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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The First Battle of Manassas



In 1820, upon a commanding ridge overlooking Bull Run creek, Spencer Ball built the plantation known as Portici. In July 1861, Portici was the home of Frank and Fannie Lewis. On the eighteenth life as the Lewises knew it came to an abrupt halt. Confederate officials notified the family that a battle was imminent and that their house would most likely be exposed to the fighting.

On July 21, the horrors of the battle quickly found their way into Portici. Portici's kitchen and hallways became operating rooms. The wounded, dead, and dying littered the floors throughout the house. Medical supplies and skilled personnel were scarce. Throughout the night of the twenty-first, the work of the surgeon's saw transformed Portici from a stately manor into a charnel house. John Opie of the Fifth Virginia Infantry described the scene as he approached one of the field hospitals, possibly Portici: "There were piles of legs, feet, hands and arms, all thrown together, and at a distance, resembled piles of corn at a corn-shucking."


Among the wounded soldiers taken to Portici was Federal artillery Captain James B. Ricketts. Ricketts received a wound to the thigh during the fighting on Henry Hill. The wife of Captain Ricketts, Frances "Fanny" Ricketts, was living in Washington, D.C., when she learned of the Union defeat at Bull Run. Conflicting reports from the battlefield cast doubt over the fate of her husband. Unable to gain adequate information on her husband's wounds, Fanny set out for Manassas on the twenty-fifth. She arrived at Confederate headquarters that evening. There she received the news that her husband was alive and being cared for at the Lewis house.

Early the next morning she arrived at Portici. Quickly the reality of war became evident to Fanny. She vividly described the horrors at Portici in a journal. She wrote, "Oh nothing, no words can describe the horrors around me, two men dead and covered with blood are carried down the stairs as I waited to let them pass. On the table in the open hall a man was undergoing amputation of the leg, at the foot of the stairs two bloody legs lay and through it all I went to my husband."

Fanny spent a week at Portici tending to the needs of her husband and other wounded soldiers. She wrote, "In the opposite room are ten dying or wounded men. Next to us are three, one with a gangrenous thigh where it is amputated. The smell is horrible. No one can dream of the sickening horrors of this place." Finally on August 2, 1861, Captain Ricketts was transferred to Richmond, Virginia. Fanny accompanied her husband and remained with him until his release in December.

After the war moved away from Manassas, Portici remained abandoned. The house occasionally served as temporary quarters for troops moving through the area. Sometime in late 1862, a fire devastated Portici leaving only the memories of the horror witnessed within its walls.


As badly as the battle went for McDowell, the withdrawal went infinitely worse, a shambles from start to finish. Some of his men got back across Bull Run at the stone bridge and had a good road ahead of them for Centreville. But much of the line had to go all the way back to Sudley Ford and then somehow thrash overland or take the circuitous paths to get them back to the Warrenton Turnpike. And once on the main road, the whole army had to use a single narrow bridge to get over another stream called Cub Run. Men could wade or swim, but its banks were too steep for wagons and artillery. Everything must cross that one bridge. Thus when a small body of pursuing Confederates halted on a hill overlooking the run and managed to place an artillery shell right in the center of the bridge, a team on the span panicked and turned over its wagon, effectively blocking the way for any further traffic. It happened just as the two main bodies of fleeing Yankees approached, and the effect of seeing their path of retreat this blocked put the finishing touches on the panic.


"Then a scene of confusion ensued which beggars description," said Keyes. "Cavalry horses without riders, artillery horses disengaged from the guns with traces flying, wrecked baggage-wagons, and pieces of artillery drawn by six horses without drivers, flying at their utmost speed and whacking against other vehicles." Men everywhere threw down their packs, their guns, even their hats and canteens, in the mad rush to disencumber themselves of anything that might delay their flight. "The rush produced a noise like a hurricane at sea." About now the body of pursuing Virginians launched their attack, and though enough Federals rallied to repulse them, the impression of Confederates hard at their heels finished off the last of the resolve of McDowell's army. They were battered, demoralized, and utterly defeated.


