First Battle of Bull Run

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First Battle of Bull Run
First Manassas
1st battle manassas.jpg

21 July 1861


same day


Fairfax and Prince William Counties, Virginia


Eastern Theater


Manassas Campaign


Confederate victory

33 star flag.png
Conf Navy Jack.png

Army of Northeastern Virginia

C.S. Army of the Shenandoah
C.S. Army of the Potomac


Irvin McDowell
Maj. General, USA

Joseph E. Johnston
General, CSA
Pierre G. T. Beauregard
Brig. General, CSA


28,000–35,000 soldiers
18,000 engaged

32,000–34,000 soldiers
18,000 engaged


Killed: 460
Wounded: 1,124
Missing or captured: 1,312

Killed: 387
Wounded: 1,582
Missing: 13


The First Battle of Bull Run was the first major battle of the American Civil War, taking place on July 21, 1861 near the town of Manassas, Virginia. Called First Manassas by the South, the battle involving green troops on both sides would turn into a major defeat against the Union army, and lead many to conclude that a war thought to last for a few months would drag on for years.


On 15 April 1861, the day after South Carolina military forces had attacked and captured Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring an insurrection against the laws of the United States. Earlier, South Carolina and seven other Southern states had declared their secession from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America.

To suppress the rebellion and restore Federal law in the Southern states, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers with ninety-day enlistments to augment the existing U.S. Army of about 15,000. He later accepted an additional 40,000 volunteers with three-year enlistments and increased the strength of the U.S. Army to almost 20,000. Lincoln’s actions caused four more Southern states, including Virginia, to secede and join the Confederacy, and by June 1 the Confederate capital had been moved from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia.

In Washington, D.C., as thousands of volunteers rushed to defend the capital, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the General in Chief of the Army, laid out his strategy to subdue the rebellious states. He proposed that an army of 80,000 men be organized and sail down the Mississippi River and capture New Orleans. While the Army “strangled” the Confederacy in the west, the U.S. Navy would blockade Southern ports along the eastern and Gulf coasts. The press ridiculed what they dubbed as Scott’s "Anaconda Plan." Instead, many believed the capture of the Confederate capital at Richmond, only one hundred miles south of Washington, would quickly end the war.

Irvin McDowell

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell (center, hand on sword), on the steps of a building befitting his rank, the newly confiscated home of General Robert E. Lee, Arlington House.
The positions of the Union and Confederate armies, first week of July, 1861 (Hal Jespersen)

By July 1861 thousands of volunteers were camped in and around Washington. Since General Scott was seventy-five years old and physically unable to lead this force, the administration searched for a more suitable field commander. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase championed fellow Ohioan, 42-year-old Major Irvin McDowell. Although McDowell was a West Point graduate, his command experience was limited. In fact, he had spent most of his career engaged in various staff duties in the Adjutant General’s Office. While stationed in Washington he had become acquainted with Chase, a former Ohio governor and senator. Now, through Chase’s influence, McDowell was promoted three grades to brigadier general in the Regular Army and on 27 May was assigned command of the Department of Northeastern Virginia, which included the military forces in and around Washington.

McDowell immediately began organizing what became known as the Army of Northeastern Virginia, 35,000 men arranged in five divisions. Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s 1st Division, the largest in the army, contained four brigades, led by Brig. Gen. Robert C. Schenck, Col. Erasmus Keyes, Col. William T. Sherman, and Col. Israel B. Richardson. Col. David Hunter commanded the 2d Division of two brigades. These were led by Colonels Andrew Porter and Ambrose Burnside. Col. Samuel P. Heintzelman commanded three brigades of the 3d Division, led by Cols. William B. Franklin, Orlando B. Willcox, and Oliver O. Howard. The 4th Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Theodore Runyon, contained seven regiments of New Jersey and one regiment of New York volunteer infantries. Col. Dixon S. Miles’ 5th Division contained two brigades, commanded by Cols. Louis Blenker and Thomas A. Davies. McDowell’s army also had ten batteries of artillery and a battalion of Regular cavalry.

Under public and political pressure to begin offensive operations, McDowell was given very little time to train the newly inducted troops. Units were instructed in the maneuvering of regiments, but they received little or no training at the brigade or division level. In fact, on one occasion, when McDowell reviewed eight infantry regiments at one time, the visiting General Scott chastised him for "trying to make a big show."

While McDowell organized the Army of Northeastern Virginia, a smaller Union command was organized and stationed northwest of Washington, near Harper’s Ferry. Commanded by Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson, 18,000 men of the Department of Pennsylvania protected against a Confederate incursion from the Shenandoah Valley. Although almost seventy years old and a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Patterson had been given a three-month volunteer officer’s commission in April 1861 and now commanded a varied force of Pennsylvania volunteers.

Joseph E. Johnston

General Joseph E. Johnston, Confederate States Army

At Winchester, Virginia, southwest of Patterson’s command, were 12,000 Confederate troops of the Army of the Shenandoah under 54-year-old General Joseph E. Johnston. Before the war Johnston had served as quartermaster general of the United States Army. Now, as a Confederate commander, he was charged with defending the Shenandoah Valley and, if necessary, going to the support of Brig. Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s command at Manassas Junction. The Army of the Shenandoah consisted of five infantry brigades: the 1st, commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson; the 2d, commanded by Col. Francis S. Bartow; the 3d, commanded by Brig. Gen. Barnard E. Bee; the 4th, commanded by Col. Arnold Elzey; and the 5th, commanded by Brig. Gen. E. Kirby Smith. In addition to the infantry, there were twenty pieces of artillery and about 300 Virginia cavalrymen under Col. J.E.B. Stuart.

