The First Battle of Bull Run


Who: Irvin McDowell & Robert Patterson (Union) vs. P.G.T Beauregard & Joseph E. Johnston (Confederacy)

What: Decisive Confederate victory

Where: Fairfax County, Virginia.

Why: The Union wanted to capture Richmond, the Confederates wanted a victory in the North; both sides wanted a quick end to the war.

When: July 21, 1861.

“There stands Jackson like a stone wall – rally round the Virginians” – General Barnard Bee, providing the origin for Jackson’s famous nickname.

The First Battle of Bull Run was supposed to bring about a quick end to the two-month-old war. Bowing to pressure from the Northern public, General Irvin McDowell marched his inexperienced Union army across Bull Run towards Richmond. The equally inexperienced Confederates under P.G.T Beauregard were camped at Manassas Junction. The Union attacked, so confident of victory that crowds of civilians, including congressmen, had come to picnic and watch the battle. However, McDowell’s ambitious flanking attack was far too complex for the inexperienced Union soldiers to implement successfully. Despite this, the overwhelming superiority of numbers pushed the Confederates back. At Henry House Hill, a brigade of Virginians stood firm under Thomas Jackson, standing ‘like a stone wall’. While Jackson held firm, Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate forces joined the battle, the counterattack pushing the Union lines back, before a cavalry charge led by Jeb Stuart shattered them. The Union army’s withdrawal turned into a retreat, before swiftly turning into a rout. The roads back to Washington D.C. became clogged with Union soldiers and panicked civilians fleeing from the field. The shameful retreat became known as ‘The Great Skedaddle’. The Confederacy had drawn first blood, and both sides sobered to the realisation that the war would not be quick or bloodless. Interestingly, the initial engagement took place on the farm of Wilmer McLean. Sick of the war, he moved in 1863 to Appomattox Court House, where almost four years later Lee would surrender to Grant, meaning McLean could rightfully say ‘the war started in my front yard and ended in my front parlor’.

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