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First Battle of Bull Run

The first major battle of the Civil War, a crushing defeat for the
Federal North and a major victory for the Confederate South.

Name: First Battle of Bull Run or the First Battle of Manassas.

Date:  18th to 21st July 1861

Generals commanding:   
The Federal Army commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell.  The Confederate Army commanded by Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnston and Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard.

Numbers involved:           
The Federal Army comprised 36,000 troops, although only 18,000 and 30 guns took part in the battle around Henry’s Hill.  The Confederate Army comprised 32,000 troops, although only some 18,000 and 21 guns took part in the battle around Henry’s Hill.

Map of The Battle of Fredericksburg
Map of the First Battle of the Bull Run by John Fawkes
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Arms and equipment:  Both sides suffered from significant difficulties in conducting land warfare in the 1860s.  Small arms, with the Minié style of rifled musket, had become significantly more lethal than had been the case with the old short ranged, grossly inaccurate, smooth bore muskets that had been the standard infantry weapon for nearly 2 centuries.  Rifled guns firing shell projectiles increased the range and effectiveness of artillery.  More sophisticated systems of transport and organisation of supply, made possible by railroads and advances in industrial production, allowed for much larger armies.  Tactics had advanced little from the era of the Napoleonic Wars of the beginning of the 19th Century in Europe.

Louisiana Tigers
Image from Tim Reese's 'Uniforms and Flags of the American Civil War 1861-1865
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Probably only the Prussian army with its long standing General Staff had conducted sufficient study of the impact of changes in warfare to enable it to train its staff officers and generals to control the substantially greater and more sophisticated armies of the period.  The French and British had first shown their failure to grasp problems of warfare in the second half of the 19th Century during the Crimean War.  The French confirmed their failure to show any greater grasp in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the British in the South African War of 1900.  In each of these wars reliance was placed on successful colonial commanders who had no idea how to handle the large armies involved in a major war. 

Uniforms:  In Europe the French military establishment of Emperor Napoleon III was in the ascendancy following the Crimean War and the wars in Northern Italy fought by the French against the Austrians.  Both Federal and Confederate armies adopted the French style ‘kepi’ and several regiments on each side adopted the uniforms of the French North African ‘Zouaves’.  The Federal regiments wore dark blue.  The Confederates in theory wore a light grey uniform.  In practice the Confederate government was unable to maintain a proper supply of uniform clothing for its troops who wore whatever they could get their hands on.  In many instances the most ready supply of uniforms lay in captured Federal supplies, leading to confusion on several battlefields, when Confederate troops were mistake for Federals.

Small arms:  The Crimean War between the British and the French and the Russians from 1854 to 1856, saw the conversion of the British and French infantry from the old smoothbore musket, which had been in service for 150 years, to the Minié rifled musket, with its substantially increased range and accuracy.  The Federal government equipped its infantry with Minié style rifled muskets bought from Europe but increasingly manufactured in Federal armouries.  Lacking a manufacturing base and cut off from European import by the Federal blockade, the Confederate government was forced to equip its soldiers with stocks of weapons seized from Federal armouries located in southern states.  These were largely the old smooth bore muskets, of short range and notoriously inaccurate.  Many Confederate troops, without even these weapons, were forced to use whatever firearms they were able to bring on enlistment.  As General Lee’s army in Virginia captured Federal stocks established after the outbreak of war more modern firearms were seized and used to equip his infantry.

Artillery:  As with small arms, the Federal access to European markets and its own manufacturing base gave the Federal army an immense advantage in the production of cannon.  Broadly the Federal artillery was equipped with rifled guns firing shells, while the Confederate artillery was equipped with the old style smooth bore cannon, of lesser range and accuracy; firing ball, grape shot and case shot.

Orders of battle:
The Federal regiments were formed into brigades and divisions.  The Confederate regiments formed only into brigades.

Federal Divisions:
First Division commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Tyler
Brigades of Keyes, Sherman and Schenck.
Second Division commanded by Brigadier General David Hunter
Brigades of Porter and Burnside.
Third Division commanded by Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman
Brigades of Franklin, Wilcox and Howard.
Fourth Division commanded by Brigadier General Theodore Runyan
Fifth Division commanded by Brigadier General Dixon S. Miles
Confederate Brigades:
The Army of the Potomac (General Beauregard):
First Brigade of South Carolinians commanded by Brigadier General Milledge L. Bonham
Second Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Richard S. Ewell
Third Brigade commanded by Brigadier General James Longstreet
Fourth Brigade commanded by Brigadier General David R. Jones
Fifth Brigade commanded by Colonel Philip Cock
Sixth Brigade commanded by Colonel Jubal A. Early
Seventh Brigade commanded by Brigadier General by Colonel Nathan G. Evans
Reserve Brigade commanded by Colonel Theophilus H. Holmes
The Army of the Shenandoah (General Johnston):
First Brigade commanded by Colonel Thomas Jackson
Second Brigade commanded by Colonel Francis S. Bartow
Third Brigade commanded by Brigade General Barnard E. Bee
Fourth Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Edmund Kirby Smith
Cavalry Regiment commanded by Colonel James E.B. Stuart

