The area that is colloquially known as Bull Run is in fact just to the north of the town of Manassas, Virginia, not too far away from Washington Dulles Airport. It was here on the 21st July 1861 that the first major pitched battle of the Civil War took place.

Manassas is an important railway junction, where railway lines that stretch all over northern Virginia combine to head down to Richmond, the Confederate capital. The destruction of the Confederate Army of the Potomac that was gathering here and the capture of such an important city would have been a glittering prize for the Union so early in the war.

Bull Run Creek Manassas Virginia

Bull Run is actually the name of a creek a few miles outside the town. Although the creek did have a part to play in the battle both at the start and at the finish, it was actually across the bridge and to the left at the top of the hill a mile or so away where the major part of the battle took place.

General Beauregard was in command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac in the area around Manassas, and there were stories that he was planning to move north towards Washington. Consequently McDowell of the Union Army planned to bring him to battle and defeat his raw inexperienced troops before they had set out on their march.

Such a defeat would open the road to Richmond, the Confederate capital, and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. So confident of certain victory was the North that many family and friends followed the Union army and set themselves up to picnic on the hills overlooking the battlefield to watch the resulting triumph.

As a brief aside, one of the young officers employed as a courier carrying messages around the battlefield on behalf of General McDowell at the front was a certain Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, fresh from arrest and court-martial at West Point for having encouraged two cadets to fight each other.


The plot was deceptively simple. McDowell sent a division of his army under Tyler to attack the bridge. This would draw the Confederate Army down from the heights. Meanwhile, the rest of McDowell's Army was to cross over Bull Run at Sudley Springs a few miles north, swing south and come in from behind the Confederates, trap them against the river and Tyler's force, and crush them.

(Strangely enough, the Confederates had also been examining a similar encircling manouevre to bring the Union forces to battle. It would have been extremely interesting, to say the least, if both armies had tried it simultaneously)

True to the plan, Tyler attacked the bridge and engaged the Confederates. He didn't press home his attack with very much conviction, as his task was to keep the Confederates up close to the river, and after a while, the Confederates began to smell a rat.

What in fact had happened was the first of many blunders committed during the battle. If the main force of the Union Army had attacked according to plan, they would have smashed into the rear of the Confederate forces not long after battle had been joined down at the creek, and taken them completely by surprise. However, due to a series of mishaps, the main force was nearly three hours late in arriving, and Beauregard, having smelt a rat, was expecting them.


First Battle of Manassas Bull Run Matthews Hill facing the Union flank attack

The sound of gunfire behind the Confederate forces at the bridge confirmed Beauregard's suspicions that the attack at the bridge was indeed a feint. The main Union force had now crossed the river and was coming up the road from the direction straight on to the camera in the photograph on the left. Once it turned to its left (to the right in this photograph) down the hill to Bull Run Creek, it would be at the rear of the Confederate army at the bridge.

It's at this point that I should mention a technological "first". It was at this moment that Edward Porter Alexander, the Confederate Chief Engineer and Signals Officer, made history by becoming the first person in military history to send a long-distance semaphore flag message in combat.

From his position on Signal Hill in Manassas, he had spotted the encircling movement and semaphored Colonel Nathan Evans to the effect that his position was about to be turned. Evans therefore moved his brigade and a few cannon to Matthews Hill, in the position from where the photograph on the left was taken, in order to engage them and hold them for as long as possible.

The Confederates at the creek, now alerted by the gunfire, were able to disengage from the Union forces at the creek, and fall back to Henry House Hill (a position behind where the photograph above was taken). If Tyler's division had followed up with a determined pursuit, he might well have prevented the Confederates from reforming, cut off Evans' forces from the main Confederate body, and won for himself a decisive victory.

Instead, once his forces reformed, he chose to join the main force that was still engaging Evans' forces.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run from Bull Run Creek up to Henry House Hill with the Henry House in the background

The photograph on the right shows the slope up which the Union Army climbed from Bull Run Creek to meet up with the main Union force at Matthews Hill, which is over to the right of the photograph. The Henry House is here on the crest of the hill.

And this hill is quite steep too, much steeper than it looks in the photograph. It would not have been easy to have marched up here in full battle gear. The Confederate position at Henry House Hill is off to the left of the photograph.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run showing Confederate lines and Union lines and Manassas town

The Confederate position can be clearly seen in the photograph here on the left, represented by the symbolic artillery pieces. The white building to the extreme right of the photograph is the Visitor Centre for the Manassas battlefields. The extreme right of the Union Army was drawn up to just in front of this building.

The town of Manassas is situated a couple of miles from here behind the trees more-or-less in the centre of the photograph. The fighting at Matthews Hill had alerted other Confederate units that were in the town, and these were by now starting to arrive on the battlefield.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run - Confederate lines view from Rickett's battery

Evans and his small force had put up a stern resistance, but they were eventually beaten back from the hill by the main force of 18,000 Union soldiers. The valuable time that they had won for Beauregard and his makeshift army enabled a rough defensive line to be formed just in front of the trees in the photograph here in the left, in the position marked by the symbolic artillery pieces. They prepared to meet McDowell's force that, now that it had reunited, totalled 30,000 men.


Now, McDowell made another bizarre decision, which added to the confusion and which served to further snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Here were the Confederates, on the run and outnumbered, barely having formed a line. And here were the Union forces, with all the momentum that a succesful advance can obtain, and with superior numbers.

A fully-committed general would have smashed his forces straight into the enemy lines before they would have a chance to form up, especially with the superior force he had at his disposal. The momentum and weight of the attack would have carried them through.

Speed was vital. The Confederate flank had been turned, as is apparent from the photograph above. Manassas isn't behind the Confederate forces, it's to their left (off the right of the photograph above) and thus open to the attackers.

