Special Report

The Battle of Bull Run: The End of Illusions

Both North and South expected victory to be glorious and quick, but the first major battle signaled the long and deadly war to come

Scores of high-spirited civilians carried picnic baskets and champagne to the battlefield to watch what would turn out to be the first major land engagement of the Civil War. Shown here is the battlefield as it appears today. (Elan Fleisher / www.agefotostock.com)
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The Confederates grabbed the Federal guns and turned them against the attackers, but in fierce seesaw fighting, the Yankees temporarily took them back. Beauregard’s horse was shot from under him. Heintzelman was wounded as he drove his men ahead. Three times the Federals fought within yards of Jackson’s line and were thrown back by a sheet of fire. When that last effort wavered, Beauregard took the offensive. Jackson threw his troops forward, ordering them to “Yell like furies!”—and they did, thus introducing the Rebel yell as a weapon of war. Francis Bartow was killed and Bee was mortally wounded as the Rebels surged ahead.

The battle had turned, but it would turn again, and yet again.

In the chaos of driving the Federals downhill toward the turnpike, the Confederates exposed both their flanks. McDowell sent more troops at them, and pushed back up the hill. But in doing so, he exposed his own flank. At about 4 o’clock, two new Rebel brigades, under Brig. Gen. Kirby Smith and Col. Jubal Early, suddenly appeared from the rear. Smith, just arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, was seriously wounded almost immediately. Led by Col. Arnold Elzey, his troops kept moving and stretched the Confederate line to the left. Then came Early—in hot haste, now thoroughly committed to Virginia’s cause—swinging his brigade still wider around the Union flank.

That did it.

Struck by this fresh wave of Rebels, McDowell’s exhausted troops on that side started falling back. Seeing them, Beauregard raised a cheer and waved his whole line forward. The Confederates charged again, sending the Federals reeling back toward Bull Run. McDowell and Burnside tried and failed to halt them. At first the retreat was deliberate, as if the men were simply tired of fighting—as the historian John C. Ropes wrote, they “quietly but definitively broke ranks and started on their homeward way.” But Stuart’s cavalry harried them, and as they recrossed beyond Stone Bridge, Rebel cannon zeroed in on the turnpike. Then, according to Capt. James C. Fry of McDowell’s staff, “the panic began...utter confusion set in: pleasure-carriages, gun-carriages, and ambulances...were abandoned and blocked the way, and stragglers broke and threw aside their muskets and cut horses from their harness and rode off on them.” Congressman Alfred Ely of New York, among the civilians who had come out to enjoy the show, was captured in the stampede and barely escaped execution by a raging South Carolina colonel, who was restrained by Captain Alexander.

As Rebel artillery harassed McDowell’s army, men “screamed with rage and fright when their way was blocked up,” wrote Russell, the British correspondent. “Faces black and dusty, tongues out in the heat, eyes staring....Drivers flogged, lashed, spurred and beat their horses....At every shot a convulsion...seized upon the morbid mass.”

McDowell himself was just as frank, if not as descriptive. After trying to organize a stand at Centreville, he was swept along by his fleeing army. Pausing at Fairfax that night, he fell asleep in the midst of reporting that his men were without food and artillery ammunition, and most of them were “entirely demoralized.” He and his officers, he wrote, agreed that “no stand could be made this side of the Potomac.”

The dark, stormy morning of July 22 found thousands of McDowell’s men stumbling into Washington, soaked and famished, collapsing in doorways. The sight was “like a hideous dream,” Mary Henry, daughter of the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote in her diary. News of the rout inspired a panic: Rebels about to march into Washington! But the Rebels were nowhere near. Beauregard followed the retreat into positions he had held a week earlier, but his army was too disorganized to make a serious effort against the capital itself.

Thus ended the “Forward to Richmond!” campaign of 1861.

Bull Run—or Manassas, as Southerners call it, preferring to name Civil War battles for towns instead of watercourses—was a fierce battle, but not huge compared with those to come later. Counts vary, but the Union lost about 460 men killed, 1,125 wounded and 1,310 missing, most of those captured. The Confederates suffered about 390 killed, 1,580 wounded—and only 13 missing, because they occupied the field. Altogether, both sides lost about 4,900—fewer than a fifth of the casualties counted when they fought on the same ground a year later, and fewer than a tenth of those at Gettysburg in 1863. Regardless of numbers, the psychological effect on both sides was profound.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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