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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas


Irvin McDowell came from Ohio, was only 42, and had spent most of his army career on staff duty. He was well liked but somewhat enigmatic. Men found him humorless, distant, reticent. He was a teetotaler, but otherwise a glutton who could finish every dish on a table and follow it with an entire watermelon. Many thought him haughty and unpleasant. But the governor of Ohio pushed him on Lincoln for a major command, and so did Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase of Ohio. Incredibly, their pressure resulted in McDowell being made a brigadier general with the same seniority as Mansfield. When Scott was told to select a commander for the Army of Northeastern Virginia being formed in Washington, he had to choose between the two, and having other work in mind for Mansfield, he had no choice but to give the plum to McDowell. Thus, through politics, a man with no practical experience at all became the hope of the Union's major army.


Immediately upon assuming command, McDowell found himself called on to produce a plan of action. Vainly he begged for time. He and his army were "green," he pleaded, inexperienced. So they were, agreed Scott and Lincoln, but so too were the enemy. They must move, and quickly. Late in May, McDowell rode across the Potomac and established his headquarters in and around Arlington, until recently the home of Robert E. Lee. At once he began formulating his plan of campaign, though what had to be done was obvious enough. Patterson must move against Harpers Ferry and the Shenandoah to contain Johnston, while McDowell would move along the line of the Orange & Alexandria. He would take Manassas Junction with an army of 35,000 men and, he hoped, without a fight. McDowell knew that Beauregard had fortified the Manassas Junction and Bull Run fords and that it would be costly to force crossings there. Though he refined and evolved his plans as the campaign progressed, McDowell would eventually decide to march toward Bull Run, occupy Confederate attention with feint moves against the fords, and meanwhile move a large column across the stream some distance upriver at an unguarded ford. Then his column could move down the south bank of Bull Run, striking the Confederates on their exposed flank, and virtually forcing them to fall back from the other fords and the Warrenton Turnpike bridge to avoid being overwhelmed. Once the balance of his army was safely across Bull Run, then he could move on Manassas and overwhelm Beauregard's 22,000 or so Confederates. He would march on the morning of July 16.


Like many battles, First Manassas left in its wake civilians whose lives were affected by the conflict. Present on that day was a small assemblage of sightseers who had hoped to view the battle as one would a spectator sport. What was actually observed, however, would forever change these casual attitudes toward war.

This group of curiosity seekers that had come out from Washington City was composed of civilians, reporters, and politicians. They came with the belief that there existed no personal danger due to the rout that would occur when the Confederates caught mere sight of the Union army.


The majority of the group reached only as far as Centreville, five miles to the east of Manassas Junction. Here they picnicked while listening to the thunder of the distant battle and watching the smoke rise above the trees. One of these bystanders was a British reporter, William Howard Russell. He describes the audience and the scene before them in his diary:

"Clouds of dust shifted and moved through the forest; and through the wavering mists of light blue smoke, and the thicker masses which rose commingling from the feet of men and the mouths of cannon, I could see the gleam of arms and the twinkling of bayonets.

"On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer if not gentler sex. A few officers and some soldiers, who had struggled from the regiments in reserve, moved about among the spectators and pretended to explain the movements of the troops below, of which they were profoundly ignorant."

After many hours of fighting the Union army was finally forced to retreat. Another reporter, Henry Villard, was among the soldiers that began an orderly retreat, yet, as is written in his memoirs, were "reduced to the condition of a motley, panic-stricken mob. . . .The morale of the army was gone, and the instinct of self-preservation alone animated the flying mass."


One of the spectators that would learn the hard way that war was not an entertaining event was New York Congressman Alfred Ely. He had come to see for himself how the Thirteenth New York Volunteer Infantry, made up primarily from his district, were faring. He remained with the group at Centreville a short time and then, growing bored with such observation, ventured even closer to the battle. East of the Stone Bridge he was discovered by the Eighth South Carolina and barely missed being shot by Colonel E. B. C. Cash, who, pointing his pistol at Ely's head, shouted, "God damn your white livered soul! I'll blow your brains out on the spot!" Ely was spared by the intervention of the soldiers present, captured as a prisoner of war, and sent to prison in Richmond, serving five months before he was released. In his journal, kept during his incarceration, Ely contemplates the folly of pursuing those activities that lead up to his capture:

"Among other things, I found that to visit battle-fields as a mere pastime, or with the view of gratifying a panting curiosity, or for the sake of listening to the roar of shotted artillery, and the shrill music of flying shells, (which motives, however were not exactly mine,) is neither a safe thing in itself, nor a justifiable use of the passion which Americans are said to possess for public spectacle."

Nothing in war goes as planned, and especially when so many are so inexperienced. McDowell suffered under many handicaps, not least his own limitations as a commander. Then there was the complete lack of adequate maps of the countryside, even though Manassas lay scarcely 30 miles from Washington. Neither did he have any substantial cavalry to send out in advance to reconnoiter the ground. As a result, he would be moving largely in the dark as to the countryside ahead of him, dependent on local civilians who might or might not give him accurate information. Equally bad, Washington was filled with Southern sympathizers who observed every movement of the army and assiduously collected military gossip in the hotel lobbies and taverns. As a result, even before McDowell's men put out their campfires and marched south on July 16, word had already reached Beauregard of their coming and their intentions.

