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  • James Houser

July 21, 1861 - The Battle of First Bull Run

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 21, 1861. The first major battle of the American Civil War takes place near the Virginia town of Manassas, but it is better known for the meandering stream of Bull Run that split the battlefield. The first clash of Yankees and Rebels reveals how much both sides still had to learn and how unprepared both sides are for a long war. Often overlooked is that it was almost the last battle – it all could have ended on that July morning three months after Fort Sumter.

After the dramatic series of events around Fort Sumter on April 12, both the United States and Confederacy began to piece together armies to carry on a struggle that both figured would be short. Both factions faced the enormous task of creating effective military forces from scratch. At the end of 1860, the United States Army numbered only 16,000 of all ranks, and the vast majority of these units were out west patrolling Indian country or monitoring the Mexican border. A good chunk of the Army’s officers went south to join the Confederacy, but almost none of the enlisted men did.

It’s worth noting that military service in America was viewed much differently then than it is now. A military career was viewed as the option of society’s failures, the incompetent and inept men who could not hack it in the businessman or frontiersman’s trade. At least a third of the Army’s enlisted men were immigrants, and many of these spoke broken English. Pay was garbage, desertion was rampant, life was miserable, and the job was thankless. Ulysses S. Grant remembered, when he was a young officer, that a young boy had taunted him in an Ohio street, “Soldier! Will you work? No sir-ee, I’ll sell my shirt first!” Such was the respect Americans showed to their soldiers in the early 19th Century.

The reason for this negative view of soldiers (in sharp contrast to the modern day) was the widespread cult of the militia in America. The idea was that the United States barely needed an army at all, since if there was ever a war, anything that some fussy “professional soldiers” could do, the citizen’s militia could do better. This was an old belief with many adherents; Thomas Jefferson had tried to outright disband the Army all together, not least since his hated rival Alexander Hamilton was one of its chief advocates. To many people, Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was the triumph of the proud American militiaman over regular troops. Furthermore, in a country that prided the individual and his liberties, it seemed almost emasculating for men to give up their individuality and liberties in peacetime.

When the war broke out, then, the size of the United States Army nearly quadrupled overnight, filled with eager young recruits who enlisted as whole regiments. The same pattern was evident in the South. A local notable – perhaps the county commissioner, or a well-known businessman, or a plantation owner – would call for volunteers and register them with the state. In return, he would be appointed their captain, and if he was able to front the money to arm and outfit them he might be even higher. The vast majority of regimental commanders in 1861 had never seen service in the Regular Army, and even those who did had never seen combat.

These were armies completely made of new recruits with – if they were lucky – a Mexican War veteran or two amongst them. Their officers, whose only qualification was usually wealth or influence, had to learn everything about command and leadership from a book within a matter of days. The idea of this happening in the modern age, of your average real estate agent leading a company of infantry into battle after a month of squinting at a field manual, sounds like nothing less than a nightmare. Well, it wasn’t much less of a nightmare in 1861.

As these units began pooling and marching for the front, waving goodbye to girls and full of unearned confidence, marveling at their spiffy uniforms, still learning how to load their muskets, and shuffling around in drill squares, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were trying to figure out their next move. The Confederates were gathering two armies in Virginia, one at Winchester to the northwest and the other at Manassas to the southeast. These were both awfully close to Washington, which was filling up with troops in all types of glitzy, gaudy, unmilitary outfits inspired by French zouaves or Italian adventurers. Manassas was literally 30 miles from D.C.; the two armies were almost at grappling distance even as they came together.

The next task for both governments was to choose commanders. For the Confederacy, the choice was obvious: Pierre G.T. Beauregard, the “Hero of Fort Sumter”, whose heroics had been limited to shooting a bunch of artillery at one fort for a few hours with no losses. Beauregard was dramatic and proud, an artillery expert who had only held the rank of Captain in the prewar army. Even though he had never commanded more than a company, he now found himself in charge of 18,000 men – a steep learning curve. His opposite number was the Union’s Irvin McDowell, a gigantic staff officer appointed by Lincoln to command the Union force. He, too, had only been a Captain in the prewar army, but would now be directing 35,000 men.

