Also known as: First Manassas
Date: July 21st, 1861
Location: Fairfax and Prince William Counties, Virginia
Approximate troop strength: Union 28,450; Confederate 32,230
Commanders: Brigadier General Irvin McDowell (Union); Brigadier Generals Pierre Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston
Estimated Union casualties: 460 killed, 1124 wounded, 1312 missing or captured
Estimated Confederate casualties: 387 killed, 1582 wounded, 13 missing or captured
Result: Confederate victory
What happened: Early on the morning of July 21st, McDowell attacked Beauregard’s left flank at Matthews Hill, driving the Confederates back to Henry Hill. Fighting continued throughout the day as both sides tried to push each other off Henry Hill. Late in the afternoon, reinforcements from Johnston arrived and attacked the Union right forcing the Federals to withdraw. Confederate cavalry attacked the retreating Union soldiers, and the relatively orderly retreat turned into a rout amid Rebel artillery fire and civilian spectators clogged the narrow roads back to Washington.
Stonewall Jackson Gets His Name
Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson commanded a brigade of Virginians in Johnston’s army at First Bull Run. Jackson formed his men in line on Henry Hill, and when Brigadier General Barnard Bee tried to rally his retreating brigade on the hill, he pointed to Jackson and shouted “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” There were some present who claimed to hear it another way; they thought Bee was irritated that Jackson held his position and did not come to his aid. These witnesses heard it as “Look at Jackson standing there like a damned stone wall!”. Bee was killed in the battle and could not clarify what he really said, but Jackson earned his nickname of Stonewall that day, and his brigade became known as the Stonewall Brigade. The Stonewall Brigade suffered 561 casualties that day, including 119 killed.
Confederate Blue and Union Gray
Early in the Civil War, there were not enough uniforms to supply the rapidly growing armies. At First Bull Run, many states had sent their regiments into the field with whatever uniforms they could scrape together. Often, this meant using state militia uniforms, which were not standardized across the country. Some northern units, like the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, went into action wearing gray state militia uniforms, and some southern regiments, like the 33rd Virginia Infantry, wore blue. This of course led to confusion and uncertainty on the battlefield, with some units firing at their own troops, or withholding fire upon the enemy at the worst possible time.
Wilmer McLean’s Houses
Wilmer McLean was a 47 year old wholesale grocer who owned a house and farm near Blackburn’s Ford on Bull Run. Beauregard had his headquarters at the McLean house. On July 18th, Confederate forces contested a Union Army crossing at Blackburn’s Ford, and in the fighting, a Union cannon ball went down the chimney of the McLean house and destroyed Beauregard’s dinner. McLean’s farm buildings were damaged, and armies marched across his fields.
McLean decided he was living too close to the war zone, so he moved his family about 120 miles south to a central Virginia town called Appomattox Court House. McLean was able to stay clear of the war until April 1865, when General Ulysses S. Grant’s army overtook General Robert E. Lees’ forces in the Appomattox area after the Confederates abandoned their Richmond and Petersburg defenses a few days earlier. Lee and his officers surrendered to Grant in the parlor of McLean’s Appomattox home on April 9th.
Wilmer McLean is credited with saying “the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor”.
Generals and Future Generals at First Bull Run
Many of the officers in command of regiments or brigades at Bull Run eventually became generals and went on to command divisions, corps, or armies in nearly all theaters of the war from Virginia to Tennessee to the Trans-Mississippi and everywhere in between. A few of these future generals served in other capacities at Bull Run, such as staff officers, but they eventually had their own commands in the field.
Union Army future generals at First Bull Run included those who would become household names down to the very obscure. They included William T. Sherman, Ambrose Burnside, Oliver O. Howard, Orlando Wilcox, Samuel Heintzleman, William B. Franklin, George Sykes, Charles Griffin, John F. Hartranft, Andrew Porter, Erasmus Keyes, David Hunter, Alfred H. Terry, Romeyn B. Ayers, Issac Quinby, Innis Palmer, Thomas Davies, Israel Richardson, Adolf von Steinwehr, James B. Ricketts, Henry Slocum, Joseph Bartlett, Alexander McCook, Charles Jameson, Willis Gorman, Frank Wheaton, David Woodbury, J.H. Hobart Ward, Louis Blenker, Hiram Berry, William R. Montgomery, and Calvin Pratt. Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, fresh out of finishing last in his class at West Point, served as a courier between McDowell and General in Chief Winfield Scott in Washington.
Besides Johnston, Beauregard, Jackson, and Bee, the Confederate army at Bull Run included several other Brigadier Generals who were in command of brigades that day; most would go on to larger commands as the war progressed. These included James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Edmund Kirby Smith, Theophilus Holmes, David R. Jones, and the obscure Milledge L. Bonham.
Like the Federals, the Confederates had several officers present who would become generals during the war. Future Confederate generals at First Bull Run included J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Rodes, Joseph Kershaw, Jubal Early, Richard Taylor, Wade Hampton, John Imboden, James L. Kemper, William Barksdale, E.P. Alexander, Nathan Evans , Harry T. Hays, George H. Steuart, W. S. Featherston, Micah Jenkins, Samuel Garland, Montgomery Corse, Eppa Hunton, Phililp St. George Cocke, William Smith, James Fagan, William Bate, John S. Preston, John Echols, Lucius Gartrell, William M. Gardner, John C. Vaughn, and States Rights Gist (yes, that was his real name). In addition John S. Mosby, who would lead his famous Partisan Rangers later in the war as a Colonel, was present as an enlisted man .
I’m sure I missed somebody, or more than one somebody, but the point is that a lot of field commanders in the war first saw action at Bull Run. However, neither of the two men who would emerge as the top field commanders for their sides were present at First Bull Run. Robert E. Lee was involved in administrative matters organizing Virginia’s forces and did not command troops in the field until later that summer. Ulysses S. Grant was the Colonel of the 21st Illinois Infantry which was on duty in Missouri in July 1861.