Circumstances:  Following the declaration of secession by the Southern States and the attack on Fort Sumter, President Lincoln called for volunteers from the loyal states to defend the capital and invade the rebel states.  Virginia, lying immediately to the South of Washington D.C., would inevitably be the first secessionist state to be invaded. 

During the first years of the War Manassas Railroad Junction in Northern Virginia, the eastern end of the Manassas Gap Railroad, would prove a focal point for the fighting.

The Manassas Gap provided access from the main body of Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Manassas Gap Railroad provided the link between the sections of the state on either side of the mountain chain.

President Lincoln and his Commander-in-Chief, General Winfield Scott, urged the Federal field commander, Brigadier Irwin McDowell, to attack Virginia at the first opportunity.  McDowell felt his volunteer army was insufficiently well trained to take the field.  Lincoln and Scott urged him on with the words “You are green.  They are green.  You are both green together”.

On 6th July 1861 Major General Robert Patterson crossed the Potomac River and marched into the Shenandoah Valley to engage Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah.

On 16th July 1861 McDowell marched out with the Federal Army towards the Northern Virginian town of Centreville, some 6 miles North of Bull Run and Manassas.  General McDowell immediately encountered significant difficulties.  There were no reliable maps of Northern Virginia available to the Federal Army.  The ground had to be scouted by staff officers and units that had no experience of this role.  Other than a small battalion of Marines, some artillery batteries and a scattering of officers, none of the Federal regiments had military experience.  The troops had no experience of marching under load, manoeuvring in battle, managing their rations, camping in the field or, in many instances, even firing their weapons.  President Lincoln had been correct in saying that the army was green, but he was wrong to comment that the Confederates had the same problem.  Virtually all the Confederate volunteer regiments were recruited from rural communities where the use of firearms was second nature from childhood.  While still a small number, the officers from the pre-war regular US army made up a higher proportion of regimental officers in the Confederate Army than they did in the Federal Army.  It was significantly easier to defend a position with inexperienced troops, as fell to Beauregard and his Confederate Army, than to make a complicated approach march and attack, the task faced by McDowell with his Federal Army.

The First Battle of Bull Run
First Battle of Bull Run
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Account:  McDowell occupied Centreville with his Federal Army on 18th July 1861, a small Confederate force withdrawing before him.  Beauregard had been warned of the Federal advance by the Confederate spy in Washington, Mrs Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and other sources.  The Confederate Army lay in prepared positions behind Bull Run, the stream that flowed round Manassas providing a defensive barrier.  Confederate positions stretched from Stone Bridge, where the Warrenton Pike crossed Bull Run, to Union Mills Ford in the South, covering some five major fords on Bull Run.  Beauregard did not intend to remain on the defensive.  His intention was to advance across Bull Run and swing around behind McDowell’s left flank as the Federal Army advanced to attack him.

McDowell’s plan was to advance on Bull Run and find a ford that would enable him to outflank the Confederates and attack their right flank.  As a preliminary to this movement McDowell sent Tyler’s division with orders to demonstrate at Blackburn’s Ford in the middle of the Confederate position.  Tyler’s orders were to limit his action to a demonstration and not to become involved in a full battle with the Confederates.  The aim was to act as a diversion and to pin the Confederates to the upstream fords while the main Federal force crossed Bull Run downstream.  Tyler’s Fourth Brigade commanded by Colonel Israel B. Richardson had the role of conducting this demonstration.  Richardson’s demonstration quickly developed into a full engagement with Longstreet’s brigade entrenched on the far bank of the Run.  The Federal troops were driven back and on McDowell’s intervention Richardson withdrew.

