Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, CSA
In total the US had about 28,500 and the Confederates a little over 32,000.
Casualties were moderate, about 3,000 for the Union and 1,750 for the Confederates.
The war was still fresh and green, more music and flamboyant uniforms than wounds and missing kin. Crowds cheered on July 16, 1861, as Irwin McDowell’s army marched through the streets of Washington, then across the bridges and into Virginia. Everyone in the capital was confident that the swaggering army would knock the Rebels aside and end the war in a few weeks, if that long. There would be a few artistic wounds, enough for the newspapers to talk about bandaged heroes, but nothing serious. Some civilians packed picnics and followed the army, wanting to see the spectacle of a battle.
If the crowd didn’t know what was coming, neither did the troops. They were hardly disciplined, not accustomed either to marching or heavy loads, and they moved slowly the first day, only making five miles. Straggling was common, either to fill canteens or simply to pick ripening blackberries. Officers couldn’t keep their men in the ranks, because many officers were themselves pausing for refreshments.
McDowell was heading for Manassas Junction, where railroads from Washington, Richmond, and the Shenandoah met. If he had that, he not only protected Washington, he could supply himself for the march down to Richmond, and incidentally levered the Confederates out of the upper Shenandoah Valley. It was an obvious target, and the Confederate Army of the Potomac was encamped in the area. It wasn’t very strong, but it was in a strong position, with Occoquon Creek on the right, and Bull Run covering the front. Forewarned was also forearmed, and Confederate spies (and ordinary newspaper subscribers) soon learned where McDowell was heading, and when he left. Jefferson Davis, keeping the reins of command in his own hands, ordered reinforcements to Manassas.
These were troops under Theophilus Holmes (from the Fredericksburg area), from Richmond, and from the Shenandoah – the whole Army of the Shenandoah, under Joseph Johnston. They were almost all in place by the morning of the 20th. Beauregard pulled in his outposts, and strung out his troops along Bull Run, with his main strength east of the Stone Bridge, where there were plenty of fords.
McDowell based himself at Centreville, and on the 18th probed the Confederate lines. He sent Daniel Tyler’s division (four brigades) at Mitchell’s and Blackburn’s Fords. The creek is not deep in the area, but the banks are steep and heavily wooded; Beauregard had stationed a full brigade at each ford, and had a third in reserve.
Tyler sent only a small force forward, two regiments, a handful of cavalry, and two guns. They were hampered by the heavy woods, and once they got to the water’s edge the Confederates gave them a heavy volley. It was enough; the green troops didn’t like their chances in an attack without much support, and bolted.
That was the end of McDowell’s plans east of the Stone Bridge. He spent the next two days (19th and 20th) organizing his men, making sure supplies were complete, and having engineer officers scout Bull Run. They found good news: the fords west of the Stone Bridge were easier (less steep, also less wooded) and the Confederates were weaker there too. McDowell tried to look at matters from the Confederate view: a weak force couldn’t cover all the fords, and the Union forces would be eager to avenge their little check at Blackburn’s Ford. He decided to reinforce that perception, feint on his left and swing around the Confederate flank.
But the Confederate’s weren’t as weak as McDowell thought. Not only were troops coming up from the east and south, Johnston’s army was pouring in from the Valley. Johnston didn’t know the ground, and generously left Beauregard in almost total tactical control. Beauregard was indeed expecting another Union push east of the Stone Bridge, but with the reinforcements he had a much larger reserve.
McDowell’s new plan had three elements. First, Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s divisions, with five batteries, were the flanking force, marching around via the Sudley Springs ford and arrive behind the Confederates. McDowell stationed himself with this, the main force. Second, Tyler’s division (less a brigade, but with four artillery batteries) would make a secondary attack the Stone Bridge. Third, Miles’ division (reinforced with a brigade from Tyler and lots of artillery) was to demonstrate back at Blackburn’s Ford. It would all start with Tyler moving out at 2.30 am.
The plan would put the Union in an advantageous position (over the creek, on the Confederate flank), but it didn’t really look beyond that, to how to beat the Confederates.
