Confederates Rout Union Army at First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)
Shortly after the Civil War began with the Confederacy firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Northern politicians, the public, and the press started demanding that the Union army invade Virginia and make a move on Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy. The Union responded enthusiastically to President Lincoln’s call for the nation to mobilize, supplying men, arms and equipment, forming a Northern army to suppress the Southern rebellion. Now pressure was mounting on the president and his military advisers to take action.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 23, 1861, issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania)
Typical of the impatient clamor for action was an editorial printed by the Freedom's Champion (Atchison, Kansas) in its July 20, 1861, issue—ironically, the day before the great fight the paper was calling for occurred, the First Battle of Bull Run (First Battle of Manassas), that resulted in a Confederate victory and the rout of the Union army. The editorial began with “Do something” and continued:
Why then do we halt? Why is Richmond not taken? Why is not Manassas in our possession? Why is not our army moving southward, as it ought to and can, scattering the hosts of treason before it like dead leaves before the winds of Autumn? Why is not something done?
This do-nothing policy is demoralizing the people and spreading the seeds of disaffection as rapidly as it is possible to do it. The soldiers are tired of inaction. The people want a blow struck. The Nation stands breathless at this suspense. Not without reason, either, for certainly everything looks bad.
…Let the army do something. The red-tapeists of the circumlocution office have ruled long enough, and the people are tired of their policy. They want to hear the roar of cannon and the rattle of musketry. Action is demanded. Treason can be put down as well in six months as in six years, if the Commander-in-Chief cries “Forward March!” instead of “Halt!” Piracy and treason have had their day, and it is time for Government and Patriotism to assert their strength. On to Manassas! Forward to Richmond!
By the beginning of July 1861 it was apparent that the Civil War’s first major land battle would take place in northern Virginia. A large Union army was around Alexandria, Virginia: about 35,000 troops under General Irvin McDowell. There were two Confederate armies in northern Virginia: about 20,000 troops near Manassas Junction under General P.G.T. Beauregard and another 12,000 troops 60 miles away in the Shenandoah Valley under General Joseph E. Johnston.
Though misjudging their willingness to fight, the Northern papers knew where the Confederate forces were. This article was printed by the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (Lowell, Massachusetts) on July 1, 1861:
Letter-writers put the whole number of rebel troops in Virginia, by a rebel estimate, at 80,000, of which 55,000 are armed, but not over 20,000 can be concentrated at a given point, the largest number now at one point, Manassas Junction, being 18,000. There are 9,000 choice men at Yorktown. The number at Richmond does not exceed 6,000. Norfolk is regarded as impregnable. They do not intend to make a stand against the government troops at any point, and will only hold their position at Manassas a short time if attacked. It is not their purpose to engage in a pitched battle, but to harass and pick off our men in guerilla warfare. The force under Gen. Beauregard is encamped from Springfield to Fairfax Court House, mostly in a dense forest between the river and the Little River Turnpike. Into this labyrinth they no doubt wish to draw the federal troops. The premises of the farmers in the vicinity have been ransacked and all the grain taken without an equivalent.
Conviction that the Confederates in northern Virginia were unwilling to fight reached as far as San Francisco. This article was printed by the Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, California) on July 1, 1861:
[Per Pony Express]
At this moment at least 40,000 Union troops are on Virginia soil, on strategic line from Alexandria to Harper’s Ferry. Military authorities pronounce the Secession cause in Northern Virginia already lost, and consider it almost certain that the rebels will gradually allow themselves to be pushed back to James river without making any decisive battle. It now looks as though Gen. Butler’s promise to have the stars and stripes floating over Richmond on the 20th proximo would be made good.
The Secessionist forces in Virginia seem to be backing down as fast as they can find any excuse for so doing. There is a remarkable parallel between their movements in this campaign and those of the Austrians in the late Italian war.
The Southern papers had no doubt of the Confederate troops’ willingness to fight. The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) printed this article on July 1, 1861:
Decisive Battle Expected before Washington.
[Special Correspondence of the Picayune.]
Richmond, June 26, 1861.
Our sojourn in Richmond is over. All the world is moving forward to the great battlefield, before Harper’s Ferry and Alexandria. That an engagement of a general character and of great importance will take place there, before many days, perhaps within the next forty-eight hours, is now certain. We expect it here; they expect it in Washington.
