On 15 April 1861, two days after South Carolina militia bombarded Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection against the laws of the United States. In total, there were only 15,000 men in U. S. Army uniform — hardly enough men to impose Lincoln’s will on eight seceding states, so to suppress the Confederacy and restore federal authority, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers for 90-days service. Apparently, Mr. Lincoln was thinking that forcing southern states into compliance would be an abbreviated affair. He later accepted the voluntary service of 40,000 additional troops with three-year enlistments. These combined actions increased the strength of the Army to around 200,000. Whether prudent, Mr. Lincoln’s actions prompted four other states to secede.
In the North
During April, thousands of bright-eyed, excited, adventurous young men streamed into the nation’s capital to join the fight and defend the nation’s capital. The Army’s General-in-Chief was Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. His plan for suppressing the rebels was to send an army of 80,000 men down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans. As the Army strangled the southern economy, the Navy would blockade all Southern ports along the eastern United States and western Gulf Coast of Florida. The press was not particularly kind to General Scott or his scheme of maneuver.
In July 1861, thousands of young men were wearing army uniforms and encamped at various locations around the city of Washington. With members of the press and politicians wagging their tongues daily, political pressure was building for Mr. Lincoln to do something. Lincoln’s problem was that his Army Commanding General was 75-years-old. Who would lead these young men into battle? The president’s ultimate selection was both political and expedient.
Irvin McDowell was a graduate of the United States Military Academy, class of 1838. McDowell was a competent staff officer with limited command experience. In April 1861, McDowell was an Army major assigned to the office of the Adjutant General. In less than a month, McDowell advanced from Major to brigadier general. The staff officer suddenly found himself in command of the Military Department of Northeast Virginia and Army of Northern Virginia — on paper, around 35,000 men organized into five infantry divisions. No one knew better than McDowell that he was entirely out of his depth.
Politics ruled the day, however. With everyone clamoring for Lincoln to do something, he did. He placed 35,000 men in uniform. There was no time for much combat training, of course, and McDowell was at least smart enough to realize that this was a problem. After voicing his concerns to Lincoln, the president told McDowell, “You are green, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” One can only imagine what McDowell was thinking about that sage advice. But McDowell was more than out of his depth as a field commander. Thanks to Confederate spy/socialite Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the Confederacy had a copy of McDowell’s battle plan for Manassas.
In any case, Brigadier General McDowell’s battle plan was exceedingly ambitious. He intended to make a diversionary attack with two divisions, send a third against the Confederate flank, cut off the railway line to Richmond, push the rebels out of Manassas and save the city of Washington. After reading McDowell’s battle plan, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard, commanding the Alexandria Line, must have laughed. McDowell couldn’t have accomplished that even with an experienced army. He would be facing around 24,000 Confederate and state militia.
In The South
In 1861, Brigadier General Joseph E. Johnson served as Quartermaster General of the U. S. Army. When his home state seceded from the Union, Johnson resigned his commission and returned to Virginia. Initially, Virginia officials offered Johnson a commission as a major general in the state militia but later rescinded it and instead offered him a commission as a brigadier general. Virginia only needed one major general, and they preferred Robert E. Lee to Johnson. Johnson’s problem was that in the Union Army, he was a brigadier general, while Lee was only a colonel. Seniority matters, so, rather than serving under someone junior in rank, Johnson accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army.
Johnson was a talented officer with considerable experience throughout his tenure in the U. S. Army, but there was between him and Confederate President Jefferson Davis a strained relationship. Initially, Davis appointed Brigadier General Johnson to relieve Colonel Thomas J. Jackson of his command at Harpers Ferry; he later ordered Johnson to assume command of the Army of Shenandoah. In this capacity, Johnson would be in a position to support Brigadier General Beauregard at Manassas.
