First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)

This battle is excerpted from Every Day of the Civil War, A Chronological Encyclopedia By Bud Hannings. McFarland Publishing, Incorporated, Jefferson, North Carolina and London. 2010 

The Union and the Confederates clash in the conflict’s first major engagement on 21 July, 1861:

July 21 (Sunday) FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN (MANASSAS) Roaring Union cannon announce the beginning of the battle in Virginia, as Union troops struggle forward against darkness on small, unfamiliar roads toward their objective. When the Union guns strike the Rebels under Colonel Nathan George Evans (West Point 1848) at Stone Bridge on the left flank of the Confederate positions, Evans, believing the attack to be the main event, calls for reinforcements. Meanwhile, the guns of the Fifth Artillery, in support of Daniel Tyler’s First Division, maintain their fire. Evans, believing the main attack will strike his left flank, decides at 0830 to redeploy his force. He leaves four companies of Colonel John B.E. Sloan’s 4th South Carolina Regiment to hold the bridge, taking the remainder of the regiment, five Companies of Major C.R. Wheat’s Louisiana battalion and two guns of Latham’s battery, to the Brentsville Road to intercept the expected assault. In addition, Colonel Philip George St. Cocke’s 5th Brigade is deployed at Ball’s Ford, and with the absence of Evans, the 5th Brigade holds the line near the Stone Bridge until just prior to the arrival of Colonel Arnold Elzey’s reinforcements (1st Maryland Infantry).

Colonel (later general) Nathan Evans’ decision to move proves to be a large plus for the Confederates, as by redeploying his force they stand as a solid line against the Yankees. Meanwhile, the 5th Brigade attacks on the left and performs extremely well. While the Union is maintaining the rear attack at Stone Bridge, Colonel Ambrose Burnside, following a tough journey on nasty roads, brings up his 2nd Brigade, Second Division, arriving at about 1000. Nevertheless, the Confederates hold the line for nearly one hour of incessant firing. The Confederates under Pierre G.T. Beauregard and Jackson had in the meantime realized that the assault against Stone Bridge is a diversionary tactic, and troops from Colonel Nathan Evans’ command temporarily stifle the main Union advance, led by General Irvin McDowell.

Upon the arrival of Colonel William T. Sherman’s 3rd Brigade, First Division, and shortly thereafter the tardy arrival of General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s 3rd Division, the Union plunges forward as the Confederate lines begin to falter under the pressure. Contingents of Colonel Andrew Porter’s 1st Brigade, Second Division, arrive to further bolster the Union.

Confederate reinforcements under Generals Bernard E. Bee and Francis S. Bartow rush to stem the tide, to no avail. By about 1200, the Confederates withdraw to a point south of Stone Bridge. Meanwhile, Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade has expended its full supply of ammunition. The 3rd Brigade, 3rd Division, led by Colonel Oliver O. Howard, remains in the fight. The 1st Brigade, First Division, under Erasmus Darwin Keyes, is to hold the road leading to Manassas. Keyes and the 3rd Brigade, First Division, under William T. Sherman, are still on the move. The southerners retreat in disarray to Henry House Hill where Jackson’s brigade is holding firm, bolstered by thirteen guns widely distributed around the area.

With the influx of troops, Jackson is now bolstered by the brigades of Bartow, Bee and Nathan G. Evans. General Bee shouts, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians.” Bee’s encouragement coupled with the arrival of Johnston and Beauregard permits time for the Confederates to pull their disorganized troops together.

The rejuvenated Rebels are zealously inspired by Jackson and prepared to drive the exhausted Yankees back to Washington. Near Henry House, atop the hill that dominates the terrain, the New York Zouaves (late Colonel E.E. Ellsworth’s Regiment), supported by artillery of Charles Griffin and James B. Ricketts, launch a charge to secure the hill, but they are intercepted by a defiantly bold Alabama regiment that has no intention of folding. The artillery is put out of action during the first barrage of fire, preventing any further advancement, and the batteries become jeopardized.

The Rebels then strike the flank of the Zouaves, while two detachments of the Confederate Black Horse Cavalry pound against their rear, prompting a quick displacement of the Zouaves. General Heintzleman directs the 1st Michigan and the 1st Minnesota Regiments to support the batteries, now naked, and retrieve the men, but neither can overcome the opposition to extricate either the guns or the artillerymen. Jackson repeatedly attempts to retrieve the guns, but without success, as the Zouaves and the New York 35th Regiment keep them at bay. Eventually, it is the Yankees who retrieve the guns.

While this action continues, Colonel William T. Sherman’s brigade launches an assault to secure the Confederate batteries on the plateau that are hammering the Union attack, but following several attempts, the force of opposition compels Sherman to order a pull-back; during this heated battle, Colonel Michael Corcoran of the New York 69th Militia Regiment is wounded and captured. Colonel James Cameron, brother of the secretary of war and commanding officer, 79th New York Regiment, is also killed.

The devastation of the day spares neither side, as the Confederates also sustain horrible casualties. Generals Barnard E. Bee and Francis Bartow, leading the 4th Alabama and the 8th Georgia Regiments respectively, are both lost in the battle. The Confederates have also stymied the attempts of the 2nd Maine and the 3rd Connecticut under Colonels Charles D. Jameson and Chatfield, respectively, who attack to put eight guns entrenched at Robinson’s buildings, but all attempts fail and the units are forced to retire.

By 1500, the Union force is nearly drained. The reserves, including by this time Burnside’s brigade, which has been out of action since about noon, and Colonel Schenck’s Brigade at Stone Bridge, are not called upon. And with the failure of Robert Patterson to corral Johnston at Winchester, the Confederates’ ranks expand with the influx of reinforcements, including General Kirby Smith’s command, the 6th N.C. Regiment commanded by Colonel Charles F. Fisher, and contingents of Colonel Arnold Elzey’s brigade along with additional artillery. All of this Confederate strength faces Irvin McDowell’s overtired 13,000 remaining troops, none of whom have bolted across Bull Run since 1200.