By now it was about 7 P.M. and Beauregard recalled his scattered units. It would be dark soon, and his own army was nearly as disorganized as the enemy's by the grueling and confused fighting and marching of the day. Already his men were looting the knapsacks and other abandoned baggage of the Federals or bringing in triumphantly the captured horses, wagons, and guns. McDowell himself came close to being one of the prizes brought Back. He was among the last to cross Cub Run. Though shaken—indeed, shocked—by the rout of his army and dazed at how his "victory" of that morning had so suddenly become a disaster, he bravely tried to rally those he could to erect a rearguard. He already had a reserve division at Centreville commanded by Dixon Miles—who unfortunately spent the day getting drunk—and by combining these forces he at last felt some degree of security against an enemy attack for that night at least. The next day he would start the remnant of his army on the way back to Washington, where thousands of his men were fleeing even now without awaiting orders to do so.



With the sounds of skirmishing still echoing over the battlefield, President Jefferson Davis himself arrived on the ground, having taken a train from Richmond. He first met Johnston, who informed him of the victory, and then together they rode out over the field cheering the troops and looking for Beauregard. Later that evening the president pressed his two generals to launch a vigorous pursuit, but they were reluctant, knowing themselves to be almost as battered as the enemy. Even a beaten foe could turn dangerous if McDowell somehow stopped the panic. In the end, they decided to wait until the morning, and when July 22 dawned with a heavy rain that lasted all day, further thought of pursuit was abandoned. There was glory enough for one day.

Even as the Confederates exulted in their achievement, they also counted their losses, and they were not inconsiderable. The combined armies lost 387 killed and 1,582 wounded, many of whom would later die. Some dozen or more were also missing, and probably dead, making total casualties nearly 2,000. Considering that several units never reached the fighting, like the commands of Holmes, Ewell, Longstreet, and more, only about 17,000 Confederates were actually engaged. Thus casualties came to about 12 percent of those engaged, yet in Bee's brigade they were 16 percent, and in some of Jackson's Virginia regiments they ran as high as 30 percent, testimony to how the stone wall had stood. And Bee and Bartow were dead or dying, Smith was wounded, Jackson nursed a finger nearly severed by a bullet. Half a dozen regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Incredibly, Nathan Evans survived unscathed, to boast—with excellent justification—that there was "no use for other Generals to brag about what they did in the battle—that he inaugurated that fight, he and Gen. Bee fought it through and he and Bee whipped the fight before any reinforcements came." He was nearly right. Evans saved the Confederate army that morning, buying the time for Jackson and the others to arrive. Johnston contributed by staying behind the lines constantly hurrying forward fresh units and sending them always to the threatened left. Beauregard served mainly as a personal presence and inspiration, though he gave little direction to the actual fighting. The unit commanders on the spot seem to have done most of that. As for the soldiers themselves, they behaved with seemingly incredible discipline considering that they were volunteers in their very first action.


Private J. W. Reid of the Fourth South Carolina Infantry wrote several letters to his family between July 23 and July 30, 1861, from the vicinity of the first Manassas battlefield. The following is a compilation of four letters excerpted from Reid's book, History of the Fourth Regiment, South Carolina Volunteers (pp. 23-28), first published in 1891 and reprinted in 1975 by the Morningside Bookshop, Dayton, Ohio.

I cannot give you an idea of the terrors of this battle. I believe that it was as hard a contested battle as was ever fought on the American continent, or perhaps anywhere else.