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard (also known as P. G T. Beauregard) was the brother-in-law of John Slidell, a lawyer, politician, and businessman. Slidell previously served as U. S. Minister to Mexico (1844-45). In January 1861, the War Department appointed Beauregard to serve as Superintendent of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point. Five days later, Louisiana seceded from the Union, and the War Department revoked Beauregard’s appointment. Beauregard vigorously protested such treatment and soon after resigned from the U. S. Army and returned to his home in Louisiana. Beauregard anticipated that the governor of Louisiana would offer him command of the state militia, but that position was instead offered to and accepted by General Braxton Bragg. Bragg offered Beauregard a colonelcy, but there was an issue of pride once again, and Beauregard instead enlisted as a private in the Orleans Guards.
Again, President Davis came to the rescue and, on 1 March 1861, appointed Beauregard a Brigadier General and placed him in command of the defenses at Charleston, South Carolina. Beauregard was the first general officer appointment of the Confederacy, but the process of general officer appointments was haphazard. In a few months, Beauregard would become a full (four-star) general, one of only seven promoted to that rank, but he would end up junior to four others: Samuel Cooper, Albert S. Johnson, Robert E. Lee, and Joseph E. Johnson.
On 12 April, Beauregard ordered the commencement of hostilities with Fort Sumter, a bombardment lasting 34 hours. President Davis later summoned Beauregard to Richmond for a new assignment. He would assume command of the Alexandria Line. Beauregard immediately began planning for the defense of Manassas, including a concentration of forces along with those of General Johnson at Harpers Ferry. Johnson was senior to Beauregard, but he was unfamiliar with the Manassas area and ceded tactical planning to Beauregard. President Davis had great confidence in Beauregard as a field commander, but less with his ability as an operational planner. Beauregard tended to formulate overly complicated schemes of maneuver without due consideration for logistics, intelligence, and political realities.
There is nothing particularly glorious about battle except, perhaps, in the minds of those who’ve never experienced it. When the fighting is finally over, there is, of course, deep gratitude among survivors, and a peculiar bonding takes place among those survivors — for a little while — until everyone returns home and the nightmares and guilt arrive. The guilt isn’t reflective of what combatants had to do in combat. It’s for having the audacity (or luck) of living through it. Many of their friends didn’t.
No doubt, the young men of both armies, whether officer or enlisted, had similar thoughts. Aside from the excitement of a great undertaking, no doubt caused by increased adrenalin, there was also fear — a fear so palpable, one can smell it. Ordinary people fear death, of course, but what concerned these youngsters most was the prospect that fear would paralyze them. Fear is a powerful thing — no one wants to be a coward. Youngsters worry about such things. They fear that in an unannounced split second when it occurs to them that running away offers life and remaining behind guarantees death, they will choose to run away. A reasonable person will conclude that remaining behind in a fight that they’re losing is an irrational response to utter chaos — but there is nothing rational about combat, and adrenalin is an equally powerful antidote.
Two untrained armies began moving toward one another in mid-July 1861. Oh, they may have had enough training to know how to line up, and maybe even how to wheel right or left, but they didn’t know (or trust) their officers, they barely knew their NCOs, and they may not have known the name of the man standing next to them. The bonding process among combatants had yet to take hold. It was a time when there was no leadership — only followership. How the man standing next to them reacted to gunfire or exploding artillery influenced how they, themselves, responded to such trauma. Watching someone running to the rear was a powerful incentive to join him — and so too was witnessing the decapitation of the next man in line. Panic in the ranks can arrive as fast as flood water, and no one is immune to its effects without intense training and prior experience on the line.
The morning of 16 July began shaping up as a genuine goat-rope; it only got worse as the day progressed. Formed regiments milled around along the roads while their officers tried to organize them into a line of march, and the men waited patiently while their officers and NCOs struggled to figure it out. Hurry up and wait is an American military tradition.
After hours of fumbling about, General McDowell finally led his army out of Washington. It was the largest army ever formed on the North American continent — around 28,000 men (18,000 infantry) present. Army commanders mustered everyone they could get their hands on — even Marines.
