated. Massachusetts troops who were summoned to Washington for enlistment were met with conflict in Baltimore. Southern sympathizers gave them a tough time and some of the first real blood of the Civil War was spilled in those streets. They, along with troops from New York, made it to the capitol as a leader was chosen to head the Army of Northeastern Virginia (later named the Army of the Potomac – see how confusing that is?) A man was chosen who had little experience in the ways of war. An Ohio staff officer by the name of Irvin McDowell wasn’t a strong leader, but General Winfield Scott – the head of the military in Washington – asked for him to devise a plan to take Richmond and crumble the Confederacy before it could blossom into something dangerous.
Born in Ohio in 1818, Irvin McDowell’s resume for military knowledge would impress some. He attended College de Troyes in France, and educated himself in the classical tactics. He attended West Point alongside his later adversary, P.G.T Beauregard, and was made a second lieutenant in the 1st U.S Artillery. While this title didn’t grant him a lot of field time, he was an instructor at West Point in strategy and later became an aide-de-camp in the Mexican War. While serving in the adjutant general’s department, he was promoted to major. In the couple of decades leading up to the south’s secession, he learned much about tactics and supplies in relation to the military, as well as befriended General Winfield Scott.
At the outbreak of war and through some political pulls, McDowell was put in charge of the army. He protested the promotion to brigadier general, saying he was only a supply officer and that the troops he was to command were green. Many of them didn’t know how to fall into lines of battle or even fire a gun. Lincoln replied with, “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.”
A Louisiana Creole, Beauregard was descended from Italian and French nobility. Born and raised in St. Bernard Parish, just 20 miles away from New Orleans, he enjoyed the comforts of plantation living. His family made their fortune in sugar-cane and owned slaves. Having been raised in Louisiana, French was his first language, and would attend private schools in New Orleans. Beauregard’s full name, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard was not the name he typically used, especially when he moved to New York and enrolled in West Point. He often signed his name as “G.T Beauregard”, and dropped the hyphen from the two components of his last name to make “Toutant” something of a middle name. Other nicknames that his classmates would dub him with included “The Little Creole”, “Little Napoleon”, “Bory”, or “Little Frenchman”. He graduated second in his class.
After obtaining the rank of captain in the Mexican War, Beauregard returned to his home state and served as an engineer for the army in what was called “the Mississippi and Lake defenses in Louisiana”. Dissatisfied with peacetime living, Beauregard turned to politics and just five days before Louisiana seceded, he obtained an appointment as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy. His general attitude could be interpreted as conceited, blaming the government or the military for not appreciating his efforts and abilities as a commander as they should. Within the Confederacy, he was afforded some of that “proper recognition”.
While Beauregard could boast about his noble ancestry, Joseph Johnston had some impressive family connections of his own. Born in Virginia in 1807, his mother was the niece of Patrick Henry. He was also named after Major Joseph Eggleston, who served in the American Revolution under Light-Horse Harry Lee. He attended West Point and was moderately successful in academics, ranking 13 in his class of 46. Like McDowell, he was appointed second lieutenant in the 4th U.S. Artillery. Also like McDowell and Beauregard, he served in the Mexican War and earned himself promotions and notoriety that would serve him later in his military career. Amongst these was a close friendship with Robert Lee, and a mentorship to George McClellan.
In June of 1860, a decision had to be made by Washington after the Quartermaster General of the Army passed away. Johnston was elected and promoted to brigadier general, though he didn’t much care for the position in the first place. When Virginia seceded the following year, Johnston resigned his commission as a brigadier general in the regular army, the highest-ranking U.S. Army officer to do so. He, like Robert Lee, would follow Virginia into the Confederacy and pledged to defend their home state, no matter the costs.
Before the Battle
McDowell and his army of 35,000 were still in Washington while another Union Commander, Robert Patterson, had his 18,000 troops in the Shenandoah Valley. The concept was to march for Richmond on two fronts. If the Federals could make their way through what was called the “Bread Basket” of the Confederacy, they would come around from the rear through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. At the same time, an assault would be made from the north, pressing down to Manassas Junction further east. The Orange and Alexandria Railroad crossed the Warrenton Turnpike. This hub connected Washington, Richmond, and the Shenandoah and is located on a plateau, which would make for a great high, defensive point if the Union could take it.
Beauregard and his 20,000 were stationed at Manassas, guarding this gateway to the Confederate capitol. Johnston and his 12,000 were in the Shenandoah and holding their own against Patterson outside Winchester. Patterson, an old army veteran himself, overestimates the Confederacy’s numbers and retreats to Charleston near Harper’s Ferry.
