150 Years Ago in the Civil War
Through the first three months of the Civil War, the fighting had been on a relatively small scale as both sides built up their armies. Regiments were formed, mustered into service, equipped, and trained. As the size of the armies grew and the calendar moved into summer, the North began offensive operations.
In Missouri, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon was determined to keep this important border state in the Union. His Federal forces moved into southwest Missouri in pursuit of Governor Claiborne Jackson and his hastily assembled Confederate militia. On July 5th at Carthage, Jackson’s ragtag unit of 4000 encountered 1100 Federals under the command of Brigadier General Franz Sigel. The Missourians slowly pushed Sigel out of Carthage, temporarily ending the Federal pursuit. Sigel’s force retreated to Springfield, where Lyon was concentrating his forces.
Much farther west, the Confederacy began efforts to remove the Federal presence in the New Mexico Territory. During the month, Federal outposts at Forts Breckenridge , Buchanan and Fillmore were abandoned, and a force of 500 U.S. troops surrendered at San Augustine Springs on July 27th
Federal forces were more successful in western Virginia, a part of the state with a large unionist population that would eventually become the state of West Virginia. Union troops under the overall command of Major General George McClellan defeated Confederate forces at Rich Mountain on July 11th and Corrick’s Ford July 13th and drove Confederate forces out of northwestern Virginia.
While the successes in northwest Virginia were hailed in the north, public opinion and the press were pressuring the government in Washington to mount a major attack against the Confederacy that would strike a knockout blow and end the war quickly. General Winfield Scott, overall commander of Union forces, believed that the raw recruits filling the ranks of the growing army needed more training before they could launch a large scale campaign. Stating that both sides “are all green alike”, Lincoln ordered an offensive against the Confederate army located at the important rail junction of Manassas, Virginia.
Scott was too old to take the field and command was assigned to Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, who had never had a field command at any level. McDowell’s battle plan called for a flanking movement against the Confederates at Manassas, and for the 15,000 Union troops near Harper’s Ferry under General Robert Patterson to prevent the 11,000 Confederates under General Joseph Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley from reinforcing Manassas.
McDowell began his movement south in mid July. The first engagement of the campaign was on July 18th at Blackburn’s Ford, when a Federal brigade under Colonel Israel Richardson was repulsed by Confederates under General James Longstreet.
On July 21st, the two armies met on the battlefield of Bull Run. McDowell had a good battle plan, but the execution of the plan was poor. Patterson failed to hold Johnston in the Shenandoah, and he and his troops arrived at Manassas in time to play an important role in the battle. At first, the Union Army was successful, driving the Rebels back to the Henry House Hill. Johnston and General P.G.T. Beauregard sent in additional reinforcements, and the fighting raged across the hill all afternoon. Many of the Union attacks were unsupported and piecemeal. Finally, the Confederates launched a counterattack that drove the Federals from the field and back towards Washington.
Union losses were 460 killed, 1124 wounded, and 1312 missing; for the Confederates, it was 387 killed, 1582 wounded, and 13 missing. Though he wasn’t really to blame for the defeat, McDowell was replaced as commander of the Division of the Potomac by George McClellan on July 27th. The first large scale battle of the Civil War was over, and with it, any illusions that it would be a short war with few casualties.