Tyler was late moving, about two hours late, and he didn’t get into action at the Stone Bridge until about 5.30. Even in action he was too slow, maybe reading too much into being a secondary attack. His mission was to pin the Confederate left flank (under Nathan Evans) so McDowell’s column would have an open field. Evans sensed from the lack of effort that this was only a secondary attack; he also received word from a courier at Sudley Springs, and from a staff officer (E P Alexander, later commander of Longstreet’s artillery) and he reacted properly. Evans left minimal force (four companies and two guns) to defend the Stone Bridge, and swung eleven companies and another two guns onto a small hill a little to the northwest. If Tyler had tried, he could have forced the bridge against the tiny remains of the garrison, but he continued his ‘pinning’ attack.
Meanwhile Evans’ main body was in action. McDowell had been delayed about two hours by Tyler’s slow movement in front of his flanking column, so he only crossed Bull Run about 9 am. By 10 the leading brigade of Hunter’s division was attacking, with Ambrose Burnside leading them. Burnside was gallant, but inexperienced. As soon as he had a regiment formed for battle, he charged, and his four regiments each charged separately, and was defeated separately. Evans had no chance against Burnside’s full strength, but he never faced the full strength.
Evans had reacted tactically; Beauregard was changing his battle plan too. He didn’t think the Yankees were swinging as far around the flank as they were; he thought the main effort was at the Stone Bridge. He wanted Evans (reinforced by Cocke) to hold the attack, but set three brigades (Jackson’s, Bee’s, and Bartow’s) in motion to bolster the left. But he also wanted to attack, and he ordered his center and right to push against what he diagnosed as the weak Union left. Those orders went astray. Since the attack depended on the first brigade (Ewell’s) leading, and Ewell never led, the attack never began. This was just as well; the Union forces were probably strong enough to hold a Confederate attack, and it would have absorbed reserves that the left needed. By 10.30, with the sounds of battle increasing on the left as more Union troops came up and hammered at Evans, Beauregard realized that was the key point. He scaled down what he thought was his eastern attack (meaningless orders, since there was no attack) and ordered two more brigades, and various other units, to the left flank.
Evans had held out on the hill north of the Stone House; Bee’s and Bartow’s brigades had arrived and built up the line of battle. But the Union was deploying more and more troops. Porter’s brigade were first, then a brigade from Heintzelman’s division, and Sherman’s brigade came in on the Confederate right. It was too much. The Confederates had fought for well over an hour, were running low on ammunition, and suddenly broke, fleeing in disorder over a small creek, Young’s Branch, and up the next hill.
On that hill, just forming into line, was Jackson’s brigade. The Union forces were tired and disordered from their long fight on the other side of the valley, and paused rather than tackle this new opponent. That gave time for the broken Confederates to rally – behind Jackson’s line, “standing like a stone wall.” (There is some controversy whether Bee meant that Jackson’s line was impenetrable, or that Jackson should have counter-charged and swept through the Union forces. Bee died later that day, and we will never know. Even if Bee was being critical, he would have been not just brave but foolhardy to admit to Jackson’s suddenly adoring public that what he meant was criticism.) Beauregard and Johnston were both on the Henry House Hill, rallying the troops. Beauregard stayed in command, moving units around a bit, while Johnston went off to forward reinforcements, taking what he dared from the brigades still holding the fords.
On the hill opposite was McDowell, doing the same thing. By 2 pm he nearly had a victory: he’d broken the first enemy line, and the second Confederate line was mainly from the same men who’d been beaten a few minutes before. Moreover, McDowell had plenty of troops. Burnside’s brigade may have been exhausted and disorganized, but there were four others (Porter, Franklin, Willcox, Sherman) and artillery. Three other brigades were in the neighborhood, but for one reason or another not taking any part. Tyler had one brigade still on the east side of the bridge; his second brigade had slowly swung around and cleared the Rebels from the bridge. But Tyler still interpreted his orders cautiously: as “take the bridge” not “take the bridge as part of the larger battle, then help other people”. Tyler’s two brigades wouldn’t take any part in the battle. Howard’s brigade, part of Heintzelman’s division, had been left back to protect the fords.