Thirty miles southwest of Washington, at Manassas Junction, the 22,000-man Confederate Army of the Potomac blocked McDowell’s route to Richmond and defended the junction of the Orange and Alexandria and Manassas Gap Railroads. That force was commanded by the 43-year-old Beauregard, a former West Point classmate of McDowell. Beauregard had commanded the Confederate troops that had forced the surrender of Fort Sumter, and the "Hero of Sumter" had been assigned to the Confederate army being organized at Manassas Junction. The Army of the Potomac was organized into seven infantry brigades. These were the 1st Brigade, under Brig. Gen. Milledge L. Bonham; 2d Brigade, under Brig. Gen. Richard S. Ewell; 3d Brigade, under Brig. Gen. David R. Jones; 4th Brigade, under Brig. Gen. James Longstreet; 5th Brigade, under Col. Philip St. George Cocke; 6th Brigade, under Col. Jubal A. Early; and 7th Brigade, under Col. Nathan G. Evans. Beauregard’s army also contained thirty-nine pieces of field artillery and a regiment of Virginia cavalry.

Expecting McDowell to march on Manassas Junction by way of Centreville, Beauregard began preparing a defensive position along the south bank of Bull Run, a small creek flowing into the Occoquan River. Beauregard placed his right flank near the railroad bridge at Union Mills, extending the line northward over seven miles along Bull Run to the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike. General Ewell’s brigade was located near Union Mills; General Jones’ brigade was at McLean’s Ford, supported by the brigade of Colonel Early; General Longstreet’s brigade was placed at Blackburn’s Ford; General Bonham’s brigade was at Mitchell’s Ford; Colonel Cocke’s brigade was between Lewis’ and Ball’s fords; and Colonel Evans’ brigade held the army’s left flank at the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike.

McDowell planned to march his army toward Manassas Junction on 9 July and, while Patterson held Johnston’s army in the Shenandoah Valley, defeat Beauregard’s command. However, a lack of sufficient supplies postponed the maneuver for a week. Prior to the operation, McDowell warned the War Department that unless Johnston was prevented from reinforcing Beauregard, McDowell felt he had little chance of victory. General Scott assured McDowell that if Johnston did manage to slip out of the valley "he would have Patterson on his heels."

Movement of McDowell's army

Northern Virgina in the middle of July, 1861 (Hal Jespersen)
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, Brigadier General, CSA.

Finally, on 16 July, McDowell’s army headed for Manassas Junction. Amid cries of "On to Richmond," the excited soldiers marched south, confident that in a few days the war would be over, won by one grand battle. Since some of his regiments wore gray uniforms like many of the Confederate units, McDowell ordered that U.S. flags be displayed prominently at all times to prevent units from firing at each other.

By the following day General Beauregard had been alerted to the Union advance and asked the Confederate government for reinforcements. An independent infantry brigade stationed at Fredericksburg, commanded by Brig. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes, was ordered to Manassas Junction, and in Richmond six companies of South Carolina infantry of the independent Hampton Legion, commanded by Col. Wade Hampton, boarded trains and hurried north.

McDowell had hoped to have his army at Centreville by 17 July, but the troops, unaccustomed to marching, moved in starts and stops. Along the route soldiers often broke ranks to wander off to pick apples or blackberries or to get water, regardless of the orders of their officers to remain in ranks. By 1130, 17 July, the head of McDowell’s army, Tyler’s division, had only reached Fairfax Courthouse. McDowell wanted the men to push on to Centreville, but they were too exhausted to continue and camped near Fairfax.

It was not until 1100 on 18 July that Tyler’s division arrived at Centreville. While McDowell brought up the rest of the army, Tyler was ordered to observe the roads to Bull Run and Warrenton but under no circumstances to bring on an engagement. However, Tyler led a portion of Colonel Richardson’s brigade to Blackburn’s Ford where it became engaged with troops of General Longstreet. An aide to McDowell, accompanying the expedition, reminded Tyler of the commanding general’s admonition not to bring on an engagement, but Tyler ordered up the remainder of Richardson’s brigade. After a brief clash Richardson’s brigade fell back to Centreville. Union casualties at what became known as the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford were eighty-three killed, wounded, and missing. The Confederates suffered fifteen killed and fifty-three wounded, of which several later died.

At Centreville McDowell personally rebuked Tyler for exceeding his orders. McDowell had been considering launching an attack against the Confederate right flank, east of Union Mills, but after Tyler’s action McDowell feared Beauregard had strengthened his right flank. McDowell began looking for a way around the Confederate left, near the Warrenton Turnpike. The narrow Stone Bridge carried turnpike traffic across Bull Run, but McDowell believed the bridge was heavily mined and sent engineers farther north, looking for another crossing point.

Also on the morning of July 18 Johnston had received a telegram suggesting he go to Beauregard’s assistance if possible. Johnston marched out of Winchester about noon, while Stuart’s cavalry screened the movement from Patterson. Patterson was completely deceived. One hour after Johnston’s departure Patterson telegraphed Washington, "I have succeeded, in accordance with the wishes of the General-in-Chief, in keeping General Johnston’s force at Winchester."

About 0730 on 19 July, the first of Johnston’s command arrived at Piedmont Station (now Delaplane), a stop on the Manassas Gap Railroad. An hour and a half later Jackson’s brigade was the first to board cars and depart for Manassas Junction, arriving late in the afternoon. Bartow’s brigade followed shortly thereafter. The following morning, 20 July, Bee and a portion of his brigade, accompanied by Johnston, departed the station and arrived at Manassas Junction about noon. Johnston, being senior to Beauregard, assumed command of all Confederate forces at the junction, with his headquarters at the nearby Lewis house.9 General Smith remained at Piedmont to expedite the loading and transportation of the remainder of Johnston’s command. While Johnston’s infantry continued to move by rail, the cavalry and artillery continued to Manassas Junction by road.

