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Civil War at 150: First Civil War battle a harbinger of things to come
0807Clay Ouzts
Clay Ouzts

July 21, 1861, marked 150 years since Union and Confederate soldiers clashed at Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War.

Three months earlier, federal troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., surrendered to Confederate commander P.T.G. Beauregard after a daylong bombardment. Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, four more states seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy, bringing the total to 11. As a boon to Virginia, the Confederate capital was moved from Montgomery, Ala., to Richmond.

The new Confederate capital was not even 100 miles from Washington. Both President Abraham Lincoln in Washington and Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond built up defensive fortifications around their respective cities. The ground between Washington and Richmond was certain to be the focus of much fighting in the coming conflict. Yet few, including Lincoln, felt that the war would be long and enduring.

Hoping to bring the war to a speedy resolution, Lincoln ordered Gen. Irwin McDowell to march his 35,000 troops to Richmond and subdue the Confederate army gathering north of the city.

McDowell was slow to move. Flooded with raw recruits, his army needed to train and organize. Finally, Lincoln met with McDowell and strongly urged him to put his army in motion. When McDowell objected, Lincoln told him, "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are green alike."

In early July, McDowell's army set off toward Centerville, Va., a rendezvous point for his army nearly 30 miles from Washington.

Near Centerville, at an important rail and road junction known as Manassas, 28,000 Confederate forces under Beauregard prepared to guard Richmond. Several miles west of Beauregard, Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston had an army of 10,000 soldiers in the Shenandoah Valley.

Even as McDowell's army marched southward, Beauregard and Johnston were aware of Union plans to envelop the Confederate army at Manassas. Rose Greenhow, a Washington belle and Southern spy, managed to obtain details about McDowell's strategy.

As McDowell's troops neared Centerville, he detached 18,000 men under Robert Patterson to invade the Shenandoah Valley and hold Johnston's forces at bay. Meanwhile, McDowell hoped to catch Beauregard off-guard and defeat the Confederates near Manassas.

Aware of McDowell's intentions, Johnston and Beauregard planned to unite their armies at Manassas and defeat the Federals. Johnston shifted his army by rail to Manassas, leaving a token force in the valley to occupy Patterson and keep him from reinforcing McDowell.

The ruse worked to perfection. Patterson remained in the valley stalking Johnston's phantom army and played no role in the upcoming battle.

Meanwhile, Union soldiers slugged on in an embarrassing parade of errors toward Centerville. There were problems with supply wagons. Forgetful soldiers lost their weapons and ammunition. They often broke ranks to eat ripened blackberries or take naps in the shade. McDowell's army seemed destined for a picnic.

The festive atmosphere was further amplified by civilians who followed the army from Washington in their carriages and wagons. Politicians, socialites and throngs of spectators clogged the roads, hoping to view what they believed would be the only battle in the war.

Early in the morning July 21, McDowell was poised to attack. His plans called for a diversionary maneuver on the Confederate right anchored around Bull Run Creek. His major thrust was to proceed across the Warrington Turnpike, north of the Confederates. He hoped to pounce upon the Confederate left and rear, enveloping Beauregard's position and forcing his surrender.

However, Beauregard's army was already in position and Johnston's reinforcements were starting to arrive, one train carload at a time, from the valley.

The opening salvos at Bull Run were brutal. The Confederates, after repeated Union assaults, fell back to a strong defensive position on Henry House Hill. Recognizing the developing threat to his lines, Beauregard shifted all available units to the endangered front.

McDowell's attacking waves were relentless. By mid-afternoon, Confederate lines were vacillating, except for a brigade of Virginians under Thomas J. Jackson, who tenaciously refused to budge. Jackson's stand impressed everyone who witnessed it. Gen. Bernard Bee admonished his men to look at "Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!"

Shortly afterward, Bee fell to the ground, mortally wounded. His remark was more enduring than his legacy, since Jackson would forever be known as "Stonewall."

Jackson's reluctance to yield bought Beauregard time to funnel Johnston's men into the melee. As Union attacks petered out, reinforced Confederates launched a massive counterassault.

Momentum rapidly shifted to the Rebels. Union lines buckled and then fell back across the turnpike. What began as an orderly withdrawal quickly became a rout. Wild-eyed retreating soldiers flung down their knapsacks and weapons seeking to escape. The roads were suddenly clogged with stampeding horses, overturned wagons, carriage jams and panic-stricken spectators and soldiers. The Union army melted away in a chaotic scene of massed, jumbled confusion.

President Davis arrived and urged Beauregard and Johnston to pursue the vulnerable, defeated enemy and seize Washington. Although Southern blood was up, it was already late in the afternoon. Furthermore, the Confederate army was exhausted and disorganized. It could push no further. Thus, the South squandered its best opportunity in the Civil War to bag a major Union army, capture Washington and end the conflict.

Almost 5,000 soldiers became casualties at First Bull Run (First Manassas). Three-fifths of those were Union soldiers. While Southerners celebrated their victory, they mourned the deaths of Gen. Bee and Georgia's own Col. Francis Bartow.

The destructive carnage went far beyond the military aspect of the battle. Homes and farms in the vicinity were either severely damaged or completely destroyed.

Southern morale skyrocketed. Similarly, Northern morale plummeted and a sense of doom hung over Washington. Bull Run was the beginning of the war's darkest phase in the North, which would deepen with a series of Union defeats and reversals in 1862.

However, in the midst of crisis and gloom, Northern resolve strengthened. Lincoln, Congress and his generals were even more determined to defeat the secessionists and end the rebellion.

First Bull Run showed that the war would be a long, bloody and costly ordeal. The war to save the Union and end slavery would last four grueling years and consume 620,000 total soldiers on both sides.

At the time, Northerners and Southerners were shocked by the slaughter at First Bull Run. As it turned out, the battle was a minor opening act in a war that would produce epic and monolithic struggles at places like Shiloh, Antietam and Gettysburg. First Bull Run was a harbinger of things to come.

Clay Ouzts is a professor of history at Gainesville State College in Oakwood.

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