Three months passed since the fall of Fort Sumter, and both North and South were growing impatient for a decisive battle. The Confederates had moved their capital to Richmond, only a hundred miles from Washington, which caused great concern in the Northern capital. Many Northern politicians and newspapers pressed for the army to invade Virginia and capture Richmond.
Preparing for Battle
The Federal army around Washington was the largest force ever assembled in North America up to that time, and it was commanded by General Irvin McDowell. McDowell was hesitant to attack, but many of the three-month enlistments were about to expire. While his battle plan was sound, the question was whether or not his troops were experienced enough to execute it.
In Virginia, a Confederate force under General P.G.T. Beauregard, hero of Fort Sumter, blocked the Federals’ path. In addition a second force under General Joseph Johnston was nearby. The Federal plan was to defeat Beauregard in northern Virginia before Johnston could arrive to help, then move on to Richmond. The key point in the Federal plan was the railroad junction at Manassas.
Federals Launch the Invasion
On July 18, 1861, 37,000 Federal volunteers invaded Virginia. The men had never endured a forced march in summer heat, and they had little or no combat experience. Many sang as they marched and fell out of line to pick berries or fill canteens.
Equally inexperienced were the civilians, newspaper correspondents and politicians who followed the Federals into Virginia to watch the show. They brought binoculars, opera glasses, picnic baskets and champagne, hoping to see a real battle.
Meanwhile prominent Washington socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow informed Beauregard of the Federal advance; she was a Confederate spy who was “friendly” with many Northern politicians. Beauregard formed his men along Bull Run Creek near Manassas and requested reinforcements from Johnston.
Early Gains Signal Federal Victory
The Federals crossed Bull Run and struck the Confederates on the morning of July 21. The battle started just as McDowell planned as the Confederate left was consistently pushed back. Beauregard, also plagued with inexperienced troops, watched his battle plan unravel and was forced to remain on the defensive.
By noon, Northern victory seemed inevitable. Federal troops stopped to collect souvenirs from Confederate casualties, and the Associated Press wired Washington of the apparent victory.
However, holding firm at Henry House Hill was a Virginia brigade led by General Thomas Jackson. Seeing this stand, Confederate General Bernard Bee attempted to rally his men by shouting, “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!” Bee was killed but Jackson would become known as “Stonewall.” The tide of the battle soon turned.
Confederate Counterattack Proves Decisive
Confederate units reformed around Jackson, who ordered a bayonet counterattack. In doing so, Jackson instructed his men to “yell like furies.” The screams from the oncoming Confederates were the first “rebel yells” that would echo on thousands of future battlefields. The Federals slowly fell back.
The battle continued in the oppressive heat; most Federals had been marching and fighting without food or water for fourteen hours. Meanwhile Confederate reinforcements began arriving from Johnston’s command. This marked the first time in history that troops were transported by railroad during battle. The sight of these fresh reserves entering the fight demoralized the Federals.
As the Northern troops edged backward, exploding Confederate artillery turned the retreat into a rout. Terrified soldiers, spectators and horses fought to flee the battlefield in panic. Many civilians, including some prominent Northern politicians, were captured and held as prisoners of war in Richmond. This was remembered in the North as “the great skedaddle.”
By nightfall, Federal stragglers began wandering back into Washington as the city reeled in horror. Had the Confederates pursued the defeated Federals, they might have captured the Northern capital. However after a personal inspection by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, it was decided that the troops were too tired and ill-equipped to pursue.
Confederates Rejoice and Federals Regroup
About 4,900 men were killed, wounded or captured in the Battle of Bull Run, known as the Battle of Manassas in the South. These numbers horrified both North and South, but they would be light compared to future battles. The Confederate Congress called for a national day of thanksgiving for the success of Southern arms. Convinced they had won the war and secured their independence, many soldiers left the army and returned home for the autumn harvest.
This overwhelming Confederate victory sent shock waves throughout the North, as many realized the war would last much longer than anticipated. The Lincoln administration resolved to regroup and try again, this time with a new commander. Replacing McDowell was young General George McClellan, who reorganized the force into the Army of the Potomac.
- Crocker III, H.W.: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2008)
- Davis, Kenneth C.: Don’t Know Much About the Civil War (New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1996)
- Long, E.B. and Long, Barbara: The Civil War: Day-By-Day (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971)
- Ward, Geoffrey C.; Burns, Ric; Burns, Ken: The Civil War (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990)