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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas



On a blistering hot July day in 1861 in northern Virginia, men who for generations had been friends, fathers, and sons, brothers even, put aside their bonds of brotherhood and blood and took up arms, to shed that blood if they could. America had gone mad and gone to war with itself.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Old animosities and antagonisms had somewhat divided the interests and sympathies of the northern and southern colonies even before they won their independence in another, earlier war. Then, once they became the United States, events showed just how much there was to separate them. Most especially, the issue of slavery set them at odds, as the North eventually abolished bonded servitude, while the states south of Mason and Dixon's line clung to it not only for its labor system, but also as a symbol of a way of life. Unfortunately for all, the issue became enmeshed with the struggle for power in the national government. Seeing more and more "free" states entering the Union, the "slave" states saw themselves at risk of becoming a minority in representation—and power—in Washington. When that happened, they feared, the national government might strike to abolish slavery everywhere. The result could be economic and social ruin for the South.

The election of 1860 brought Abraham Lincoln to the presidency at the head of a new Republican Party avowedly opposed to the further spread of slavery and implicitly in favor of its universal abolition if possible. Though Lincoln promised before the election that he would not interfere with slavery where it already existed, the storm of fear that swept the South after his election left few willing to believe him. The only hope for the South seemed to lie in secession, withdrawing from the Union to create its own Southern, slaveholders' nation. In February 1861 representatives from the first six states to secede met and framed the Confederate States of America, with Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as its president. Two months later, in an effort to evict United States soldiers from their post on what was now Confederate soil, Southern guns around Charleston Harbor in South Carolina opened fire on Fort Sumter. It was a momentous step, the most fateful taken so far, and everything that followed for the next four years was a result.


Shock waves swept North and South alike. Surprisingly, Davis and his government felt that they were fully justified in bombarding Fort Sumter. After all, they were only trying to take back their own soil now that South Carolina was part of a new "nation." Many in the South did not expect the United States to be especially aggrieved over being shot at. Moreover, Southern leaders—but not Davis—persuaded themselves that the Yankees were too cowardly, too miserly, to expend any blood or treasure on fighting back. Consequently, they were more than surprised when a wave of anger and humiliation surged through the North and when Lincoln on April 17 issued a proclamation calling out up to 75,000 volunteers to put down the "rebellion." How dare Lincoln fight back? Indeed, how dare he fight at all, since the South only took back what belonged to it in the first place, or so Southerners reasoned. Worse yet, by speaking of putting down a "rebellion," Lincoln declined to recognize their right to withdraw from the Union, and then he went even further by authorizing what could be the largest army ever assembled 75,000 men, obviously intending to have it "invade" Southern soil. To Confederates and to sympathizers in other Southern states not yet seceded, the firing on Fort Sumter was an act of self-defense and nothing more. But Lincoln's act, they now reasoned, constituted an outright act of war.

As a result, in the weeks following Lincoln's proclamation other slave states that had been wavering made their decision. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina joined with the Confederacy. In each state, as with those that had seceded earlier, among the first acts after voting for secession was to seize United States armories, arsenals, forts, and shipyards, and with them their weapons and machinery. While this was important everywhere, nowhere was it as vital as in the Old Dominion.


Virginia would be the northeastern border of the new Confederacy. Only the Potomac River separated it from Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the Union. The shipyard at Norfolk was the finest in the country. More important still, at Harpers Ferry, fifty miles up the Potomac from Washington, the United States armory and arsenal were a major source of rifles and weapons manufacturing equipment. But most important of all was Virginia's strategic location and geography. Any invasion of the Confederacy by those 75,000 volunteers of Lincoln's would naturally come through the state. That meant that Virginia was destined to be the first battleground, if any battles were to be fought. Moreover, the Blue Ridge Mountains running roughly northeast to southwest in the middle of the state neatly separated the eastern half of Virginia from the Shenandoah Valley to the west. That valley ended at Harpers Ferry, and an army could move up or down the valley virtually unseen. Yankees, entering at the north, could suddenly appear somewhere in the heartland of the state, behind Confederate lines, with potentially disastrous results. Or Confederates could move north in the Shenandoah and find themselves on the Potomac, ready to invade the North without having been detected.


All of this and more called for a sudden and dramatic shift of Confederate attention to Virginia. Even before the state seceded, Jefferson Davis sent emissaries to the Old Dominion's organized militia. After secession, he immediately tried to cooperate with Governor John Letcher in mobilizing that militia even while Davis began the task of building an army of his own to oppose Lincoln's. While Davis worked, Letcher's first significant step was to appoint a recently resigned United States officer to take command of all state forces. He turned to Robert E. Lee, a Virginian, a soldier of national reputation and a man intimately acquainted with the ground below the Potomac. Even before the first Confederate troops started to arrive, Lee, now a general, began planning the defense of his beloved Virginia.

