Map of the First Manassas (or Bull Run) Campaign
The elderly general-in-chief of the army, Winfield Scott, advised caution. Scott had been skeptical of the abilities of militia and volunteer troops since his service in the War of 1812. He feared that the men in service lacked the skills necessary to perform well. Scott instead suggested that the United States bide its time, train troops to proficiency, and institute a blockade of the Confederacy. Although the United States would eventually adopt Scott’s so-called Anaconda Plan, Lincoln decided to order an advance.
The Union forces held the advantage in manpower in the Virginia theaters. Irvin McDowell, a Regular Army officer favored by Scott, held command of 35,000 Union troops in northern Virginia. At the head of the Shenandoah Valley stood general Robert Patterson, an aging veteran of the War of 1812 with nearly 18,000 men under his command. The Union enjoyed the advantage of superior numbers on both fronts, but only if they could prevent Confederate forces from uniting.
In eastern Virginia, Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard and his Army of the Potomac with approximately 21,000 men protected Manassas Junction, where the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Manassas Gap Railroad met. Most important, the Manassas Gap Railroad gave the Confederates an advantage because it connected Beauregard with the 11,000 Confederates of the Army of the Shenandoah under General Joseph E. Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley. In the event of a Union advance against either force, the Confederate generals could utilize the railroad to concentrate their men to meet it.
Under orders from Lincoln, McDowell began his advance south on July 16, intending to move to Centreville and then to Manassas Junction, where he would sever the Confederate rail line connecting the Shenandoah Valley and the east. He depended on Patterson to occupy Johnston, however, and Patterson proved utterly inept at the task. Confederate forces in the Valley expected they could slip away undetected.
Indeed, on July 17, in the face of the Union advance, Beauregard informed Confederate president Jefferson Davis that “the enemy have assailed my outposts in heavy force” and that he had “fallen back on the line of Bull Run.” Word went out by telegraph to Johnston that the anticipated Union advance had begun. Johnston, confident that Patterson would stay put, immediately agreed to shift his forces to Manassas.
A sharp skirmish on July 18 set the stage for the Battle of Manassas. As Union general Daniel Tyler advanced through Centreville, he exceeded his orders and decided to test the Confederate forces at Blackburn’s Ford. There, Confederate general James Longstreet lay in wait. He stopped Tyler’s advance, and although casualties on both sides were light, the action shaped both McDowell and Beauregard’s plans.
McDowell, although displeased with Tyler’s overenthusiastic advance, determined to avoid the obviously strong force at Blackburn’s Ford. Proceeding west from Blackburn’s Ford, crossings of Bull Run lay at Mitchell’s Ford, Island Ford, Ball’s Ford, Lewis Ford, Stone Bridge, Poplar (or Farm) Ford, and Sudley Ford. Confederate detachments protected all of the crossings up to the Stone Bridge. Accordingly, McDowell planned to flank the Confederate line by crossing far beyond the Confederate left at Sudley Ford and then wheeling behind the Confederate line. While the flanking column worked its way into position, other detachments would demonstrate at both Blackburn’s Ford and the Stone Bridge in order to distract the Confederates.
Beauregard, meanwhile, receiving news that Johnston would be arriving by rail, initially planned to pin McDowell in place at Blackburn’s Ford while Johnston worked his way around the Union right. Confederates from the Valley began arriving on July 19—the first time in history that troops had been transported to the battlefield by train—with Johnston himself arriving on July 20. With the Confederate forces united, an assault on their part became imperative. Both generals believed that once it became clear that Johnston had slipped away, Patterson would join with McDowell’s men, creating a force too large to confront. After consultation with Beauregard, Johnston judged his plan too risky, and the pair decided that they would concentrate forces at Blackburn’s Ford. They would receive the Union attack, destroy it, and then rush their fresh troops across Bull Run and push to Centreville, cutting McDowell’s line of retreat of. Thus, early on July 21, Johnston decided that the Confederates needed to shore up their left and center, and he moved the brigades of Virginian Thomas J. Jackson and South Carolinian Barnard Bee toward the left.
At the same time on July 21, Union troops began marching to their positions. At six o’clock, Tyler’s men began their demonstration at the Stone Bridge to attract Confederate attention. Meanwhile, the flanking column started toward Sudley Ford.
Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans and his Confederate troops were positioned at the Stone Bridge to meet Tyler’s possible attack. Evans had acquired the nickname at West Point as a mocking reference to his spindly legs (spindle shanks). Infamous for having an orderly carry around a keg of whiskey he had nicknamed “barrelito,” Shanks and his brigade remained impassive in the face of the Union troops who seemed content to remain on their side of Bull Run. Evans kept his men largely concealed, only allowing his pickets to trade fire with Tyler’s men as he awaited a more serious advance.