The Confederates, although equally exhausted from the grueling fighting, also have the advantage of defending positions. Beauregard orders an attack to penetrate McDowell’s right flank and slice into his rear, hoping to finish the job before both sides are forced through exhaustion to disengage. Colonel Elzey—leading the 10th, 13th and 28th Virginia, the 1st Maryland (his regiment), the 2nd and 8th South Carolina and the 3rd Tennessee—initiates a thunderous attack against the Union flank and soon recovers the plateau. In a synchronized maneuver, General Jubal A. Early, commanding the 24th Virginia Infantry, jack-hammers the rear, causing the seams of the Union lines, except for eight companies of regulars under Colonel George Sykes, to collapse.

General Jacob A. Cox’s force of regulars covers the retreat, which to many seems totally undisciplined, but in fact, much has to do with the troops’ lacking proper drilling. This does lead to chaos and disorder, especially as the civilians who had come to observe the contest are fleeing along the same roads so desperately needed by the Union troops. Nevertheless, Cox’s troops hold the Rebels back until their positions become totally untenable.

While the Union troops are breaking for safety and the Confederates are in hot pursuit, all roads are leading toward Centreville and seemingly Confederate forces are blocking the routes at every point. Troops under Jubal Early, Jeb Stuart, Ellerbee Cash and Joseph Kershaw as well as John S. Preston, Wade Hampton (Gist Rifles/Hampton Legion) and James L. Kemper all join the chase, but it terminates as the Union makes it to Centreville Ridge. Beauregard con templates a continuance of the attack, but considering the condition of his own forces and the threatening skies, he aborts pursuit.

Meanwhile, General McDowell deploys a brigade at Cub Run on the Warrenton Road, and other contingents under Andrew Porter and Louis Blenker join it to intercept the Confederates if they continue the attack. At Centreville, it is decided to continue the retreat to Washington to protect the capital. The march commences prior to midnight and continues until the columns reach the capital during the early morning hours. Union Brigadier General Daniel Tyler (West Point, 1819), 1st Connecticut Infantry Regiment, in apparent reaction to his execution of orders during the contest, is mustered out of the army the following month.

Union losses at Bull Run amount to over 2,700 killed, wounded or missing. Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, loses every gun except one. Lt. Adelbert Ames (West Point, 1861) is seriously wounded while directing artillery fire. He refuses to leave the field and while atop a caisson he continues to direct the fire. He becomes a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Also, Captain (later brigadier general) James B. Ricketts, in command of a battery, is wounded four separate times during the engagement and is captured then held until exchanged during January 1863. Also, Colonel Robert Cowdin (1st Massachusetts Infantry) is unscathed; however, his horse is shot from underhim and killed during the fighting. Colonel Orlando Bolivar Willcox (1st Michigan Infantry), leading a brigade (General Heintzelman’s division) is wounded after having led repeated charges, but he is also captured and held in captivity until August 1862. Colonel Willcox’s conduct does not go unnoticed, but his heroism in the field is not officially recognized until thirty-four years after the battle, when he becomes a recipient of the Medal of Honor on 2 March 1895.

Colonel (later major general) Henry Warner Slocum (27th New York) is wounded. In addition, Brigadier General George W. Taylor is mortally wounded while attempting to reach the bridge that spans Bull Run. His brigade lacks artillery and is struck by Confederate Colonel Isaac Trimble’s command, bolstered by two batteries. General Taylor dies in Alexandria on 1 September.

Confederate losses are over 1,900 killed, wounded, or missing, including Brigadier General Barnard Elliott Bee (West Point, 1845) and General Francis Bartow of the 7th Georgia Regiment. Bee is fatally wounded and succumbs on the following day at his headquarters. Confederate Colonel Clement H. Stevens, the brother-in-law of General Bee, is wounded during this action. Stevens will afterwards be elected colonel of the 24th South Carolina. Also, Confederate Lt. Colonel William Montgomery Gardner (West Point, 1846) is severely wounded. He remains on sick leave for about one year and afterward is unsuitable for field command. Nonetheless, he is promoted to brigadier general during the latter part of this year. Also, Colonel Charles F. Fisher, 6th North Carolina, is mortally wounded.

This first battle of Bull Run, witnessed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, is a costly victory for the South. Many of the Union soldiers exhaust their ammunition during the contest and the defenses at Washington are fragile, but the Confederates fail to follow up their victory with pursuit. The Union quickly fortifies Washington to prepare it for an anticipated attack, which does not materialize.

During the federal retreat, Captain Richard Arnold (West Point, 1850 and later brigadier general) of the 5th Artillery loses all but one gun while covering the withdrawal. The surviving gun is saved by the heroic actions of Corporal Owen McGough, who becomes a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his gallantry under fire. Colonel (later brigadier general) Michael Corcoran, 69th New York Infantry, is wounded and captured. Corcoran, born in Ireland, has previously been subjected to a court-martial during 1860 for refusing a direct order to parade his command, known as the “Irish Legion,” past the Prince of Wales, who was visiting the United States. Also, Union Colonel Oliver Otis Howard (West Point, 1854) sees his command (four regiments) retreat in disarray, but headquarters in Washington promotes him to brigadier general during early September for his actions at Bull Run.

Union General William T. Sherman observes: “It is easy to criticize a battle after it is over, but all now admit that none others, equally raw in war, could have done better than we did at Bull Run.” A contingent of 365 Marines, including twelve officers, commanded by Major John C. Reynolds, participates as part of the Union Army’s 1st Brigade.



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2 Responses to First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)

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