Each of these armies was huge compared to what American generals had commanded in the past. Prior to 1861, the largest army assembled in the 19th Century had been Winfield Scott’s 10,000 men that he had led into Mexico in 1847 – and that army had been almost half regulars. No American had ever commanded an army close to 35,000 men. The armies that were about to go into battle at Bull Run were full of men who did not know how to be soldiers, led mostly by officers who did not know how to be officers, and commanded by men who did not know how to be commanders.

Political pressure was high on both sides for a quick battle that would end this Civil War before it began. The few Union officers that knew what they were talking about were strongly against fighting a battle too soon, but President Lincoln had to bend to political pressure. “Yes, you are green,” he told McDowell, “but so are they. You are all green alike.” This was true, of course, but that would turn any battle into a roll of the dice rather than a done deal. Both sides were convinced, though, that righteousness and God were both on their side. The armies were full of eager, anxious young men ready to get the whole thing done with and go home, and there was a real concern that the longer they sat waiting, the more men might start to desert or lose hope.

So the ill-prepared forces of the Union strolled into northern Virginia to face the equally ill-prepared Confederates. There were two parts to McDowell’s plan. A large force of 18,000 Pennsylvania militia under Robert Patterson would confront Joseph Johnston’s 12,000 Confederates up near Winchester, while his larger 35,000 man army would smash Beauregard’s 18,000 at Manassas and then march right on to Richmond. It was a good plan. Shame that Robert Patterson was terrified of fighting Joe Johnston, and so Johnston was able to ship his entire army down to join Beauregard by rail before the battle started. Patterson had failed in his one job: to keep the enemy armies separate. When McDowell finally came up to attack Beauregard, then, the Confederate numbers would almost equal his own.

This makes the armies all sound like pieces moving on a chessboard. With no discipline, close to no training, and skeletal supply and communication systems, the armies that shambled towards each other at Bull Run were little more than armed mobs, borderline incapable of coherent military operations. McDowell moved at a snail’s pace to attack Beauregard, with his troops barely able to march the thirty miles in five days. Many of the men, unused to carrying a military pack and musket, ditched most of their equipment on the march and constantly broke ranks to pick blackberries or take a dip in a pond. Heatstroke and blisters caused much straggling in the July heat. The result was that by the time the Union army finally staggered into place north of Bull Run creek, almost all of Johnston’s army had already joined Beauregard.

Irvin McDowell has gone down in history as the man who lost the Battle of Bull Run, but his plan was actually pretty good. While a small force distracted Beauregard along the creek, the bulk of his army would march far to the north, cross Bull Run, and swing down to the south in a wide arc far from Confederate view. This wide movement would completely unhinge the Confederate line, catch them by surprise, and roll up the enemy flank. Considering the long distances McDowell was asking untrained men to march, the zero experience of most of his officers, and their poor maps of the area, the fact that this plan almost worked is nothing short of miraculous.

Shortly after dawn on July 21, McDowell’s men set off on their long flanking march, as the diversionary force began its skirmishing along the heavily wooded terrain around Bull Run creek. The summer air was thick, and the 90-day wonders in their pretty uniforms sniped and yelled at each other while trudging through poison ivy and vines. Beauregard sat at his command post, confident that the Union would attack his strongly defended right and completely unaware of the 15,000-man wide hook taking place on his left. By midmorning, Johnston had arrived and asked him what all the firing was. Beauregard dismissed his concerns.

Joe Johnston had actually been a Brigadier General in the U.S. Army before the war, but he had been the Quartermaster General – essentially the highest supply officer and not a combat commander. Nevertheless, he had the most combat experience of any general on either side that day, and worried that something was up.

