“The Battle of Bull Run”


[Irvin] McDowell leads a Union army to defeat at Bull Run (Manasses Junction). The valiant rebels are compared with the cowardly Unionists, who are so completely routed that many fine Washington ladies must flee with them.


Although the Confederates won the Battle of Bull Run (and its successor a year later), the insults they flung at their opponents were rather unfair. Both armies were raw, and had a number of inept general officers; the Confederates won more because they were on the defensive than because of any superiority on their part.

It is true, however, that the Federal army wound up in rout, and that many fine ladies who had gone out to see the show fled with them. They hardly need to have hurried, however; the Confederates were so disorganized that they could not follow up their victory.

The truth is, neither side was ready for the battle, and both fought rather poorly. Union commander Irvin McDowell was well aware that his men were not ready for combat. But it was a case of "use them or lose them"; the Federal government, in its folly, had initially enlisted soldiers for only ninety days, and by July, their terms were expiring (see, e.g., Bruce Catton, _The Coming Fury_, p. 445). So, ready or not, McDowell marched. At least he expected to have the advantage in numbers -- roughly 40,000 men to 25,000 Confederates (Catton, p. 444).

He did not realize that he would also have an enemy who played right into his hands. The Confederates were concentrated at Mannasses Junction, near a creek known as Bull Run, a few dozen miles south of Washington. Their commander was the famous Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, who had commanded the bombardment of Fort Sumter that started the war. Beauregard had shown himself a competent engineer, and later would reveal some skill in defensive warfare. But whenever Beauregard was in position to plan a set piece battle, the results were pretty dreadful. Bull Run was his masterpiece. His objective was simply to hold off McDowell. But his battle plan made that nearly impossible.

The Federals would inevitably come down from Washington to a town called Centreville, about three miles away from Bull Run. From there, they would deploy and attack -- somewhere.

Beauregard had under his command the equivalent of about eight brigades. A logical approach would have been to spread them out along Bull Run, with a strong central reserve to resist where McDowell attacked. But a glance at Douglas Southall Freeman, _Lee's Lieutenants_, p. 47, shows that he did no such thing. His left was hanging in midair. In what should have been his center, he posted about two and a half brigades to guard the entire Bull Run front. The rest of his force, roughly two-thirds of the whole, he concentrated around Blackburn's Ford for a counterattack on Centreville once the Union force was defeated. Unless he received reinforcements, he had no general reserve; it was all at Blackburn's Ford.

And the Federals didn't go that way. They went around Beauregard's left, and were in position to roll up his flank (see Curt Johnson & Mark McLaughlin, _Civil War Battles_, p. 33).

Beauregard was lucky. Reinforcements were coming. There were actually two armies on the Virginia front: One between Washington and Richmond, commanded by Beauregard, and one in the Shenandoah Valley, commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. The Federals had an army in the Valley also, and it was supposed to pin Johnston down, but the Union army was commanded by an officer by the name of Robert Patterson, who had actually fought in the War of 1812 (Catton, p. 445). Patterson, old and confusing orders, simply sat, and Johnston took four brigades -- one led by a fellow by the name of Thomas Jonathan Jackson -- to Bull Run by railroad (Catton, pp. 446-449; James M. McPherson, _Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era_, pp. 339-340).

Few generals had even been luckier than Beauregard. With his army about to be defeated in detail, Johnston showed up, and they sent their troops to where the Federals were attacking. They set up a defensive line, anchored by Jackson whose brigade stood ?like a stone wall" (earning him the nickname "Stonewall" Jackson; Catton, p. 460; McPherson, p. 342. There is controversy about exactly what happened there -- see Freeman, pp. 733-734 -- but no doubt that the Confederate line drawn by Jackson held).

Attacking is harder than defending. It's especially hard for inexperienced troops. The Union forces had done fine when they were rolling up the Confederate flank. Confronted with real opposition, they ran out of steam, and gradually the assault turned into a retreat, which turned into a rout (Freeman, p. 72; McPherson, pp. 344-345).

This should have been Beauregard's big hour. Those five brigades at Blackburn's Ford? If they could get to Centreville and hold it, they could capture nearly the entire Federal army.

No dice. Beauregard's command arrangements were so bad, and his planning so incomplete, and his forces so ill-trained, that nothing much happened (Freeman, pp. 73-78). Johnston would lter write, "Our army was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat" (McPherson, p. 345). First Bull Run was an overwhelming Confederate victory. But it was a victory that accomplished almost nothing except to show that neither army was really ready to fight.

The Union flight back to Washington involved more than soldiers. A number of congressmen and other dignitaries had come out to see the show. After the battle, the various impedimenta they took along caused the retreat to become even more disorganized as their coaches and such fouled and blocked the bad and muddy roads. - RBW

Historical references

  • July 21, 1861 - First battle of Bull Run/Manasses fought between the Union army of McDowell and the Confederates under Johnston and Beauregard


  1. Laws A9, "The Battle of Bull Run"
  2. Randolph 210, "Manassa Junction" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  3. DT 799, MANASJCT
  4. Roud #2202
  5. BI, LA09


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1928 (Randolph)
Found in: US(So)