Bull Run, First Battle of2018-01-13T13:27:38+00:00
Black and white photo of Irvin McDowell.

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell commanded Union forces during the First Battle of Bull Run.

First Battle of Bull Run

July 21, 1861

The First Battle of Bull Run, also know as the First Battle of Manassas, was the first major land engagement of the American Civil War. Fought near the town of Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. The battle resulted in a decisive Confederate victory.

After the Union surrender of Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 13, 1861, which began the American Civil War, many Northerners were eager to reunite the nation. Believing that Federal forces could easily capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, President Lincoln and other Washington, DC politicians urged Brigadier General Irvin McDowell to launch an offensive and to bring the rebellion to a swift end. Believing that his troops were not yet ready for combat, McDowell reluctantly relented to political pressure and marched his Army of Northeastern Virginia, consisting of approximately 35,000 troops, out of Washington, toward Virginia on July 16.

Upon learning of McDowell’s departure, Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard positioned his Confederate Army of the Potomac, consisting of approximately 22,000 troops, in a line along Bull Run, a stream near the town of Manassas Junction, Virginia. On July 21, McDowell initiated the battle by sending his troops across Bull Run at Shelby Ford, attacking the Confederate left flank.

Unfortunately for the Union troops, McDowell’s plan was so well publicized that even civilians traveled to the site of the battle for Sunday entertainment. The Rebels used the same information to begin sending reinforcements to the Union point of attack. Things went well for the Federals initially, and they drove the Confederates back from their defensive position. As the day wore on, however, Rebel reinforcements arrived by rail and the Union advance stalled. Of particular note, Colonel Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade was impenetrable, earning him the nickname “Stonewall.”

By late afternoon, the Confederates mounted a counterattack, driving the Union soldiers from the battlefield. The ensuing Federal retreat disintegrated into a rout, sending McDowell’s troops and civilians alike scurrying back to Washington. To the consternation of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Southern forces did not pursue the fleeing Northerners. Southern commanders refused primarily due to their untrained troops.

The battle, although small in comparison with what was to come, proved sobering to both sides. Combined casualties (killed and wounded) totaled over 5,000. Nearly 900 soldiers (460 Union plus 387 Confederate) perished on the battlefield that day. In the aftermath, McDowell became the first of several generals that Lincoln replaced during the course of the war, and both sides began making earnest preparations for what would prove to be a prolonged and bloody war.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title First Battle of Bull Run
  • Coverage July 21, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords first battle of bull run, first battle of manassas
  • Website Name American History Central
  • URL
  • Access Date January 18, 2019
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 13, 2018