First Battle Of Manassas
|First posted Mar 1996|
Last update Mar 14, 2007
On a warm July day in 1861, two great armies of a divided nation clashed for the first time on the fields overlooking Bull Run. Their ranks were filled with enthusiastic young volunteers in colorful new uniforms, gathered together from every part of the country. Confident that their foes would run at the first shot, the raw recruits were thankful that they would not miss the only battle of what would surely be a short war. But any thought of colorful pageantry was suddenly lost in the smoke, din, dirt, and death of the battle. Soldiers on both sides were stunned by the violence and destruction they encountered. At day's end nearly 900 young men lay lifeless on the fields of Matthews Hill, Henry Hill, and Chinn Ridge. Ten hours of heavy fighting swept away any notion the war's outcome would be decided quickly.
Cheers rang through the streets of Washington on July 16, 1861, as General Irvin McDowell's Army, 35,000 strong, marched out to begin the long-awaited campaign to capture Richmond and end the war. It was an Army of Green Recruits, few of whom had the faintest idea of the magnitude of the task facing them. But their swaggering gait showed that none doubted the outcome. As excitement spread, many citizens and Congressmen with picnic baskets followed the Army into the field to watch what all expected would be a colorful show.
Many of these troops were 90-day volunteers summoned by President Abraham Lincoln after the startling news of Fort Sumter burst over the Nation in April 1861. Called from shops and farms, the recruits had little knowledge of what war would mean. The first day's march covered only eight kilometers (5 miles) as many stayed back to pick blackberries or fill canteens.
McDowell's lumbering columns were headed for the vital railroad junction at Manassas. Here the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad, which led west to the Shenandoah Valley. If McDowell could seize this junction, he would stand astride the best overland approach to the Confederate's capital.
On July 18th McDowell's Army reached Centreville. Five miles ahead a small meandering stream named Bull Run crossed the route of the Union advance, and there guarding the fords from Union Mills to the Stone Bridge waited 22,000 Southern troops under the command of General Pierre G.T. Beauregard. McDowell initially probed the Confederate center, but his troops were checked at Blackburn's Ford. He then spent the next two days scouting the Southern left flank. In the meantime, Beauregard asked the Confederate Government at Richmond for help. General Joseph E. Johnston, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley with 10,000 Confederate troops, was ordered to support Beauregard. Johnston gave an opposing Union force the slip, and, employing the Manassas Gap Railroad, started his army toward Manassas Junction. Most of Johnston's troops arrived at the junction on July 20 and 21, some marching from the trains directly into battle.
On the morning of July 21, McDowell sent his attack columns in a long march north toward Sudley Springs Ford. This route took the Federals around the Confederate left. To distract the Southerners, McDowell ordered a diversionary attack where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run at the Stone Bridge. At 5:30 AM the deep throated roar of a 30-pounder Parrott rifle shattered the morning calm, and signaled the start of battle.
McDowell's new plan depended on speed and surprise, both difficult with inexperienced troops. Valuable time was lost as the men stumbled through the darkness along narrow roads. Confederate Colonel Nathan Evans, commanding at the Stone Bridge, soon realized that the attack on his front was only a diversion. Leaving a small force to hold the bridge, Evans rushed the remainder of his command to Matthews Hill in time to check McDowell's lead unit. But Evan's force was too small to hold back the Federals for long.
Soon brigades under Brigadier General Barnard Bee and Colonel Francis Bartow marched to Evans' assistance. But even with these reinforcements, the thin gray line collapsed and Southerners fled in disorder toward Henry Hill.
About noon, the Federals stopped their advance to reorganize for a new attack. The lull lasted for about an hour, giving Johnston and Beauregard enough time to stabilze their lines. Attempting to rally his men, Bee pointed to General Thomas Jackson, and shouted the now famous words, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall!" The battle raged until just after 4:00 PM, with each side trying to force the other off Henry Hill. Then fresh Southern units crashed into the Union's right flank on Chinn Ridge, forcing McDowell's tired and discouraged soldiers to withdraw.
At first the withdrawal was orderly. Screened by the regulars, the three-month volunteers retired across Bull Run, where they found the road to Washington jammed with the carriages of Congressmen and others who had driven out to Centreville to watch the fight. Panic now seized many of the soldiers and the retreat became a rout. The Confederates, though bolstered by the arrival of President Jefferson Davis on the field just as the battle was ending, were too exhausted and disorganized to pursue the Union army back into Washington. Daybreak on July 22 found the defeated Union Army back behind the bristling defenses of Washington.