Still, McDowell had 10 to 11,000 men against probably 6,500 Confederates. They advanced.
There was no fire in the valley of Young’s Branch, nor any resistance on the slopes of Henry House Hill, but the Confederates fought fiercely up on the plateau. Two US batteries, Griffith’s and Rickett’s, advanced and deployed around the Henry House. They were pounding the Confederate line, until the 33rd Virginia Infantry charged. Ordinarily it would have been suicide, but the Union gunners never fired. Perhaps they thought it was a friendly unit, perhaps they were totally surprised, but they ran once they saw what the truth was.
One gallant charge couldn’t win the battle. McDowell kept feeding troops in, extending his right flank, and forced the Confederates back. They would go back as far as the edge of the woods, then pause and counter-attack. The line swayed one way, then the other, with Union attacks never penetrating the woods, and the Confederates could never hold on to the two batteries. McDowell searched for reinforcements, and called up Howard’s brigade, but could never dislodge Tyler from the Stone Bridge. Howard came into action about 3, plunged into the fray on top of the hill, but made no real difference.
McDowell was not acting as an army commander, but plunging into the thick of the battle and leading from the front. He never gave positive orders to Tyler, with his three brigades of infantry and strong artillery.
Joe Johnston’s efforts were more successful. By 4 o’clock he’d stripped Early’s entire brigade away from the defense of the fords (there was no need for a reserve where there was no attack) and Kirby Smith’s brigade were coming from the Valley, straight from the railroad cars. Johnston could have fed them into the battle on the heights, but he took a chance and pulled them around to the west, around the Union flank. The Confederate line on top held long enough, and Beauregard made yet another charge on the Union forces there. Combined with two fresh brigades that were beginning to roll down their line, the Union forces simply left the field. Officers yelled, swore, pleaded, threatened, but the men just wouldn’t stop.
At first there was no panic, and the men streamed across Bull Run without difficulty. By 6 pm, all US forces, bar prisoners and wounded, were back across. Then things deteriorated. A Confederate battery started shelling the bridge on Cub Run, and in the confusion a wagon overturned. The civilian spectators panicked, tried to force their way over the bridge, spread out, and jammed everything up. The Confederates might have gathered thousands of prisoners, but couldn’t manage a pursuit.
There were only a few squadrons of cavalry, only enough to annoy and harry. Ewell’s and Holmes’ brigades on the Confederate right were fresh, but Beauregard got a false report of a threat to his supply base, and sent them on a wild goose chase. Even so, Longstreet and Bonham had the equivalent of a brigade between them, seven regiments, and could have taken prisoners in droves. Longstreet was slow to move, and Bonham was a very proud man, quick to question seniority.
The net result was no meaningful pursuit. This didn’t mean the Union got away scot-free. Despite having substantial fresh forces, and the Regulars working as a rear-guard, demoralization spread like wild-fire. McDowell intended to fall back to Centreville, but there was no holding the volunteers there. Withdrawal became retreat, then rout, and ended up in panic, with Union forces fleeing through the night and reaching the Potomac.
The butcher’s bill was not that high. For a battle totaling over 60,000, the Union lost 2,896 (460 killed, 1,124 wounded, 1,312 missing or captured) and the Confederates 1,982 (387 killed, 1,582 wounded, 13 missing or captured). General Bee had died after giving “Stonewall” his nickname; Bartow also died, while Jackson and Kirby Smith were wounded. McDowell had two division commanders wounded, and a brigade commander wounded, then captured.
Why such modest casualties? Largely because so many troops were never engaged: about half the Union forces crossed Bull Run, and Tyler’s men suffered negligible casualties. Beauregard was able to have more men in action, from a smaller army, than McDowell. Even so, Beauregard only used about 55% of his army.
The results were much greater than the final movements of the armies. The South had won the first battle, and won convincingly. It was a big step in starting a reputation for victory. The Northern crowds, so bellicose on the 16th, on the morning of the 22nd could see their swaggering, boasting forces slinking home. Both sides could see that the other was serious, and that the war wouldn’t be over in 90 days.
Content provided by:
American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.