On July 21, 1861, about three months after the rebel shelling of Ft. Sumpter in Charleston Harbor, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to take Richmond, VA, the capital of the rebellion, hoping to put an end to the rebellion quickly.
McDowell was a graduate of West Point in 1838 and had taught tactics there from 1841 to 1845 to many of the generals he would eventually face on the battlefield. He had served as an aide-de-camp for General J.E. Wood during the Mexican-American War and received a brevet promotion to captain for his service at the Battle of Buena Vista.
When the Civil War broke out earlier in the year, he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, mostly because of his political connections to the then Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Though he had battle experience as a junior officer, he had never commanded troops in combat. In July of 1861, he took a union force of 35,000 men into the field from Washington D.C., following President Lincoln’s orders. They would meet a force of some 20,000 Confederate soldiers near Manassas on a small stream called Bull Run.
The Union forces and McDowell were confident that they would have no problem defeating this upstart rebellion quickly. At the beginning of the battle, things went fairly well. The Union forces were able to cause the Confederate forces to retreat several times, but the Confederates were quickly reinforced by the afternoon and soon had almost equal numbers to throw against the Union troops.
One of the commanders on the rebel side was General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Throughout the battle, he moved continuously through his troops, rallying them and directing them in counterattacks. They began to push the Union troops back.
By the end of the battle, the Union forces were in full retreat back to Washington, D.C. They had been beaten and beaten badly. The Union suffered 3,000 casualties, while the Confederate forces suffered only half that many. It was a bad day at Bull Run for the Union Army. The defeat that day was a signal to the Union Army that the Civil War was not going to be won either easily or quickly.
In fact, the Union Army would be defeated yet again at the Second Battle of Bull Run that went from August 29th and 30th in 1862, which drove the Union forces out of eastern Virginia a second time and opened up the opportunity for the Confederate forces to invade Maryland.
The fact of the matter is that, in the early part of the war, the Confederate Army had a series of victories against the Union Army. In fact, the Union would not be successful in even beginning to quell the rebellion until the Union victories at Gettysburg on July 1st to 3rd, 1863, and the surrender of Confederate forces at the end of the Siege of Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863. These two coinciding victories turned the tide of battle in the Union favor and boosted Northern morale.
The Civil war still had two more very bloody years before it would come to an end at the signing of the surrender between the victorious commander of the Union Armies, General Ulysses S. Grant, and the commander of the Confederate Armies, General Robert E. Lee, at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9th, 1865.
The First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), fought 160 years ago this month, was the first largescale land battle between the Union and Confederate forces in the Civil War. This battle, fought on that small stream called Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia, was the beginning of what would become the bloodiest, most costly conflict in our history. Modern estimates argue that as many as 750,000 Americans died in that terrible conflict.
It is important to remember history. It is said that those who ignore history have no past and no future. We are in very profound ways made by our history. It is out of great suffering, honestly and humbly reflected upon, that we continue to grow as a nation and as the greatest experiment in government “of the People, by the People, and for the People” in human history.
The Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) was just one of many bloody encounters between brothers in a “house divided” that we know as the Civil War. May we continue to learn the great lessons that that part of our history still holds up before us.Whizzco