TIME MACHINE: First Battle of Bull Run


About a month or two following the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the public throughout the Union began clamoring for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; which they believed would bring an early end to the war. Yielding to this political pressure, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to plan an advance across Bull Run Creek to face the equally unseasoned Confederate Army near Manassas Junction, under the command of Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard.

McDowell finally buckled under presidential and public pressure and formed an ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack against the Confederate left. Unfortunately, the inexperienced officers and troops failed to conduct a successful flank attack. However, due to the lack of experience of the Confederate troops, they initially found themselves at a disadvantage. The tide of the battle turned when Confederate reinforcements under the command of Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad.

A brigade of Virginians under a relatively unknown colonel from the Virginia Military Institute (V.M.I.), Thomas J. Jackson, stood their ground and Jackson received his famous nickname, “Stonewall Jackson”, accompanied by Colonel Wade Hampton and his Hampton’s Legion from South Carolina; and Colonel J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry. The Confederate forces were able to assemble 13 guns for the defensive line, posted on the crest of Henry House Hill. And McDowell ordered the Union batteries of Captain James B. Ricketts and Captain Charles Griffin to move from Dogan’s Ridge to the hill for close infantry support. Their 11 guns engaged in an artillery duel against the Confederate’s 13. Unlike many other engagements in the Civil War, the Confederate artillery had an advantage in this battle. One of the casualties of the artillery duel was Judith Carter Henry, an 85-year-old widow and invalid, who was unable to leave her bedroom in the Henry House. When Ricketts began receiving rifle fire, he concluded that it was coming from the Henry House and turned his guns on the building. A shell that crashed through the bedroom wall tore off one of the widow’s feet and inflicted multiple injuries, from which she died later that day.

At approximately 3 p.m., the guns from Captain Griffin’s battery were overrun by the 33rd Virginia, whose men were outfitted in blue uniforms similar to those worn by Union troops. This caused Griffin’s commander, Major William F. Barry, to mistake them for Union troops and to order Griffin not to fire upon them. Close range volleys from the 33rd Virginia and Stuart’s cavalry attack against the flank of the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment (the late Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves), which was supporting the battery, killed many of the gunners and scattered the infantry. Capitalizing on this success, Jackson ordered two regiments to charge Ricketts’s guns and they were captured as well. As additional Union infantry engaged, the guns changed hands several times.

The capture of Rickett’s Battery turned the tide of battle. At about 4 p.m., the last Union troops were pushed off Henry House Hill by a charge of two regiments from Colonel Philip St. George Cocke’s brigade. To the west, two Confederate brigades from the Shenandoah Valley crushed Colonel Oliver O. Howard’s brigade, which had been occupying Chinn Ridge. General Beauregard ordered his entire line forward. McDowell’s force crumbled and began to retreat. The retreat was relatively orderly up to the Bull Run creek crossings, but it was poorly managed by the Union officers. Artillery fire overturned a Union wagon on a bridge spanning Cub Run Creek and incited panic in McDowell’s force. As the soldiers streamed uncontrollably toward Centreville, discarding their arms and equipment; McDowell ordered Colonel Dixon S. Miles’s division to act as a rear guard, but it was impossible to rally the army short of Washington. In the disorder that followed, hundreds of Union troops were taken prisoner. The wealthy and political elite of nearby Washington D.C. had come to picnic and watch the battle, expecting an easy Union victory. When the Union army retreated in disorder, panicking civilians blocked the roads back to Washington, attempting to flee in their carriages. Since the Confederate forces were also highly disorganized, Beauregard and Johnston did not fully press their advantage, despite urging from recent arrival Confederate President Jefferson Davis. An attempt by Johnston to intercept the Union troops from his right flank was a failure. Both Beauregard and Johnston squabbled with each other. Davis eventually called off the pursuit.

The First Bull Run was the largest and bloodiest battle in American history up to that point. Union forces and civilians alike feared that Confederate forces would advance on Washington, D.C., with very little standing in their way. On July 24, Professor Thaddeus S. C. Lowe ascended in the balloon Enterprise to observe the Confederates moving in and about Manassas Junction and Fairfax. He saw no evidence of massing Rebel forces, but was forced to land in Confederate territory. Northerners were shocked by the defeat of their army when an easy victory had been widely anticipated. On July 22, President Lincoln signed a bill that provided for the enlistment of another 500,000 men for up to three years of service. He also replaced Irwin McDowell with George McDowell, as the head of the Army of the Potomoc. There was little public celebration throughout the Confederacy, as Southerners realized that the war would be longer and more brutal than they had assumed. Northerners came to same conclusion.

The name of the battle has caused controversy since 1861. The Union Army frequently named battles after significant rivers and creeks that played a role in the fighting; and the Confederates generally used the names of nearby towns or farms. The U.S. National Park Service uses the Confederate name for its national battlefield park, but the Union name (Bull Run) also has widespread currency in popular literature. Below are links to more detail information on the battle:

Manassas – National Park Service

Civil War Home

“HARPER’S FERRY WEEKLY – August 3, 1861