The First Battle of Bull Run was fought on July 21st 1861. Bull Run was the first major battle of the American Civil War and the area also saw the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862. Union forces referred to the battle as Bull Run whereas the Confederacy called the battle the Battle of Manassas.


The American Civil War broke out in April 1861 with the attack on Fort Sumter. There was a general desire in the North for the Union army to advance south to Richmond and engage the Confederacy in combat. A Union victory was expected by those in the North as a matter of course. The North also held the belief that the war would not last long and that the South would crumble after its first major military defeat.


Abraham Lincoln ordered Brigadier General Irwin McDowell, commander of the Army of Northeastern Virginia, to march south and engage the Confederate force, commanded by Brigadier General Beauregard. McDowell was cautious of his commander-in-chief’s order, as he was aware that his army was inexperienced in combat. Many had volunteered for the cause by few had battle experience. He was also aware that his subordinate officers were also untried in a major battle.


Beauregard also had the same issues.


McDowell gathered together the largest military force seen in America up to that time. 35,000 inexperienced men marched towards Richmond.


Beauregard had an army of nearly 22,000 that gathered at Manassas Junction.


McDowell’s plan was to use two-thirds of his men to make a diversionary frontal attack on Beauregard’s men at Bull Run while at the same time launching a surprise attack with a third of his army against and behind his right flank. McDowell planned to get behind Beauregard’s men and ensure that they could not retreat back to Richmond.


However, his plan had one weakness. It had to be carried out accurately if it was to be successful. Each part of his army had a specific task to complete. For experienced combat officers, moving men around on the battlefield may have been a reasonably simple task. His inexperienced officers found it all too much. McDowell did not help his cause by delaying giving out his orders. This gave Beauregard time to establish his lines and consolidate his positions.


McDowell started his attack at 02.30 and it went wrong from the start. The attack was by 12,000 men commanded by Brigadier Generals David Hunter and Samuel Heintzelman. In the darkness they marched into a large Union force of 8,000 men who blocked their advance. It took the 12,000 men seven hours to reach their target just miles away.


McDowell’s army then ‘announced’ that their attack had started at 05.15 when they fired some artillery rounds at the Confederate positions.


Beauregard ordered a counter-attack by three units of men commanded by Richard Ewell, D R Jones and Theophilus Holmes. In a breakdown of communication, Ewell interpreted the order differently – he believed that he had been ordered to hold his line in readiness to attack. Holmes never received any orders. Jones advanced his men as ordered but found that he was by himself and not supported by Ewell and Holmes.


The only obvious success in the early hours of the battle was by Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman who had managed to find an unguarded ford at Bull Run, which he crossed and then engaged the right flank of Beauregard’s army. Sherman’s assault was completely unexpected and caused the Confederate defenders facing them to retreat. However, McDowell did not exploit this success and put his faith in his artillery bombarding Confederate positions as opposed to building on Sherman’s success.


The Confederate army at Bull Run may have retreated in disarray at this point but it did not. What stemmed their retreat was the example set by Colonel Thomas Jackson whose men from Virginia refused to retreat from their positions. This example seemed to inspire the Confederates and led to the legend developing that Jackson’s Virginians refused to retreat. It also led to Jackson himself receiving the nickname ‘Stonewall’ – as it is stated that he and his men stood as solid as a stone wall and refused to surrender or withdraw.  


The shape of the battle changed when in mid-afternoon, Jackson captured some Union artillery guns. These had been used to fire on the Confederate flanks. Now at the very least, Jackson had neutralised them in terms of their use against Confederate forces. At around the same time, two Confederate brigades arrived at Bull Run from the Shenandoah Valley and joined the battle. Union forces fell back in disarray, as their inexperienced officers did not know how to control the situation. As they withdrew Confederate artillery fired on them and created panic in places. The Union’s one saving grace was that the Confederate force was equally disorganised and failed to take advantage of the situation. Jefferson Davis had arrived at the battle and urged Beauregard to press home the attack but senior Confederate officers argued about how this could be done and could not agree on a strategy. As a result nothing was done and McDowell’s force was allowed to withdraw towards Washington free from attack.


Many in Washington expected a Confederate attack on the capital but this never occurred.


McDowell was blamed for the defeat and was replaced by George McClellan. Beauregard was promoted to full general.


The Battle of Bull Run was an indicator of what was to come. Both sides clearly needed more experienced officers but this experience could only be won in battle and more battles obviously meant more casualties. At the time, the Battle of Bull Run led to more casualties than any battle yet experienced in America.


The North lost 2,896 men: 460 killed (16%), 1,124 wounded (39%) and 1,312 (45%) missing or held prisoner.


The South lost 1,982 men: 387 killed (19.5%), 1,582 wounded (80.5%) and 13 missing (0%).


However, these figures were to be eclipsed in later battles such as Gettysburg.