The plan that McDowell presents to the war council in Washington is approved. He’d march for Manassas Junction just south of Centreville in Virginia, crumble the Confederate flank and push their way to Richmond while Patterson takes care of Johnston and swings around through the Valley. Winfield Scott, the head of the military department at the time, sends word of the plan to Patterson, but he’s content not to act, thinking he’s outnumbered. Instead, he assures Scott that Johnston is well taken care of.
With “green” and untried troops, McDowell marches out from Washington. Manassas is only thirty miles from the Union capitol, but the going is slow. The enlisted troops are not battle-hardened soldiers like their commanders. They grow tired, get distracted, discard their supplies to lighten their load on the way to the battle, and hold up the entire movement of the army. They start out their march on July 16th and the entire army doesn’t officially arrive until the 20th.
This has given Beauregard enough time to realize he’s got a problem. He calls for reinforcements from Johnston. The Virginian sees the trouble and rushes his troops to their aid. This is the first time that military troops have been transported to the battlefield by way of train. Within two days, the entire Army of the Shenandoah – with the exception of Kirby Smith’s division – have arrived to Manassas, including brigadier general Thomas Jackson.
In the meantime, Confederate troops fall back from Centreville and cross Bull Run Creek to the southside to more closely protect Manassas. McDowell saw this as a promising sign that they could easily beat the Rebs back all the way to Richmond. However, upon probing and inspecting the terrain, he saw the difficulty with that. Bull Run Creek was slow-moving, but the banks were steep and rocky on both sides. If Union troops managed to reach a fordable portion of the river, they’d be sitting ducks by the Confederates on the higher ground. The only safe way across would have been the Stone Bridge, but this was guarded by Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans and his regiments of South Carolinians and Louisianans. Other fords along the eastern banks looked to be more manageable.
On July 18th, Brigadier General Daniel Tyler was charged with testing Blackburn’s Ford and Mitchell’s Ford to the east of Stone Bridge. The Federals were repulsed by James Longstreet and Jubal Early. The engagement was short lived and despite the exchange of some heavy artillery across the ford, the Union troops retreated back toward Centreville. Though nothing was really decided by this little prelude to the main event, it gave the Confederates a boost in morale and gave McDowell some better insight into how he wanted to proceed.
The plans of both McDowell and Beauregard were mirrored in their own way. Instead of going straight across the Stone Bridge, which would be nothing short of a shooting gallery for either side, they planned to approach the enemy by their left flank. This meant Beauregard would cross Bull Run east of the bridge, while McDowell was set on crossing to the west. He reasoned this would be a better crossing point due to the lack of troops on that side. At this time, McDowell didn’t know that Johnston had already arrived to reinforce Beauregard. The Virginian, however, was taking a backseat to the command for now. Though he outranked the Creole, this was his typical style. There’s a story about Johnston that when he went hunting, he often wouldn’t come back with a prize. Conditions to take a shot at his prey were never quite right for his tastes, and this sort of behavior is exhibited often throughout his command in the Confederate army.
In truth, the left flank of the Confederate line that stretched for about eight miles, was weak. McDowell split up his army. The divisions under Colonel David Hunter and Colonel S.P. Heintzelman (2nd and 3rd Division, respectively) would approach the Confederate left flank and cross Bull Run at Sudley Spring. His first division under Daniel Tyler would create a diversion at the Stone Bridge to make the Confederates think the army would try to cross there. Meanwhile, the fourth division under D.S Miles would be held in reserve at Centreville. Once the enemy line was swept south and away from the Stone Bridge, the remaining divisions would cross the creek and crush them. Ultimately, this would pave the way to Richmond and give what the politicians and newspapers back home had been clamoring for. In addition, those same politicians and civilians alike gathered atop high ridges that overlooked the battlefield to watch the event.
Beauregard concentrated the majority of his men between Mitchell’s Ford and Union Mills Ford, even further east than Blackburn’s Ford, planning for that sweep of the Union left flank across the river. His orders were to advance across the run, then advance onto Centreville, and that the order to advance would be given by the commander on the morning of July 21st.
Though the plan looked decent on paper, in practice was a little more difficult. McDowell might not have been accounting for the reinforcements, which brought the engaged numbers up to a considerable balance. His tactics in the battle were also flawed. His plan to attack at the bridge and Backburn’s Ford early on the morning of July 21st was delayed, as was the crossing at Sudley Spring to the west. Instead of arriving onto the scene at seven in the morning, they arrived nearly two and a half hours later.
On the other side of the creek, Beauregard is listening for the sound of his guns crossing the run as he ordered. There was nothing, because the brigade commanders misunderstood his directions. While he meant the order would be given to press on north after the Union flank was taken care of, they took it to mean that he would give the order when it was time to cross first. As a result, firing commenced down by Mitchell’s Ford and the Stone Bridge on the center of his line. Reinforcements were sent in the form of brigadier general Bernard Bee and Thomas Jackson. As the cannonade strengthened, Beauregard found it necessary to set up shop on Lookout Hill to the rear.
