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The Battle of First Bull Run


…or First Manassas. What you called it depended on which side you were on. The Union Army named the battle after Bull Run, a stream that flowed through the battlefield, while the Confederate Army named it after the town of Manassas, Virginia, near where it was fought.

The battle was fought 150 years and one day ago, on July 21, 1861. Although the war had begun in April of that year, Bull Run was referred to as the first major land battle of the American Civil War.  But, based on later battles, this first battle was rather small in scale.

Union forces were commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, while the Southern army was split in command between Brigadier Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joe Johnston. The Confederates had an unwieldy command structure which included brigades under a number of independent commanders. The Southern troops, however, matched McDowell’s army in strength.

Federal troops under McDowell’s command were green and reached their positions two and a half hours behind schedule. The Union Army had 18,000 men in the main attack and the Confederates were outnumbered. Three Southern brigades broke to the rear toward a plateau on the Henry House Hill. The Federals were slow in following up, allowing Southern forces to rally behind General Jackson’s brigade, just arriving on the scene. They formed a line of battle on the reverse slope of the hill.

Union artillery batteries were attacked by Confederate infantry and overrun. This attack routed Union infantry supports, including a battalion of U.S. Marines and the 11th New York infantry, the famed Fire Zouaves. “The loss of guns became a focal point for see-saw attacks and counterattacks by each side, with the possession of the guns changing hands several times.” 

The Confederates finally had enough units to stabilize their line and overlap the Union’s right flank. The “…order was given for a general advance by Beauregard. This attack caved-in the Federal right and what began as a fairly orderly retreat turned into a disorganized rout. The equally tired and inexperienced Confederates however, were in no shape to conduct an effective pursuit, so the battle ended. The Federals lost about 3,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured or missing), and the Confederates suffered about 2,000.”

Here are a few interesting facts about the battle from “Civil War Journeys” site.

“Thomas J. Jackson earned the nom de guerre ‘Stonewall’.”

“By July 22, the shattered Union army reached the safety of Washington.”

“This battle convinced the Lincoln administration that the war would be a long and costly affair.”

“McDowell was relieved of command of the Union army and replaced by Major General George B. McClellan, who began reorganizing and training the troops.”

The most interesting facts of this battle were told from the civilian point of view. It seems the 19th century town of Centreville, near where the battle was fought, was known as “hardly a place to inspire awe”. In July of 1861, one man wrote, “It looks for all the world as though it had done its business, whatever it was, fully eighty years ago, and since then had bolted its doors, put out its fires, and gone to sleep.”

But on July 20, 1861, this town, about two dozen miles west of Washington, D.C., drew the attention of the world as a large military assemblage gathered in its fields, valleys and woods. 30,000 Union soldiers spent the night in their camps “on the eve of the first major battle of the Civil War.”

News of the impending battle reached a fever pitch as word spread. July 21, 1861, was a Sunday. Newspapermen and politicians, as well as common folk, gathered in their carriages to make the trip to the front to witness the grand battle. They assumed it would be a sure Union victory.

Their intent was to watch from the sidelines, but not knowing the exact battle plans, these civilians unwittingly became a part of the history and legend that surrounded this first major battle of the war.

Early in the morning, a few civilians were on hand to watch the troops march out. As the day wore on more and more civilians joined their ranks to include several hundred people. As the battle shifted in the Confederate’s favor, these civilians ended up in the line of battle and were forced to run for their lives as the Union army retreated.

For more information on the battle and the civilians who witnessed it:



  1. Such a great, informative blog, Susan! This battle is one of those that we don’t hear as much about as some of the other more decisive battles, but I always enjoy learning more about it.

    Thanks for the great links, I’ll be checking those out later today!


  2. Oldcat says:

    Nice round up.

    It took the army several days to march to Bull Run, but only one to get back.

  3. Oldcat says:

    Just a thought – since you are interested in the era, there’s a lady named Mary Boykin Chestnut who wrote a famous diary from her view in Richmond (her husband was an advisor to Confederate President Davis).

    It gives an interesting view of these times from a different perspective.

  4. Rick Gleason says:

    Great idea for a blog!

    Mary Chestnut is just one of the many characters of that era that we learn so much about through the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War.” Joshua Chambers is another most interesting participant who deservedly receives special attention in the film, There are many others all having amazing stories from varying points of view.

    In a shameless act of self promotion I just posted on my own blog yesterday the story of another among those characters, Wilmer McLean. His involvement in the first battle at Bull Run is well worth hearing.

    “The Victorian era is the sexiest age for me, but I also like a woman in a pair of jeans.” ~ Dylan McDermott

    All the best!

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone! I love the Civil War era and am alway looking for new and interesting facts.

  6. Caroline Clemmons says:

    Great post! I had an ancestor who fought at the 2nd Battle of Manassas. You are so knowledgable about the Civil War, and I always appreciate you sharing.

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