…On our side, we know the hour of combat is near, unless the enemy retreat. The precise spot and hour it will take place depends upon circumstances. The probabilities are that it will be before Alexandria. It is there the enemy are most closely pressed, and there the fate of Washington is to be decided. This they know, and all their available forces have been moved forward to that and neighboring points…A large portion of Gen. Beauregard’s forces were some days ago thrown forward in the same direction, and the two armies are therefore now encamped face to face. In the meantime, Gen. Johnston is operating actively on the enemy’s right flank, and threatens soon to gain his rear, as also that of the Federal capital itself. The probabilities are, therefore, that unless the enemy give battle, he will soon be surrounded on both sides.
As to the issue of the battle, though we have here perfect confidence in our strength and position, it may not be wise to predict it. This, however, may safely be said: if we are victorious the enemy will be driven across the Potomac, and Washington will be at our mercy. If we are defeated, we have safe lines to fall back upon, in the midst of a people whose patriotism shines brighter and brighter as the decisive hour approaches.
But while in view of the uncertain fortunes of war I make this reserve, I may say that each and every man I meet looks forward with perfect confidence to the result. This confidence, I also understand, is shared by all the people of the surrounding country, who are best acquainted with the spirit and strength of the opposing armies.
The prospect of a general engagement before Washington is here the subject of general joy. There is scarcely an individual in Richmond who does not know the number and character of the troops recently moved forward to join Gen. Beauregard’s command, and the possibility of a defeat is hardly thought of.
On the same day, this taunting piece was printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on July 1, 1861:
Jeff Davis’ Opinion.—It is said that Davis was asked “What if you should be defeated at Manassas Junction, or wherever else you have resolved to make a desperate stand against the Government forces?” and he replied, “There will be so few of us left after such a defeat, that the rest will be a matter of little consequence.” We hope Jeff will be scarce after the big rout, as he has been one of the most inveterate of the rebel leaders, in plunging our country into the civil war now raging. We expect the big impending defeat of the rebels will be at or near Richmond, if they venture to make a stand at all; and Richmond is famous the world over for its big mills, and we opine that Davis and his insurgent leaders will there learn by sad and terrible experience, that there is another kind of mills that grind up traitors—
“The mills of the Gods grind slow,
But they grind exceedingly small.”
Certain that the big fight was going to be at Manassas and wanting first-hand coverage, newspapers sent their correspondents there. The following reporter made an innocent, almost bucolic mention of a small creek near Manassas called Bull Run—a name now seared into the nation’s history, but then relatively unknown. This article was printed by the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on July 6, 1861:
Our War of Independence
Headquarters, [Confederate] Army of the Potomac
Manassas, June 29, 1861
(Special Correspondence of the Picayune)
The desire, natural to all Americans, to be in at the first great fight, has brought me here. It is the headquarters of the [Confederate] Army of the Potomac, and immediately under the command of Brig. Gen. Beauregard, whose quarters are but a few steps from the place where I write.
…The Washington Artillery, first and second companies, arrived here Tuesday last. They are encamped at a beautiful spot on Bull’s Run, a small creek which empties into the Occoquan. In sight is the Blue Ridge, whose soft outlines make a suitable background for one of the loveliest of nature’s pictures…The prospects of a fight on a grand scale are still considered imminent. The place and hour, however, are uncertain.
An important detail was reported by the Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts) in its July 11, 1861, issue—just ten days before the battle:
A Significant Order.—Gen. Beauregard has issued an edict at Manassas Junction, peremptorily ordering that no person of any description, friend or foe, with or without a passport, who shall intend to visit any part of the North, or to pass into the enemy’s lines, shall be permitted, after last Sunday, to enter the lines occupied by the rebel army. This determination to conceal the movements of the army, and to guard against any possibility of the disclosure of the rebel plans, looks like speedy action of some description, either a battle or a falling back.
The Northern papers kept up their pressure on Lincoln to take action and make a bold move, much to the amusement of the South. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on July 12, 1861:
Excerpts from the New York Herald.
Under the belief that a few extracts from the New York Herald of the 1st instant may amuse the reader, we copy as follows:
The Tail Refuses to Wag.
Why has our army not done anything? Why does Beauregard continue to occupy Manassas Junction, and extend his lines in front of a superior force? Why does General Butler delay the reparation of the blunder at Big Bethel? Why is the rebel Johnston still permitted to harass the loyal people at and around Harper’s Ferry, and to eat up their substance, with an overwhelming Union force idly looking on from the other side of the river? We cannot answer. We hear that our armies are held back because the administration does not wish to move them forward in advance of the assent and cooperation of Congress.
Those clamoring for action finally got their wish on July 16, when the Union army began marching southward. The newspapers immediately reported this significant development. This notice was printed by the Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) on July 17, 1861:
By Last Night’s Washington Train.
