In the summer of 1861, both Unionists and Confederates expected a short fight to settle what would come to be known as the American Civil War. South Carolina fired on the Union Ft. Sumter in April. But the first major action did not sully history until July. Confederate forces and Union forces massed for a battle near Manassas, Virginia, at a little creek called Bull Run.
Spectators came out from Washington, D.C., bringing the family and picnic lunches, expecting a great drama to unfold — but they were surprised by the actual carnage. What did they expect?
This battle gave rise to the famous, true story of farmer Wilmer McLean. His house backed up on what would become the battlefield. His summer kitchen took a cannonball. Hoping to avoid further entanglement in the war, McLean moved his family and his farming farther south, to the unlikely-named town of Appomattox Courthouse.
There, in 1865, Gen. U.S. Grant’s entourage asked to borrow McLean’s parlor, for the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee. McLean was able to say, with some high accuracy, that the war began in his back yard, and ended in his front room.
The First Battle of Bull Run
On July 21, 1861, a dry summer Sunday, Union and Confederate troops clashed outside Manassas, Virginia, in the first major engagement of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run.
Union General Irvin McDowell hoped to march his men across a small stream called Bull Run in the vicinity of Manassas, Virginia, which was well-guarded by a force of Confederates under General P. G. T. Beauregard. McDowell needed to find a way across the stream and through the Southern line that stretched for over six miles along the banks of Bull Run.
McDowell launched a small diversionary attack at the Stone Bridge while marching the bulk of his force north around the Confederates’ left flank. The march was slow, but McDowell’s army crossed the stream near Sudley Church and began to march south behind the Confederate line. Some of Beauregard’s troops, recognizing that the attack at Stone Bridge was just a diversion, fell back just in time to meet McDowell’s oncoming force.
First Battle of Bull Run- Bull Run, Virginia
These photographs of First Bull Run were not made at the time of the battle on July 21, 1861; the photographers had to wait until the Confederate Army evacuated Centreville and Manassas in March 1862. Their views of various landmarks of the previous summer are displayed here according to the direction of the Federal advance, a long-flanking movement along Sudley’s Ford.
When Beauregard learned of the attack, he sent reinforcements to aid the small group of Southerners, but they were unable to hold back the oncoming tide of Union troops. As more Union soldiers joined the fray, the Southerners were slowly pushed back past the Stone House and up Henry Hill.
The battle raged for several hours around the home of Mrs. Judith Henry on top of Henry Hill, with each side taking control of the hill more than once. Slowly, more and more Southern men poured onto the field to support the Confederate defense, and Beauregard’s men pushed the Northerners back.
At this point in the battle, Confederate General Barnard Bee attempted to rally his weary men by pointing to Brigadier General Thomas Jackson, who proudly stood his ground in the face of the Union assault. Bee cried, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” From that moment on, Thomas Jackson was known as “Stonewall” Jackson.
As the day wore on, the strength of McDowell’s troops was sapped by the continuous arrival of fresh Southern reinforcements. Eventually, the stubborn Confederates proved more than a match for McDowell’s men, and the Northerners began to retreat across Bull Run.
The Union pullout began as an orderly movement. However, when the bridge over Cub Run was destroyed, cutting off the major route of retreat, it degenerated into a rout. The narrow roads and fords, clogged by the many carts, wagons, and buggies full of people who had driven out from Washington, D.C., to see the spectacle, hampered the withdrawal of the Union Army. The Southerners tried to launch a pursuit, but were too tired and disorganized from the day’s fighting to be effective.
The morning of July 22 found most of the soldiers of the Union Army on their way back to Washington or already there. It was more than a year before the Northerners attempted once again to cross the small stream outside of Manassas named Bull Run.
- Search the collection Selected Civil War Photographs on Bull Run to find more photographs documenting both the First Battle of Bull Run and the Second Battle of Bull Run.
- View a manuscript map of the battlefield, executed a month after the first Battle of Bull Run. Through the use of a profile, the draftsman demonstrates that the height of the corn, the depth of the creek, and other features of the site influenced the course of the battle. This map is just one of numerous items related to the Civil War found in the online exhibition American Treasures of the Library of Congress.
- Search the collection of Civil War Maps on Bull Run or Manassas to find maps of the battlefield area including the New York Daily Tribune War Maps published on July 30, 1861 that include a list of those injured or killed in the battle.
- Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society contains fifteen stereographs of Bull Run.
- Search on Manassas or Bull Run in Military Battles and Campaigns to find maps of the conflict.
- Search the following collections on Bull Runto find a wealth of nineteenth-century songs about the battle:
- View Primary Documents in American History: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877 for a look at some of the most important documents of the Civil War era.
- Search the Today in History Archive on Civil War battle to find more features on the war, including the Second Battle of Manassas which occurred a year after the First Battle of Bull Run; the Battle of Antietam, and Day One,Day Two, and Day Three of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Tourists in Virginia today enjoy the sights, probably-sunny days and air-conditioned restaurants. It may be difficult to remember why Sherman later told military cadets that “war is hell.”