With pressure from the War Department to bolster McDowell’s army, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells ordered the Commandant of the Marine Corps to form a battalion of “disposable” Marines for duty in the field. In 1861, U. S. Marines were seagoing infantry; they were not trained for field duty. Major John G. Reynolds assumed command of the Marine battalion and reported to McDowell. None of the Marines had any field equipment — all of them were raw recruits. The best they could do in the upcoming fight was to help resupply artillery units with powder and shot.
McDowell hoped to have his army at Centerville by 17 July, but the troops were unaccustomed to marching long distances. The distance from Washington to Manassas was 30 miles. En route, formations would bunch up along the road, stop, wait, and start again. Some soldiers, bored with the walk (it was hardly a march), would break formation to wander off into an orchard to rest and pick apples from the trees. They were an undisciplined lot and largely ignored the orders of their officers and NCOs to “get back in ranks.”
On 17 July, Beauregard encamped his army near Manassas — the men busily preparing their defenses along the south bank of Bull Run. His left flank, under Brigadier General Evans, blocked the stone bridge. General McDowell was initially confident that he would overwhelm a numerically inferior enemy and equally optimistic that Brigadier General Robert Patterson, whose orders were to engage General Johnson’s Army of the Shenandoah, would prevent Johnson from reinforcing Beauregard.
Weather and climate are among the more critical factors of warfare because it affects both strategy and tactics. July in Northern Virginia is hot and humid, and that’s what it was on 21 July 1861. Rain-swollen rivers impede the flow of troops and supplies. Muddy roads bring everything to a halt. Rain prevents muskets from firing — which often necessitated bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. Wind and rain made everyone miserable. The exposure to the elements made people sick. Heat and humidity cause heat casualties. In short, weather can be a war stopper.
By the time McDowell reached Manassas, he was under a great deal of stress. The ninety-day enlistments of several regiments were about to expire. He also received word from Patterson that General Johnson had slipped out of the Shenandoah Valley. If true, McDowell would face 34,000 rebels rather than 22,000. On the morning of 22 July, two of McDowell’s commands, their enlistments having expired, left the field. Despite his pleadings, the soldiers had no interest in remaining on the field. In McDowell’s mind, time was running out. He began making rash decisions. He was starting to panic, and his subordinate commander’s lost confidence in his leadership.
By the time the shooting started, Beauregard’s and Johnson’s armies were tied in with one another, and more reinforcements were on the way. McDowell received a string of faulty intelligence.
The Union forces began their day at 02:30 when two divisions under Hunter and Heintzelman (12,000 men) marched from Centerville toward Sudley Springs. General Tyler’s division (8,000 men) marched toward Stone Bridge. In many places, the road approach to Sudley Springs was inadequate for so many men, artillery, and supply wagons in many places being no more than rutted footpaths. The Union advance slowed to a crawl. Fording Bull Run did not begin until 09:30, and the Union advance was no surprise to the Confederates. When the two forces finally engaged that morning, it was more of an exercise in maneuver warfare than frontal assault or envelopment. McDowell’s commanders struggled to get their men in position.
However, when the Union forces finally did strike the Confederate line, the rebel line collapsed, sending inexperienced boys into a panicked retreat. The Union might have pursued them were it not for the exceptional artillery support from men like Captain John D. Imboden. McDowell’s failure to press his advantage gave the Confederates time to reform their line.
At this time, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson’s Virginia Brigade came forward in support of the re-organizing Confederate defense. Jackson, accompanied by J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry and Wade Hampton’s Legion, quickly set up a defensive line along the Henry House Hill ridgeline. Hampton’s Legion thoroughly decimated the New York 79th, whose troops began a helter-skelter retreat. The only Union soldier from the NY 79th who advanced under Hampton’s withering fire was Colonel James Cameron, the regimental commander. As Cameron advanced, his men abandoned him and ran to the rear. Cameron was soon killed.
