Clio Logo

The Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of First Manassas, occurred on July 21, 1861 and was the first major battle in the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. In this monumental battle, both sides had 18,000 poorly-trained troops that fought. The Union's initial attack put the Confederates at a disadvantage, but the Union were slow in positioning themselves early on. This allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive from the Shenandoah Valley and turn the tide. The result was a Confederate victory and the Union had a disorganized retreat from conflict. The bloody battle was a sobering realization to many that the Civil War would not end quickly, as previously speculated.

  • Map of the migration of troops from the First Battle of Bull Run.
  • Artistic recreation of the Battle - compare with what you see in front of you!
  • Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson
  • Rare wartime photograph showing the Matthews House on the battlefield
  • The reconstructed Henry House and Bull Run Monument

Many months since the Civil War began, many in the northern states pushed for a march on Richmond, Virginia, which was the established Confederate capital, hoping to bring a swift end to the rebellion. In fact, people from the north followed the soldiers to Bull Run with picnics, hoping to watch a colorful engagement from a nearby hill. Union General Irvin McDowell was wary about this sort of action since his men were inexperienced and very green, just like the Confederate forces. Intense political pressure eventually pushed McDowell to march into action despite his personal feelings against such a battle tactic. He set out with a large force of 35,000 men hoping to send two columnns to attack the Confederate line of Bull Run to occupy their attention. McDowell’s other plan was to then send the third columnn to the rear of the Confederate line which cuts off their supply line to Richmond. McDowell's ultimate goal was designed to force a Confederate retreat and relieve some pressure on the Capital.

This plan, however, was poorly executed by McDowell's subordinate officers as they took too long positioning themselves. However, the surprise ambush was nonetheless effective putting the Confederate forces into dire straits. Despite this small lead in the conflict, the time it took the Union troops to position themselves became troublesome for their side. It allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive by rail and turn the tide of the battle. These reinforcements were fresh putting the disadvantage on the Union Army, but they did not have to march a great distance to the battlefield and had not been involved in the pitched combat. The arrival of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston from the Shenandoah Valley quickly turned the favor of battle to the Confederacy.

Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson, nicknamed Stonewall Jackson, and his men held their position against the Union Army refusing to give up. This allowed a counterattack to be launched from Confederate troops making the Union withdrawal fire. Due to the overwhelming Confederate response, the Union panicked and made a very hasty retreat. The Confederate Army claimed victory in this battle as the Union retreated back to Washington D.C. in a disorganized manner. This battle marked the first of many major battles to come in the American Civil War.

This battle also highlighted that this war would be a prolonging conflict and many lives would be at stake. It foreshadowed how bloody these battles were going to get and highlighted the problems during the first year of war, like the inexperienced troops and disorderly battle plans. Over 2,000 Union troops died during this battle and the Confederacy lost over 1,000. Mobilization efforts would continue to rise as the battles became fiercer. This was a wake-up call for both sides to better plan for the future.

"The Battle of Bull Run Summary & Facts." Civil War Trust. Accessed August 4, 2016. "The Battle of First Manassas (First Bull Run)." U.S. National Park Service. Accessed August 4, 2016. "First Battle of Bull Run." Accessed August 4, 2016.