On this day in 1861 the Civil War finally erupts in full in Virginia. Confederate forces under P. T. Beauregard turn back Union General Irvin McDowell’s troops along the Bull Run stream, sending them hurtling back to Washington before stunned picnic-goers. Inexperienced soldiers under worthy command from the South and incompetence from the North slugged it out in a chaotic battle, soon realizing the entire war may take more than the projected three weeks.
CSA President Jefferson Davis had arrived confidently in Richmond, VA on May 31, proclaiming the city to be the capital of the Confederacy; to a cheering crowd, he said, “I know that there beats in the breasts of Southern sons a determination never to surrender, a determination never to go home but to tell a tale of honor . . . Give us a fair field and a free fight, and the Southern banner will float in triumph everywhere.”
Virginia herself, birthplace of five U.S. Presidents, had been reluctant to leave the Union of its fathers. But after the first guns at Fort Sumter, when Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion, the convention reversed itself. Opinion swung so sharply that the result of the May 23 referendum confirming the convention’s secession decision was a unanimous and foregone conclusion.
The Rebels blood was up, and there had been brave talk in Dixie of making Washington the capital of the Confederacy, surrounded as it was by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. Federal troops had been attacked by a mob in Baltimore, and Marylanders had cut rail and telegraph lines to the North. Racing against the expiration of 90-day troop enlistments, and yielding to political pressure, U.S. Gen. McDowell led his unseasoned army across Bull Run against the equally inexperienced Confederate Army of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, the South’s hero of Ft. Sumter, whose Rebs camped near Manassas Junction.
McDowell’s ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack on the Confederate left was poorly executed by his officers and men; nevertheless, the Confederates, who had been planning to strike at the Union left flank, found themselves at an initial disadvantage. Confederate reinforcements under Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston then arrived from the Shenandoah Valley by railroad, and the course of the battle quickly changed. A brigade of Virginians under the relatively unknown brigadier general from the Virginia Military Institute, Thomas J. Jackson, stood its ground, which resulted in Jackson receiving his famous nickname, “Stonewall.”
The Confederates launched a strong counterattack, and as the Union troops began withdrawing under fire, many panicked and the retreat turned into a rout; McDowell’s men frantically ran without order in the direction of Washington, D.C. Expecting an easy Union victory, the gentry of the nearby capital, including congressmen and their families, had come to take a genteel picnic and watch the battle. When the Union army was driven back in clumsy disorder, the roads back to Washington were blocked by panicked civilians attempting to flee in their carriages.
First Bull Run, or First Manassas, demonstrated that the war would not be won by one grand battle, and both sides began preparing for a long and bloody conflict. The clash also illustrated the acute need for adequately trained and experienced officers and men. Many of the same soldiers who had fought at First Bull Run, now combat veterans, would have an opportunity to test their skills on the same battlefield at the Second Battle of Bull Run just one year later. And yet again, the Union went down in inglorious defeat, only to fully and finally prevail in the conflagration at the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, a mere 151 miles to the south, in 1865.