The morning dawns bright and clear. The day promises to be hot. The battlefield area near Bull Run is somewhat deceptive. At first glance it appears to be gently rolling country with a few hills, farms, and woods. There does not seem to be anything that would present a real obstacle to the movement of an army. But, on closer inspection, the whole area is cut apart by streams running in narrow valleys between the hills. Of these, Bull Run is, of course, the largest. It presents a fairly formidable obstacle, if well defended.
The Confederate attack fails to materialize. The orders issued by General Beauregard are confused and vague, and some of them never reach his brigade commanders at all. Of the four brigades in the front line on the Confederate right, only those of Longstreet and Jones actually cross Bull Run; Bonham’s and Ewell’s brigades are left waiting for orders. The Confederate attack plan is canceled when the Union army makes its attack at the other end of the battlefield.
The Union plan for enveloping the Confederate left flank calls for two crossings of Bull Run. The main attack led by General McDowell himself is to cross at 7:00 am, far beyond the Confederate left, at a ford near Sudley Church. The secondary attack is to be made at daybreak down the Warrenton Turnpike, straight toward the Stone Bridge. It is here that the battle opens at 5:15 am with a demonstration by the Union 1st Division.
It is soon obvious to Colonel Evans commanding the Confederate troops at the Stone Bridge that this is not the main effort. He has with him only a few troops which could easily have been pushed aside by the Union 1st Division, yet they make no real effort to do so. For almost four hours a slow cannonading continues. The only result of this demonstration is that the two Confederate brigades of General Bee and Colonel Bartow are ordered at 7:00 am to march toward the Stone Bridge. General Jackson is sent with his brigade to a position of readiness nearby. This is the time set for the Union main attack to cross near Sudley Church—but it is two hours behind schedule; one of the divisions took a wrong fork in the road, though it eventually arrives. If the demonstration at the Stone Bridge had been timed to coincide with the main attack, or even to follow it, the Union plan would have had a better chance of success.
About 9:00 am the Confederates are warned of the forces crossing near Sudley Church. The Union main attack has been observed from a high hill behind the Confederate lines. The warning message sent by flag signal, “wigwag,” is probably the first use of this type of signaling in any war. It certainly produces fast action on the part of Colonel Evans. Leaving a guard at the Stone Bridge, he moves his small command rapidly to the left and rear, posting it on a hill north of the Warrenton Turnpike, facing the enemy. Here he meets the onslaught of the leading brigade of the Union 2nd Division led by Colonel A.E. Burnside.
At this stage of the battle the main assault forces of the Union army, having rounded the Confederate left flank, are facing a very small, but very stubborn, unit doing its best to hold until Confederate reserves can reach the scene. The other brigade of the Union 2nd Division enters the fray. Part of the 3rd Division joins in the attack, but so do some Confederate troops including the brigades of Bee and Bartow. Heavily outnumbered, the defenders cling desperately to their position. It begins to look as if they are there to stay. The Union forces should have dispersed them long ago, but the attacks have been delivered piecemeal (regiment by regiment), straight to the front.
At this moment another Union brigade comes on the field. Brigadier General William Tecumseh Sherman has found a crossing of Bull Run north of the Stone Bridge. His attack is not delivered straight to the front, but instead hits the Confederates on the right flank. The Confederate line breaks. In his first major battle General Sherman is giving clear evidence of his ability as a tactician.
The Confederates flee across Young’s Branch, past the Stone House, and up the slopes of the Robinson House and Henry House Hills. Desperately trying to rally the retreating forces, General Bee discovers a long, steady line of Confederate infantry waiting just behind the brow of the Henry House Hill. Another general, this time on the Confederate side, is demonstrating an unusual capacity for command. Marching to the sound of the firing, General Jackson has grasped the situation at a glance and formed his command in the best possible location to halt the enemy attack. His troops, whom he has worked so diligently to train, are standing firm awaiting the enemy attack.
It is here that General Bee, pointing at this brigade, shouts, “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Though Bee, soon after, falls mortally wounded, his words will not die. “Stonewall” Jackson and the “Stonewall Brigade” will always live in the history of the United States. The fleeing soldiers do turn and rally around the Virginians.
Once both sides have sorted themselves out, the battle now enters its second phase. It is in many ways a repetition of the first. The main assault forces of the Union army again face a stubborn defense, formed this time around the strong core of Jackson’s brigade. Again the Union army attacks. A mistake is made; some of the artillery pushes forward. A swift cavalry charge led by Colonel J.E.B. Stuart, coupled with a counterattack against orders by one of Jackson’s regiments (mistaken for Union troops due to their blue uniforms), breaks the supporting infantry and the guns are lost. The Union troops fall back, return again to the fight. The front lines surge back and forth over the Henry House Hill, the abandoned guns changing hands several times.