Great Movement of Federal Forces towards Manassas Junction.
A Battle Soon Expected.
It appears the federal forces yesterday afternoon commenced a forward movement from Washington and vicinity towards Manassas Junction, and we may soon look out for stirring news.
Northern papers welcomed the decision to begin the invasion of Virginia. This article was printed by the New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette (Concord, New Hampshire) on July 17, 1861:
The Washington correspondent of the N.Y. Journal of Commerce says:
The President’s message is explicit and decided enough. It settles the policy of the government in favor of war and a war of aggression and invasion. Hitherto, the Administration has wavered between a defensive or an aggressive war. For a long time it was even doubtful whether they would take possession of the Arlington Heights, though at any moment after the passage of the ordinance of secession by the Virginia Convention, the city might have been laid in ashes by a battery of the Confederates there placed. The policy of an advance into the bowels of the land has been also doubted. But now, there being no signs that the Confederates will lay down their arms, the government decides to go and take them.
The war spirit has been thoroughly infused into the Administration by the representatives of the Northern sentiment who have daily, for two months past, pressed upon it the necessity of an aggressive war. It is thought, indeed, that the government made a mistake in not marching an army directly upon Manassas Junction, some weeks ago, instead of stopping to fortify their position on Arlington and Alexandria heights.
On July 18 an advance division of the Union army skirmished with Confederate forces, and this skirmishing continued over the next two days. While this was going on, a significant event occurred that greatly affected the outcome of the battle: in the first use of railroads to move troops during battle, General Johnston transported his entire army 60 miles from the Shenandoah Valley to bolster General Beauregard’s defenses.
The skirmishing was now placing a new name before the anxious public: Bull Run. These dispatches were printed by the Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) on July 19, 1861:
By Telegraph to the Patriot.
A Sharp Fight at Bull Run, near Manassas Junction.
Wisconsin 2d. Probably Take a Hand In.
Cowardly Retreat of the Rebels.
Washington, 18.— Reports are prevalent, and credited, that a fight of minor importance took place at Bull Run, five miles from Manassas Junction, and several were killed and wounded on Federal side from a battery.
Washington, July 19.—A telegraph dispatch received at the War Department at 11 a.m. today, states that fighting was still going on at Bull’s Run, three miles from Manassas Junction.
It was now apparent that a major battle was imminent. The Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) printed this article on the front page of its July 19, 1861, issue:
The Crisis at Hand.
It will be seen by our telegrams that last Wednesday was signalized by the advance of probably the whole Federal army. We shall have no reason hereafter to complain of a lack of fighting…Four columns of the Hessians under McDowell were moving upon Manassas Junction, and had reached Fairfax Court House at noon Wednesday. Fairfax Court House is only nine miles from Beauregard’s battle ground at the Junction…We cannot but hope for a signal victory, in this encounter. We believe our men at Manassas are fired with one determination to conquer or die, and have full faith that they will make an illustrious exhibition of a gallant and warlike people, fighting for their liberties—their homes and their altars, against a truthless invader. May God help them in the mortal struggle. In His sovereign hands alone rest the fate of nations and of men.
Both armies were poised in front of one another, ready to pitch into a major battle. The New York Herald (New York, New York) correspondent on July 20 accurately predicted that the big battle would occur the next day, and it would be at Bull Run. This article was printed on the front page of its July 21, 1861, issue—the day the battle began:
Important News from the Seat of War.
Advance of the Union Forces towards Manassas Gap Railroad.
Reinforcements of Rebels Arriving at Manassas Junction.
Washington, July 20, 1861
General McDowell had been actively engaged in making a reconnaissance all day. The scouts sent out from the left wing reported about noon that they heard the locomotives and movements of trains of cars all the morning and forenoon in the direction of Manassas Junction. This information led to the belief that either reinforcements had come up from Richmond, or else General Johnston’s forces had arrived from Winchester and Strasberg; and the latter seemed to Gen. McDowell most probable, while Gen. Scott does not entertain the belief that Gen. Johnston has yet left the vicinity of Winchester.
It has been ascertained that the rebel forces number about thirty-eight thousand in and about Manassas. Gen. Scott received this information today, and was asked by a member of Congress what was the strength of the Union force? “It is enough,” was the laconic reply of the General.
…There is little doubt that General McDowell will engage the rebels at the earliest moment, and it would not surprise me if the blow was struck at daybreak in the morning. His men are anxious to take the battery, and will as surely do it as the sun rises on the day they attempt it, whether it be tomorrow or Monday.