Colonel Evans, however, saw the trouble on the left flank before Beauregard did. It didn’t take him long to figure out the assault by brigadier general Robert Schenck under Tyler’s division was a feint at the bridge. The two divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman crossed at Sudley Spring with little trouble and was advancing toward the Young Branch of the Bull Run Creek to descend upon the unprotected left flank. Taking part of his army away from the Stone Bridge, he engaged the Union troops to occupy them there. He managed to hold them for an entire hour before Beauregard was given word about the issue and sent Bee, Jackson, Francis Bartow and the freshly arrived Colonel Wade Hampton to the west of the Stone Bridge. Longstreet, Richard Ewell, and D.R Jones were ordered to keep up appearances on the eastern side of the bridge, while Theophilus Holmes and Early were ordered to watch Warrenton Turnpike along their left and center.
Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the lead brigade in Hunter’s division, spotted Evans and open-fired. Bee and Bartow supported him, but with the added force of William Tecumseh Sherman’s crossing of the run to their right, the Rebs had little choice but to fall back from Matthew’s Hill where they had been fighting near Young Branch, to Henry Hill where Jackson, Hampton, J.E.B Stuart with his cavalry unit, and John Imboden’s artillery unit of four six-pounders were all set up and ready for the battle. All of this took place before noon.
Two important events took place in this span of time as the Union and Confederate rushed back and forth to claim or maintain the defensive ground. Upon Henry Hill was a residential home where an elderly woman and her family were living. Judith Henry was an 85-year-old invalid who was close to death by the time the war poured into her backyard. Due to her frail nature, she couldn’t leave of her own accord. Her family, who had been warned of the dangers of staying, put the matriarch on a mattress and tried to carry her away from the battlefield. However, she insisted on dying in her own home. She did. When Rickett’s Union battery was brought to the field, the house was caught in the crossfire. Her body was riddled with shrapnel and bullets.
The second important event would immortalize the reputation of a man whom many believed to be one of the most eccentric generals in either army. A hypochondriac and devout Christian, Thomas Jackson rode a horse too small for him, sucked on lemons to sooth his indigestion, and believed that he had to ride into battle with one hand raised to balance the blood in his body. If that wasn’t enough to make him so well known throughout the Confederacy, what happened at Bull Run Creek would help cement his role in the history books. Almost every state of the Confederacy was represented on the left flank, fighting to keep back the influx of Union troops. Jackson and his Virginians were stationed with their guns, unflinching from the battle and holding their line steady in the face of
overwhelming odds. Bernard Bee made the famous statement, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall!” The statement that followed was reportedly different from any who heard it. And it was uncertain if Bee was meaning this as a good thing, like Jackson’s exhibiting some bravery on the battlefield and the other soldiers should take note of it, or if he meant it condescendingly and trying to draw notice to Jackson’s immobility out of fear. Since Bee was struck down shortly after rallying his troops one last time, we may never know. But the name stuck, and he would be forever known as Stonewall Jackson.
Henry Hill proved to be a good defensive ground, as the land fell away at a slope toward the Young Branch where the Union would be coming. Two hundred yards of space for the Confederates to fire from. Toward the rear of the plateau was a thick fringe of young pines that merged into dense oak woods. These woods were to Jackson’s back. Beauregard and Johnston were on the ground, but the former was still solely in command, giving orders and replacing fallen officers as the battle ensued.
Part of Hunter and Tyler’s divisions were given leave to recross the creek, leaving the rest of the battle up to Sherman, Porter, Willcox, and Franklin. Columns and regiments were sent up piecemeal, which put the Union at a disadvantage. When one regiment was beaten back, another would come up fresh to take its place, but this left the new regiment outnumbered against the strong Confederate forces they were looking to overtake.
However, two batteries were sent forward to blast Henry Hill. Eleven guns under Ricketts and Griffin were ordered from their cozy spot on Dogan’s Ridge and to a position just south of the Henry House. The order was strange, given that they would be put right into the line of fire from the Confederate musketry and smoothbore cannons. They would be completely vulnerable without backup, but they followed this order anyway. The 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves) were ordered to support the artillery. It proved to be their undoing.
The problem was that so early in the war, the uniforms were not standard across either army. Flags could also be confusing. Distinguishing between friend and foe was harder
for this battle. The 33rd Virginia, for instance, were clothed in a shade of blue that matched a lot of the Federal uniforms on that battlefield. These Virginian troops came upon the Union flank around the batteries and were mistaken as being Federal, due to their dress. Orders were given not to fire upon them. The Virginians, however, did fire upon the Federals.