Lee and those advising him knew at a glance that they could not keep the Yankees entirely out of Virginia. After all, only the Potomac River separated the state from Washington, and the Unionists held the bridges crossing the stream. Lee could try to resist a Federal crossing, but he knew it would be nothing more than a delaying action. Instead, he looked to suitable ground a little south of the Potomac, for places where the geography would favor defending against an invasion. Other considerations influenced his thinking at the same time. The Orange & Alexandria Railroad connected Washington with the interior of the Old Dominion. Invading enemies would naturally try to seize the line, deny it to the Confederates, and use it themselves as a supply line on an invasion. Lee must hold as much of that line as possible. Moreover, at Manassas Junction the line connected with the Manassas Gap Railroad. It stretched west across the Blue Ridge to the Shenandoah Valley. Lee had to hold it, too, to preserve the possibility of shifting troops east or west of the mountains to meet sudden threats.



Thus circumstances demanded that Lee hold Manassas Junction at the very least. Happily, just a few miles north of the junction ran a stream called Bull Run. With banks too steep to ford just anywhere, it was crossable only at a stone bridge on the road to Warrenton and at a handful of fords. Fortify those crossings, reasoned Lee, and he could stop an invader.

Almost as soon as Virginia seceded, Letcher sent Brigadier General Philip St. George Cocke to take charge of starting the defenses. The outlook did not look promising. He had only 300 men, no cannon, no staff, and no experienced engineers to plan the defenses. But Cocke did have imagination, energy, and dedication, and Lee standing behind him. As soon as he could, Lee began to forward men and artillery to the Manassas line. Meanwhile, all across the Confederacy men were volunteering, and as soon as they could be organized Jefferson Davis sent them to Virginia, often even before they had uniforms and weapons, and almost always before they knew even the rudiments of training. They could practice their drill and learn their commands once they arrived. Meanwhile, out in the Shenandoah, Lee had to look to the defense of Harpers Ferry, too. With troops being sent to the arsenal village, someone had to take charge. The man Letcher chose to appoint was an oddity-religious fanatic, hypochondriac, a stern disciplinarian who survived ridicule and assassination threats from pupils when he taught at the Virginia Military Institute-named Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson. At once Jackson set about turning these raw recruits into soldiers and the soldiers into the nucleus of the infant Army of the Shenandoah.

Richmond could assign its own state militia commanders to start all of this work, but as soon as Virginia became a new state in the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis took over direction of military defense, it would be up to him to select and assign overall commanders and to press forward the work. From faraway Montgomery the president cast about for the right men and did not have to look far. As soon as Virginia seceded he inquired about the intentions of Lee and was pleased that he would accept command of Virginia state forces. While a distinguished soldier, Lee had little experience of command in combat, and Davis did not yet look to him as a field commander.

Another Virginian, however, immediately came to mind. Joseph E. Johnston had an excellent career in the old United States Army and had won battlefield promotions in the Mexican War. Moreover, he was a Virginian and could be expected to know the country. He was a small, slight man, who looked every inch a soldier. And yet, in Virginia parlors people told stories about him. He had a fine reputation as an excellent marksman, yet when he went shooting with friends he seemed always hesitant to shoot at the quail they hunted.

(click on image for a PDF version)
By late spring 1861 General P.G.T. Beauregard's Army of the Potomac takes up positions around Manassas Junction. On July 16, General Irvin McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia moves out from Washington, D.C., with hopes of capturing the junction. To meet this threat General Joseph E. Johnston moves his Army of the Shenandoah to Manassas, Johnston is able to elude a Union force under Genera! Robert Patterson and uses the Manassas Gap Railroad to transport his force rapidly to Beauregard's assistance.

The birds were always too high, the sun in his eyes, or the barking dogs too distracting. While others banged away, often missing but still bagging some birds. Johnston came back with an empty game sack. But at least his reputation remained intact. He had not missed a single shot because he had not taken one. Would he be the same as a general?

If there were fears that Johnston might be too reluctant to act in the Shenandoah's defense, others might also worry that Beauregard would act too quickly or rashly. Only time would tell.

Davis assigned Johnston command of the growing forces in the Shenandoah. Meanwhile, to command the army being formed on the Manassas line, there was almost never a question as to who should lead it. General P. G. T. Beauregard was the darling of the Confederacy after his capture of Fort Sumter. The South had fought one "battle" such as it was. If there was to be another, who should command in it except the victor? Beauregard came from Louisiana, was short but very fit and military, and took pains to present as fine an appearance as possible. He was an excellent engineer and much thought of in the old army, having been superintendent of the Military Academy at West Point when the secession crisis came. He was also vain, prickly, and given on occasion to fantastical thinking. If there were fears that Johnston might be too reluctant to act in the Shenandoah's defense, others might also worry that Beauregard would act too quickly or rashly. Only time would tell.

Nor were Johnston and Beauregard the only untried men upon whom the Confederacy would depend. The soldiers themselves, farm boys from Georgia, students from South Carolina, clerks and shopkeepers from Alabama, street toughs from Louisiana, and more, all were unskilled and inexperienced at war. The generals worked tirelessly to turn them into soldiers even as they commenced the construction of their defenses to retard a Yankee advance. Young volunteers who enlisted for a quick glorious fight in order to return home as heroes quickly chaffed under a routine that included rising at 5 A.M., drill half an hour later, breakfast at 6, guard practice at 7, drill at 8, more drill at 10:30 until I P.M., drill again at 3, and dress parade at 6.


