First Manassas - The Civil War's First Major Land Battle

On July 16, 1861, General Irvin McDowell's Federal army, 35,000 strong, marched proudly out of Washington, heading for a confrontation with the Confederate army at Manassas, Virginia, a key railroad junction. The talk had all been confident that the Federals would defeat the South easily. After all, the Philippi Races had shown the Confederates to be untrained and weak.
No one wanted to hear the naysayers, those who cautioned that the Northern army, too, was untrained and unready. The prospect of preparing for a long war was rejected, and those who, perhaps, knew better were shunted to the back of the cheering throngs. Even President Abraham Lincoln had commented, "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are both green alike."
The summer sun shone down hot on that July day, and a holiday mood was in the sultry air. Behind the ranks of troops, the citizens of the city decided to drive out to the country in their buggies and watch the exciting battle that was about to take place.
McDowell's troops only covered twenty miles in two days due to the heat, the long baggage trains lumbering along behind, the inexperience of the soldiers, and the ungainly size of the army. On the afternoon of July 18, the army approached a little river called Bull Run. On the opposite side, General Pierre Beauregard waited with his 22,000 Southern troops, entrenched along an eight mile long line. Beauregard had known the Federals were coming, and he knew something the Federal command did not know: not far away, in the Shenandoah Valley, General Joseph Johnston and his 9,000 soldiers were on the march to Manassas.
The Federal officers then made their fatal mistake-they delayed their attack in order to rest their troops. By the time their troops were in position, it was too late. Joe Johnston's regiments had arrived by the Manassas Gap Railroad. When McDowell made his attack on July 21, he was now facing 31,000 grim Confederate soldiers.
The sound of Northern guns, pounding the Confederate positions, began while it was still dark. The battle had begun in earnest, and at first it seemed as if the Federals would easily take the day. The Southern army was being pushed from one position to another.
One brigade, from Virginia, as indicated by the regimental flag, stood firm behind an officer sitting still on a tall black horse. Another Southern officer pointed with his sword, crying, "There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!" His men turned again to the battle. Brigadier General Thomas Jackson's own brigade, later known as the "Stonewall Brigade," was in the center of the fighting. Jackson's men were giving voice to loud, ululating howls that would become known as the rebel yell.
The battle continued into the afternoon, as both armies struggled to control Henry House Hill. A unit of Southern soldiers approached the Northern batteries. They wore blue uniforms, and the artillery troops thought them to be Northerners. The Southerners captured the batteries. The guns fell silent, giving the Confederates the opportunity to charge. In addition, new, fresh Southern soldiers arrived from the trains, and the Northern attack collapsed.
General McDowell gave the order to withdraw, but the greenness of his army was now exposed. They moved, however, without panic until they crossed Bull Run and crashed headlong into the Washington spectators. Carriages blocked the road and bridges, and troops and civilians tangled with each other. Soldiers threw down their arms and struggled to get through the mess.
The Northerners expected the Confederates to chase them down. The Rebels, however, were exhausted and scattered as well. Their officers were unable to form a charge against the retreating Yankees, and the battle wound down. There would be no more fighting for days to come as both sides licked their wounds.
In Washington, as well as the rest of the North, the population was stunned. Their proud army, which had so recently paraded through the city streets, had been soundly defeated. The victory celebration-already planned-would not be needed. The quick victory that would have decided the war did not occur. Citizens and government alike took a sober assessment of the future and realized that the war was going to be long, hard, and bloody. The casualties on the Northern side were 2,896 men, killed, wounded, and missing; numbers that seemed high-at the time.
Although the South had lost 1,982, their view of this first major battle of the war was completely different. They had defeated an army of superior size and proved that one Rebel could beat ten Yankees. Although the military knew that the war would not be easily won, Southern citizens went to bed on the night they heard the reports convinced that the war would be over soon. Like the citizens of Washington the day before the battle, they could not have been more mistaken.
First Manassas (or Bull Run) was the first major battle of the Civil War. It was apparent after this battle that the war would be long and costly. The 150th anniversary of this important event took place on July 21-24, 2011.

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