The Battle of Bull Run - The Volunteers Face the Fire
had been strife, a bloodless, political strife, for forty years between
the two great sections of the American nation. No efforts to reconcile
the estranged brethren of the same household had been successful. The
ties that bound the great sections of the country had severed one by
one; their contention had grown stronger through all these years, until
at last there was nothing left but a final appeal to the arbitrament of
the sword; then came the great war, the greatest civil war in the annals
For the first time in the nation's history the newly-elected President
had entered the capital city by night and in secret, in the fear of the
assassin's plots. For the first time he had been inaugurated under a
military guard. Then came the opening shots, and the ruined walls of the
noble fort in Charleston harbor told the story of the beginnings of the
fratricidal war. The fall of Sumter, on April 14, 1861, had aroused the
North to the imminence of the crisis, revealing the danger that
threatened the Union and calling forth a determination to preserve it.
The same event had unified the South; four additional States cast their
lot with the seven which had already seceded from the Union. Virginia,
the Old Dominion, the first born of the sisterhood of States, swung into
the secession column but three days after the fall of Sumter; the next
day, April 18th, she seized the arsenal at Harper's Ferry and on the
20th the great navy-yard at Norfolk.
Two governments, each representing a different economic and political
idea, now stood where there had been but one—the North, with its
powerful industrial organization and wealth; the South, with its rich
agricultural empire. Both were calling upon the valor of their sons.
At the nation's capitol all was confusion and disorder. The tramp of
infantry and the galloping of horsemen through the streets could be
heard day and night. Throughout the country anxiety and uncertainty
reigned on all sides. Would the South return to its allegiance, would
the Union be divided, or would there be war? The religious world called
unto the heavens in earnest prayer for peace; but the rushing torrent of
events swept on toward war, to dreadful internecine war.
The first call of the President for troops, for seventy-five thousand
men, was answered with surprising alacrity. Citizens left their farms,
their workshops, their counting rooms, and hurried to the nation's
capital to take up arms in defense of the Union. A similar call by the
Southern President was answered with equal eagerness. Each side believed
itself in the right.
Both were profoundly sincere and deeply in earnest. Both have won the
respect of history. After the fall of Fort Sumter, the two sides spent
the spring months marshaling their forces for the fierce conflict that
was to follow.
President Lincoln had called for three-months' volunteers; at the
beginning of July some thirty thousand of these men were encamped along
the Potomac about the heights of Arlington. As the weeks passed, the
great Northern public grew impatient at the inaction and demanded that
Sumter be avenged, that a blow be struck for the Union. The "call to
arms" rang through the nation and aroused the people. No less earnest
was the feeling of the South, and soon two formidable armies were
arrayed against each other, only a hundred miles apart at Washington and
at Richmond. The commander of the United States Army was Lieut.-General
Winfield Scott, whose military career had begun before most of the men
of '61 had been born. Aged and infirm, he remained in Washington. The
immediate command of the army was entrusted to Brigadier-General Irvin
Another Union army, twenty thousand strong, lay at Martinsburg,
Virginia, under the command of Major-General Patterson, who, like
General Scott, was a veteran of the War of 1812 and of the
Opposite McDowell, at Manassas Junction, about thirty miles from
Washington, lay a Confederate army under Brigadier-General Beauregard
who, three months before, had won the homage of the South by reducing
Fort Sumter. Opposed to Patterson in the Shenandoah valley was Joseph E.
Johnston with a force of nine thousand men. The plans of the President
and General Scott were to send McDowell against Beauregard, while
Patterson was to detain Johnston in the Valley and prevent him from
joining Beauregard. It was confidently believed that, if the two
Confederate forces could be kept apart, the "Grand Army" could win a
signal victory over the force at Manassas; and on July 16th, with waving
banners and lively hopes of victory, amid the cheers of the multitude,
it moved out from the banks of the Potomac toward the interior of
Virginia. It was a motley crowd, dressed in the varied uniforms of the
different State militias. The best disciplined troops were those of the
regular army, represented by infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Even the
navy was drawn upon and a battalion of marines was included in the Union
forces. In addition to the regulars were volunteers from all the New
England States, from New York and Pennsylvania and from Ohio, Michigan,
and Minnesota, organizations which, in answer to the President's call
for troops, had volunteered for three months' service. Many were boys in
their teens with the fresh glow of youth on their cheeks, wholly
ignorant of the exhilaration, the fear, the horrors of the battlefield.
Onward through the Virginia plains and uplands they marched to the
strains of martial music. Unused to the rigid discipline of war, many of
the men would drop out of line to gather berries or tempting fruits
along the roadside, or to refill their canteens at every fresh stream of
water, and frequent halts were necessary to allow the stragglers to
regain their lines.
