The First Battle of a Long, Bloody Civil War / by Chris Weigl

First Battle of Bull Run sets the Stage for a Prolonged Civil War

Just about the only person to understand the scope of the United States Civil War at the time it was happening was William Tecumseh Sherman.  Nearly everyone should have seen it after the first battle of Bull Run, which happened July 21, 1861.  The armies were green.  The peacetime army of the United States was comprised mostly of militia and most of these men had never drilled or been gone from home for any length of time.  The Confederacy had the advantage of having loyal state militias that knew the terrain better than their northern foe.  This skill was best put into use in Stonewall Jackson’s 1862 Valley campaign. 

The numbers at the First Battle of Bull Run were relatively similar although Southern forces were split up between two commanders; Joseph E. Johnston and Pierre Beauregard.  Beauregard’s men held the heights at Manassas Junction outside Centreville, VA.  Northern General Irwin McDowell, who was placed in command of the Northern army in Virginia was ordered to attack his southern opponent as soon as possible.  McDowell’s plan of attack was pretty straightforward.  His plan called for flanking maneuvers and an all-out assault on the high ground.  McDowell thought he had a superior numerical advantage, which he did for most of the morning of the 21st until Joseph E. Johnston’s troops arrived on the field.  Johnston’s troops were quickly transported from their positions around Harper’s Ferry, VA to Manassas by railroad.  This was one of the first major uses of the railroad in a war-time situation.  Johnston had about eleven thousand men under his command so while the Northern armies had made progress during the morning hours their fate was quickly sealed with a Confederate counter-attack spearheaded by Stonewall Jackson.

The importance of the First Battle of Bull Run is that it showed both sides that the war would not be a short one.  The north believed that their superior numbers would give them a clear advantage while the south believed that their surplus in trained officers, knowledge of the terrain, as well as much better cavalry forces would even the odds.  The two sides did balance each other out throughout the first two years of the war.  It wasn’t until the north leaned on its heavy material advantage in supplies and internal infrastructure that they began to turn the tide of the war.  The battle is looked back on by southerners as a missed opportunity.  Some believe that southern forces could have taken the capital of Washington, DC if they had pressed their advantage.  Few military scholars hold this view because southern forces were just as beat up as northern forces and Washington had heavy guns protecting the city. 

The biggest lesson from Bull Run was that the war was not going to be easy.  The south utilized insurgency tactics to harass their foe and it wasn’t until Grant and Sherman approached the war as “total war” that the pendulum really swung in the north’s direction.  The battle also gave southerners hope that they could take on the colossal industrial and manufacturing giant in the USA.  Southerners clinged to their belief that a cotton embargo would force France or Britain to join the war on the southern side.  This proved to be false as neither state was in a position to back either side in the war.  Ultimately, the US Civil War cost more American lives than all other American wars put together.  Nearly 600,000 men perished in the American Civil War making it the bloodies war in American history.