Location: Manassas, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The First Battle of Bull Run, was the opening major land battle of the Civil War in July 1861. Since the attack on Fort Sumter in April, 1861 the Union and Confederate armies had been gathering men and material and training the soldiers for combat. President Lincoln has called for 75,000 volunteers and by July had 36,000 soldiers training in Washington D.C. The Army of Northeastern Virginia was under the command of Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who was concerned with the untried condition of the army. Believing the Southern rebellion could be put down quickly in a single battle, the Washington politicians pressured McDowell to engage the enemy. The Confederate Army of the Potomac was led by General P.T.G. Beauregard and consisted of just under 22,000 soldiers. Major Gen. Robert Patterson’s 18,000 men engaged General Johnston’s Army of Shenandoah to keep them from reinforcing General Beauregard, while General McDowell led the army out of Washington D.C. towards the Confederates centered at Manassas Junction, selected as it provided railroads to move Confederate troops from the Shenandoah to Fredericksburg. McDowell’s plan for a surprise attack failed because the inexperienced army took two days to march to Manassas and Confederate spies had already communicated his plans to Beauregard. While McDowells’s plan to flank the Confederates was sound it failed due to a number of factors. Most importantly, it depended on synchronized troops movements over a large area from an untrained army and command structure. Second, it relied on Patterson to keep Johsnton tied down in the Shenandoah, which he failed to execute. Finally, the march was so slow that it allowed nearly all of Johnston’s army to arrive from the Shenandoah in time to turn the battle. At 2:30 am on July 21, 1861, McDowell ordered the advance on the Confederate left flank, however, columns got in each other’s way, some roads were not adequate for the massed troops, and other logistical problems delayed and confused the attack plan. The situation was little better for the Confederates, where garbled orders and ineffectiveness of the commanders failed to take any significant advantage of the confusion in the Union army. In fact, all that stood in the path of 22,000 Union soldiers converging on the Confederate left flank was Colonel Evans 1100 man brigade. By 11:30 the Confederates were in a disorganized retreat to Henry House Hill. Instead of advancing, McDowell choose to bombard the hill with artillery fire allowing the Confederates to regroup and get reinforcements from Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson and Col. J.E.B Stuart’s cavalry. For the next several hours the armies exchanged artillery fire which killed Judith Carter Henry, an 85 year old widow, in her home on the hill, the first civilian casualty of the war. Jackson’s stand earned him the nickname “Stonewall” with a larger than life statue erected on the battlefield. Adding to the confusion of the battlefield was the inconsistent uniforms and flags of the various units, some of which resembled uniforms for the other side. Around 3 pm, artillery commander Griffin decided to move two cannons to the southern end of the Union line to rake the Confederate line, but he did this without infantry support and the guns were captured. This turned the tide of the battle and the Union were forced off of Henry Hill. To the west, Chinn Ridge was occupied by Col Howard’s brigade and by 4 pm had been crushed by two Confederate brigades that had just arrived from the Shenandoah. The retreat of the Union Army was fairly organized, but poorly managed by the officers. Most of the Union army scattered leaving guns, ammunition, and supplies littered all the way back to Washington D.C. Thus ended the first major battle of the Civil War demonstrating to both sides that this conflict was far from over and the difficulties of conducting a battle with inexperience soldiers and officers.
The site of the First Battle of Bull Run was again fought over a year later, in August of 1862. With the collapse of Maj Gen McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign to capture Richmond culminating in the Seven Days Battles in June of 1862, the new Confederate General Robert E. Lee saw an opportunity to capitalize with an attack towards Washington D.C. against Union Maj Gen John Pope’s Army of Virginia before McClellan’s Army of the Potomac could get back to Washington D.C. On August 28, 1862, Maj Gen Stonewall Jackson wide ranging flanking march captured the Union supply depot at Manassas Junction and threatened Union communications to Washington D.C. since they were to the rear of the Union position. Pope believed he had Jackson trapped and concentrated his forces on Jackson, if he could find him. However, Maj Gen Longstreet had broken through the Union lines and was approaching the battlefield. On August 29, Pope led a series of attacks against Jackson’s position behind an unfinished railroad bed providing excellent defensive cover. Meanwhile, Longstreet took up a position on the right flank of Jackson, a fact that Pope refused to believe. When Pope renewed his attacks on August 30, Longstreet counterattack with his entire force and crushed the Union left flank. Only effective rear guard at Chinn Ridge and then Henry Hill (the site of the First Battle of Bull Run) prevented a complete disaster, allowing the Union to retreat back across Bull Run. Thus ended the Second Battle of Bull Run with another decisive Confederate victory. General Lee continued to press his advantage leading to the Battle at Antietam in September.
1) The Visitor Center is located on Henry Hill, the main site of the First Battle of Bull Run. There is a short walking tour that we took with a Ranger Guide. Along with a movie that does an excellent job of showing the background and strategies of this First Battle, we came away with a good understanding of the battle.
2) The walking tour includes the house of Judith Carter Henry, the 85 year old widow that was killed by the artillery fire during the battle, the oldest Civil War memorial erected at the house, and the grand statue of Stonewall Jackson.
3) In the museum we also learned the story of Wilmer McLean who witnessed the opening of the First Battle of Bull Run when Union artillery dropped a cannonball into his chimney, which was being used as the headquarters of Brig Gen Beauregard. He decided to move his enterprise as a sugar broker to the Confederate Army and his family far from the fighting to central Virginia. On April 9, 1865 a messenger knocked on his door asking if General Lee could use his parlor to discuss the terms of surrender with General Grant at nearby Appamatox Courthouse. He literally saw the beginning and the end of the Civil War!!
4) We purchased a Driving Tour CD for the Second Battle of Bull Run, since it involved a lot soldiers and covered a lot more ground. This added a lot of information and made the battle much more understandable.
5) The first stop on the tour is Brawner Farm, where General Jackson had concealed his troops after his raid on the Masassas Junction supply depot. On August 28, 1862 a Union column was moving towards Centreville along the Warrenton Turnpike when Confederate cannon opened fire. The lines exchanged volleys for two hours until nightfall ended the conflict. This was the opening of the Second Battle of Bull Run.
6) The next stop was Battery Heights where the Union artillery effectively silenced the Confederate cannon on August 28 and the Confederates supported the repulse of the horrible Union charge on August 30.
7) The next stop if the Stone House where General Pope made his headquarters during the battle.
8) The next two stops at Matthews Hill and Sudley cover major events of the back and forth battle on August 29 on Jackson’s left flank.
9) The next stop is along a portion of the unfinished railroad, behind which Jackson’s army found excellent cover to repulse repeated attempts by the Union on August 29 and 30.
10) On August 30, believing the Confederates were in retreat, Pope ordered a “pursuit” just before noon. However, Jackson was not retreating and Pope ordered an all out assault at Jackson’s line around the Deep Cut. A converging fire of 36 Confederate cannon shattered the Union front. At this point, Longstreet who had arrived the day before to overlap Jackson’s right flank, counterattacked and crushed the Union left. A general retreat of the Union began.
11) The next two stops are the New York monuments and the location along Chinn Ridge that saw a stubborn rear guard action to delay the Confederate advance. The next stop is once again the slopes of Henry Hill where the rear guard continued to delay the Confederates.
12) The last stop is the stone bridge across Bull Run where, under the cover of darkness, the Union army retreated toward Centreville and the Washington defenses beyond. This opened the way for the South’s first invasion of the North and possible recognition by European powers.