“You are green it is true, but they are green also, you are all green alike.” – Abraham Lincoln
“….we shall probably have a chance to pay our southern brethren a visit upon the sacred soil of Virginia very soon. I hope that we shall be successful and give the rebels a good pounding.”
– Elijah Hunt Rhodes, 2’nd Rhode Island Infantry, July 16, 1861
These were among some of the optimistic views with which the Union Army and it’s leaders marched into battle in this campaign. On today’s date, July 21 in 1861 the Union and the Confederate armies clashed in the first major battle of the American Civil War. Their leader, Gen. Irvin McDowell was not at all sure that his green and only partially trained troops were ready for a major fight. But the 90 day enlistments of this first group of volunteers was coming to an end soon, and Lincoln didn’t have time to wait. So with the assurance quoted above he ordered McDowell into action.
The First Battle of Bull Run Commences
So on July 16 McDowell marched his army of 35,000 men 30 miles south with the intention of capturing the vital railroad hub at Manassas, Virginia, and then to move on to Richmond, the Confederate Capitol, and end this rebellion quickly as everyone expected. But Confederate spies had alerted the Rebel leadership that they were coming. So an army of 22,000 under the command of Gen. Beauregard was sent north to meet them. It appeared that everyone knew that a battle was going, because some of the finest members of society came along to watch with picnic baskets and bottles of Champagne. On July 21 the Union army, tired from their long march showed up, and moved across Bull Run Creek which ran through a portion of the battlefield
and smashed into the Rebel left, driving the rebels from their positions. It looked as if it was going to be a quick victory afterall. But one commander held fast to his position at a hill at thee Rebel center. This was Gen. Thomas Jackson (above). While other regiments faltered, Jackson held firm. One Confederate officer trying to steady his men yelled “Look! There’s Jackson with his Virginians standing like a stone wall!” And thus was earned the nick-name by which Jackson would be known ever after.
The Tide Begins to Turn
The battle went back and forth throughout much of the day. But then some 9,000 Rebel reinforcements began to arrive, many by train, this being the first time in this war that troops would be moved in this way. At 4:00 in the afternoon Gen. Beauregard ordered a counterattack. This broke into the Union lines and sent them running
from the field. Jackson urged his men forward telling them to “Yell like furies!” Thus was introduced the blood-curdling sound of the “Rebel Yell” that would echo across hundreds of battlefields in that war. The Union assault had been broken. These green troops were clearly not up to this kind of sustained fighting. By later in the afternoon McDowell was forced to pull his men back across Bull Run Creek (below). One
soldier, Corporal Samuel J. English of the 2’nd Rhode Island recalled the hurry and the disorder of this retreat:
“After I crossed I started up the hill as fast as my legs could carry and passed through Centreville and continued on to Fairfax where we arrived about 10 o’clock halting about 15 minutes, then kept on to Washington where we arrived about 2 o’clock Monday noon more dead than alive, having been on our feet 36 hours without a mouthful to eat, and traveled a distance of 60 miles without twenty minutes halt. The last five miles of that march was perfect misery, none of us having scarcely strength to put one foot before the other….”
Fortunately for the Union, the rebel troops were far too exhausted to chase after their beaten foes and thoroughly take advantage of their victory. But it was clearly a humiliating defeat for the mighty Union Army which wound up getting back to Washington D.C. just ahead of all of the High Society swells who had come out to watch the war like it was a picnic, and wound up retreating along with their beaten army. But one thing was quite clear: this was going to be a long and bloody war; nothing at all like the three month excursion that so many had been expecting.
“The Civil War” – Vol. 1, “the Cause” Produced and Directed by Ken Burns for PBS, 1985.
“The American Heritage Picture History off the Civil War” by Bruce Catton, American Heritage
Publishing Co. Inc., 1960