Then came the matter of their organization and who should command them. Volunteers formed into companies of about 100 and elected their own captains and lieutenants. State authorities joined ten companies to form a regiment and allowed the company officers to elect the regimental colonel, or else the governors appointed them. Now Johnston and Beauregard would form brigades composed of three or more regiments, as much as possible keeping outfits from the same state together. But when it came to selecting men to command those brigades—they would be commissioned colonels or brigadier generals—the decision lay with Jefferson Davis. It helped that late in May Davis and the government shifted from Montgomery to Richmond to be nearer the scene of action, and now the president could see personally to the organization of his armies' high command. Eventually Johnston would have five brigades: Virginians commanded by Jackson, Alabamians and Mississippians under Colonel Edmund Kirby Smith, Alabamians led by Brigadier General Barnard E. Bee, Georgians under Colonel Francis Bartow, and a mixed brigade answering to Colonel Arnold Elzey. By mid-July the Army of the Shenandoah numbered perhaps 12,000 or thereabouts and represented almost every state in the Confederacy. Beauregard commanded somewhat more, around 20,000, divided eventually into seven brigades. Cocke commanded one. Colonel Theophilus Holmes took another, as did the crusty Richard S. Ewell of Virginia. and fellow Virginian Colonel Jubal A. Early, with his quaint lisp. Milledge L. Bonham of South Carolina led fellow Palmettos, as did Colonel David R. Jones. The hale and hearty James Longstreet, though he hailed from South Carolina, received command of a brigade of Virginians. The two armies combined totaled close to 35,000 men, with the Manassas Gap Railroad connecting them. If either was attacked, the other could use the line to come in aid. If both were attacked simultaneously, however, the railroad would be of no use to them.




That was essentially what Washington wanted to do. Winfield Scott sat heavily in his swivel chair at the War Department, more than seventy years old, too fat and infirm even to mount a horse. Yet he was still a magnificent soldier, and Abraham Lincoln looked immediately to him to cast a plan for taking Virginia and Richmond quickly and putting down the rebellion. Scott was a Virginian himself, though his loyalty to the Union never wavered, and he saw at once the same geographical features that Davis and his generals appreciated. Especially once Richmond became the Confederate capital, authorities in Washington became fixed upon the necessity of capturing it. Take Richmond, they felt, and the rebellion would wither. All that stood between them and that objective were Beauregard at Bull Run and Johnston in the Shenandoah.

From all across the Union came the regiments filled with fresh-faced young men anxious to see some adventure and avenge the insult to the Stars and Stripes. Within weeks of the outbreak of war, Washington itself became an armed camp, even its public buildings swelling with uniformed men and the White House grounds themselves hosting soldiers. The population of the city almost doubled as the streets teemed with the sounds of fifes drums, and marching feet. Scenes from south of the Potomac were repeated here and elsewhere as the officers went about the often grueling work of turning rustics into soldiers overnight.

While his burgeoning army drilled, Scott and his advisers studied their maps and addressed the challenge before them. They saw the Manassas Gap Railroad. They saw the potential use of the Shenandoah Valley as an avenue of invasion and a back door to Richmond. They saw the defenses going up along Bull Run and in advance of the stream. Quickly Scott knew that he, too, must form two armies, and that they must move in unison, with overwhelming strength, to press the Rebels and not allow hem to use the rails to reinforce one another. Do that, push past the Bull Run line, move into the Shenandoah and then turn east at one of the Blue Ridge gaps, and Richmond would be easy prey.

Early in June Scott assigned Brigadier General Robert Patterson to the task of forming an army in and around Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. When it was ready, he was to march south across Maryland and push across the Potomac to take Harpers Ferry and defeat or at least fully occupy Johnston's Confederates. Meanwhile, a substantially larger army took shape in Washington. Once more companies became regiments, and regiments became brigades. Taking organization a step further than the Confederacy to provide a more efficient chain of command, these Yankees combined two or more brigades to form army divisions. The first division went to Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, 62, a longtime veteran. The second division went to Brigadier General David Hunter, a man of Southern heritage who stayed loyal to the flag. Samuel P. Heintzelman received command of the third division, in spite of the bemused or befuddled expression that seemed always on his face, and because of his excellent combat record in Mexico. Theodore Runyon led the fourth division, made up of untrained men who would not be used in the campaign, and Dixon S. Miles, a notorious inebriate, commanded the fifth division.

To lead the brigades commanded by these men, Washington commissioned a mixed bag of characters, some already well known, others destined for fame: William B. Franklin, Orlando B. Willcox, Ambrose Burnside, William T. Sherman, Andrew Porter, Erasmus Keyes, and more. But the real attention went to the selection of a commander for this army as a whole. Scott himself could not lead it, of course. And the North did not, as yet, have any established military hero like Beauregard to turn to. Scott preferred old veteran Joseph K. Mansfield, but once more politics intervened. An obscure major on staff duty in the adjutant general's office, a man who had never led so much as a company in action, had powerful friends.



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