Battle of First Bull Run
The History Cat Classroom
First Battle of Bull Run
July 21, 1861
Even as late as July 1861, Lincoln still believed that “all hope was not yet gone” for peace. But that idea would go up in smoke at a Virginia railroad depot known as Manassas. Lincoln's 75,000 volunteers had only signed up for a 90-day enlistment--which was set to expire in August. The volunteers had done a whole lot drilling but where still pretty green, not having seen any real combat, But a green army was better than no army at all. Lincoln made a Hail Mary pass to invade the Confederacy and capture Richmond in one decisive battle.
The first real battle of the Civil War came in July besides a small creek called Bull Run. The Army of the Potomac was led by Irvin McDowell who planned to march 15 miles south to the town of Manassas. This town was a crucial railroad junction that brought supplies from Atlanta and also cut through the Shenandoah Valley. After capturing Manassas, Mc Dowell would march south to Richmond, which recently had become the capital of the Confederacy. The problem with the plan was that everyone else seemed to know about it too. Southern spies were reporting every move to General Beauregard who was preparing to meet the enemy at Manassas.
The two armies squared off in the first major battle of the war called First Bull Run by the north and First Manassas by the south. Mc Dowell’s 35,000 men met up with Beauregard’s 22,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia. Nearby, guarding the Shenandoah Valley was General Joseph E. Johnston with 12,000 rebel troops whose mission it was to prevent the 18,000 federal troops under the command of Major General Robert Patterson. Johnston’s army manages to slip out of the Shenandoah Valley past Patterson completely unnoticed. Johnston’s’ soldiers became the first in history to use the railroad to move troops quickly in battle- they arrived just in time to reinforce Beauregard.
This first wave of soldiers in 1861 was untrained and not ready for battle. McDowell complained that some of his troops on the march from Washington would stop to pick berries or take a nap. During the heat of battle, these green recruits were easily spooked and retreated quicker than a jackrabbit.
During the battle, one regiment of northern troops reported facing a much smaller group of rebels who called themselves the Louisiana Tigers. As they charged down the hill towards the Yankee troops they let out a high-pitched scream that so completely freaked out the Union soldiers that they turned and fled the battle. The infamous 'Rebel Yell' was born.
Sorry, wrong bull run.
Check out the interactive map of the battle of First Bull Run
"Our army is retreating.
The Day is lost. Save Washington."
- Telegram to Lincoln
High-Tailing It Back to Washington
Washingtonians heard about the battle too and hurriedly packed picnic lunches to watch "the show" on hills safe enough from the battle but still close enough to get a good view of the action. What they expected was to see a traditional battle where men lined up in nice neat rows and fired at each other. Although this sounds insane to march towards an enemy who is shooting at you, it wasn’t as dangerous as it may seem. Until now, soldiers used single-shot muskets that fired round metal balls that weren’t very accurate. Battle is deadly no matter which way you slice it; but using the old style, you stood a good chance of making it out alive. However, times were changing. Muskets were being replaced with rifles that fired cone-shaped bullets that could hit a man farther and with better accuracy than a musket ball. The gunpowder also was stored in its own cartridge which made it faster to reload. By halfway through the war, single-shot rifles were made obsolete by the rapid-fire rifle. These new weapons could mow down a line of men like a scythe cutting wheat. And that’s exactly what happened.
But the really crazy thing is that the commanders on either side refused to change their tactics in the face of these new modern weapons. Unlike in World War I where soldiers adapted to the machine gun by building trenches, most folks saw it as cowardly to lie down and hide from the enemy. In total, about 4,700 men were killed or wounded. The Union took the biggest loss with 3,000 casualties compared with 1,750 on the Confederate side.
During the last day of the battle on July 16, the Confederates had been pushed back from Bull Run and now formed a last effort line atop Henry House Hill. Whoever held that hill would most likely win the battle. The Union troops attacked the hill in wave after wave but were pushed back each time. The battle was evenly matched and the Union troops came close to capturing it several times. But the Rebels held out and as the day wore on both sides were becoming increasingly exhausted and disorganized.
Then came Rebel reinforcements in the form of General Johnson. These fresh new troops tipped the battle for the south. Inspired by the bravery of Thomas Jackson, one Rebel commander shouted to his troops, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall”. The legend of General ’Stonewall’ Jackson was born.
The Rebels regrouped and made for one last push against the oncoming Yankees. After two hours of fighting the Union forces began to retreat, which quickly turned into a panic. To add to the confusion, the roads were packed with the carriages of terrified citizens who had packed picnic lunches to watch the fun unfold.
The Union troops staggered back to Washington in humiliation. The war taught both sides that a quick victory was not gonna happen. As soon as McDowell marched into Washington Lincoln fired him and had him replaced with another Scottish lad, George McClellan.