The same day that Johnston arrived at Manassas Junction, more of McDowell’s troops arrived at Centreville. The divisions of Colonels Miles, Heintzelman, and Hunter arrived at the village and camped east and southeast of the town. The division of General Runyon was positioned between Fairfax and Alexandria, guarding the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. Also on 20 July McDowell’s engineers reported two favorable crossing sites on Bull Run north of the Stone Bridge. The first, Poplar Ford, was a mile north of the bridge, and the other, Sudley Ford, was two miles north of the bridge. Still believing the Confederates had strengthened their right flank, McDowell decided to feint toward Blackburn’s Ford and the Stone Bridge while his main attacking force marched around the Confederate left flank.

For the maneuver to be successful McDowell felt he needed to act quickly. He had already begun to hear rumors that Johnston had slipped out of the valley and was headed for Manassas Junction. If the rumors were true, McDowell might soon be facing 34,000 Confederates, instead of 22,000. Another reason for quick action was McDowell’s concern that the ninety-day enlistments of many of his regiments were about to expire. "In a few days I will lose many thousands of the best of this force," he wrote Washington on the eve of battle. In fact, the next morning two units of McDowell’s command, their enlistments expiring that day, would turn a deaf ear to McDowell’s appeal to stay a few days longer. Instead, to the sounds of battle, they would march back to Washington to be mustered out of service.

McDowell planned his attack for early the following morning. Richardson’s brigade, along with the brigade of Colonel Davies of Miles’ division, would feint toward Blackburn’s Ford. Tyler’s other brigades, Sherman, Keyes, and Schenck, would feint toward the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Turnpike. Miles’ other brigade, commanded by Colonel Blenker, would remain in reserve at Centreville. While the attention of the Confederates was occupied east of Bull Run, Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s divisions, 13,000 men and 20 cannon, would march north around the Confederate left. Hunter would cross the stream at Sudley Ford, while Heintzelman would cross at Poplar Ford and align on Hunter’s left. Then, both divisions would march south to the Warrenton Turnpike. It was a workable plan but depended on the flanking force moving quickly before the Confederates discovered the ruse. McDowell ordered the march to begin at 0230 the following day and planned for Hunter’s column to cross Sudley Ford by 0700.

Meanwhile, Johnston was concerned that Patterson might have followed him from the valley and expressed to Beauregard his desire to attack McDowell as soon as possible. Beauregard suggested an attack against the Union left flank. Ewell would advance across Bull Run at Union Mills, while the commands of Longstreet and Jones crossed at Blackburn’s and McLean’s Fords, respectively, and fell in on Ewell’s left. The three brigades would then march north to Centreville and attempt to turn McDowell’s left flank. Johnston asked Beauregard to place the plan in writing and he would approve it, which was done at 0430 the next day.

The battle

The battle at 6 am, July 21, 1861 (Hal Jespersen)

About 0230 on Sunday, July 21, units of McDowell’s army began leaving their camps at Centreville. From the start the march was beset with delays. Tyler’s division moved onto the Warrenton Turnpike first, which delayed the movement of the flanking columns of Hunter and Heintzelman. Tyler, stung by his rebuke from McDowell two days earlier, took his time and moved cautiously westward. Traveling with Tyler’s division was a 2 1/2-ton, 30-pounder Parrott rifle. When it arrived at the Cub Run Bridge, there was concern the structure might not hold the gun’s weight. The column halted while engineers reinforced the bridge, causing further delay.

It was not until 0530 that the rear of Tyler’s column finally crossed Cub Run Bridge, allowing Hunter and Heintzelman to cross and begin their march north toward Sudley and Poplar fords. The two commanders discovered, however, that the route chosen by the engineers soon turned into a little-used footpath through the woods. With frequent halts to clear trees and brush, the column slowly worked its way northward.

At 0600 the head of Tyler’s column reached the vicinity of the Stone Bridge. Sherman’s brigade deployed to the north side of the pike, while Schenck’s brigade moved to the south side. Keyes’ brigade remained on the turnpike, some distance in the rear in reserve. Tyler began his demonstration by having the 30-pounder Parrott rifle, joined by his other artillery, open fire across Bull Run Creek.

the stone bridge

On the west side of Bull Run, near the Stone Bridge, waited the 1,100-man brigade of 37-year-old Colonel Evans. Evans, a West Point graduate, was known as a tough, profane fighter and a hard drinker. Evans’ command consisted of the 4th South Carolina Infantry and the 1st Special Louisiana Infantry Battalion and two guns of the Lynchburg Artillery. As Union shells crashed in and around his command, Evans kept his men out of sight. After a while, with Union artillery eliciting no Confederate response, Tyler ordered skirmishers forward. Evans responded with his own skirmishers and sent word to Beauregard that he was under attack.

With no indication that the activity near Stone Bridge was anything but a small unit action, Beauregard continued with his plan to attack McDowell’s left at Centreville. Johnston, however, grew concerned about the growing sound of battle in the direction of the Stone Bridge and decided to send forces closer to the bridge as a precaution. About 0700 he ordered the brigades of Bee and Bartow, south of Blackburn’s Ford, to support Evans, while Jackson’s brigade, also south of Blackburn’s Ford, was ordered to a position between Ball’s and Mitchell’s fords where it could support either the brigades of Cocke or Bonham. The Hampton Legion, having just arrived from Richmond, was also ordered by Beauregard to march in the direction of the Stone Bridge. Elsewhere, Stuart’s cavalry, with about 300 troopers, guarded possible crossing sites along Bull Run between Mitchell’s and Ball’s fords, and Holmes’ brigade, having arrived from Fredericksburg two days earlier, had been placed in support of Ewell’s brigade at Union Mills.

Despite the shift of these troops away from his right, Beauregard proceeded with his attack plan. About 0700 he had sent orders for Ewell, Jones, and Longstreet to cross Bull Run and move together to Centreville. Upon receipt of their orders Jones and Longstreet crossed the creek and waited. However, for reasons unexplained, Ewell failed to receive his copy of the order. By 0800, when Johnston and Beauregard moved near Mitchell’s Ford in preparation for the attack, Ewell was still waiting on the south side of Bull Run.