After a two days' march, with "On to Richmond" as their battle-cry, the
army halted at the quiet hamlet of Centreville, twenty-seven miles from
Washington and seven miles from Manassas Junction where lay the waiting
Confederate army of similar composition—untrained men and boys. Men from
Virginia, from North and South Carolina, from the mountains of
Tennessee, from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, even from distant
Arkansas, had gathered on the soil of the Old Dominion State to do
battle for the Southern cause. Between the two armies flowed the stream
of Bull Run, destined to give its name to the first great battle of the
impending conflict. The opposing commanders, McDowell and Beauregard,
had been long-time friends; twenty-three years before, they had been
graduated in the same class at West Point.
Beauregard knew of the coming of the Federal army. The news had been
conveyed to him by a young man, a former government clerk at Washington,
whose sympathies, however, lay with the cause of the South. He won the
confidence of Beauregard. The latter sent him to the capitol city
bearing a paper with two words in cipher, "Trust Bearer." With this he
was to call at a certain house, present it to the lady within, and wait
a reply. Traveling all night, he crossed the Potomac below Alexandria,
and reached the city at dawn, when the newsboys were calling out in the
empty streets the latest intelligence of the army. The messenger rang
the doorbell at a house within a stone's throw of the White House and
delivered the scrap of paper to the only one in the city to whom it was
intelligible. She hurriedly gave the youth his breakfast, wrote in
cipher the words, "Order issued for McDowell to march upon Manassas
tonight," and giving him the scrap of paper, sent him on his way. That
night the momentous bit of news was in the hands of General Beauregard.
He instantly wired President Davis at Richmond and asked that he be
reinforced by Johnston's army.
As we have seen, General Scott had arranged that Patterson detain
Johnston in the Valley. He had even advised McDowell that "if Johnston
joins Beauregard he shall have Patterson on his heels." But the aged
Patterson was unequal to the task before him. Believing false reports,
he was convinced that Johnston had an army of thirty-five thousand men,
and instead of marching upon Johnston at Winchester he led his army to
Charlestown, twenty miles in the opposite direction. Johnston thereupon
was free to join Beauregard at Manassas, and be promptly proceeded to do
McDowell's eager troops had rested at Centreville for two days. The time
for them to test their mettle in a general engagement was at hand.
Sunday, July 21st, was selected as the day on which to offer battle. At
half-past two in the morning the sleeping men were aroused for the
coming conflict. Their dream of an easy victory had already received a
rude shock, for on the day after their arrival a skirmish between two
minor divisions of the opposing armies had resulted in the retreat of
the Union forces after nineteen of their number lay dead upon the plain.
The Confederates, too, had suffered and fifteen of their army were
killed. But patriotic enthusiasm was too ardent to be quenched by such
an incident, and eagerly, in the early dawn of the sultry July morning,
they marched toward the banks of the stream on which they were to offer
their lives in the cause of their country.
The army moved out in three divisions commanded by Generals Daniel
Tyler, David Hunter, and S. P. Heintzelman. Among the subordinate
officers was Ambrose E. Burnside, who, a year and five months later, was
to figure in a far greater and far more disastrous battle, not many
miles from this same spot; and William T. Sherman, who was to achieve a
greater renown in the coming war.
On the Southern side we find equally striking, characters.
General Joseph E. Johnston was not held by Patterson in the Valley and
with a portion of his army had reached Manassas on the afternoon of the
20th. In the Indian wars of Jackson's time Johnston had served his
country; like McDowell and Beauregard, he had battled at the gates of
Mexico; and like the latter he chose to cast his lot with the fortunes
of the South. There, too, was Longstreet, who after the war was over,
was to spend many years in the service of the country he was now seeking
to divide. Most striking of all was " Stonewall " Jackson, whose
brilliant military career was to astonish the world.
The Stone Bridge over Bull Run
The Union plan for this fateful July day was that Tyler should lead his
division westward by sway of the Warrenton turnpike to a
stone bridge that crossed Bull Run, about
four miles from Centreville. At the same time the main army under Hunter
and Heintzelman was to make a detour of several miles northward through
a dense forest to a ford of Bull Run, known as Sudley's Ford. Here they
were to cross the stream, march down its right bank and, while Tyler
guarded the Stone Bridge, engage the foe on the west side of Bull Run.
The plan of the battle was admirably drawn, but the march around to
Sudley's Ford was slower than had been expected, and it was ten o'clock
before the main army reached the point west of the Stone Bridge. While
the Federals were making their plans to attack the Confederate left
wing, Generals Beauregard and Johnston were planning an aggressive
movement against the left wing of the Federal army. They were to cross
Bull Run by fords several miles below the Stone Bridge and attack the
Northern troops on the weaker wing of the Union force in an effort to
rout them before relief could be sent from the Federal right. The
Confederate attack was planned to take place a few hours later than
McDowell had decided to move. The Southern troops were preparing to
cross the stream when the boom of cannon at the Stone Bridge told that
the Federals had taken the aggressive and that the weak Confederate left
was in danger of being overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the Union
right wing. Orders countermanding the command to attack were quickly
sent to the Southerners at the lower fords, and preparations were
hurriedly made to repulse the attack of the Northern force.
