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First Manassas - First Bull Run
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
July 21, 1861 (First) Manassas (Confederate)
(First) Bull Run (Union)

About 25 miles southwest of Washington the first major battle of the Civil War pits Irvin McDowell [US] against P. G. T. Beauregard [CS] and Joe Johnston [CS].
Virginia
  William Tecumseh Sherman
  P. G. T. Beauregard
  Irvin McDowell
  Joseph E. Johnston
  Army of Northern Virginia
  James Longstreet
  John B. Gordon
  Stonewall Jackson
  Richard Ewell
  Samuel Garland
  Ambrose Burnside
  Samuel Heintzelman


First Manassas - First Bull Run

In early May, 1861, Robert E. Lee ordered a garrison of Virginia militia under the command of Philip Saint George Cocke to take a position near Arlington, Virginia so they could observe the movements of the Union troops on Arlington Heights, block the railroad between Washington and Richmond and protect the important rail junction at Manassas. As senior officer Confederate Brigadier General M. L. Bonham of South Carolina assumed command when he arrived with a brigade of recruits on May 21. Lee and Jefferson Davis wanted a stronger man to command "The Alexandria Line" and together decided on P. G. T. Beauregard.

To the west, Confederate Joe Johnston controlled much of the Shenandoah Valley from his position in Winchester, south of a Yankee contingent in Harper's Ferry under the command of Robert Patterson. The Rebels also established a defensive position further east on a road between the capitals of the two countries, Washington D. C. and Richmond, Virginia.

Map of First Manassas / First Bull Run
Click for larger map
With roughly 22,000 Confederate troops at Manassas, P. G. T. Beauregard, the flamboyant Louisianian, viewed his position astride Bull Run north of the small Virginia town of Manassas weak tactically but strong strategically, with food, munitions and men quickly available via train. The Rebel line stretched from east of Sudley Springs on the left to Union Point on the right, with the heaviest concentrations of men near the bridges and fords. Fresh from the "victory" at Fort Sumter, Beauregard wanted to concentrate more soldiers here, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis would not approve his plan because Johnston was so near, instead saying Johnston could advance to Manassas at his (Johnston's) discretion.

Commander of Union forces at Bull Run, Irvin McDowell served as an independent commander until the formation of the Army of Virginia
Irvin McDowell
Opposite Beauregard was Irvin McDowell, an Ohioan who had been promoted to General two months earlier and had never commanded troops on a battlefield. In an oft repeated scenario during the war, McDowell and Beauregard had been classmates at West Point. Under pressure to advance, McDowell moved forward from Washington to Centerville on July 16 to July 18, 1861 and probed the center of the Rebel line. Troops advanced to Blackburn's Ford on Bull Run as if they were intending to attack the village of Manassas. Men under the command of James Longstreet, supported by a brigade under Jubal Early, easily repulsed the advance with a sharp skirmish. That evening a federal artillery shell landed in the fireplace of the Wilmer McLean House, where Beauregard was staying.

Beauregard ordered the Alexandria and Orange Railroad bridge across Bull Run at Union Mills (or Union Point) be destroyed, so that if the federals won the impending battle it would still be difficult to advance on the Confederate capital of Richmond. McDowell probed the area to the west, looking for the end of the Rebel line. Seeing that the Union general was looking for his flank, Beauregard's plan was to let the Yankees advance on his left while he attacked on McDowell's left, hoping to trap McDowell by capturing Centerville. Beauregard got some relief late on July 20 when units under Joe Johnston began arriving in camp from the station at Manassas Junction. Johnston had broken off contact with Patterson and moved undetected to Bull Run courtesy of the Manassas Gap Railroad.

Johnston's arrival presented a problem. Johnston, who outranked Beauregard, immediately became commanding officer. Beauregard began showing Johnston his plan on a map of the area. Johnston approved the plan, which called for an attack behind the main body of the Yankees towards Centerville. Since Beauregard was more familiar with the terrain, Johnston wisely gave Beauregard tactical command. It was important that the attack be carried out quickly, in case Patterson figured out that Johnston had given him the slip and moved towards McDowell.

At about 2:00 am on July 21, two divisions of McDowell's men under Col. David Hunter and Col. Samuel Heintzelman began a long march fron Centerville towards the Stone Bridge on Warrenton Pike. After the first two divisions turned right and followed a farm road west, Gen. Daniel Tyler opened the engagement at 5:30 am with a shot from a thirty-pound Parrot rifled gun towards Col. Nathan Evans position at the Stone Bridge. A line of skirmishers advanced in a pre-dawn feint.

Confederates at the Stone Bridge waited for an attack but Daniel Tyler only advanced skirmishers. In the light of the dawn Evans saw the dust of the Federal column heading for Sudley Springs. Realizing only then that the attack on the Stone Bridge was a feint, Evans withdrew most of his men and advanced on Sudley Church.