As the sun rose higher in the sky scores of civilians, many traveling from Washington, began arriving on the heights at Centreville, all eager to witness the coming battle. Carriages containing congressmen and their families, reporters, and others crowded the roads and fields, eager to get a good view. Six miles to the west the smoke and noise of Tyler’s demonstration at the Stone Bridge maintained a sense of excitement.

While Tyler’s division skirmished with Evans and Beauregard’s flank attack stalled, Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s columns struggled along the narrow wooded trail toward the northern fords. By 0800 the firing at the Stone Bridge had been going on for two hours, and Evans was growing uneasy that the action in his front might be a feint for an attack elsewhere. About 0830 Capt. E. Porter Alexander, commanding a Confederate signal station near the junction, was receiving a message from near the Stone Bridge when he noticed a flash of light on the horizon, a few miles north of the bridge. He immediately identified the reflection as coming from a bronze field gun. A closer look also discovered the sun glinting off large numbers of bayonets. Alexander had spotted Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s columns. He immediately sent Evans a message, "Look out for your left. You are flanked." Evans quickly took the Louisiana battalion and nine hundred men of the 4th South Carolina Infantry and headed in the direction of Sudley Ford. The remaining two hundred men of the South Carolina regiment stayed at the Stone Bridge. While Evans’ infantry moved to block the Union flank march, one gun of the Lynchburg Artillery moved to Buck Hill, north of the Stone house, and the other gun unlimbered just north of the turnpike, across the road from the home of a free African-American, James Robinson. Following a path from the Stone Bridge, Evans deployed his small command on the southern slope of Matthews’ Hill to cover the Manassas-Sudley Road.

Alexander also alerted Beauregard and Johnston to the Union flank march. Stationed a half mile south of Mitchell’s Ford, the two commanders were still waiting for word that Beauregard’s offensive had begun. Although Johnston was apprehensive that the Union troops seen north of the Stone Bridge might be Patterson’s force arriving from the valley, he decided to continue with the attack on Centreville.

About 0930, hours behind schedule, the head of Hunter’s column reached Sudley Ford. After a short halt to rest and replenish canteens the march resumed, past the Sudley Church, where parishioners preparing for Sunday service stopped to stare at the passing column. McDowell soon joined the column and urged haste. Meanwhile, Heintzelman’s division missed the road to the crossing at Poplar Ford and continued to follow Hunter. The result would be that both divisions would enter the battle one behind the other, rather than two abreast.

Leading Hunter’s advance south from Sudley Ford was the brigade of Colonel Burnside. Burnside’s command included the 1st and 2d Rhode Island Infantries, which were accompanied by the governor of Rhode Island, William Sprague. Sprague had come along to see how the Rhode Island units acquitted themselves in battle. Also in Burnside’s brigade were the 2d New Hampshire Infantry and the 71st New York Infantry, the latter regiment dragging two 12-pounder boat howitzers borrowed from the Washington Navy Yard. Burnside’s brigade artillery, Company A, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, was commanded by Capt. William Reynolds.

About 1030 Burnside’s command approached Matthews’ Hill and came under fire from Evans’ skirmishers on the crest. After a couple of volleys the Confederate skirmishers withdrew to Evans’ main command on the southern slope. Burnside deployed his brigade, and Reynolds’ six, bronze, 14-pounder rifles unlimbered only 200 yards from Evans’ line, the battery’s right resting on the Manassas-Sudley Road. Reynolds’ guns quickly became engaged with the two guns of the Lynchburg Artillery to the south.

While Burnside battled for Matthews’ Hill, the brigade of Colonel Porter arrived behind Burnside’s line. Porter’s command consisted of the 8th New York Infantry, 14th New York State Militia (known as the 14th Brooklyn), 27th New York Infantry, a U.S. Infantry Battalion, a U.S. Marine Corps Battalion, and a U.S. Cavalry Battalion. Battery D, 5th U.S. Artillery, commanded by Capt. Charles Griffin, completed the brigade. Shortly after Porter’s arrival, Hunter was wounded and carried to the rear, telling Burnside, "I leave the matter in your hands."

Matthews' Hill

The remains of Judith Henry's house in Manassas, Virginia.

About 1100 the brigades of Bee and Bartow (Bee in overall command of both brigades) arrived near the Henry house. Although earlier ordered toward the Stone Bridge, Bee had diverted his column toward the sound of the firing on Matthews’ Hill. Bee’s brigade contained the 4th Alabama Infantry and 2d Mississippi Infantry (the 6th North Carolina Infantry had yet to arrive from Piedmont Station). Bartow’s command consisted of the 7th and 8th Georgia Infantries. Although Bartow’s artillery, the Wise Artillery, had not accompanied the brigade, Bee had brought along his Staunton Artillery, commanded by Capt. John Imboden. Imboden unlimbered his four 6-pounder smoothbores in a depression about one hundred yards north of the Henry house and opened long-range fire on the Union artillery on Matthews’ Hill.

Evans had seen the arrival of Bee and Bartow on Henry Hill and rode back to ask for support. Bee was at first reluctant, believing that Henry Hill was a better defensive position, and suggested Evans fall back instead. But Evans was adamant and Bee ordered the two brigades forward, where they extended Evans’ right flank.

After McDowell arrived on Matthews’ Hill to take command, Porter extended the Union line to Dogan Ridge, west of the Manassas-Sudley Road. Griffin’s six guns and six guns of Battery I of Franklin’s brigade unlimbered in front of Porter’s line and opened fire.

With the fight growing in intensity on Matthews’ Hill, McDowell sent orders for Tyler to end his demonstration at the Stone Bridge and bring his brigades across Bull Run Creek. About 1130 Sherman crossed his brigade, the 13th, 69th, and 79th New York and 2d Wisconsin Infantries, at a small ford several hundred yards north of the Stone Bridge. Tyler accompanied Keyes’ brigade, consisting of the 2d Maine and 1st, 2d, and 3d Connecticut Infantries, and followed Sherman across Bull Run. Schenck’s brigade remained on the east side of the stream in reserve.