I scarcely know how to begin, so much has transpired since I wrote you last; but thank God I have come through it all safe, and am now here to try and tell you something about the things that have just happened. As you have already been informed, we were expecting a big fight. It came; it is over; the enemy is gone. I cannot give you an idea of the terrors of this battle. I believe that it was as hard a contested battle as was ever fought on the American continent, or perhaps anywhere else. For ten long hours it almost seemed that heaven and earth was coming together; for ten long hours it literally rained balls, shells, and other missiles of destruction. The firing did not cease for a moment. Try to picture yourself at least one hundred thousand men, all loading and firing as fast as they could. It was truly terrific. The cannons, although they make a great noise, were nothing more than pop guns compared with the tremendous thundering noise of the thousands of muskets. The sight of the dead, the cries of the wounded, the thundering noise of the battle, can never be put to paper. It must be seen and heard to be comprehended. The dead, the dying and the wounded; friend and foe, all mixed up together: friend and foe embraced in death; some crying for water; some praying their last prayers; some trying to whisper to a friend their last farewell message to their loved ones at home. It is heartrending. I cannot go any further.

Mine eyes are damp with tears. Although the fight is over the field is yet quite red with blood from the wounded and the dead. I went over what I could of the battlefield the evening after the battle ended. The sight was appalling in the extreme. There were men shot in every part of the body. Heads, legs, arms, and other parts of human bodies were lying scattered all over the battlefield.

I gave you the particulars of our fight as best I could under existing circumstances. I still have a strong presentiment that I will be home again, some time. It may be a good while, and there is no telling at present what I may have to go through before I come, if I do come, only that I will have to encounter war and its consequences.

Yours as ever,

J. W. Reid


Several miles north in Centreville. the scene could not have been more different. McDowell was dejected, and most of his army with him. Their losses had been high, at least 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing, many of them killed and the rest prisoners of war. That came to at least 2,896 casualties. Hunter and Heintzelman were wounded, though neither mortally, and several regimental commanders would lead no more. McDowell, in fact, planned a better battle than Beauregard, and he took the initiative first. But he expected too much of his raw troops in moving over unfamiliar ground, he squandered valuable time through faulty reconnaissance, and then in the battle itself he made the mistake that commanders in this war would commit repeatedly of using his troops piecemeal, virtually abandoning his numerical advantage. No one could fault him for the panic.


In Washington itself people could not believe what had happened. At the first news both Lincoln and Scott refused to credit the rumors. Only when they began to see the thousands of leaderless, dejected soldiers streaming into the city streets did they realize the verity and reality of the defeat. "It's damned bad," a dejected Lincoln told a congressman. The same feeling spread across the Union, made the worse when newspapers published the lists of the killed and missing. Suddenly the war came home to the home front. It was no longer to be a summer's lark. The war would go on, and perhaps on and on, and now they had a taste of its grim flavor.

Jubilation swept the Confederacy, predictably. Editors and politicians proclaimed that the one battle of the war had been fought. Thus chastised, the Yankees would fight no more, and Southern independence was virtually achieved. Indeed, a wave of overconfidence crested on the victory, and for a time Confederates would be almost complaisant. But then in time they saw not that the Union was pulling out of the conflict. Instead, they saw an even larger and better organized and equipped Yankee army staring to form in and around Washington, this one commanded by a "Young Napoleon" named George B. McClellan in whom the North seemed to have confidence. Out in the western theater of the conflict along the Mississippi the Federals were still planning what looked like preparations for a move against New Orleans by Captain David G. Farragut and against the Mississippi by General U. S. Grant. Perhaps it would not be such a short war after all.




Among the men in the armies that bled over Bull Run, there were most immediately other considerations. The men wrote home if they could. They tended their wounds and mended their uniforms. Officers came and went, some like McDowell discredited by defeat, while for others like Sherman and Jackson and Beauregard there would be promotions and the beginnings of legendary careers. And there came resolution on both sides. Win or lose in this first battle, the soldiers who kept their heart—or regained it after the panic—looked into themselves to see how they would face their next battle, if there was to be one. Most agreed with one Yankee private who told his family that "I intend to see the thing played out, or die in the attempt.

(click on image for a PDF version)
Manassas National Battlefield Park

Back cover There Stands Jackson Like a Stonewall, by Dick Richardson, Box 107, Route 1, Bentonville, Virginia.
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