Nearby, another issue of mistaken identity played out well for the Confederacy. Stuart and his cavalry unit came upon the Zouaves and mistook them for an Alabama outfit. Their flamboyant dress was rather similar. He thought they were facing the wrong way, preparing for a retreat. Stuart cried out for them to stay, but once he realized who he was talking to, he ordered his men to charge upon the troops.
These two instances effectively took out the eleven guns, boosting the spirits of the Confederates. But McDowell would not be deterred. Though he had lost eight of the eleven guns, he was determined to take that hill.
He did, and there the battling intensified from an artillery barrage to a mass of skirmishing infantrymen, all knotted and rolling together in a mass of carnage. That was what war looked like, and many were getting their first tastes of it.
Kirby Smith and his division from the Shenandoah had finally arrived and were eager for the fray. From Manassas Junction, they hurried forward. Smith, in all his exuberance, was struck down early at the final hour of the battle and Colonel Arnold Elzey took over the command. Early’s men joined them too and the Federals were overwhelmed by this influx of reinforcements. Beauregard used them to extend his left flank, overlapping onto the Union’s right.
To add to the chaos of battle, the genesis of the rebel yell came into being at Henry Hill. Jackson’s men charged upon the Union line, letting out this great halloo like “twenty thousand foxhunters were closing on a quarry”.
Outcries of “Sold out!” and “We are betrayed!” rang through the Union lines as a retreat was soon underway. There was little McDowell could do to rally them back to their lines. Rifles were dropped to help in their flight. Not even fresh troops from Alexandria and two brigades from the other side of the Stone Bridge could calm the rising panic. A retreat turned into a rout, totally disorderly, but rather swift. It took the Union army three days to reach Centreville from Washington, but it only took them one night to rush back to the safety of the capitol.
After The Battle
By five in the evening, McDowell’s men were on the run. It became known as the “Great Skedaddle” of the war.
President Jefferson Davis came to the battlefield, and upon seeing the great success in front of him, rode forward to personally rally up the men to start hounding the Union across Bull Run. A pursuit was not carried out for a number of reasons. The biggest excuse, as stated by Johnston himself, “Our army was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat.” Orders to fall back were given to Longstreet just as he was ready to fire on the retreating Federals. Soldiers and companies were too encumbered by the prisoners they captured to even consider pursuit. Commanders made the case that their men were tired and deserved a rest and good meal after what they had accomplished on the field. On top of all that, it started to rain, and the muddy ground would make it difficult for maneuvering their artillery pieces.
One voice, however, was ready to dive straight into the thick of it again. Jackson heard about Davis’ call to pursue while his injured hand was being tended to, and shouted out that if he were given ten-thousand more, he “would be in Washington tomorrow.” Knowing him, I’d have no doubt of it.
Union: 2,896 – 460 killed – 1,124 wounded – 1,312 missing & captured
Confederate: 1,982 – 387 killed – 1,582 wounded – 13 missing & captured
In the grand scheme of things, Manassas doesn’t rate the highest for Civil War casualties. But it is a wakeup call for both sides.
The Confederacy, despite the numbers of dead and wounded southern boys, cheered and glorified the troops. Many thought this was the sign that they had won the war and their independence altogether. As a result, volunteering skidded to a halt. Brigadier generals and colonels were awarded promotions, including Johnston, Jackson, Longstreet, Beauregard, Early, Ewell, and Holmes.
Demoralized Union men flooded into Washington, pelted by the midnight rain and too exhausted from the rout. Many stumbled and slept in yards and on the steps of houses. Lincoln, too, was disheartened by the defeat and when the final reports came in, he knew a change would have to be made. McDowell’s plan was sound and might have succeeded if the army that carried it out had been more trained, and if so much was not left in reserves. Out of the 34,000 troops available to him, only about 18,000 actually crossed Bull Run to engage. The decision to march his men through the night prior to the battle also attributed to their failure, as the troops were fatigued and not given a chance to rest or recuperate. His decision to send successive brigades, one after another, into the battle also played a part in their defeat, when they could have strong-armed their way across the field and taken the high ground with sheer power of numbers.
Either way, Lincoln would take McDowell out of the position that he said himself wasn’t fit for him, and would appoint George McClellan to train the Union army for later engagements. They believed that Richmond could and would still be taken.
Two battles were fought at Manassas Junction and the National Park Service has done a great job of preserving not only the grounds, but the structures associated with the battle. Henry House, for example, has been rebuilt and restored over the years. When I visited in September of 2018, they were making more repairs and renovations. A statue to Stonewall Jackson is one of the most defining of the monuments there. The visitor center, like many of them, provide a brief video about both battles.
Civil War Narrative: Volume 1 by Shelby Foote
Campaigns of the Civil War by Walter Geer
Videos about Manassas: