Where the North and the South Clashed
The first major battle on land in the American Civil War (1861-1865) happened near the rail junction in Manassas VA, starting on July 21, 1861. The Confederate and Union armies comprising about 20000 and 35000 poorly trained and poorly organized soldiers, respectively, clashed on the banks of a small tributary stream of the Potomac River, also known as Bull Run. The Union troops had marched from Washington DC to Manassas VA, now known as the National Battlefield Park, to clash with the Confederate army, and this clash happened near the Bull Run.
This, however, was a solid Confederate victory, which brought them to the pinnacle of their power.
The First Bull Run: Prelude
Confederates had opened fire at Fort Sumter initiating the American Civil War, and two months later, after giving in to popular demand, the then President Abraham Lincoln had ordered General Irvin McDowell to give a resounding reply to the Confederates. Gen. McDowell had arranged an army of the Union and led them toward Richmond, the Confederate capital. General Joseph E. Johnston led the reinforcement troops for Beauregard, who blocked the Union armies at the Manassas rail junction. The resulting skirmish is now popularly known as the First Bull Run or the Battle of Bull Run.
These unorganized and naïve troops were 90-day volunteers that President Lincoln had summoned after the Fort Sumter attacks. Straggling and lagging, these troops were already tired by the time they reached Manassas after their long and tedious march from Washington. In the hot weather, the exhausted troops still managed to surprise the Confederates and open the battle to their advantage when McDowell ordered them around the left of the Rebels, and the troops managed to cross the river unopposed. This attack was based on speed and surprise and seemed to work at first. It resulted in the Confederates being on the defensive from the start.
The Federal troops had reached Centreville, five miles ahead of Bull Run, on 18 July, 1861. McDowell scouted the right flank of the Confederate armies but was blocked by Beauregard promptly and had to beat a hasty retreat from Blackburn’s Ford. He then passed the next two days only scouting the land and trying to find a hole in the defenses. Finally, there was a break and McDowell ordered his attack columns to march north toward Sudley Springs Ford, taking the Federals around the left flank of the Rebels. A diversionary attack was mounted at the Warrington Turnpike, where around 10,000 Federals managed to gradually fight, push, and pummel about 4,500 rebels across the Turnpike and up Henry House Hill.
Colonel Nathan Evans led the rebel defense here and struggled to push the Federals back, all the while retreating and giving ground to the opposition due to the very small force that was caught in this skirmish. Brigades under Francis Bartow and Bernard Bee rushed to Evans’help but could only manage to slow the Federal attack a little at this point.
General Thomas Jackson, later nicknamed “Stonewall” for holding his troops firm in this initial onslaught, was the leader that was finally able to fight back in this situation and give new hope to the fighting troops.
However, while McDowell was scouting for breaks in defenses and planning the surprise strike, Beauregard had thought ahead and requested help from Richmond. General Joseph E. Johnston, who was stationed at the Shenandoah Valley with about 11,000 rebels, outmaneuvered a Union force in his region and brought Confederate reinforcements just in time to secure the final victory.
The Confederates were given new life, when fresh troops arrived in the late afternoon of 21st July, 1861 and helped demoralize the already worn-down Union troops. The blood-curdling rebel yell was raised by the Southerners, fresh and weary alike, and they drove the Union troops back across the river.
What followed was a chaotic encounter with the equally disorganized, if not naïve, Confederate army. Somehow, the right flank of the Union armies was broken into by the rebels, and the battle was won. This victory startled many in the North and shocked several more into believing that the war would not be easy to win.
As the Union troops fled back toward the safety of Washington, Congressmen and Journalists that had come to watch the battle from afar actually found themselves caught in this skirmish!
At the daybreak of 22 July, 1861, the Union troops were back behind the bristling guard of Washington DC, defeated.
Resounding as this victory was for the Rebels, the remaining Union fighters were fortunate in the fact that the Southerners were in no condition to pursue their opposition to the vulnerable capital.
This shocking, nay, bone-chilling defeat of the Union troops was why the very next day President Lincoln signed a bill that would create an army of half a million men, who would be enlisted and trained well for three years.