Prelude to Battle
Cheers rang out in the streets of Washington on July 16, 1861 as Gen. Irvin McDowell’s Federal army, 35,000 strong, marched out to begin the long-awaited campaign to capture Richmond and end the war. It was an army of green recruits, few of whom had the faintest idea of the magnitude of the task facing them.
McDowell’s lumbering columns were headed for the vital railroad junction at Manassas. Here the Orange and Alexandria Railroad met the Manassas Gap Railroad, which led west to the Shenandoah Valley. If McDowell could seize this junction, he would stand astride the best overland approach to the Confederate capital.
On July 18, McDowell’s army reached Centreville. Five miles ahead a small meandering stream named Bull Run crossed the route of the Union advance. Guarding the fords from Union Mills to the Stone Bridge were 22,000 Southern troops under the command of Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. McDowell first attempted to move toward the Confederate right flank, but his troops were checked at Blackburn’s Ford. He then spent the next two days scouting the Southern left flank. In the meantime, Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston's army, stationed in the Shenandoah Valley with 10,000 Confederate troops, were ordered to support Beauregard. Johnston gave an opposing Union army the slip and, employing the Manassas Gap Railroad, started his brigades toward Manassas Junction, with most arriving July 20 and 21.
Soon brigades under Barnard Bee and Francis Bartow marched to Evans’ assistance. But even with these reinforcements, the thin gray line collapsed and Southerners fled in disorder toward Henry Hill. Attempting to rally his men, Bee used Gen. Thomas J. Jackson’s newly arrived brigade as an anchor. Pointing to Jackson, Bee shouted, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Generals Johnston and Beauregard then arrived on Henry Hill, where they assisted in rallying shattered brigades and redeploying fresh units that were marching to the point of danger.
About noon, the Federals stopped their advance to reorganize for a new attack. The lull lasted for about an hour, giving the Confederates enough time to reform their lines. Then the fighting resumed, each side trying to force the other off Henry Hill. The battle continued until just after 4p.m., when fresh Southern units crashed into the Union right flank on Chinn Ridge, causing McDowell’s tired and discouraged soldiers to withdraw.
At first the withdrawal was orderly. Screened by the regulars, the three-month volunteers retired across Bull Run, where they found the road to Washington jammed with the carriages of congressmen and others who had driven out to Centreville to watch the fight. Panic now seized many of the soldiers and the retreat became a rout. The Confederates, though bolstered by the arrival of President Jefferson Davis on the field just as the battle was ending, were too disorganized to follow up on their success. Daybreak on July 22 found the defeated Union army back behind the bristling defenses of Washington.
July 21, 1861
The head of Union General Irvin McDowell's flanking column begins its march. The order of march consists of:
1. Daniel Tyler's Division: Tasked with diversionary attacks against the Confederate position at the Stone Bridge.
2. David Hunter's Division: Leading division in the flanking column - to cross at Sudley Springs Ford
3. Samuel Heinztleman's Division:
The march is plagued by problems from the beginning, as the leading division slowly makes its way toward the Stone Bridge.
As the Federal infantry began to snake its way around the Confederate defenses along Bull Run, the lone report of a cannon was heard.
Union artillerist Peter Conover Haines ordered his 30 lb. Parrott Rifle to fire on the Confederates near the Stone Bridge. The shell flew over the Confederate infantry and into the Van Pelt House on the bluff above the creek. The Battle had begun.
Around 9 AM, Confederate signal officer E.P. Alexander, from his station on the Wilcoxen Farm, noticed the glint of cannon barrels and bayonets moving well beyond the Confederate army's left flank.
Using the new technologgy of signal flags, Alexander sent a message by wig-wag to Colonel Nathan Evans, the commander of the brigade holding the Stone Bridge: "Look out for your left, you are turned!" Receiving this order, Evans moved a majority of his brigade using farm lanes to cut off the Union attack.
Learn More About First Manassas
Last updated: February 1, 2023