…It is evidently the intention of the rebels to make their stand at Bull’s Run instead of Manassas Junction. The latter is devoid of water, and does not possess the same advantages for defence. The vicinity of Bull’s Run offers more advantages than any other on the road to Richmond for the erection of batteries, but the only occasion of the halt of Gen. McDowell at this point was to rest his men, afford time for the baggage and provisions to come up, and make a complete reconnaissance of the surroundings of Bull’s Run.
…A rebel was observed stabbing some of our men who fell in battle. He was captured, and yesterday he was hung to a tree, in sight of the rebel pickets, and remained there today, dangling in the air, with his face as black as any negro that he ever whipped.
Fifteen prisoners were escorted into the city today from Fairfax Court House, and were sent to the guard house as prisoners of war. One had previously been taken, and was released upon taking the oath of allegiance. This time he will be hung.
At four o’clock on the morning of July 21, 1861, the First Battle of Bull Run (in the South called the First Battle of Manassas) began. Fierce fighting raged all day, not ending until seven o’clock that night. During the morning the Federal forces seemed to be gaining the advantage, but at a critical moment a colonel from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, rallied his Virginia troops to hold their position. Seeing this, General Barnard E. Bee encouraged his Alabama troops by shouting “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” giving rise to one of the legendary nicknames of the Civil War: Stonewall Jackson.
Heartened, the Confederates fought harder and began to counterattack, pushing the Union troops back. Their retreat turned into a rout when panic struck the Union troops, and they began throwing down their knapsacks and guns in their mad dash all the way back to Washington, D.C.—their disorganized retreat made more difficult because the roads to the nation’s capital were clogged by the carriages and wagons of the fleeing politicians and civilians who had come out to picnic and watch the battle. There were 4,878 casualties from the battle, nearly 3,000 of them from the Union side.
The Southern papers trumpeted the Confederacy’s great victory. This was the front page of the Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on July 22, 1861:
Telegraphed to the New Orleans Picayune.
Great Battle near Manassas.
Glorious Victory of Confederates.
Sherman’s Celebrated Battery Captured.
Immense Slaughter on Both Sides.
Fifteen Hours’ Fighting.
Richmond, July 21, 9 p.m.—A fight commenced near Manassas at 4 o’clock this morning, which became general about 12, and continued until about 7 o’clock this evening, when the Federalists retired, leaving us in possession of the field.
Sherman’s celebrated battery of light artillery was taken.
The battle was terrible, and ended with great slaughter on both sides.
It is impossible to give details tonight.
Because of the confused nature of the battle, with the Union army at one point seemingly on the verge of overcoming the Confederate forces, many Northern papers rushed editions to the public which turned out to be wrong, claiming a great victory. This was the front page of the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 22, 1861:
A Great Battle.
Brilliant Union Victory!
Capture of Bull’s Run Batteries.
The Rebels Routed and Driven Back to Manassas.
The Most Sanguinary Battle Ever Fought in America.
Fairfax Court House, July 21, 1861.
I am en route to Washington with details of a great battle. We have carried the day. The rebels accepted battle in their strength, but are totally routed. Loss on both sides considerable. Bull’s Run is silenced and two or three other batteries taken.
Washington, July 21, 1861.
The city is full of exaggerated rumors. It is difficult to tell what is reliable. Cannonading recommenced at four o’clock this afternoon, and ceased at five, probably occasioned by attempts of our troops to carry some rebel batteries between Bull’s Run and Manassas Junction. Official despatches state that we have taken three batteries in the form of a crescent, numbering nineteen guns.
…Very few reliable details have yet reached us. That a most brilliant victory has been achieved by our gallant troops there is no doubt. Many encomiums are bestowed upon the Fire Zouaves and the Sixty-ninth. It is reported that the former met the Louisiana Zouaves, routed them and captured their colors; that the men of the Sixty-ninth stripped to the skin, except pants, and pitched into the fight regardless of fatigue or personal safety.
By the next day, however, the Northern papers got the story right and told their readers of the defeat and rout of the Union troops. This article was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 23, 1861:
Startling News from Washington—A Promising Victory Turned into a Disastrous Defeat.
Our rejoicings over the promising victory at Bull’s Run were premature. That promising victory was turned into a disastrous defeat…We have no explanations to make of the panic which seized upon our retreating troops, except this, that, expecting nothing but victory, they were wholly unprepared, morally, strategically and from experience, for the duties of a retreat.
The Wisconsin Daily Patriot (Madison, Wisconsin) broke the news to its readers this way, on July 22, 1861:
The Very Latest.
