The military planning early in the war, in the first battles, saw both sides make moves to protect their capitals after Virginia seceded. Each side also looked at how best to conduct its military operations. Richmond and Washington are only 100 miles apart, which means that the strip of 100 miles was going to be intensely contested land in the course of the Civil War, much thought about and much fought over.
In terms of overall strategy, the Confederacy had only to counteract whatever the United States did. If the United States didn’t invade the Confederacy, the Confederacy would win independence by default.
The United States, in contrast, had to devise a plan to strike at the Confederacy and bring the Richmond government to its knees.
Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan
Winfield Scott—the hero of the Mexican War, General in Chief of the United States armies, and one of the great soldiers in United States history—was the principal Union planner early. He was75 years old by the time of the Civil War, but had a very active mind, and he applied it to the problem of defeating the Confederacy.
He came up with a long-term plan, subsequently called the Anaconda Plan:
“This will defeat the Confederacy. Push down the Mississippi River with a joint army-navy force, take control of the river, cut the Confederacy in two by doing so, block the southern coastline to cut it off from European goods in the course of the war and, if necessary, strike into the heart of the Confederacy with a major army if those first two things—taking the Mississippi and blockading the coast—don’t bring the Confederacy to its knees.”
He said, “All of this might take two to three years, and perhaps as many as 300,000 men.” He was thinking in much larger terms than most people were at the time. Well, in the end, that is almost exactly how the United States prosecuted the war. It just took longer, and more men than Scott had envisioned.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Lincoln’s Preoccupation with Richmond
From Lincoln’s perspective, the worst part of this plan was that it would take a long time. He was under pressure to make something happen now.
A drumbeat in the North said, “Take Richmond; drive against Richmond; defeat the rebels; get this over with in one big battle.” Lincoln sort of succumbed to that early on. He became preoccupied with Richmond, and he thought that the United States should move quickly.
Hundreds of thousands of volunteers were pouring into the armies at this stage of the war. Lincoln said, “We’re green, but they’re green, too, and there are more of us than there are of them, so let’s move forward.”
What’s in the Name?
The result was the battle of First Manassas or Bull Run. The Confederates tended to name their battles after towns or geographic places; Manassas was a railroad junction.
The United States soldiers tended to name them after terrain features. Bull Run was a creek, and this is the first example of one of these dual-named battles.
The Battle of First Manassas, or Bull Run
The United States officer in charge was named Irvine McDowell, and he was instructed to move against the Confederates who were congregating at Manassas Junction—about 25 miles outside Washington in north-central Virginia. McDowell had 35,000 men.
His opponent—a colorful Creole from Louisiana named Gustav Toutant Beauregard—had about 20,000 men, and there were Confederate reinforcements near at hand in the Lower Shenandoah Valley.
The two armies came to grips on July 21, 1861, in the first major battle of the war. Both generals envisioned a turning movement, a flanking movement, instead of direct assaults, but the Union side moved first and was winning the battle.
The Turn of Tables
Through the first phase of the battle, a group of Confederates under the command of Thomas Jonathan Jackson made a stand on a little hillock on the battlefield. Jackson won his nickname “Stonewall” Jackson there.
That helped turn the tide, and Confederate counterattacks in the afternoon swept the federal forces from the field; they retreated rather rapidly toward Washington.
A lot of people had come out from Washington to watch this battle. So, when the United States forces began to give way and retreat very quickly toward Washington many of these civilians were caught up in that.
There was enormous chaos along the roads leading back to Washington, with federal soldiers who had thrown away their weapons, civilians, carriages, cannons, etc.—all moving along in this great tide back toward Washington.
The Confederates were almost as disorganized in victory as the Federals were in defeat, so they didn’t follow up their win, but they had won the first big battle of the war, and people in the Confederacy took heart in this. This seemed to affirm that they were going to have a good chance to win the entire conflict. Southern military prowess had been vindicated by the actions at Manassas.
On the northern side, there was a good deal of depression among the civilian population. Many also realized that the war might drag on longer than they originally had thought.
The casualties at First Bull Run or Manassas opened the eyes of people on both sides. There were 2,000 killed and wounded on the Confederate side; 1,500 killed and wounded, and 1,200 missing on the United States side, making it the bloodiest battle in United States history to this point.
Common Questions about the First Battle of Bull Run
In terms of overall strategy, the Confederacy had only to counteract whatever the United States did. If the United States didn’t invade the Confederacy, the Confederacy would win independence by default. The United States, in contrast, had to devise a plan to strike at the Confederacy and bring the Richmond government to its knees.
The armies of the Union and the Confederacy came to grips on July 21, 1861, in the first major battle of the war—the battle of Bull Run.
The Confederacy won the first battle of Bull Run.