Tyler reached the Stone Bridge before six in the morning and opened fire
on a Confederate force under Colonel Evans on the other side of the run.
For some time this was kept up, and Evans was much puzzled that the
Federals did not attempt to cross the bridge; they merely kept up a
desultory fire. The failure of the Union troops to advance led Evans to
believe that Tyler's attack was only a feint and that the real attacking
force would approach from some other direction. This belief was
confirmed when he descried a lengthening line of dust above the
tree-tops far in the distance, north of the Warrenton turnpike. Evans
was now convinced (and he was right) that the main Union army was
marching to Sudley's Ford, three miles above the Stone Bridge, and would
reach the field from that direction. Quickly then he turned about with
six companies of brave South Carolinians and a battalion of "Louisiana
Tigers" and posted them on a plateau overlooking the valley of Young's
Branch, a small tributary of Bull Run. Here, not far from the Matthews
and Carter houses, he awaited the coming of the Federals.
His force was stationed overlooking the Sudley and New-market road and
an open field through which the Federal troops would be forced to pass
to reach the higher ground held by the Confederates. Two 6-pound
howitzers were placed to sweep the field of approach, one at each end of
Evans' line of defense.
With guns loaded, and howitzers ready to pour their charges into an
advancing force, the Southerners stood and watched the line of dust that
arose above the trees. It moved slowly to the westward. Then, where the
Sudley road turns to the southward to cross the Sudley Ford. it followed
the trend of the highway. It reached the crossing of Bull Run, and the
line of dust faded as the Federals spread into battle-line behind the
expanse of woodland that hid each column from the other's view.
It was nearing ten o'clock. The rays of the summer sun were beating in
sweltering heat upon the waiting troops. Those who could find shelter
beneath the trees moved from their places into the shade. Heavy banks of
storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, giving promise of relief
from oppressive warmth. A silence settled over the ranks of the
Confederates as they watched the edge of the woodland for the first
appearance of the approaching troops.
Suddenly there was a glimmer of the sunlight reflected from burnished
steel among the trees. Then, in open battle array, the Federal advance
guard, under the command of Colonel Burnside, emerged from the wood on a
neighboring hill, and for the first time in the nation's history two
hostile American armies faced each other in battle array. At Fort Sumter
only the stone walls had suffered; not a drop of human blood was shed.
But here was to be a gigantic conflict, and thousands of people believed
that here on this field on this day would be decided the fate of the
Union and the fate of the Confederacy. The whole country awaited in
breathless expectancy the news of this initial conflict, to become known
as the battle of Bull Run.
With little delay the battle opened. The Federals had a clear advantage
in numbers as their outlying forces came up; but they met with a brave
resistance. General Bee, of South Carolina, with two brigades, crossed a
valley to the south of Evans in the face of a heavy artillery fire to a
point within one hundred yards of the Federal lines. At this short range
thousands of shots were fired and many brave men and boys were stretched
upon the green. The outcome at this point was uncertain until the Union
forces were joined by Heintzelman with heavy reinforcements and by
Sherman with a portion of Tyler's division. Bee could now do nothing but
withdraw, and in doing so his men fell into great disorder. Cheer after
cheer arose from the ranks of the Union army.
Meanwhile, Generals Beauregard and Johnston had remained at the right of
their line, near Manassas, nearly four miles from the scene of action,
still determined to press their attack on the Federal left if the
opportunity was offered. As the morning passed and the sounds of
conflict became louder and extended further to the westward, it became
evident to the Confederate leaders that the Federals were massing all
their strength in an effort to crush the left of the Southern army.
Plans for an aggressive movement were then abandoned, the commanders
withdrawing all their reserve forces from the positions where they had
been held to follow up the Confederate attack, and sending them to the
support of the small force that was holding back the Federals. After
dispatching troops to threaten the Union left, Johnston and Beauregard
galloped at full speed to the scene of the battle. They arrived about
noon—at the moment when Bee's brigade was fleeing across the valley from
the hail of Federal bullets. As the frightened men were running in the
utmost disorder, General Bee, seeing Thomas J. Jackson's brigade calmly
waiting the onset, exclaimed to his men, "Look at Jackson; there he
stands like a stone wall!" The expression spread to the army and to the
world, and that invincible soldier has since been known as "Stonewall"
Beauregard and Johnston found it a Herculean task to rally the fleeing
men and reform the lines, but they succeeded at length; the battle was
renewed, and from noon till nearly three o'clock it raged with greater
fury than before. The fight was chiefly for the possession of the
plateau called the Henry hill. Up and down the slopes the two armies
surged in the broiling sun. Beauregard, like McDowell on the other side,
led his men in the thickest of the fight. A bursting shell killed his
horse under him and tore the heel from his boot; he mounted another
horse and continued the battle. At half-past two the Confederates had
been entirely driven from the plateau, had been pressed back for a mile
and a half, and for the second time within three or four hours the Union
troops raised the shout of victory.
