Sunday, July 21, 1861
Both Union and Confederate commanders had similar plans: attack the enemy on his left flank. Whichever army struck first would seize the initiative and throw the other on the defensive. General McDowell had the right of his Union army in motion around 2am. One division would feint an attack upon the Confederate left at the Stone Bridge while two other divisions hit them from the Union left, hopefully rolling up the entire Rebel line.
The feint on the Confederates at the Stone Bridge was too obvious. General Evans, commanding Rebels at the bridge, realized the Union ruse and created a ruse of his own. Leaving a handful of men at the bridge to fool the feinting Yankees, he moved 900 of his men north to Matthews Hill to hold off two divisions of nearly 10,000 quickly advancing Union troops.
Evans did what he could to hold back the pressure, throwing a Louisiana regiment at the oncoming enemy. As word spread through the Confederate ranks of the attack, two brigades were dispatched to Evans’s side. McDowell’s divisions were attacking the weakest point on Beauregard’s line. The odds, at two-to-one, were still no where near even, but the Rebels put up a stiff defense. As more Union troops arrived on the scene, however, the Confederate stand could no longer hold. The Union troops pushed the Rebels into full retreat back to Henry Hill.
The Union commander, General McDowell believed the day was won and rode up and down the lines yelling, “Victory! The day is ours!” His troops were elated. Only one brigade (General Burnside’s) had been truly cut up. The remaining 15,000 men were in high spirits and ready to finish this grand battle with a grand victory.
As the Rebels were falling back the mile and a half to Henry Hill to regroup, General Thomas Jackson’s Brigade had arrived and formed a line of battle, rallying their beaten comrades. General Bee, commanding one of the reforming brigades, looked to General Jackson and then to his men, and cried out, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Let us determine to die here and we will conquer!”
After an hour lull, 7,000 Confederate soldiers held Henry Hill as General McDowell fed his Union brigades up the slope one by one. And one by one they were beaten back until the entire Union right began to give way. Seeing an opportunity, General Beauregard ordered a general advance. The Union retreat was, at first, orderly, but as they recrossed Bull Run and the Confederates began to advance in earnest, there was no chance to rally them. The retreat became a route, which quickly turned into blind panicked race back to their camps at Centreville.
The Confederates advanced after the fleeing Northern soldiers, but were themselves too cut up to do much more. The victory Washington felt so certain of obtaining was gone, their soldiers running back towards Washington. Though it seemed unbelievable, the Rebels had won the day and perhaps, some then speculated, the war.
Compared to the previous battles in western Virginia and Missouri, the Battle of Bull Run/Manassas was colossal. The Union sustained 460 killed, 1124 wounded and 1312 missing, while the Confederates suffered 387 killed, 1582 wounded and 13 missing.1
Meanwhile, in Washington, the news had been wonderful. Lincoln was read a dispatch that said, “the Union Army had achieved a glorious victory.” Feeling the reports to be final, Lincoln, with his son, Tad, took his regular carriage ride around Washington.
While the President was out, the true result of the battle clicked over the telegraph wires: “General McDowell’s army in full retreat through Centerville. The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of the Army.” The news was kept upon wraps until Lincoln was found. When he was told, he said not a thing, but excused himself and walked to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott’s office.
That night, General McDowell himself confirmed the loss in a wire to Washington. Scott ordered reinforcements into the city, but really, there was little they could do. Lincoln returned to the White House as the beaten soldiers began to filter into the capital.2
- I’m still unsure how I’d like to handle large scale battles on CWDG. I certainly can’t supply any great detail with such a brief overview. This description was taken from several sources, including, Battle at Bull Run by William C. Davis and A Single Grand Victory by Ethan S. Rafuse. [↩]
- Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. [↩]