Where Southern Victories Tested Northern Resolve
On July 21, 1861, two armies clashed for the first time on the fields overlooking Bull Run. Heavy fighting swept away any notion of a quick war. In August 1862, Union and Confederate armies converged for a second time on the plains of Manassas. The Confederates won a solid victory bringing them to the height of their power.- Manassas National Battlefield Park
Battle of First Manassas
July 21, 1861
The first major land battle of the American Civil war, where two untried armies met on the battlefield for the first time, was fierce and bloody. Following the Battle of Fort Sumter months earlier, and skirmishes at Fairfax Courthouse and Philippi, West Virginia, there was public pressure upon President Abraham Lincoln and Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to finish off the uprising from the South once and for all. McDowell, well aware that his troops (mostly 90-day recruits) were inadequately trained and untested in battle responded to the imperative from his president by devising a plan that involved marching upon Confederate forces guarding the vital railroad junction of Manassas in Virginia. Securing this key junction would also give the Union forces access to Richmond, the Confederate capital.
When the 35,000-strong Union contingent set out from their positions around Washington, the Confederate Forces already had intelligence about their movements. Even as the Union soldiers marched on and set up camp along a small stream called Bull Run, the Confederate forces were converging upon Manassas from the Shenandoah Valley, many arriving by train on the Manassas Gap Railroad, the very line McDowell sought to cut. On the morning of July 21, McDowell sent his attack columns in a long march north towards Sudley Springs Ford. This route took the Union forces around the Confederate left. To distract the Southerners, McDowell ordered a diversionary attack where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run at the Stone Bridge. At 5:30 a.m. the deep-throated roar of a 30-pounder Parrott rifle shattered the morning calm, and signaled the start of the battle. McDowell’s new plan depended on speed and surprise, both difficult with inexperienced troops. Valuable time was lost as the men stumbled through the darkness along narrow roads. Confederate Col. Nathan Evans, commanding at the Stone Bridge, soon realized that the attack on his front was only a diversion. Leaving a small force to hold the bridge, Evans rushed the remainder of his command to Matthews Hill in time to check McDowell’s lead unit. But Evans’ force was too small to hold back the Union forces for long. Soon brigades under Barnard Bee and Francis Bartow marched to Evans’ assistance. But even with these reinforcements, the thin gray line collapsed and Southerners fled in disorder toward Henry Hill. Attempting to rally his men, Bee used Gen. Thomas J. Jackson’s newly arrived brigade as an anchor. Pointing to Jackson, Bee shouted, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” … thus, Jackson’s nom de guerre, “Stonewall”. About noon, the Union forces stopped their advance to reorganize for a new attack. The lull lasted for about an hour, giving the Confederates enough time to reform their lines. Then the fighting resumed, each side trying to force the other off Henry Hill. The battle continued until just after 4p.m., when fresh Southern units crashed into the Union right flank on Chinn Ridge, causing McDowell’s tired and discouraged soldiers to withdraw. This was amid the first sounds of the Rebel Yell, a battle cry devised by the Confederates to intimidate the Union soldiers and thought to have its origins in the Native American or Scottish traditions.
At first, the withdrawal was orderly. Screened by the regulars, the three-month volunteers retired across Bull Run, where they found the road to Washington jammed with the carriages of congressmen and others who had driven out to Centreville with picnic baskets to watch the fight, certain of a quick, entertaining victory for the Union. Panic now seized many of the soldiers and the retreat became a rout, known as the Great Skedaddle. The Confederates, though bolstered by the arrival of President Jefferson Davis on the field just as the battle was ending, were too disorganized to follow up on their success. Daybreak on July 22 found the defeated Union army back behind the bristling defenses of Washington.
Battle of Second Manassas
August 28-30, 1862
The Battle of Second Manassas proved to be the deciding battle in the Civil War campaign waged between Union and Confederate armies in northern Virginia in 1862. As a large Union force commanded by John Pope waited for George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac in anticipation of a combined offensive to march toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, General Robert E. Lee decided to strike first. Lee sent half of his Army of Northern Virginia to hit the Federal supply base at Manassas. Led by Stonewall Jackson, hero of the Battle of First Manassas 13 months earlier, the rebels seized supplies and burned the depot, then established hidden positions in the woods. On August 29, Pope’s soldiers clashed with Jackson’s men, who held their ground with heavy losses on both sides.
When several Confederate brigades adjusted their positions that night, Pope mistakenly took the movement for the beginning of a retreat. After sending word to Washington of an imminent victory and his army’s planned pursuit of the retreating enemy, he renewed the Union attacks on August 30. After Confederate artillery turned back a Union attack on Jackson’s positions, General James Longstreet ordered his corps forward in an aggressive counterattack on the Union left, which had been weakened after Pope shifted his troops right to hit Jackson. Faced with Lee’s entire army, the Union was forced back to Henry Hill, scene of the hardest fighting in the earlier Bull Run battle. That night, a crushed Pope ordered his army to fall back across Bull Run and retreat toward Washington.
A wave of despair rolled over the North with news of the battle’s outcome, and morale in the army sank to new depths. Accusations flew among the Union Generals about who was to blame for the defeat. Lincoln’s cabinet (notably, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton) pushed for McClellan’s dismissal, and the President himself had harsh views of the general’s conduct. But, McClellan had the unwavering support of the soldiers, and Lincoln needed a speedy reorganization of Union forces, so he left McClellan in command. Union Major General John Pope, who was widely disliked by his fellow Union Generals for his tendency to boast, did not fare as well. He lost about 15,000 men in the Battle of Second Manassas, along with his reputation. Relieved of command, he was sent to the Army’s Department of the Northwest for the remainder of the Civil War.
Despite heavy Confederate casualties (9,000), the Battle of Second Manassas was a decisive victory for the rebels. Lee had managed a strategic offensive against an enemy force twice the size of his own. Pressing his advantage after the northern Virginia campaign, Lee launched an invasion of the North, crossing the Potomac into western Maryland on September 5. McClellan united his army with the Army of Virginia and marched northwest to block Lee’s invasion. On September 17, the two generals would clash in the Battle of Antietam, the costliest single day of fighting in American history.