On Matthews’ Hill Evans’ position was becoming untenable. Even with the assistance of Bee’s and Bartow’s brigades the Union line was extending beyond both Evans’ flanks. Franklin’s and Willcox’s brigades of Heintzelman’s division were also arriving, with Howard’s brigade not far behind. Franklin’s brigade included the 5th and 11th Massachusetts and 1st Minnesota Infantries. Willcox brought along the 11th and 38th New York and 1st and 4th Michigan Infantries. Also Evans received reports of Union forces (Tyler’s two brigades) crossing Bull Run to his rear near the Stone Bridge. Outnumbered and outflanked, Evans reluctantly gave the order to fall back to Henry Hill. The retreat was anything but orderly. Pounded by Union artillery, the three Confederate brigades became disorganized and intermingled as they hurried south across the turnpike. The Confederates rushed past the Robinson house and milled around southeast of the house while officers tried to reorganize the various units. Near the Robinson house the 600-man Hampton Legion arrived and set up a defensive position along the turnpike.

It was now shortly before noon, and to McDowell’s men on Matthews’ Hill it seemed they had just won a great victory. The Confederates appeared to be in full retreat. One of McDowell’s staff officers rode around the field shouting, "Victory, victory! We have done it!" Some soldiers, just arriving, lamented the fact that the war might be over and they had missed all the excitement. Although McDowell joined in the celebration, he had cause for concern, having learned from prisoners of war that at least a portion of Johnston’s army had arrived from the valley. Meanwhile, Burnside requested and received permission to withdraw his brigade to reorganize and replenish ammunition. The brigade withdrew a short distance where it would remain in reserve for the rest of the day.

Near Blackburn’s Ford Johnston had decided to ride toward the sound of fighting to the west. Any thought of a flank attack against Centreville was forgotten and the commands of Longstreet and Jones were withdrawn to their former positions south of Bull Run. Beauregard, his planned attack in shambles, followed Johnston.

About noon Jackson’s 2,600-man brigade arrived on Henry Hill. Jackson had earlier been ordered to a position near Ball’s and Mitchell’s fords but, like Bee and Bartow, marched instead to the sound of firing on Matthews’ Hill. Arriving southeast of the Henry house, Jackson was met by an excited General Bee, shouting that the Federals were driving them back. Jackson responded calmly that his command would give them the bayonet, then moved his regiments into position on the southeast slope of a ridgeline about 400 yards from the Henry house. On Jackson’s right, toward the Robinson house, Jackson placed the 5th Virginia Infantry. On that regiment’s left the 4th Virginia Infantry moved into position, behind which was placed the 27th Virginia Infantry. The 2d Virginia Infantry extended Jackson’s line southward, and the 33d Virginia Infantry held Jackson’s left flank near the Manassas-Sudley Road.

After Jackson’s arrival Imboden’s battery, nearly out of ammunition, began withdrawing from the vicinity of the Henry house. Jackson, however, halted the unit and ordered it into position along the ridge in front of Jackson’s line. Even out of ammunition the battery could at least give the appearance of a threat. Shortly after Imboden relocated his battery, Beauregard and Johnston arrived, bringing additional guns from various batteries they had encountered along the way. As Jackson gestured for Imboden to go to the rear, Jackson was struck in the hand by a stray bullet. Jackson wrapped a handkerchief around his hand and assured Imboden the wound "was only a scratch—a mere scratch." Before withdrawing, Imboden received permission to fire his last three rounds. The young officer stood too close to the gun and suffered an injury that would cause permanent deafness in one ear. After Imboden’s withdrawal, the guns brought by Johnston and Beauregard, thirteen in all, were placed on the ridge in front of Jackson’s line.

Near the Robinson house Johnston and Beauregard attempted to assist in rallying the remnants of Evans’, Bee’s, and Bartow’s commands. Rallying his own men, Bee pointed to the figure of Jackson, and shouted "there stands Jackson like a stone wall; let's rally to the Virginians!" Discovering that all the officers of the 4th Alabama Infantry had been wounded, Johnston grabbed the unit’s colors and offered to lead the regiment personally, but Beauregard intervened and placed one of Bee’s aides in command of the Alabamians.

On Matthews’ Hill and Dogan Ridge the brigades of Burnside and Porter of Hunter’s division; Franklin’s, Willcox’s, and Howard’s brigades of Heintzelman’s division; and Sherman’s brigade of Tyler’s division waited. McDowell made no immediate attempt to commit them to battle. Neither did McDowell give any orders to Keyes’ brigade, which had separated from Sherman and marched to Young’s Branch, just north of the Robinson house.

On Henry Hill the Confederates worked to establish a strong defense for an expected Union assault. Although Evans’, Bee’s, and Bartow’s commands were yet to be fully reorganized, Jackson’s brigade and the artillery brought forward by Johnston and Beauregard held the Confederate left flank and center, while the Hampton Legion on Jackson’s right, held the high ground around the Robinson house. With the situation on Henry Hill stabilized, Beauregard suggested that Johnston, although senior in command, return to his headquarters at the Lewis house and forward reinforcements to the battlefield. As Johnston later reported, he assigned Beauregard command of the army’s "left wing," while Johnston retained overall army command. Johnston then rode back to his headquarters to hasten more troops to Henry Hill.

