Building On the Past: First Bull Run (Manassas)

Confederate General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson

On the morning of July 21st, 1861, Union artillery opened fire across Bull Run Creek.

As the commander of Union forces, General Irvin McDowell was hesitant to engage Confederate forces. Although both armies were inexperienced, attempting to maneuver and position unseasoned troops in an offensive was difficult and dangerous. Confederates forces, commanded by General P.G.T. Beauregard, had the advantage of remaining on the defensive for the opening of the battle.

McDowell enjoyed early success, sending his forces across Sudley Ford and smashing into the Confederate left flank, pushing them back to Henry Hill. Knowing that Confederate reinforcements were about to attack the Union right flank, Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson organized a staunch defense of Henry Hill with his Virginian men, halting the Union advance and earning him the nickname “Stonewall.” Beauregard’s Confederates broke the Union right flank, causing Union forces to retreat in mass confusion and turning the battle into a rout. Retreating soldiers would not stop until they reached the safety of Washington D.C.

The total defeat of Union forces at Manassas startled even foreign nations. In his narrative The Civil War: Volume One, Fort Sumter to Perryville, writer Shelby Foote quotes a British publication to illustrate the mood, writing: “One English journalist at least believed that he could guess what was in store. ‘So short lived has been the American Union,’ the London Times observed, ‘that men who saw its rise may live to see its fall.’ ”

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