At three o'clock, while McDowell and his men were congratulating
themselves on having won the battle, a faint cheering was heard from a
Confederate army far across the hills. It grew louder and nearer, and
presently the gray lines were seen marching gallantly back toward the
scene of the battle from which they had been driven. The thrilling cry
then passed through the Union ranks, "Johnston has come, Johnston has
come!" and there was terror in the cry. They did not know that Johnston,
with two-thirds of his army, had arrived the day before; but it was true
that the remaining third, twenty-three hundred fresh troops, had reached
Manassas at noon by rail, and after a forced march of three hours, under
the command of Kirby Smith, had just united with the army of Beauregard.
It was this that caused the cheering and determined Beauregard to make
another attack on the Henry plateau.
The Union men had fought valiantly in this, their first battle,
untrained and unused to warfare as they were; they bad braved the hail
of lead and of bursting shells; they had witnessed their comrades, their
friends, and neighbors fall at their feet to rise no more. They
nevertheless rejoiced in their success. But with the long march and the
five hours' fighting in the scorching July sun they were weary to
exhaustion, and when they saw the Confederates again approaching,
reinforced with fresh troops, their courage failed and they began to
retreat down the hill. With waving colors the Confederates pressed on,
opening a volley of musketry on the retreating Federals, and following
it with another and another.
In vain McDowell and his officers attempted to rally his panic-stricken
men and reform his lines. Only the regulars, about sixteen hundred in
number, were subject to the orders of their superiors, and they made a
brave stand against the oncoming foe while they covered the retreat of
the disorganized mass. On the Henry hill were the two powerful batteries
of Griffin and Ricketts. They had done most valiant service while the
tide of battle ebbed and flowed. But at last their hour had come. A
Confederate regiment, dashing from a neighboring hill, poured in a
deadly volley, cut down the cannoneers almost to a man, killed their
horses, and captured the guns. A few minutes later General Beauregard
rode up to the spot and noticed Captain Ricketts lying on the ground,
desperately wounded. The two men had been friends in the years gone by.
Beauregard, recognizing his old friend, asked him if he could be of any
service. He then sent his own surgeons to care for the wounded captain
and detailed one of his staff to make him comfortable when he was
carried to Richmond as a prisoner of war.
There is little more to relate of the battle of Bull Run. In his report
McDowell stated that after providing for the protection of the retreat
from the battlefield by Porter's and Blenker's volunteer brigades, he
took command in person of the force previously stationed for holding the
road back to Centreville and made such disposition "as would best serve
to check the enemy," at the Centreville ridge. Some hundreds of
civilians, members of Congress and others, had come out from Washington
to witness a victory for the Grand Army, and they saw that army
scattered in wild flight to escape an imaginary pursuer. The
Confederates made no serious effort to follow after them, for the routed
Federals had destroyed the Stone Bridge as they passed it in their
retreat, and had obstructed the other avenues of pursuit. As darkness
settled over the field the Confederates returned to their camps.
McDowell made a desperate effort to check and reorganize his army at
Centreville, but he was powerless. The troops refused to listen to any
commands; they rushed on and great numbers of them traveled all night,
reaching Washington in the morning.
These raw troops had now received their first baptism of blood and fire.
Nearly five hundred of their number were left dead on the field of
battle, and fourteen hundred were wounded. The captured and missing
brought the Federal loss to nearly three thousand men. The Confederate
loss in killed, wounded, and missing was less than two thousand. The
Federal forces engaged were nearly nineteen thousand, while the
Confederates had more than eighteen thousand men on the field.
The Confederate victory at Bull Run did the South great injury in that
it led vast numbers to believe the war was over and that the South had
won. Many soldiers went home in this belief, and for months thereafter
it was not easy to recruit the Southern armies. The North, on the other
hand, was taught a needed lesson—was awakened to a sense of the
magnitude of the task before it.
The first great battle of the American Civil War brought joy to the
Confederacy and grief to the States of the North. As the Federal troops
marched into Washington through a drenching downpour of rain, on July
22d, the North was shrouded in gloom. But the defeated army had not lost
its courage. The remnants of the shattered forces were gathered, and
from the fragments a mightier host was to be rallied under the Stars and
Stripes to meet the now victorious foe on future battlegrounds.