In the first major land battle of the Civil War, a large Union force under General Irvin McDowell was routed by a Confederate army under General Pierre GT Beauregard.
Three months after the outbreak of civil war at Fort Sumter, the Union military command still believed that the Confederacy could be crushed quickly and with little loss of life. In July, this overconfidence led to a premature offensive in northern Virginia by General McDowell. In search of Confederate forces, McDowell led 34,000 troops – mostly inexperienced and poorly trained militiamen – to the Manassas railroad junction, located just 30 miles from Washington, DC. Alerted to the advancing Union, the General Beauregard massed some 20,000 soldiers there and was soon joined by General Joseph Johnston, who brought in some 9,000 additional soldiers by rail.
READ MORE: American Civil War: Causes, Dates & Battles
On the morning of July 21, learning of the proximity of the two opposing forces, hundreds of civilians – men, women and children – surrendered to witness the first major battle of the Civil War. The fight began with three Union divisions crossing Bull Run Creek, and the Confederate flank was brought back to Henry House Hill. However, at this strategic location, Beauregard had fashioned a solid defensive line anchored by a Virginia infantry brigade led by General Thomas J. Jackson. Pulling from a hidden slope, Jackson’s men repelled a series of federal charges, earning Jackson his famous nickname “Stonewall.”
Meanwhile, the Confederate cavalry under JEB Stuart captured the Union artillery and Beauregard ordered a counterattack on the exposed Union right flank. The rebels charged down the hill, screaming furiously, and McDowell’s line was shattered, forcing his troops into a hasty retreat through Bull Run. The retreat quickly turned into an unorganized theft, and supplies litter the route back to Washington. Union forces suffered a loss of 3,000 killed, wounded or missing in action while the Confederates suffered 2,000 casualties. The magnitude of this bloodshed horrified not only the frightened spectators of Bull Run, but also the US government in Washington, which faced an uncertain military strategy to quell the “southern insurgency”.