The First Battle of Bull Run (or, to those in the American South, the First Battle of Manassas) was the first major engagement between the Union and Confederate armies in the United States Civil War. It was fought on the 21st of July, 1861, near Manassas Junction, Virginia, roughly a day's march from the Union capitol, Washington, D.C. This battle alone is responsible for a good portion of the lore of the United States Civil War and the tale of the battle is a good story in and of itself.
In early July 1861, the Civil War was just starting to really heat up. The Union's first major enlistment drive was just wrapping up and they were busily training their troops; meanwhile, the Confederate army rounded up every available man and sent them marching northward to the United States capital. As the Confederate army marched northward, the public in the north was getting very nervous and started to demand that President Abraham Lincoln do something immediately. Lincoln, concerned himself with the defense of Washington, D.C., urged the main U.S. general Irving McDowell to spring into action.
McDowell was very concerned that his army wasn't ready for the battle. On July 8th, Lincoln sent McDowell a letter in which he said, "You are green, it is true; but they are green also; you are all green alike." He closed the letter with orders to take the partially-trained troops and draw up some battle plans for defense of the capital.
McDowell took the 35,000 men he had (30,000 of which had not completed their training yet) and devised a plan to attack the northward advancing main Confederate army, which in mid-July was marching northward under the command of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard. There was only one minor problem with his plan: besides the main Confederate army, there was also another Confederate battalion at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, roughly fifty miles northwest of where McDowell planned to strike. Knowing that as soon as wind of his attack reached the 11,000 Confederate troops at Harper's Ferry (organized into roughly thirty battalions) the Confederates would march to Manassas, McDowell ordered another Union battalion to head to Harper's Ferry from the southeast, blocking the troops at Harper's Ferry. Confident that he had control of the battle, McDowell marched onward into the pages of history.
The first mistake McDowell made was marching slowly towards Manassas Junction. He spent two and a half days marching only twenty five miles; battalions could easily march that far in a single day. One could argue that he was conserving the energy of his troops, but there are several sensible reasons for NOT doing this. The biggest one is that he had no guarantee that the Confederates at Harper's Ferry would be blocked. Another one is that the Confederate troops had been marching a much longer distance and thus would be at least as tired as his men. Either way, it was a grave mistake.
Of course, he didn't know that the block at Harper's Ferry had fallen and that three brigades, in addition to the troops led by Beauregard that he expected, were on their way. One of these brigades (not a battalion, as pointed out by Ulumuri) was led by famous Southern general Stonewall Jackson, who would play a major part in the First Battle of Bull Run.
The Confederates were encamped on the banks of the Bull Run river just outside of Manassas Junction on July 21, 1861. They knew the North would be coming soon and were planning to move north that very day to meet them head on. Unfortunately, the Confederates at Manassas woke that morning to the sound of artillery fire; McDowell had moved first.
And the battle was on.
The Northern army quickly pressed the Confederates southward, but in the mid-morning the three battalions from Harper's Ferry arrived on the scene. They attacked the Union army from the northwest, and along with the southern battalion, seemed to even things for a while. But the Union still had superior numbers and they held their position.
As the early afternoon came, the Confederate line was being pushed to the southwest; the Union was gaining a clear upper hand even against more troops than they expected. Stonewall Jackson then made a brilliant and brave (some might say stupid) military move that would give him his famous name. With his brigade pushed back by artillery fire behind Henry House Hill, out of direct sight of the union forces, he ordered his troops to equip their bayonets (knife-like devices on the end of their guns). He ordered an aide to alert the rest of the forces:
"Tell the colonel of this brigade that the enemy are advancing; when their heads are seen above the hill, let the whole line rise, move forward with a shout, and truth to the bayonet. I'm tired of this long range work."
Essentially, Stonewall Jackson decided that when the Confederate line was pushed back over the hill, his brigade would rise up with bayonets and attack the North man to man. When the remnants of the Confederate line struggled back over the hill, they shouted to him, "General, they are beating us back!" Stonewall Jackson replied, "Then, sir, we will give them the bayonet!"
When the northern troops came over the hill, Stonewall's men pressed forward and did not give up the line. Emboldened by Jackson's refusal to fall back, even with artillery raining down all around and his men fighting hand-to-hand with bayonets, another colonel in the line shouted famously to his men, "Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!" Thereafter, Jackson was known as "Stonewall" and his troops as the "Stonewall Brigade."
This was the turning point in the battle. The Union attack was halted and a bitter struggle ensued. As the afternoon wore on, two more Confederate battalions rolled onto the scene, pumping fresh numbers into the confederates, and the line started to move northward again as the Union army retreated. Soon, this turned into a rout, and the Confederate army won the first major battle of the United States Civil War.
This battle, and several more on throughout 1861 and 1862, marked the peak of the Confederate's success in the Civil War. They would go on to press to the borders of the Potomac River, just a mile or two from Washington D.C., but as the years wore on, the North would eventually take control and win the war.
Northeast Virginia is a fascinating place to visit in order to see countless battlefields and historical relics. It is well worth a visit to Manassas to see the remnants of this first major battle of the United States' Civil War.
Lord Brawl notes that "Shelby Foote argues that the Union troops were just terrible marchers, stopping to picnic on their rations and pick berries." Most likely true.