July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run shows war is no piece of cake, hints of hell to come


Only after the Civil War did Gen. William Tecumsah Sherman become famous for telling military academy graduates that “War is hell.”

In the summer of 1861, both Unionists and Confederates expected a short fight to settle what would come to be known as the American Civil War.  South Carolina fired on the Union Ft. Sumter in April.  But the first major action did not sully history until July.  Confederate forces and Union forces massed for a battle near Manassas, Virginia, at a little creek called Bull Run.

Spectators came out from Washington, D.C., bringing the family and picnic lunches, expecting a great drama to unfold — but they were surprised by the actual carnage.  What did they expect?

This battle gave rise to the famous, true story of farmer Wilmer McLean.  His house backed up on what would become the battlefield.  His summer kitchen took a cannonball.  Hoping to avoid further entanglement in the war, McLean moved his family and his farming farther south, to the unlikely-named town of Appomattox Courthouse.

There, in 1865, Gen. U.S. Grant’s entourage asked to borrow McLean’s parlor, for the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee.  McLean was able to say, with some high accuracy, that the war began in his back yard, and ended in his front room.

Details from the Library of Congress; teachers, you should have LOC sites bookmarked:

The First Battle of Bull Run

Bull Run, 1st battle of, map from LOC

Battle field of Bull Run, Va. July 21st 1861, Showing the positions of both armies at 4 o’clock, P.M.,
Map Collections: Military Battles and Campaigns

On July 21, 1861, a dry summer Sunday, Union and Confederate troops clashed outside Manassas, Virginia, in the first major engagement of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run.

Union General Irvin McDowell hoped to march his men across a small stream called Bull Run in the vicinity of Manassas, Virginia, which was well-guarded by a force of Confederates under General P. G. T. Beauregard. McDowell needed to find a way across the stream and through the Southern line that stretched for over six miles along the banks of Bull Run.

McDowell launched a small diversionary attack at the Stone Bridge while marching the bulk of his force north around the Confederates’ left flank. The march was slow, but McDowell’s army crossed the stream near Sudley Church and began to march south behind the Confederate line. Some of Beauregard’s troops, recognizing that the attack at Stone Bridge was just a diversion, fell back just in time to meet McDowell’s oncoming force.

First Battle of Bull Run- Bull Run, Virginia

Bull Run, Va. Matthews' or the Stone House. Library of Congress image. George N. Barnard, photographer, March 1862. Selected Civil War Photographs

Bull Run, Va. Matthews’ or the Stone House. Library of Congress image. George N. Barnard, photographer, March 1862. Selected Civil War Photographs

 

Cub Run, Va. View with destroyed bridge. Library of Congress image.

Cub Run, Va. View with destroyed bridge. George N. Barnard, photographer, March 1862. Library of Congress image, Selected Civil War Photographs

These photographs of First Bull Run were not made at the time of the battle on July 21, 1861; the photographers had to wait until the Confederate Army evacuated Centreville and Manassas in March 1862. Their views of various landmarks of the previous summer are displayed here according to the direction of the Federal advance, a long-flanking movement along Sudley’s Ford.

When Beauregard learned of the attack, he sent reinforcements to aid the small group of Southerners, but they were unable to hold back the oncoming tide of Union troops. As more Union soldiers joined the fray, the Southerners were slowly pushed back past the Stone House and up Henry Hill.

The battle raged for several hours around the home of Mrs. Judith Henry on top of Henry Hill, with each side taking control of the hill more than once. Slowly, more and more Southern men poured onto the field to support the Confederate defense, and Beauregard’s men pushed the Northerners back.

At this point in the battle, Confederate General Barnard Bee attempted to rally his weary men by pointing to Brigadier General Thomas Jackson, who proudly stood his ground in the face of the Union assault. Bee cried, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” From that moment on, Thomas Jackson was known as “Stonewall” Jackson.

As the day wore on, the strength of McDowell’s troops was sapped by the continuous arrival of fresh Southern reinforcements. Eventually, the stubborn Confederates proved more than a match for McDowell’s men, and the Northerners began to retreat across Bull Run.

The Union pullout began as an orderly movement. However, when the bridge over Cub Run was destroyed, cutting off the major route of retreat, it degenerated into a rout. The narrow roads and fords, clogged by the many carts, wagons, and buggies full of people who had driven out from Washington, D.C., to see the spectacle, hampered the withdrawal of the Union Army. The Southerners tried to launch a pursuit, but were too tired and disorganized from the day’s fighting to be effective.

The morning of July 22 found most of the soldiers of the Union Army on their way back to Washington or already there. It was more than a year before the Northerners attempted once again to cross the small stream outside of Manassas named Bull Run.

Beauregard Bull Run Quick Step
Beauregard Bull Run Quick Step
J. A. Rosenberger, music,
1862.
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

Tourists in Virginia today enjoy the sights, probably-sunny days and air-conditioned restaurants. It may be difficult to remember why Sherman later told military cadets that “war is hell.”

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

2 Responses to July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run shows war is no piece of cake, hints of hell to come

  1. kirienblog says:

    Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
    Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
    Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
    Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
    Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim Stanley says:

    From an episode of MASH of all things, Ed — “War is hell? War ISN’T hell. Hell is hell. And war is war. And of the two, hell makes a lot more sense. At least in hell, only the guilty are punished.”

    I use it a lot.

    (My new computer can finally read your web site. Dunno what was wrong with it before — surely on my end. So I’ll be around more to pester you!)

    Liked by 1 person

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