Rejoicing Turned to Deep Mourning.
Our Troops Retreating.
Great Destruction of Human Life!!!
Three of Our Batteries Taken by Enemy.
A Stampede by Our Troops.
Only about 200 Fire Zouaves Alive.
Washington, 22d, via Philadelphia.—Our troops, after taking three batteries and making a great victory, were eventually repulsed, and commenced a retreat on Washington. The retreat was in good order, with rear well covered by good columns. Our loss 2,500 or 3,000.
Washington, 22.—After latest information was received from Centreville at 7:30 last night a series of events took place in intensest degree disastrous. Many confused statements are prevalent, but not enough to warrant the statement that we have suffered in a degree that has cast a gloom over remainder of army and excited deepest melancholy through Washington.
The carnage was tremendously heavy on both sides, and on ours is represented as frightful. We were advancing and taking their masked battery gradually but surely, and driving the enemy towards Manassas Junction, when the enemy seemed to have been reinforced by Gen. Johnston, who it is understood took command immediately, and commenced driving us back, when a panic among our troops suddenly occurred, and a regular stampede took place.
It is thought that McDowell undertook to make a stand at or about Centreville, but the panic was so fearful that the whole army became demoralized and it was impossible to check them either at Centreville or Fairfax Court House. Gen. McDowell intended to make a stand at Fairfax Court House, but our forces being in full retreat he could not accomplish his object. Beyond Fairfax Court House the retreat was kept until the men reached their regular encampments, a portion of whom returned to them, but a still larger portion coming inside the encampments.
A large number of troops in their retreat fell on the way from exhaustion and were scattered along the route on the way from Fairfax Court House. The road from Bull’s Run was strewn with knapsacks and arms, our troops deliberately throwing away their guns and appurtenances to facilitate their travel.
In the immediate aftermath of the battle several Northern newspapers printed editorials trying to assign blame and responsibility for the disaster. This editorial was printed by the New York Herald (New York, New York) on July 23, 1861:
The Lessons of Our Defeat.
…Let it be remembered, also, that this is a defeat, not of the people of the North, but of the administration and its military advisers. The people wished to send hundreds of thousands of troops into Virginia, so as to make retreat an impossibility. The soldiers were offered. The administration and its advisers decided that fifty thousand men were enough for Virginia, and refused to accept the eager volunteers. Let them read the result of their refusal by the gun-flashes at Bull’s Run. Let them atone, if they can, for the murderous crime of sending an inefficient force against an overwhelming and strongly entrenched enemy, when thousands of brave soldiers have been refused leave to fight.
Nor does the criminality of the affair end there. What is true in the aggregate is true in the detail. The people demanded competent and experienced officers. The military advisers of the administration gave them imbeciles. Ought General Johnston’s army to have been allowed to reach Manassas to reinforce Beauregard? The people demanded a strong cavalry force. The administration declined regiment after regiment. Was not cavalry needed on our side to oppose that of the South, which harassed and routed our troops? The people demanded careful preparation and ample security against defeat. The administration listened to the abolition howls of “Forward to Richmond,” and gave the people—the slaughter of Bloody Run.
Southern papers, too, assessed the battle and wrote editorials exploring the lessons learned for the Confederacy. This editorial was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on July 24, 1861:
The Victory and Its Probable Consequences.
The victory at Manassas grows upon us in completeness and magnitude. In our last we regarded it merely as a signal and disastrous repulse of the enemy. But it was a great deal more so. It was a rout, in which their great army was disorganized and scattered, some of their columns taking to the woods to avoid the pursuing cavalry, and throwing down their arms in the precipitate retreat, and their most effective weapons of assault captured. Out of six batteries of flying artillery, five, numbering thirty-four pieces, are said to have fallen into our hands. Our Northern despatches which speak of the supercession of McDowell by McClellan and a thorough reconstruction of the Federal forces, impliedly admit a complete disorganization of their grand army. It is a great victory, and when we consider the vast disparity of the forces engaged, the perfect appointment of the Federal army in artillery and small arms of the latest and best pattern, we have equal reason for admiration at the valor of our patriotic forces—the skill and courage of their officers, and gratitude to God, who has given us the victory.
That it will exercise a most important influence upon this great sectional struggle to enslave the South, no man can doubt…Upon our own fortunes, it will be difficult to overrate the beneficial results of this victory. It will stimulate our enthusiasm and confidence at home, and abroad facilitate, in the highest degree, the negotiations of our Commissioners for recognition.
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