By midday, the Union advance had finally reached the leftmost extremity of the Confederate line. The lead brigades rammed into the Rebel defenders with emotional zeal and little order. The closest analogy I can think of is a bunch of kindergartners playing a game of ice hockey with 3rd graders as the coaches. In the hot July sun, American fought American in the first major clash of the Civil War, and in this first encounter of the day the Union troops got the best of it. As the Confederates fell back, though, the disorganized Union troops were unable to press their advantage.

It’s hard to blame them. For almost everyone, this was their first battle, and it must have already been terrifying. The rifle musket both sides used on 1861 was a lethal instrument, far worse than the smoothbores used in the Mexican War, and even a poorly delivered attack or a disorganized defense could inflict heavy casualties on a bunch of Pennsylvania coal miners or Carolina farm boys who had never seen someone die before. Imagine their reactions in the smoke, blood, searing heat and confusion, when friends and comrades were dying. These men – barely men, mostly boys – had not been trained, had not had the benefit of an experienced sergeant or an educated officer to guide them, had thought of the war as a great adventure or a glorious crusade. Sheets of fire, artillery shells, and the horrors of battlefield wounded were a harsh wakeup call.

The Confederates fell back to a low rise called Henry House Hill, where a brigade of reinforcements had arrived. This brigade were Virginians, mostly recruited from the mountain regions of the Shenandoah, under the command of a strange and eccentric (read: crazy) officer named Thomas Jackson. Jackson had actually trained his men well, and upon seeing his troops withstanding the Union fire without flinching, one Confederate yelled, “Look! There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

I don’t need to spell that out for you, do I?

Thwarted by the heat, their inexperience, and the fumbling of their commanders, the Union troops that had been on the verge of triumph an hour before now began to launch a series of uncoordinated, weak attacks. The battle settled down into a series of nasty firefights, as both sides raced reinforcements towards the battlefield. Johnston arrived to take personal command of the Confederates, as Beauregard sent troops hurtling to the sound of guns. At about 3pm, the Confederacy got lucky. A couple of those careening brigades accidentally drifted onto the flank of the Union line, and the surprised and scared Union troops dissolved. This retreat was followed by the rest of the Union army, despite the best attempts of their officers.

Colonel William T. Sherman, who had led his brigade fiercely in this battle, commented that “It is now generally admitted that it was one of the best-planned battles of the war, but one of the worst-fought. Our men had been told so often at home that all they had to do was make a bold appearance, and the rebels would run.”

The Rebels had thought the same thing, and it had definitely been touch-and-go for a little bit. Even as the exhausted and panicked Union army streamed in terror back across Bull Run, the Confederates themselves were too spent to mount a serious pursuit. Davis urged his commanders to try and take Washington, even, but the generals realized that their own army was almost as disorganized by victory as the Union was by defeat.

The casualty figures were heavy, but nothing compared to later battles: about 2,000 Confederate casualties and 3,000 Union, with 2/5ths of the Union casualties captured – the North actually killed and wounded more Southerners. The losses underlined that even without discipline or training, Civil War battles were apt to be lethal, terrible affairs, and that both sides were willing to stand in the open in a terrifying, chaotic environment and kill large numbers of fellow Americans.

The Battle of Bull Run decided one thing completely: the war would not be over in a matter of weeks. As strange as it may seem, there was a very real chance of that. Had Confederate commanders reacted slower, had Jackson’s troops not made their fateful stand, had the Union commanders been more like Sherman and less like Ambrose Burnside or Irvin McDowell, there might have been a very different outcome in the July heat of Virginia. With the Civil War over in 1861, what would have happened to slavery? Would there have been a second war, a few years later? The outcomes are too numerous to even think about.

If First Bull Run had been a battle of amateurs, both sides would come back wiser, tougher, and readier to kill and die. No one would be truly innocent again after Bull Run ran red in 1861.

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