Sweeping the defenders off the field isn't even necessary. All McDowell needs to do is to hold up the defenders and move on to take the town. But he has to do it quickly. Because now that he has turned the Confederate flank, he has been obliged to turn his own flank to engage them. Any Confederate force coming to join in the battle from the town is then going to take him in the flank.

And a force coming in from the west would take it in the rear. And they would have the momentum. And it was known that Joe Johnson had 9000 Confederate soldiers in the Shenandoah Valley over to the west.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run Rickett's battery

Instead of sending in his infantry to finish off the job, McDowell inexplicably halted them and called up his artillery to pound the Confederate lines. The photograph above showing the Confederate lines was taken from the site of Rickett's battery of Union artillery, and the photograph here on the left represents the site of Rickett's guns as they opened fire on the Confederate troops.

The Henry House is seen in the distance, and the Bull Run Mountains are on the horizon in the far distance.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run view of Union lines and Visitor Centre from Confederate lines

As the Union artillery pounded the Confederate lines, the Confederate leadership made a crucial decision. Many Confederates seemed to be preparing to abandon the field, when General Bee cried to his men "look at Jackson, standing like a Stone Wall with his Virginians". The legend of General "Stonewall" Jackson was born in this moment.

As the Union army drew up more artillery to the right of their lines in front of where today is the visitor centre on the skyline in the centre of this photograph, the Confederates decided that they may as well charge the guns. If the Unionists loaded up the guns with grape and canister, they would devastate the Confederate forces. They may as well be decimated on the attack than standing still.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run

The photograph on the left shows from the position of these guns that the Union troops have completely turned the Confederate flank round through 270. This is certainly a brave manoeuvre in an attempt to encircle the Confederate forces, but it is a totally foolhardy thing to do when no steps have been taken to protect it against any marauding Confederate soldiers.

Its right flank is completely in the air, and this goes a long way to solving one question that has puzzled historians for years. There were always stories circulating that the Union gun crews were being wiped out without even knowing that they had been under attack. You can see how close these guns are to the wood to their left.

A handful of snipers in the trees could cause havoc, and the noise of the artillery would drown out the sound of the muskets. The wood is surely no more than 100 yards from the gun on the extreme right of the line.

The first Confederate attack succeeded in capturing the guns, but they did not hold onto them for long, as the 11th New York infantry and a battalion of US Marines in reserve pushed them back. The Confederates counterattacked and the fighting rolled back and forth across the lines of Union artillery in a sprawling, bloody mass.

Decisive leadership was now called for. McDowell had a large number of troops in reserve that had yet to see any fighting. Although he had already failed to grasp several opportunities that had presented themselves during the fighting, some resolute attacking from this fresh body of infantry led by a decisive and competent general at this juncture would have brought the Confederates to the brink of disaster.

McDowell continued to vacillate, and there were stories that persist to this day that Union soldiers were frantically seeking some kind of competent officer to give them some kind of order as to how to take an effective part in the battle. For even they had realised that the longer the fight continued, the greater the number of Confederate soldiers who would arrive on the battlefield.


This was illustrated by a dramatic development that was to change the whole complexion of the fight. Johnson, having heard of the engagement at Bull Run, had commandeered every form of transport he could find and had rushed his men at double-quick time to the battle. They burst onto the field straight into the exposed right flank of Rickett's guns, and drove it straight in.

Even now, a determined fight by the Union's soldiers could have halted this attack. Once again, speed was vital if Mc Dowell was to save the day. But it was Beauregard who was the quickest to react, and ordered his army to advance on the Union lines.

This attack transformed the steady retreat occasioned by Johnson's army into a rout, and dramatic flight from the field by the Union forces. The panic spread to the spectators on the surrounding hillside and they too took to flight. This led to chaos at the bridge at Bull Run Creek as soldiers and civilians collided in their frenzy to escape back to Washington. McDowell was later to say that "The retreat soon became a rout, and this soon degenerated into a panic".

A determined force of Confederate cavalry or a regiment of light artillery raining shrapnel onto the bridge would have completed the devastation and even probably brought an end to the war. There were few Union troops remaining between Bull Run Creek and the Union capital at Washington DC.

However the Confederate generals, taken completely by surprise by the sudden victory, hadn't given a moment's thought to the likelihood of such an overwhelming victory, and had made no preparation at all to follow it up. There was no cavalry available and whatever troops were on the battlefield were disorganised and disorientated. By the time the leaders had restored order, the chance had gone and it would never come again.

Even the South's most famous victory, at Chancellorsville in 1863, was really the result of the incompetence of the Union leadership rather than any outstanding feat of arms by the Confederates. In fact, Lee committed several schoolboy errors that should have resulted in his army being swept from the field. When the south followed the retreating Unionists to Gettysburg and were met by a real general, then that was the end of the line for the Confederacy.


First Battle of Manassas Bull Run

Today at the site of the battle here at Manassas, it is possible to walk all around the battlefield and visit the scenes of the crucial moments in the battle. The main impression that one gains from the battlefield is just how compact it is. It is very hard to believe that 60,000 troops were engaged here

The Henry farmhouse, which was the scene of a great deal of fighting, has been restored to more-or-less how it was prior to the battle, as you can see in the photograph here.

First Battle of Manassas Bull Run

In 1865, however, a monument was erected close by in memory of the thousands of Union soldiers who died in the battle, as you can see in the photograph on the left. In this photograph you can actually see how close it is.

Now bearing in mind that I'm a European who only ever visits the USA on occasion and who has never lived here, I'll tell something that I found so surprising. On many of the battlefields, regardless of whether or not the Union forces won, and whether or not the battles took place on what was Confederate soil, there always seems to be a monument to the federal forces, but nothing to the Confederate troops who died fighting for their own freedom.

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