While Tyler’s action was under way, McDowell was enabled to see that the country to the South of the Warrenton Pike was too dense for his army to move easily to outflank the Confederate right.  McDowell therefore switched his outflanking manoeuvre to the Confederate left.  Beauregard had assumed that the axis of the Federal advance would be the Centreville-Manassas road which crossed Bull Run at Mitchell’s Ford, the ford immediately upstream from Blackburn’s Ford.  The Confederate positions along Bull Run centred on Mitchell’s Ford, held by Bonham’s brigade.  At Stone Bridge, on the extreme left of the Confederate line, lay Colonel Nathan Evans’ small brigade.

Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of First Bull Run.
The First Battle of Bull Run, 21st July 1861,
Engraved by J.C. Mcrae

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McDowell gave Tyler’s division a second diversionary role; this time against Evans at Stone Bridge.  The main attack was allocated to the divisions of Generals Hunter and Heintzleman, with orders to turn off the Warrenton Pike to the right short of the Stone Bridge, circle round to the North to Sudley Ford, rightly assumed to be unoccupied, where they would cross and come in behind the Confederate Left Flank.

Following the failed demonstration at Blackburn’s’ Ford on 18th July 1861, McDowell did not begin his main attack until the early hours of 21st July 1861.  In the meantime the form of the Confederate Army before him had changed substantially.

The strategic importance of Manassas lay in its position on the Manassas Gap Railroad, providing the only railroad link through the Gap to the Shenandoah Valley.  Aware of the Federal advance and that he was outnumbered, Beauregard had pressed Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, to order General Johnston to bring his Army of the Shenandoah to central Virginia and assist him against McDowell’s Army.

Sudley Ford in 1861
Sudley Ford in 1861
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On 18th July 1861, the day of Tyler’s action at Blackburn’s Ford, General Johnston, acting on direct orders from President Davis, disengaged his Army of the Shenandoah from the unenterprising Federal Army of General Patterson and moved east.  Johnston marched the infantry to Piedmont Station to travel by rail to Manassas.  The cavalry and guns moved by road.  The lack of aggression of the Federal commander in the Shenandoah made this crucial operation possible.

Brigadier General Johnston arrived at Manassas with the first of his infantry brigades by train in the late afternoon of 19th July 1861.  McDowell’s staff officers reported to him the intense railroad activity, indicated by the distant hooting of the locomotives, surmising that the Army of the Shenandoah was joining Beauregard.

The Federal approach to Sudley was delayed by several hours due to the difficulty of the route along ill-defined tracks through dense woods.  Hunter’s division began crossing Bull Run at around 9am and moved South towards the Warrenton Pike.

Rallying Confederate Troops Under Bee
Rallying Confederate Troops under Bee, First Battle of Bull Run Battle
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The Shenandoah brigades of Bee, Bartow and Jackson were detraining at Manassas as the Federal divisions crossed Sudley Ford and moved towards the Confederate left rear.

It is said that Colonel Evans at the Stone Bridge was warned of the Federal threat at Sudley by ‘wig wag’ signalling from a Confederate signal station.  The Confederates were on home ground and early warning of the Federal move is likely to have been given to Evans by locals.  Evans acted promptly on the information.  Leaving four companies of one regiment to hold the bridge against Tyler, Evans marched with the remaining companies of that regiment and the Louisiana Tigers and 2 guns towards Sudley to meet the Federal advance.

Evans small force intercepted the Federals on Matthews’ Hill.  In the wooded countryside Evans managed to conceal the small numbers under his command by repeated attacks.  From the outset the Confederate leadership established its ascendency by daring and ruthless action.

On receiving Evans’ warning of the Federal outflanking move via Sudley Ford, Johnston and Beauregard hurried the Shenandoah brigades, as they arrived, to the point of danger.  The brigades of Bee and Bastow joined Evans in the line on Matthews’ Hill.

McDowell ordered Tyler to convert his demonstration against the Stone Bridge into a full attack, to cross Bull Run and assault the Confederate line on Matthews Hill in its right rear flank.

The Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson at Center, July 21, 1861
The Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson at Center, July 21, 1861
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Sherman had earlier in the day noted a Confederate officer crossing a hidden farmer’s ford upstream of the Stone Bridge.  On the order to attack, Sherman took his brigade across the farmer’s ford.

Heavy fighting took place on Matthews’ Hill until the Confederates were driven back, crossing Young’s Branch (a stream), and retreating onto Henry’s Hill.  There Bee found Colonel Jackson’s Virginia brigade in position behind the reverse brow of the hill.  Confederate guns took post on Henry’s Hill and engaged the advancing Federals.  The exchange is said to have taken place between Bee and Jackson that led to Jackson’s memorable nickname of ‘Stonewall’ (see below). 

