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First Battle of Bull Run

In the summer of 1861, both sides were extremely confident of a quick and easy victory. President Abraham Lincoln had ignored Scott’s Anaconda Plan and asked only for 90-day enlistments from state militia forces. Southerners, equally optimistic, assured one another that the war would be over by Fall.

Lincoln dispatched General Irvin McDowell with an inexperienced army of 30,000 men to move directly on Richmond, the Confederate capital. The immediate target was a Confederate force of 22,000 men under General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Meanwhile, to the west in the Shenandoah Valley, a Union army under General Robert Patterson was assigned the task of keeping Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate forces in check. Johnston’s soldiers were able to elude Patterson, however, and piled onto eastbound trains.

Site of Bull Run

Due to the decision to ask for only short enlistment periods, many of the Union soldiers would be finished with their terms of enlistment by the end of the summer. It became imperative to fight some kind of battle, and Union confidence was high. Feeling that the southern rebellion could be quickly crushed, northerners took up the cry, "On to Richmond."

General Winfield Scott, the hero of both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War but now advanced in years, was in overall charge of the Union armies. He designated General Irvin McDowell as field commander to devise a plan. Ultimately, it was decided to have General Robert Patterson hold a Confederate force under Johnston west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, while the main Union forced under McDowell would defeat Beauregard's smaller force situated southwest of Washington.

Beauregard decided to defend a position at Bull Run, a small tributary of the Potomac, where the turnpike leading west from Arlington towards the Blue Ridge Mountains crossed over a stone bridge about four miles west of Centreville. McDowell, having shown his plan to Lincoln in Washington, led his forces down the turnpike and made camp there. He was accompanied by newspapermen, Congressman, and enthusiastic citizens, anxious to see this fine army in action.

The initial major battle of the Civil War occurred on July 21, 1861 near Bull Run, about 30 miles south of Washington. Union forces charged the opposition lines several times and nearly broke through. The Confederates were bolstered by the courageous leadership of General Thomas J. Jackson, who stood like a “stone wall," oblivious to enemy fire. The arrival of Johnston’s soldiers enabled the Confederates to mount a charge that broke the Union lines. Northern forces fled toward Washington, D.C. over roads clogged with politicians, newspapermen, and picnicking men and women who had turned out to witness the fray.

The encounter at Bull Run ended all thought in the North that the war would be short and easily won. Southerners were elated, believing that their hopes of a quick victory might be realized. Unfortunately for the South, Beauregard did not press his advantage, which might have resulted in his taking of the city of Washington itself, but he did not become fully aware of the extent of the Northern disarray for two days. By then, the opportunity for decisive action had passed.

Following the battle, General Jackson wrote to his wife:

Yesterday we fought a great battle and gained a great victory, for which all the glory is due to God alone. Although under a heavy fire for several continuous hours I received only one wound, the breaking of the longest finger of my left hand; but the doctor says the finger may be saved. It was broken about midway between the hand and knuckle, the ball passing on the side next to the forefinger. Had it struck the centre, I should have lost the finger. My horse was wounded, but not killed. Your coat got an ugly wound near the hip, but my servant, who is very handy, has so far repaired it that it doesn't show very much. My preservation was entirely due, as was the glorious victory, to our God, to whom be all the honor, praise, and glory. The battle was the hardest that I have ever been in, but not near so hot in its fire.


*Union forces tended to refer to battle sites in terms of the nearest body of water. Confederates generally used the names of nearby communities to name battles. Bull Run was a creek; Manassas Junction was a small railroad junction.

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