With Ambrose Burnside in the lead, Heintzelman and Hunter's divisions crossed Bull Run, a meandering stream in the Virginia Piedmont. After crossing at Sudley Ford they turned east. Shortly after 9:00 am on July 21, 1861 the Yankees ran into less than a thousand of Evans' South Carolinians, who had formed on Matthew Hill, west of Young's Branch. Small arms fire marked the start of the battle, but Confederates quickly began peeling off Yankees with grapeshot from twin howitzers that Evans had placed on either end of his line.

Burnside concentrated on the Confederate right while Alexander Porter's brigade came up and entered the fray hitting the left of Shanks Evans' line. By this time, David Hunter had arrived to see the battle. Calls went out on both sides for reserves to advance, but the Union army had significantly more men in the area. Hunter, leading the 2nd Rhode Island towards the Rebel line, was shot and seriously wounded. Porter, as senior officer, took command of the Union forces. As another Union brigade under George Sykes was lining up the 1st Louisiana Battalion began to advance, but the outnumbered Rebels didn't stand a chance against the Union line. Evans held his position against vastly superior numbers for more than an hour.

The calmness "Shanks" Evans displayed under fire did not carry back to Confederate headquarters. Beauregard failed to adequately cancel his original plan, leaving James Longstreet thinking he would be advancing across Blackburn Ford. He tried to order Dick Ewell and "Neighbor" Jones to attack Yankees on their front, but it was so badly worded that Beauregard literally ordered Jones to attack Ewell.

Behind Evans, Barnard Bee and Francis Bartow arrived and began working feverishly on a makeshift line. Finally, the Yankee onslaught began to break down the Rebel line and Bee advised Evans to withdraw to be in a line with the position Bee and Bartow had taken. As McDowell's men continued towards the battle from Sudley Springs they pushed the Rebel line back, first to the top of Matthews Hill. Luckily for the Confederates, the Union soldiers were slow to take advantage of the retreat. The Rebels crossed Young's Branch and continued retreating to Henry House Hill.

On Bartow's right young William Tecumseh Sherman crossed Bull Run at the head of a brigade and advanced, forcing Bartow to withdraw to protect his flank. A group of Confederates formed and attacked the rear of the Union line as Sherman's men advanced towards Bartow's men. After turning and engaging the Confederates, at least for a couple of volleys, Sherman withdrew to the line formed by Burnside and Porter. Johnston and Beauregard arrived, trying to rally their men, but the skilled Confederate commanders continued to battle their troops lack of training while the Union army advanced.

Then came one of those moments of fate. General Bee saw Thomas Jackson at the head of his men standing fast and Bee rallied his men saying "Look. There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!" (This is also quoted as "Look at Jackson's Brigade. It stands like a stone wall.") The Rebel line firmed and held in spite of McDowell's numerical advantage.

As the Rebel line firmed the Union advance paused, and the Confederates actually began to advance against the Union troops, driving the infantry away and garnering two prizes-cannon that moments before had been reigning death on the Confederate line. On the Confederate right, Sherman was driven back across Bull Run while on the top of Henry Hill the battle see-sawed back and forth. Federal troops were still arriving at a quicker pace than Confederates when news for the Southerners went from bad to worse. Generals Bartow and Bee lay dying and Yankees were making a push towards Confederate supplies. Finally, the Confederates began to hold the line and advancing in some areas. On the Yankee's right, Rebels took high ground near the Chinn House and Johnston's men were moving directly from Manassas Depot to the Rebel line. Slowly the tide turned and the Rebels began to advance. As the Union line collapsed, the soldiers inexperience quickly turned a retreat into pandemonium. In their haste to get as far away from the battle as quickly as possible they overran civilians who had come from Washington to watch the upstart Confederate army get defeated.

Jefferson Davis arrived on the scene and conferred with Johnston and, eventually, Beauregard. In the end Davis supported Beauregard's decision to pursuit the retreating bluecoats. The pursuit was not aggressive and as a result no further damage was done to the Union Army. General "Stonewall" Jackson was reputed to say after the battle that with 5,000 men he could destroy was left of the Union army. Federal losses (killed, wounded or missing) totaled 2,896 while the Confederates lost 1,982.

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First Battle of Bull Run / Manassas

Links appearing on this page:

Ambrose Burnside
Fort Sumter
Harper's Ferry
Irvin McDowell
James Longstreet
Jefferson Davis
Joe Johnston
Jubal Early
July 16
July 18
July 21
July, 1861
May, 1861
P. G. T. Beauregard
Robert E. Lee
Samuel Heintzelman
William Tecumseh Sherman

Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles

First Manassas - First Bull Run was last changed on - May 15, 2011
First Manassas - First Bull Run was added in 2005




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