McDowell took the decision to order Federal batteries onto Henry’s Hill to engage the Confederate guns at a range of around 300 yards.  The Federal guns were rifled pieces firing shells.  At this short range they were disadvantaged by the Confederate smooth bore cannon firing round shot, grape and canister.
For the remainder of the day the fighting raged on and around Henry’s Hill.  The Confederate line was there based on Colonel Thomas Jackson’s brigade, the brigades of Evans, Bee and Barrow being heavily damaged.  Jackson had kept his 5 Virginia infantry regiments lying down on the reverse crest of Henry’s Hill, out of Federal sight and direct gunfire.  Controversially Jackson had not responded to Bee’s urgings to bring his brigade forward into the fighting on Matthew’s Hill.

Once the Federals moved onto Henry’s Hill, Jackson’s brigade advanced to the attack.  The focus of the fighting was the exposed Federal gun line.  The guns were too advanced to operate effectively and Confederate rifle and gunfire killed the gunners and horses.  The guns were captured and retaken in a number of attacks by the infantry of each side.

The Federals were present on and around Henry’s Hill in considerable strength; Hunter’s Second Division comprising the brigades of Porter and Burnside, Heintzleman’s Third Division comprising the brigades of Franklin, Wilcox and Howard and from Stone Bridge and the Farm Ford, Tyler’s First Division comprising the brigades of Keyes, Schenck and Sherman.  The Federal attacks were disorganised and piecemeal, reflecting the lack of experience and training at every level of rank and command.  Jackson’s brigade provided the Confederates with a well-led and relatively more experienced formation that the Federals could not displace.

The Confederate command, Johnston and Beauregard, realised that the crisis of the battle was around Henry’s Hill and directed Confederate brigades from the positions behind the Bull Run fords around Manassas into line with Jackson on and around  Henry’s Hill.  The quickest route to the fighting was via the Manassas-Sudley road.  The brigades of Colonel Jubal Early and Brigadier General Kirby Smith (Colonel Arnold Elzey) came up on the left of the Confederate line and beyond the Federal right.  It was finally the pressure on their right wing that caused the collapse of the Federal line.  Colonel J.E.B. Stuart took his regiment of Virginia cavalry in a charge that overwhelmed a New York regiment.

The 2 Federal batteries of Major Griffin and Major Ricketts were overrun and the guns taken by Jackson’s Virginia regiments.  It is said that Major Griffin failed to fire on the 33rd Virginians, misled by the dark blue coats that they then wore.

JEB Stuart’s cavalry charge at First Bull Run.
JEB Stuart’s cavalry charge
at the First Bull Run

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In spite of the substantial predominance of Federal forces over the Confederate troops at Henry’s Hill, the Federal line began to dissolve and the regiments withdraw across Sudley Ford and the Stone Bridge, initially in reasonable order.  The Confederate forces were in no condition to press the retreat although the guns maintained a fire on the Federal regiments. 

At some stage, possibly as the Federal regiments reached the crossing over Cub Run, the retreat dissolved into a route with the troops streaming back in disorder.  A small number of units, particularly the regular regiment of US Marines and the gun batteries maintained order and covered the retreat of the volunteer regiments.

Urged on by President Jefferson Davis, Johnston and Beauregard despatched the brigades of Bonham and Longstreet across Bull Run to intercept the Federal army by cutting the Warrenton Pike.  Richardson’s Federal  brigade presented a firm front and Federal artillery opened a bombardment which was sufficient to deter the Confederates from pressing this move.

McDowell’s army passed through Centreville and continued on until they reached Washington.  The first attempt to invade Virginia had ended in abject failure.

The Stone House at the Battle of Bull Run
The Stone House at the
Battle of Bull Run

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Casualties:  The Federal Army suffered 2,896 casualties (460 dead, 1,124 wounded and 1,312 captured).  The Confederate Army suffered 1,982 casualties (387 dead, 1,582 wounded and 13 missing).

Aftermath:  President Lincoln and Northern Public Opinion had expected an easy victory for their volunteer army, enlisted for 3 months.  Bull Run was a cruel disenchantment.  Bull Run led the Southern States to hope and expect that they would win the war.  Both sides dug in for a long struggle.  President Lincoln signed a bill for the raising of an army of 500,000 men, enlisted for 3 years in place of the 3 month volunteers.
As in so many wars the “Over by Christmas” expectation had proved an illusion.
McDowell was replaced by Major General George B. McClellan as commander of the Federal Army in Washington.
Beauregard was promoted to full General in the Confederate Army.


The Battle of Bull Run, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson at Center, July 21, 1861
69th New York Regiment at Bull Run
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