American Civil War: The Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run

From the lecture series: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Union and Confederate forces confronted each other for the first time in the Civil War in July of 1861. The battle was equal until the last hours when suddenly the tide turned and caused a hurried surprise retreat. 

An image of the Battle of Bull Run between the Union forces and the Confederates.
The Battle of Bull Run: General McDowell’s Union forces routed by Confederates under General Beauregard and General Joseph E, Johnston, from The New York Times edition of 21 July, 1861. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The American Civil War started in 1861. The president of the time, Abraham Lincoln, was trying to bring the 11 rebellious states back into the Union. Some of the biggest names in American military history were advising Lincoln to make decisions patiently, but the public wanted a quick victory. In the end, Lincoln listened to the people, and the first battle of the Civil War began: The Battle of First Manassas or Bull Run.

Learn more about the election of 1860.

Battlefield of the First Manassas or Bull Run

The First Manassas or Bull Run was the first battle of the Civil War. Each side had two inexperienced armies. The Federal commanders were Irvin McDowell and Robert Patterson, while the commanders of the Confederate side were Gustave Toutant Beauregard and Joseph Johnston.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

It took the Federal forces a few days to get to Manassas junction, the location of the battle, from Washington. On July 21, 1861, all the troops reached the junction. The Federals planned to focus in front and try to turn the Confederates left. Interestingly, the Confederates had the same plan.

Early that morning, 12,000 Federals crossed Bull Run and got into the right position for a strong blow to turn the opponents left. The Confederate forces, commanded by Johnston, could see that the Federals are forming a strong front, and some of them were moving to their left. However, they did not have enough time to get in the right position and attack the Federals’ left. The Federals launched their first successful attack and pushed the Confederates south, into a crisis.

To fight back, Johnston and Beauregard used their tactical interior lines and shifted strength from their right flank to their left. The battle moved toward Henry House Hill (near the Warrenton Turnpike), where the two forces pushed each other back and forth for a while. Then one Virginia brigade made a critical stand on Henry House Hill.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a former teacher at the Virginia Military Institute, commanded this brigade. The Federals tried to push them back down. A South Carolina officer, Barnard Bee, yelled at his men to give them directions: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall. Rally on the Virginians.

Jackson was called ‘Stonewall’ Jackson from that battle onward. No one could ask Bee what he meant, as he died soon after shouting that sentence, but many believe he did not mean it positively. Jackson and his troops kept standing like a stone wall on the hill for more than two hours.

Artistic illustration of the Siege of Atlanta.
Chromolithograph of the battle known as Siege of Atlanta, during the Civil War, created by Thulstrup de Thure, 1888. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The battle went on until 4 p.m., when Johnston’s troops from the valley marched into the heart of the battle and changed everything. The Confederate yell in warzone brought along the power they needed to push Federals into full retreat.

The Confederate yell sounded different from that of the Federals. A Federal army would chant “huzzah” in a low voice as they marched into the battlefield. The Confederates, on the other hand, had no yelling rule or harmony. Each Confederate soldier would whoop and holler the way he wanted to. As the untidy Confederate yell spread across the battlefield, the Federals went closer to retreat.

Learn more about the advantages of each side of the Civil War.

The Federal Retreat

The Federals fell into a full retreat after the Confederate reinforcement. As mentioned before, all the four troops were inexperienced, and they could not handle an orderly retreat. Even experienced soldiers might not retreat as an organized march. So each Union soldier ran away from the battlefield in any way he could. However, soon after, they faced a surprise: civilians.

Civilians from Washington had come to picnic and watch the battle from a ‘safe’ distance. They thought it would be a one-battle war and believed whichever side won at Manassas would win the whole war.

Then, from their picnic blankets and parasols, they saw a big crowd of Union soldiers running toward them in retreat. The soldiers then had to make their way to Washington along with the civilians. It took them only a few hours to get back to Washington, not a few days anymore.

The Confederates now had to make some critical decisions.

Handcrafted illustration of a key battle between the Union and Confederates during the Civil War.
A handcolored lithograph from 1861 shows Col. Burnside’s brigade, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their artillery, attacking the Rebel batteries at Bull Run. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, had arrived in the field late that day. He urged a pursuit, and the Confederates were about to pursue, but Joseph Johnston stopped the pursuit. He told them that the pursuit in the darkness, with a confused and disorganized army was not the right thing to do.

Although it was true that they could very well use their interior lines, strategically and tactically, they did not consider the fact that they could turn the tables only on the last moments of the battle. They did not see how close they were to defeat. So, they continued to act like winners.

The Confederates did not know that they were losing their only chance of victory when they decided to wait for the morning and reassess the situation.

Learn more about how the South seceded in February 1861.

Victims and Casualties of the First Manassas or Bull Run

The First Manassas or Bull Run was the biggest battle in American history until then. The numbers looked enormous when compared to all the previous wars. When compared to the rest of the Civil War, it was a midsize Civil War battle with a moderate number of casualties.

In terms of casualties, both armies lost many soldiers. On the Confederate side, 2,000 men were lost. There were 2,700 lost on the Federal side: 1,500 killed and wounded, and 1,200 were missing. Most of the missing soldiers were captured by the opponents. Some non-military people were on the list too.

As mentioned before, Henry House Hill was a hotspot of the war. A widow named Judith Carter Henry, who lived on the top of it in her house, was one of the first civilian victims of the battle when a cannonball crashed into her bedroom and killed her with several severe wounds.

Another victim was Alfred Ely, a congressman from New York who had come to watch the battle. He was captured by the Confederate forces and imprisoned in Richmond.

Post Manassas or Bull Run

When the Confederates decided to wait for the morning of 22nd of July, the Union army regained power in Washington. Their motivation to win was combined with the depression of the civilians. Non-military people in the North now feared a long war, and they were willing to do all they could to end it in their favor. So the North was coming back with a stronger fist.

The Confederates, on the other hand, believed that they could defeat the Northerners even if they had a bigger army. After the first battle, they created an atmosphere that prevented more big battles in Virginia until the end of 1861. Furthermore, some scholars believe a ‘First Manassas syndrome’ was born at this battle, and reappeared every time the Federals fought against the Confederates. They assumed this syndrome made the Northern soldiers expect a defeat in every battle against the Confederate troops.

In the end, Manassas did more harm to its primary victors, than it did to the defeated Union, but it took until the end of the Civil War to be perceived.

Keep Reading
The Ten Bloodiest Battles of the Civil War
North vs. South: Prelude to the American Civil War
Slavery, Compromise, and the Long Road to War

Common questions about the First Manassas or Bull Run

Q: Are Manassas and Bull Run the same?

Yes. The North named battles after a terrain feature in the area, and the South named it after a railroad crossroads or a town. So Manassas and Bull Run are the Northern and Southern names of the battle, respectively.

Q: Who won the first battle of Bull Run?

The Confederates, who put the Union soldiers in full retreat, won the first battle of Manassas or Red Bull.

Q: What is the significance of the First Battle of Bull Run?

The First Manassas or Bull Run resulted in thousands of lives lost and is referred to as the first major land battle of the American Civil war. It was also highly crucial as two inexperienced armies fought on the battlefield for the first time.

Q: Where was the first battle of Bull Run?

The First Manassas or Bull Run took place on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, North of the city of Manassas and about 25 miles west-southwest of Washington, D.C.