Bull Run / Manassas, July 1861
Early in the war, President Lincoln called for an attack on western Virginia. He believed that an attack at Manassas, so close to Richmond, would discourage secessionists and severely hurt the Confederate ability to fight.
In July 1861, Union General Irwin McDowell led 35,000 troops out of Washington, DC. Irwin divided his troops into two parts: 15,000 were sent to fight 11,000 Confederate troops at Harper’s Ferry, leaving 20,000 Union troops to attack 20,000 Confederate troops at Manassas. This would have been a good plan if McDowell’s troops were experienced, but they weren’t.
The Confederate commander at Manassas was P.T. Beauregard, who had gained fame from his leadership at Fort Sumter. Beauregard had two important advantages at Manassas. First, his spies in Washington learned that McDowell was preparing to attack. Second, McDowell’s inexperienced troops moved slowly in their attack, giving Beauregard significant time to prepare.
Early in the fight, Union troops pushed the South back. These initial victories were cheered on by hundreds of spectators who had travelled to Manassas from Washington. These spectators included reporters and members of the government, as well as average citizens.
As the battle wore on, however, the Confederacy turned the tide. Later the Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson,” because his men believed he stood “like a stone wall” at the head of his troops in the face of Union attack.
During a critical moment in the fighting, two Union artillery batteries suddenly stopped firing. The batteries mistakenly believed that a regiment dressed in blue uniforms was a Union reinforcement regiment. Stonewall Jackson’s Virginians took advantage of this confusion and ordered a counterattack. This counterattack was the first time Union troops reported hearing an eerie scream coming from the Confederate line. This scream later became known as the “rebel yell.”
Union troops began to retreat and as panic set in, fled back across the Bull Run River towards Washington. Mysteriously, the Confederate troops did not follow and allowed many to fight another day.
The Battle of Bull Run, as the North called it, or Manassas, as the South called it,* was a major victory for the Confederacy, as it kept the Union from going after Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, for close to a year. It was also a psychological victory for the South, as it inspired their confidence and made clear to the Union that victory over the Confederacy would neither be quick or easy.
*The Union often named their battles after nearby rivers. The Confederacy often named their battles after nearby towns or major roads.