While the Confederates brought up reinforcements to Henry Hill and McDowell rested his troops on Matthews’ Hill, Tyler was about to get the battle restarted. After crossing Bull Run, Tyler had led Keyes’ brigade to a position along Young’s Branch, north of the Robinson house. Without any consultation with McDowell, Tyler ordered Keyes to attack the Henry Hill. About 1300 Keyes left the 1st and 2d Connecticut Infantries in reserve and sent the 2d Maine and 3d Connecticut Infantries across the turnpike and into the yard of the Robinson house. The Hampton Legion fell back and Keyes’ regiments soon confronted Jackson’s 5th Virginia Infantry. The 2d Maine Infantry and 5th Virginia Infantry were both uniformed in gray, and they hesitated to open fire on one another. But the Virginians took only a brief moment to determine the identity of the Maine regiment and opened the fight with a volley. For almost twenty minutes the two sides exchanged shots, with the Virginians, joined by the Hampton Legion, firing from the wood line, while the Maine and Connecticut regiments remained in the open ground around the Robinson house. Instead of committing the rest of his brigade as support, Keyes ordered the 2d Maine and 3d Connecticut Infantries to withdraw. The entire brigade then shifted east toward the Stone Bridge where it remained out of the fight for the rest of the day. Keyes’ withdrawal was followed by another, short lull in the battle.

The battle at 2 pm, July 21, 1861 (Hal Jespersen)

About 1400, almost two hours after the Union victory on Matthews’ Hill, McDowell finally issued orders for a forward movement. But it was not for a general advance. Instead, he ordered Maj. William F. Barry, the Union army’s chief of artillery, to send the batteries of Griffin and Ricketts from Dogan Ridge to Henry Hill. Both Griffin and Ricketts protested the move. Placement of the guns on Henry Hill would bring the artillery perilously close to the Confederate line. The battery commanders asked that they be sent to the high ground west of Henry Hill (Chinn Ridge). The order stood, however, and the two batteries, with Griffin leaving a disabled gun behind, limbered up and headed for Henry Hill.

The guns rumbled across the turnpike and up the Manassas-Sudley Road, with Ricketts unlimbering his left gun a hundred yards south of the Henry house. When Confederate sharpshooters in the house opened fire on Ricketts’ men and horses, Ricketts ordered his guns to fire into the house, mortally wounding the 85-year-old, bed-ridden widow Judith Henry.22 Griffin’s five guns soon unlimbered just north of the Henry house, and his and Ricketts’ batteries began a close-range artillery duel with the Confederate artillery along Jackson’s line, only three hundred yards away. One of the Union shells exploded near Beauregard, killing his horse and knocking the heel from one of his boots.

Shortly after the two Union batteries were in position, infantry from Heintzelman’s division, ordered up by Major Barry, began to arrive on Henry Hill. To support Ricketts’ battery, Willcox’s 11th New York Infantry moved into position behind and slightly to the south of the guns. Franklin’s 1st Minnesota Infantry moved farther south and fell in on the New Yorkers’ right. The two infantry regiments suddenly found themselves confronting the 33d Virginia Infantry on the left of Jackson’s line. Unsure of one another’s identity, the units eyed each other briefly. The confusion resulted from the fact that the New York regiment was dressed in gray and the Virginians were still wearing civilian clothes. Both sides soon opened fire, and the New Yorkers and Minnesotans fell back to the Manassas-Sudley Road.

Earlier, Jackson had placed Colonel Stuart, along with about a hundred and fifty cavalrymen, on the Manassas-Sudley Road southwest of the 33d Virginia Infantry. Stuart saw some of the gray-clad New Yorkers falling back and mistook the two Union regiments for retreating Confederates. He quickly rode forward, shouting, "Don’t run, boys; we are here." The Northerners ignored the Confederate officer’s pleas, and, after seeing a color bearer passing with the United States flag, Stuart realized his mistake. He quickly ordered his men to charge, and the Union troops were driven into the woods west of the road. As Stuart’s men withdrew, additional Union troops began to arrive on Henry Hill.

The 14th Brooklyn of Porter’s brigade arrived behind Ricketts’ battery, and the 33d Virginia Infantry fell back to its former position in the wood line southeast of the Henry house. The Marine battalion of Porter’s brigade had arrived behind Griffin’s battery, but hearing the firing to the south of Ricketts’ battery the marines had fallen back to the turnpike. They were replaced by the 38th New York Infantry of Willcox’s brigade, which lay down below the crest of Henry Hill to escape the Confederate artillery fire.

It was now about 1430 and while three of his guns dueled with Confederate artillery in front of Jackson’s line, Griffin took his two remaining guns and moved about two hundred yards south of Ricketts’ position. That movement placed the two guns near the 33d Virginia Infantry. As the guns unlimbered and prepared to open fire, the Virginians calmly marched out of the woods and halted in front of the section. Griffin immediately gave the order to fire but Major Barry, who had accompanied the guns, shouted that the troops were actually part of Griffin’s infantry support. Griffin argued they were the enemy, and, while the two discussed the matter, the Virginians fired a volley that tore through the section. Griffin, Barry, and other survivors escaped back to the Manassas-Sudley Road, and the Virginians rushed forward and captured both guns. Said Griffin later, "that was the last of us." North of the Henry house gunners manning Griffin’s remaining three guns saw the capture of the section and withdrew their guns back to the turnpike. The 38th New York Infantry, although without a battery to support, remained lying behind the crest of the hill. The Confederate capture of the two guns was short-lived, however. The 14th Brooklyn rushed up the slope and drove the 33d Virginia Infantry back to the wood line and recaptured the two guns.

After recapturing Griffin’s section, the 14th Brooklyn continued to fire into the left flank of Jackson’s line, driving the 33d Virginia Infantry back through the 2d Virginia Infantry. Meanwhile, Colonel Cocke had been ordered to forward troops to the left and the first of them began to arrive on Henry Hill. Cocke’s 49th Virginia Infantry arrived on Jackson’s left, while two of his other regiments, the 8th and 18th Virginia Infantries, were not far behind. Two companies of the 2d Mississippi Infantry of Bee’s brigade also arrived on the hill. Under pressure from the 14th Brooklyn, a large portion of the 2d Virginia Infantry joined the retreat of the 33d Virginia Infantry, and Jackson saw the left of his line collapsing. While he sent his artillery to the rear, Jackson ordered the 4th and 27th Virginia Infantries forward. They were joined by the 49th Virginia Infantry, two companies of the 2d Mississippi Infantry, and the 6th North Carolina Infantry of Bee’s brigade, which had just arrived from Piedmont Station. In hand-to-hand combat the New Yorkers were driven back to the Manassas-Sudley Road and Ricketts’ battery and Griffin’s two guns captured. Ricketts himself was wounded in the thigh. For the next hour the Union guns would become the focal point of the fight on Henry Hill, as both sides fought to capture them.