To shield his men from the Union’s direct fire, Jackson posted his five regiments on the reverse slope of Henry House Hill. Jackson then placed thirteen artillery pieces to best defend the line, all out of sight of the Union troops. The Confederate’s smooth-bore guns gave them an advantage over the Union artillery’s rifled guns because the Union guns were too close to their enemy’s positions and fired their more powerful pieces over the heads of the Confederate troops.
When Confederate Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee (Commanding 3rd Brigade) complained to Jackson that the Union was driving them (forcing them back), Jackson calmly replied, “Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet.” Bee then returned to his brigade and exhorted them, “There [pointing] is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Let us rally behind the Virginians!”
It was Jackson’s refusal to yield the line that gave him the nickname Stonewall Jackson. Afterward, Jackson’s brigade launched a crushing assault against the Union line, capturing Union artillery and quickly sending hundreds of Union soldiers to the rear. Jackson’s brigade devastated these troops with fire and bayonet. Still, nothing spooked the Yankees more than the rebel yell, which Jackson (a college professor at the Virginia Military Institute) knew it would. It was the first time Union troops heard the rebel yell, but it would not be the last time. It was this daring assault that changed the course of the Battle of Bull Run.
At about 16:00, two Confederate Brigades (Early’s and Smith’s) assaulted Howard’s Union Brigade on Chinn Ridge and pushed it off the hill, delivering devastating casualties. It was not long before the young boys dressed in Union uniforms decided to live another day.
McDowell’s decision to withdraw was anything but orderly. Rather than controlling their men and easing their panic, Union officers were running foot races with their soldiers to see who could get back to the city of Washington first. McDowell ordered Miles’ division to form a rearguard, but those troops were only interested in protecting themselves. McDowell’s army didn’t rally until they reached the outskirts of Washington. To President Davis’ great dismay, neither Johnson nor Beauregard pressed their advantage on the retreating Union. Had they done so, Washington might have fallen to the Confederates at the beginning of the war.
That evening, President Lincoln received his much-awaited report on the battle of Manassas, but it wasn’t what he was hoping to hear. The message, in abbreviated form, was: “The day is lost. Save Washington.”
This is the story of two numerically powerful armies, both untrained, both (for the most part) poorly led, and both leaving behind a large number of casualties. McDowell lost 2,708 men (481 killed, 1,011 wounded, and 1,216 missing). Generals Johnson and Beauregard lost 1,982 men (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing). On the morning of 21 July 1861, the ranks of both armies contained young boys who were excited beyond measure and full of vinegar. At the end of the day, some of those boys were broken, discouraged, or dead. In one single day, the survivors had learned all they would ever need to know about combat. It would never get any better, but it would get worse. Whether north or south, everyone who fought that day knew that this one battle was only the beginning of unspeakable carnage.
There would be a second battle at Manassas — in about a year.
- Alexander, E. P. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Gary W. Gallagher, ed. University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
- Beatie, R. H. Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861. Da Capo Press, 2002.
- Detzer, D. Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
- Longstreet, J. From Manassas to Appomattox: Memoirs of the Civil War in America. Da Capo Press, 1992.
 The Orange and Alexandria Railroad linked markets in northern and central Virginia. Construction of the railroad began in 1850 and extended to Manassas and Gordonsville in 1851 and 1853. It was a primary communication route between Richmond and northern Virginia. The Alexandria Line became a strategic prize coveted by both Union and Confederate forces at Manassas, Bristoe Station, and Brandy Station.
 Brother of U. S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron.
 One casualty of the Union artillery was 89-year-old Judith Carter, an invalid, who was confined to her bed inside Henry House. Miss Carter was killed when Union artillery targeted the house, thinking that rebel snipers were shooting from upstairs windows.
 Jefferson Davis observed the fight from the battlefield, arriving at around 15:00 that afternoon.