At nine o’clock in the morning, Confederate signal officer E. Porter Alexander caught sight of the flanking column just making its way across Sudley Ford and immediately informed both headquarters and Evans—”Look to your left, you are turned”—the first use of wigwag signaling in combat. Grasping the gravity of the situation, Evans moved the bulk of his men to block its advance, leaving only a few to hold Tyler. As he took position on the slopes of Matthews Hill, it appeared as though Evans, with a lone brigade, would confront a full two Union divisions.
Bee, meanwhile, had heard the firing earlier in the morning and moved his brigade, along with the brigade of Francis Bartow, from its position in the center to a location farther left. They initially marched up Henry House Hill, a prominence to the east of Matthews Hill. As they did this, the lead troops of the Union flanking column, under Rhode Islander Ambrose E. Burnside, encountered Evans’s line. The battle had begun in earnest. For nearly an hour, Evans and his Confederates held. As they began to buckle under the pressure of the Union advance, help arrived in the form of Bee’s and Bartow’s brigades, which had moved from Henry House Hill to Matthews Hill.
As fighting seesawed between Burnside and Bartow, Bee, and Evans, another Union commander took steps that would unravel the Confederate line on Matthews Hill. Colonel William T. Sherman, with a Union brigade, crossed Bull Run at Poplar (or Farm) Ford, which lay behind the Confederate lines on Matthews Hill. His brigade entered the fray, prompting a Confederate retreat.
Momentarily, it looked as if McDowell had put the Confederates to flight, as the battered remnants of the three brigades on Matthews Hill streamed eastward. Yet hope remained for Johnston and Beauregard, who during the morning’s fighting had set aside any offensive plans and started more troops toward their left. McDowell, unaccountably, paused and failed to closely pursue the Confederates. This proved a fatal error, as a brigade of Virginians under Colonel Thomas J. Jackson began to form a new defensive line along Henry House Hill. It was here that Bee purportedly implored his men to rally on Jackson “standing like a stone wall.”
Until midafternoon, fighting swirled along Henry House Hill as both sides fed more troops into the fight. In the confusion, both Confederate and Union troops fell victim to friendly fire. At this early date in the war, uniforms had not been standardized and both armies carried similar-looking flags. (In part, the Confederate battle flag was born out of this confusion.) More than once, troops fired on their comrades, convinced that they were the enemy. Bartow and Bee lost their lives, and the widow Henry, who had refused to leave her house, also perished during the fighting. By three o’clock, the Confederates had gained the upper hand at Henry House Hill.
McDowell, in midafternoon, attempted to salvage the situation. He ordered an advance on Chinn Ridge, which lay to the southwest of Henry House Hill. From there, he could potentially flank the Confederate position. Unfortunately for McDowell, the Confederates anticipated this maneuver. Brigades under Arnold Elzey and Jubal A. Early stymied the Union advance toward Chinn Ridge.
McDowell, with nothing left to gain on the south side of Bull Run, ordered a withdrawal. Covered by United States Regulars, the retreat began in an orderly fashion. Yet as the Union troops got farther from the battlefield, panic mounted. Cries went up that the Confederate cavalry was closing in on the retreating troops. In reality, Beauregard and Johnston possessed only a small force of horsemen under J. E. B. Stuart. Although they attempted a pursuit, little came of it. Instead, as the Union troops proceeded they became more disorganized. By the time they reached Centreville, McDowell decided that further withdrawal was needed in order to reorganize and calm his men.
McDowell’s men retreated through Centreville and on to Washington, D.C. Although some units certainly fled in a panic, enough Union troops maintained their composure to hold the Confederates at bay. The Confederates, for their part, exhausted after the fighting of the day and badly disorganized themselves, were in no shape to mount a sustained pursuit of the fleeing army.
The Union troops suffered 2,896 casualties against the Confederates’ 1,897, shocking numbers at the time. First Manassas was the bloodiest battle in American history to date; yet it would not compare to the bloodletting still to come. In fact, the historian Ethan Rafuse has argued that the most important effect of the battle was to convince numerous persons, North and South, that the Civil War would last longer and would exact a toll much greater in both blood and treasure than many had expected. Prior to First Manassas, many believed that a single battle would decide the war. Afterward, it became clear that much more than one victory would be needed to win the war. And while the Confederates had defeated McDowell, on July 26, a new leader, George B. McClellan, fresh from his successes in western Virginia, reported to Washington, D.C., to organize and train the new recruits arriving.