While the Confederates halted among Ricketts’ battery, the newly arrived 1st Michigan Infantry of Willcox’s brigade attempted to recapture the guns but was driven back. The 5th and 11th Massachusetts Infantries of Franklin’s brigade arrived next and made an attempt to reclaim the guns. Although the 5th Massachusetts Infantry broke and fled back toward the Manassas-Sudley Road, the 11th, wearing gray uniforms, drove the disorganized Confederates back and captured the guns. The 4th and 27th Virginia Infantries then fell back to their original positions.

The tide turns

Near the Robinson house Beauregard, seeing the guns again in Union hands, personally led the 5th Virginia Infantry and the Hampton Legion across the plateau. Bee joined in the assault, leading the 4th Alabama Infantry, followed by Bartow at the head of the 7th Georgia Infantry. As the Confederates passed over the ridge where Jackson had earlier placed his artillery, Bartow was shot and killed, and Bee fell mortally wounded. Beauregard’s attack drove the 11th Massachusetts Infantry back to the Manassas-Sudley Road and Ricketts’ guns changed hands once again. While the Hampton Legion lay down around the Henry house and the 5th Virginia Infantry halted among Ricketts’ guns, Beauregard paused to offer assistance to the wounded Ricketts.

Rather than launch large-scale, coordinated assaults against the Confederates on Henry Hill, McDowell had spent the morning and early afternoon allowing his army to be committed piecemeal, frittering away his numerical advantage. This allowed the Confederates to defend with lesser numbers while bringing reinforcements to the field. McDowell issued orders for forward movement, but again it would be gradual and uncoordinated. First, Howard’s 2,000-man brigade on Dogan Ridge was ordered to Chinn Ridge, south of the turnpike and several hundred yards west of Henry Hill. Sherman’s 3,000 men, also on Dogan Ridge, were sent to assault Henry Hill itself. Porter’s Regular infantry battalion was sent from Dogan Ridge to support Sherman.

About 1500, while Howard headed for Chinn Ridge, Sherman crossed the turnpike and halted on the Manassas-Sudley Road. The Regular infantry battalion halted along Chinn Branch, west of the Henry house and Manassas-Sudley Road. Sherman began his attack but, like earlier Union assaults, he would not commit his entire command at once. Instead, he sent the 13th New York Infantry up the slope of Henry Hill. The regiment soon engaged the Hampton Legion around the Henry house, where it halted, lay down, and continued a short-range gun battle. Sherman next ordered the 2d Wisconsin Infantry up the Manassas-Sudley Road. When abreast of the Henry house, the regiment left the road and advanced toward the house. Clad in gray uniforms, the Wisconsin troops took fire from Confederates on Henry Hill as well as from Union troops west of the Manassas-Sudley Road and were forced to fall back to the relative safety of the road.

Sherman’s 79th New York Infantry then moved forward. Commanded by Col. James Cameron, brother of Secretary of War Simon Cameron, the regiment charged to within yards of the Henry house. But Cameron was mortally wounded and the New Yorkers, like the Wisconsin troops before them, fell back to the Manassas-Sudley Road. As Sherman committed his last regiment, the 69th New York Infantry, two guns of Reynolds’ battery of Burnside’s brigade arrived and unlimbered in a clearing west of the Manassas-Sudley Road and opposite the Henry house.

Under cover of Reynolds’ two guns, the 69th New York Infantry, joined by the 38th New York Infantry on its right, left the Manassas- Sudley Road and charged up the slope toward the Henry house. After a brief struggle in which Hampton was severely wounded, the 4th Alabama Infantry, 7th Georgia Infantry, and other Confederates were driven back to the woods south of the Henry house, and the two New York regiments captured Ricketts’ and Griffin’s guns.

The New Yorker’s celebration was short-lived. The 18th Virginia Infantry of Cocke’s brigade had arrived from Ball’s Ford and, along with remnants of various Confederate units, drove the New Yorkers back to the Manassas-Sudley Road and recaptured the Union guns. Cocke’s 8th Virginia Infantry also reached the Henry house from Ball’s Ford and set up a defensive position just west of the house. The Union guns and Henry Hill had changed hands for the last time. Sherman’s battered brigade, along with portions of other Union brigades in the woods west of the Manassas-Sudley Road, began withdrawing back to the Warrenton Turnpike. While the troops milled around the intersection near the Stone house and McDowell tried to rally them, some Hampton Legion soldiers turned one of Ricketts’ guns around and fired a few shots toward the Stone house.

The retreat begins, 4 pm, July 21, 1861 (Hal Jespersen)

It was about 1600, and, with the Union threat against Henry Hill apparently over, the Confederates turned their attention to Chinn Ridge, where Howard’s brigade had arrived. Leaving his 3d and 5th Maine Infantries in reserve near the Warrenton Turnpike, Howard had led the 2d Vermont and 4th Maine Infantries to the crest of Chinn Ridge and opened fire on Henry Hill. Howard’s arrival on the Confederate left flank, however, coincided with the arrival of fresh Confederate troops. About 1600 the 2d and 8th South Carolina Infantries of Bonham’s brigade reached Henry Hill from Mitchell’s Ford. The two regiments entered the Manassas-Sudley Road south of the Henry house and opened long-range fire on Howard’s men. Also appearing on the field was Colonel Elzey’s brigade, the last of Johnston’s troops to arrive from the valley that day. Accompanying Elzey was General Smith, whose brigade would not show up until the following day and who, by virtue of rank, briefly assumed command of Elzey’s brigade. Smith led the brigade to the Manassas-Sudley Road, where he was wounded, and Elzey resumed command. Along with Stuart’s 150 cavalrymen, Elzey crossed the Manassas-Sudley Road southwest of the Henry house and moved toward Chinn Ridge. Close behind Elzey was Colonel Early’s brigade, which had recently arrived from McLean’s Ford and now fell in on the left and perpendicular to Elzey’s line. Stuart’s cavalry covered Early’s left.