General McDowell loses track of the battle as a whole, riding back and forth along the fighting front rallying his men while forgetting the strong reserves he still possesses. In spite of this both sides receive reinforcements, and the greater Union strength begins to tell. The Union line threatens to reach around the left of the Confederate line. At this critical moment the last of Johnston’s brigades from Winchester, led by Brigadier General E. Kirby Smith, arrives on the scene. Hastily, it has detrained, formed, and marched to the battlefield. Attacking on the Confederate left, this brigade threatens the Union forces but it is not enough. More troops are needed. In the distance General Beauregard sees a column of marching men.
Is it Union or Confederate? Whichever it is it will surely win the day. Which flag is that at the head of the column? None can tell. A breeze strikes the colors, spreads the flag—it is Confederate! Colonel Jubal A. Early’s brigade, all the way from the opposite end of the battlefield, has come in the nick of time. All along the Confederate line, for the first time on any battlefield, rises the rebel yell as the men charge forward.
The Union line staggers backward, then collapses. A few units retreat in good order. Many more simply walk away. Covered by the regulars and some units which have not been engaged, the retreating forces are comparatively safe from pursuit. The Confederates do not have enough troops available to make possible an assault on Washington. They do follow for a short distance and fire a few rounds of artillery at the road, upsetting a wagon, and temporarily blocking the way. This causes the panic, the future oft-told hysterical flight of visiting Congressmen and their ladies, the society leaders who have come from Washington in their Sunday best to watch the battle. Many of the soldiers join the mad rush. They don’t stop until they reach Washington. Disorderly as the retreat is, the Union army covers more distance in this one night than it had managed to cover in three days of southward marching the week before.
On the Confederate side there is also disorganization. Above Stone Bridge the regiments are halted for realignment, all possibility of control being gone. On the opposite side of the line, where the brigades have forced their way across the fords below the bridge, pursuit is abandoned and the men recalled to the south bank of the run to meet a false alarm of an attack at Union Mills—Brigadier General James Longstreet is commanded to fall back just as he gives the order to his batteries to open fire on the retreating Union column. Stuart’s cavalry, swinging wide around Sudley Springs, is soon burdened with so many prisoners that they lose all mobility and eventually dwindle to a squad. It is the same all along the line.
Even President Jefferson Davis, braced for disaster as he rides from Manassas Junction through the backwash of the army (the rear of an army in battle always looks like it’s losing), loses some measure of his self-control when he finds the Union soldiers fleeing. Meeting Colonel Elzey, he confers the first battlefield promotion of the war. He joins the horseback chase toward Sudley Springs, and everywhere encounters rejoicing and elation. But when he rides back to see Johnston and Beauregard at their Manassas headquarters and asks what forces are pushing the beaten enemy, they reply that the troops are confused and need rest; pursuit has ended for the night. Davis is unwilling to reconcile himself to this, but presently a slow rain comes on, turning the dust to mud all over eastern Virginia, and there is no longer even a question of the possibility of pursuit. Bull Run or Manassas is over.
There are heavy casualties on both sides, at least for this early in the war, and the men are physically exhausted from their efforts, the heat, and the emotional strain of battle. The dead and wounded show the severity of the first great battle of the war. Of the 35,000 Union troops there are 460 killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 missing for 2,896. The Confederates have 32,000 present; approximately 18,000 of these eventually enter the battle but the bulk of the fighting is done by only a portion of this number. They have 387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing for 1,982; but they also capture numerous guns, rifles, and other supplies and equipment abandoned in the flight to Washington.
At Washington as night falls the Cabinet meets, President Lincoln hears from civilian eyewitnesses of the reported stampede and spends the night calmly listening to the news.
Though there is dissatisfaction in the North, there also is a realization that this is a war and the people had better get busy and pull together. For the South it perhaps gives a bit of overconfidence—the Southern soldier has proven himself and the infant nation has taken a grown-up step forward.
Meanwhile, over in the Shenandoah, where most of Johnston’s men have left to join Beauregard, there is a brief skirmish at Charles Town.
General Scott in Washington orders Major General N.P. Banks to relieve Major General Patterson in command of the Department of the Shenandoah, blaming Patterson for the failure to hold Johnston in the valley.
Far to the west, US troops skirmish with Amerinds on the south fork of the Eel River in California.
In Richmond the Confederate Secretary of State Robert A. Toombs, having long bridled at being deskbound while others are taking service in the field, resigns his post even before word of the victory arrives. He will enter the army as a Georgia brigadier general.
To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.