Wilbur McClain

The 1st Battle of Bull Run: A Turning Point in Attitudes

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Henry House circa 1861

The prelude to the first battle of the American Civil War was one filled with romantic notions of what war was supposed to be. Both men and women were swept up in the cause. Towns sent off their best to live an adventure. Many young men thought they had better hurry up and get to the war before it was over. However, after the first major battle at Manassas Junction, attitudes changed in both the North and the South. This war was not be a summer’s war and home by harvest. It was to be a costly war fought over years.

From 1820 to 1860, the United States had tried to deal with the issue of slavery of in a variety of ways. However in the 1850s, new territory in the western US caused a debate over the spread of slavery and of slavery itself. Despite compromises in 1820, and then again in 1850, the road to war was coming to a head. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the first shots were fired in angst between Americans. Over the next six years, the war drew ever closer. In 1859, John Brown’s raid on the arsenal Harper’s Ferry saw southern states react by creating state militias to prevent a slave uprising. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln saw seven southern states secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America. When Lincoln called for 75,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion, other southern border states joined in. What was once a Union of 34 states was no more. On April 12, 1861, the Confederacy took the federal fort at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Irvin McDowell

In the watch fires of a hundred circling camps, the Union forces began to amass in and around Washington, D.C. The Confederacy positioned itself to the south in defense in both the Shenandoah Valley and the the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The Confederate troops had been well trained and disciplined. The Confederate forces had begun training in response to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The Union, they were a mess carousing in the capital. After Ft. Sumter, the call came for the Union to counter and attack the South. However, General Irvin McDowell did not. Mainly a desk soldier, McDowell had come to be in charge after never having seen a field command. He may not have known how to command such a large army as this, but McDowell knew his men were not trained enough to invade the South. It did not matter. The pressure to attack in the summer of 1861 won out. President Lincoln ordered McDowell to invade. And so McDowell did on July 16, 1861. He would be back in Washington a week later.

McDowell entered Virginia with 35,000 men, enough to crush the 18-20,000 forces stationed at Manassas Junction under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard. However, the Civil War was not fought on paper. It was fought mainly in the south. Manassas Junction was only important for one reason, it had a railroad junction, and it was on the way to the Confederate capital of Richmond. There were not many such junctions in the South in 1861. The North, meanwhile, had hundreds. Irony would play the wild card quite often in this battle. The railroad connected the Shenandoah Valley and General Johnston’s troops to Beauregard’s. Combined, the two Confederate armies would equal the numbers of the Union army.

After a long march through Virginia in the summer (high heat and humidity) McDowell and the Army of the Potomac set up camp near Centreville. Strangely, McDowell ordered his men to complete the final march toward the battle field at 2:30 in the morning on July 21. By the time his men reached the battlefield, they were exhausted. At 10 a.m., the first battle of Manassas took place near Bull Run Creek on Matthews Hill. A small Confederate force of 1000 held off 10,000 Union troops for 90 minutes. When William Tecumseh Sherman’s attack on the Confederate flank collapsed the Confederate defense, the rebels retreated to Henry House Hill. But rather than attack and finish off the Confederates, McDowell, waited, and waited, and waited…until 2 p.m. The resulting delay allowed for reinforcements to arrive via railroad.

At 2 p.m., the Union attack resumed. Over the next two hours, several factors swung Beauregard’s way. First, the high ground allowed for better defensive measures. Second, J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry forces were put in to play. Third, the Union was not sure who was who. Later, the Union would wear Blue and the Confederacy, Grey. But at 1st Manassas, there was a melange of blues, greys, and reds on both sides. Finally, Thomas Stonewall Jackson’s defense of the Hill became a rallying point for the Confederacy. McDowell, intriguingly, attacked piecemeal. Rather than throw his entire army at the Hill, the Union attacked a regiment at a time. After a regiment failed, McDowell ordered another regiment in.

Johnston’s troops became the support that allowed the Confederacy and the Army of Northern Virginia to hold off the invasion. By 4 p.m., McDowell ordered a retreat to Washington. It became a catastrophe after that. With the Confederates in charge of the battlefield, every Union soldier hightailed it back to the capital, many left their guns behind. It became a disaster as the soldiers returned in disarray. The Confederates did not pursue. In addition, many spectators had come out to watch the battle including Congressmen. After the battle was over, the spectators clogged the roads back to DC and one Congressman was taken captive and held prisoner for six months by the Confederacy before he was released.

As a result of the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas Junction, this was a war that was not going to be over in a summer. Over 5000 casualties on both sides told of the cost of just one battle. Not only was this going to be a long war for the Union, it was going to be a bloody one. Napoleonic tactics had not kept up with the technology. It is hard to think of the Civil War as having a lot of technology, but the firepower contained in the .58 caliber mini-ball would require amputation in battle if used today. In addition, bored rifles created more accurate weapons along with greater use of artillery.

Shortly after the debacle, Lincoln called for 500,000 more soldiers twice. A million man army was initially going to be needed to put down the insurrection. Lincoln was also wrong. It would take much more.

Henry House – 2007

All color photographs by Anne Petty Johnson (my wife)

All other photos from the Library of Congress.

For further reading online:

http://www.nps.gov/hps/abpp/battles/va005.htm

http://www.nps.gov/mana/index.htm