At a distance of about 200 yards Elzey and Early opened fire on Howard’s thin line. While the 2d Vermont and 4th Maine Infantries returned volley for volley, Howard rode back to the turnpike to bring forward his other regiments. With difficulty he managed to bring most of the men to the crest of the ridge, and they took their places on the firing line. However, under pressure from Elzey and Early, Howard’s command soon broke and fled back toward the turnpike.

The "Great Skedaddle"

It was now about 1700, and everywhere McDowell’s army was disintegrating. Thousands, in large and small groups or as individuals, began to leave the battlefield and head for Centreville. McDowell rode around the field trying to rally regiments and groups of soldiers, but most had had enough.

Unable to stop the mass exodus, McDowell gave orders for Porter’s Regular infantry battalion, near the intersection of the turnpike and Manassas-Sudley Road, to act as a rear guard as his army withdrew. The unit briefly held the crossroads, then retreated eastward with the rest of the army.

A few Confederate units attempted to pursue the retreating Union troops, but the victorious Confederates were almost as disorganized as their defeated counterparts. Some infantry regiments and cavalry harassed Union stragglers, while artillery firing from vantage points further prodded the Federal troops along. The Union retreat on the turnpike quickly turned into a route when an overturned wagon blocked the Cub Run Bridge. Panic-stricken soldiers threw away their weapons, waded the stream to safety, and joined hundreds of civilian spectators attempting to escape eastward. Wagons and artillery were abandoned, including the 30-pounder Parrott rifle, which had opened the battle with such fanfare. Unable to reorganize his command at Centreville, McDowell gave the order to fall back to Fairfax and later to the capital. The press would have a field day with the retreat, derisively calling it the Great Skedaddle.

Shortly after the close of the battle, President Jefferson Davis arrived by train from Richmond and reached the battlefield about 1800. Later, Davis met with Johnston and Beauregard at Beauregard’s headquarters.

In Washington President Lincoln and members of the cabinet waited for news of a Union victory. Instead, a telegram arrived stating "General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centreville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army." The tidings were happier in the Confederate capital. From the battlefield President Davis telegraphed Richmond, "We have won a glorious but dear-bought victory. Night closed on the enemy in full flight and closely pursued."

The total casualties of the battle were:

Army killed wounded missing
Union 418 1,011 1,216
Confederacy 387 1,582 12



The First Battle of Bull Run was a clash between relatively large, ill-trained bodies of recruits, led by inexperienced officers. Neither army commander was able to deploy his forces effectively, only 18,000 men from each side were actually engaged. Although McDowell had been active on the battlefield, he had expended most of his energy maneuvering nearby regiments and brigades, instead of controlling and coordinating the movements of his army as a whole. Other factors contributed to McDowell’s defeat: Patterson’s failure to hold Johnston in the valley; McDowell’s two-day delay at Centreville; allowing Tyler’s division to lead the march on 21 July thus delaying the flanking divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman; and the 2 1/2-hour delay after the Union victory on Matthews’ Hill, which allowed the Confederates to bring up reinforcements and establish a defensive position on Henry Hill.

On Henry Hill Beauregard had also limited his control to the regimental level, generally allowing the battle to continue on its own and only reacting to Union moves. Johnston’s decision to transport his infantry to the battlefield by rail played a major role in the Confederate victory. Although the trains were slow and a lack of sufficient cars did not allow the transport of large numbers of troops at one time, almost all of his army arrived in time to participate in the battle. After reaching Manassas Junction, Johnston had relinquished command of the battlefield to Beauregard, but his forwarding of reinforcements to the scene of fighting was decisive.

Compared to later battles, casualties at First Bull Run had not been especially heavy. Both Union and Confederate killed, wounded, and missing were a little over one thousand seven hundred each.

Three months after First Bull Run Union forces suffered another, smaller defeat at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, near Leesburg, Virginia. The perceived military incompetence at First Bull Run and Ball’s Bluff led to the establishment of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a congressional body created to investigate Northern military affairs. Concerning the Battle of First Bull Run, the committee listened to testimony from a variety of witnesses connected with McDowell’s army. Although the committee’s report concluded that the principal cause of defeat was Patterson’s failure to prevent Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard, Patterson’s enlistment had expired a few days after the battle, and he was no longer in the service. The Northern public clamored for another scapegoat, and McDowell bore the chief blame. On July 25, 1861, he was relieved of army command.

First Bull Run demonstrated that the war would not be won by one grand battle, and both sides began preparing for a long and bloody conflict. In the North, Lincoln called for an additional 500,000 volunteers with three-year enlistments, and the men with ninety-day enlistments were sent home. In the South, once the euphoria of victory had worn off, Jefferson Davis called for 400,000 additional volunteers. The battle also showed the need for adequately trained and experienced officers and men. One year later many of the same soldiers who had fought at First Bull Run, now combat veterans, would have an opportunity to test their skills on the same battlefield.


  1. Civil War: Battles and Leaders, edited by Aaron R. Murray, DK Publishing, Inc., 2004, p. 18.
  • Beauregard, Pierre G. T. "The First Battle of Bull Run," article in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson. New York: Century Co. (1884, 1887, 1888).
  • Fry, James B. "McDowell’s Advance to Bull Run", article in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson. New York: Century Co. (1884, 1887, 1888).
  • Hennessy, John. The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18–21, 1861, Lynchburg, Va.: H. E. Howard, (1989).
  • Johnston, Joseph E. "Responsibilities of the First Bull Run." article in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, edited by Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson. New York: Century Co. (1884, 1887, 1888).

See also