Early that morning the Yankee soldiers arose, expectant, excited, determined that the march begun that day would take them "on to Richmond" before the summer expired. Yet delay dogged them from the start. Supposed to move in the morning, they did not get under way until two in the afternoon. Their bands played martial airs, including "Dixie," which at this stage was still popular on both sides, and "John Brown's Body." The afternoon proved hot and humid, as all of the days ahead would be in the northern Virginia summer. Men started breaking ranks at every source of water, despite their officers' orders. No blackberry bush could be passed without men stopping to strip it while their comrades marched on. Quickly the generals saw just how "green" this army in fact was. Some would conclude that it was little more than a well-intentioned organized mob.


As a result they covered only a few miles that day. They did better on the morrow, though, and by nightfall of July 17 portions of the Yankee army had reached and taken Fairfax Court House. Still, McDowell knew that his movements were well observed by the enemy now. There was no chance to surprise Beauregard, and he expected that he would probably encounter stiff resistance at Centreville, a few miles north of Bull Run. Thus he ordered Tyler's division to attack that place early on July 18 before Beauregard could consolidate a defense, but when Tyler arrived expecting a fight, he discovered that the Rebels had pulled back. Beauregard, heavily outnumbered, had pulled all of his army back to the south side of Bull Run. He would make his stand there and hope that he could stop the Yankees' advance. Tyler was elated. The Federals had taken the first feared obstacle without a skirmish. The enemy was retreating in their front. At this rate, they might just push on to Richmond and all be heroes. Since McDowell had given Tyler orders to push forward to "observe well the roads to Bull Run," Tyler pushed forward on the road that led to Blackburn's Ford.

The ground destined to become the Bull Run battlefield ran more than eight miles along the stream, from northwest to southeast, commencing at Sudley Ford nearly seven miles west of Centreville. Thereafter came in downstream succession the stone bridge over the Warrenton Turnpike, Lewis' Ford, Ball's Ford, Mitchell's Ford, Blackburn's Ford, McLean's Ford, and at the end of the line the rail road bridge of the Orange & Alexandria line. Beauregard had scattered his brigades out along these crossings from Stone Bridge to the last ford, ignoring Sudley for the time being. Blackburn's Ford stood almost in the center of the line, and there he stationed Longstreet and his Virginians, who now awaited the coming of Tyler. The Yankee general rode forward toward Blackburn's, and thanks to the heavy woods and underbrush on the south side of Bull Run, he could not detect any appreciable number of Confederates.



Immediately Tyler thought he saw an opportunity. If he rushed across Blackburn's Ford he could move straight on Manassas Junction and seize it, accomplishing one of the main objectives of the campaign, seemingly without meeting resistance. Despite McDowell's orders to do nothing more than reconnoiter—and under no circumstances to bring on an engagement—Tyler ordered the brigade of Colonel Israel Richardson to come forward at once. A brief artillery duel ensued, and then Tyler sent forward his first regiment, driving toward the ford.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Brigadier General Daniel Tyler orders Colonel Israel B. Richardson's brigade to probe the Confederate position along Bull Run. As Richardson's men approach Blackburn's Ford they come under fire from Confederates concealed along the wooded bank. With the Confederate fire growing more intense and realizing he has gotten more than he bargained for, Tyler orders his men to withdraw. General James Longstreet sends part of his brigade across Bull Run to pursue the retreating Federal soldiers. The pursuit covers a short distance before the Confederates are recalled back across the stream.

For the next hour that regiment engaged with Confederate artillery and resistance from sharpshooters, in spite of Tyler's belief that he faced few foemen in his front. Then he sent in the rest of Richardson's brigade, and soon the Yankee line swept down the sloping ground toward the bank of Bull Run. What they met was stiff resistance, some of it from unseen Rebels posted on the north side of the stream, and in the end Tyler's artillery was forced back with some losses soon to be followed by the infantry. Now Tyler decided that his idea of easily crossing and pushing on to Manassas was out of the question. He had reconnoitered, found the enemy in sufficient strength to know that McDowell could not cross easily here, and had nothing more to do. Unfortunately, it proved not to be so easy to pull men out of battle as to send them in. One of Richardson's regiments was already charging as Tyler issued his withdrawal order, and then another went in to support it, and the battle continued to develop in spite of Tyler's desire to pull out. Worse, the Yankees were getting the worst of it.



Across Bull Run, Beauregard had expected the Federals might try a crossing at Blackburn's Ford, Longstreet had been ready. He carefully concealed his regiments in the woods and brush and that morning allowed the men a leisurely breakfast despite suspecting that they might be fighting before long. Men said the Lord's Prayer over and over again, threw away their dice and playing cards, repented their sins, and otherwise tried to square themselves with the Maker in case they should fall in the fight. When Tyler's advance parties first appeared and commenced their artillery fire, inexperienced soldiers initially thought the sound of cannon balls flying overhead was the sound of horses whinnying. They soon learned otherwise, however, and initially Longstreet's line wavered until he personally rode along its rear, sword drawn, whacking it on the backs of men thinking of fleeing. His example helped steady them before the next two infantry assaults came at them. Jubal Early in reserve sent reinforcements. and together they held their ground, driving off the last of Tyler's Yankees.

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