The Battle of Bull Run – who won and the significance?


The American Civil War began on April 9, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. That day, the Confederate forces were commanded by P.G.T. Beauregard. There were no casualties in the fighting beside a Confederate horse. Two Union soldiers died in the evacuation of the fort.

This fighting would last until 1865 and would see some 750,000 Americans die. Throughout these brutal years of fighting, several major battles took place. The first of which was the Battle of First Bull Run.

The Battle of Bull Run occurred on July 21, 1861, and resulted in a resounding Confederate victory and a route for the Union army. The Battle of Bull Run showed that the war would not be quick as the majority of people had believed at the outset of secession.

The Battle of Bull Run also showed just how costly the war would be with heavy casualties on both sides. Casualties the likes of which had never been seen before in American history.

This battle goes by two names. The North called it the Battle of Bull Run while the South called it the Battle of Manassas.

Background on the Battle of Bull Run

The Beginning of the Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out, neither the Union army nor the Confederate army was prepared for the war that was beginning. The United States of America’s army only had 16,000 soldiers in its force. Many of the soldiers who had been in the U.S. army left to join the Confederate force.

The navy was made up of only 90 ships. Out of those 90, only 40 ships were ready to be used. Of those 40, many ships were outside of the United States. There were only 3 or 4 ships available to be used in the war in America.

Winfield Scott

At this point, the U.S. army was under the command of General in Chief Winfield Scott. Scott was an American hero and living legend. He had served in the war of 1812, was a part of the Trail of Tears, and was one of two main generals in the Mexican-American War, alongside general and future president, Zachary Taylor. Scott even ran for the presidency in 1852 as a part of the Whig party.

By the time the Civil War broke out, Scott was elderly. He was 74 years old and in poor health. However, despite his health troubles, he still was tasked with masterminding a plan to defeat the Confederacy and bring them back into the Union.

Scott’s Plan to Win the War

Scott’s plan consisted of four parts:

  • Gain control of the Mississippi to, effectively, cut the Confederate States of America in two
  • Blockade the Confederacy
  • Block the major ports of the Confederacy
  • Then, send in ground forces

A Scramble to Build an Army

While both sides were majorly unprepared for fighting, they both scrambled to raise their forces and prepare them before the Battle of Bull Run. The majority of the troops that both the U.S. and the C.S.A (Confederate States of America) raised were green. This means that they were fresh troops who had not yet seen battle.

These troops were assembled in state militias. They then marched to Washington D.C., and they called for Ervin McDowell to lead them.

McDowell had graduated from West Point and had 20 years of army experience; however, he had never actually commanded troops in battle. So, McDowell was put in charge of these state militias.

On to Richmond!

The press then began rallying around a new cry: “On to Richmond!” Richmond, the Confederate capital, lies only 106 miles from Washington D.C. Due to this proximity, many wanted McDowell to march straight to Richmond and put down the insurrection, but McDowell wanted more time to prepare his army before heading to the Confederate capital.

Green Armies

McDowell told the president that his army was green. To this, Lincoln famously replied, “You are green it is true, but they are green also. You are green alike.”

Lincoln was correct in stating that both the Union army and the Confederate army were green. There had been no war in America since the 1840s (Mexican-American War). So, the vast majority of these troops had not ever seen any combat.

McDowell Begins His Advance to the Battle of Bull Run

McDowell, at the urging of politicians, the press, and civilians, sent two armies to invade Northern Virginia. This movement would result in the Battle of Bull Run.

The larger of the two armies contained 35,000 troops and they were under the command of Ervin McDowell. The smaller of the two armies contained 18,000 men and was under the command of General Robert Patterson. The army under Patterson invaded 60 miles northwest of McDowell in the Shenandoah Valley. This movement would lead to the Battle of Bull Run.

Two Confederate armies were opposing these Union forces. The first was an army under the command of General Joseph T. Johnston with a force of 12,000 men. The second army was under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard (the Confederate commander at Fort Sumter) with a force of 20,000 men. The latter was situated near Manassas.

The Southern Strategy

The South knew they did not have to win the war outright. Their goal was to prevent the Union forces from taking the capital and putting down the rebellion. They also wanted to drag the war out and cause the North to lose heart and throw in the towel.

They knew the North had more manpower, industrial capacity, and technology than they had. So, to win, they needed to wear the North down and break their spirit to fight. If they could run up the cost of the war, the North would negotiate peace.

The Battle Begins

McDowell then took his force of 32,000 and began heading toward Manassas. His goal for this movement was to cut the Manassas junction railroad there, and then head to Richmond.

With McDowell headed towards him, Beauregard moved his force of 20,000 back to Manassas junction. The Confederate soldiers took up a defensive position behind Bull Run creek. He also sent a telegram to Johnston asking for them to join forces in the face of the larger Union army. Robert Patterson and his Union force were tasked with keeping this smaller Confederate army occupied so that McDowell could keep the numerical superiority over Beauregard.

Dinner and a Battle

Many of Washington’s wealthy citizens believed that the battle, and the war, would be over quickly. Wanting to get in on the act, they took picnic baskets, along with champagne, and went to watch the Battle of Bull Run.

The Battle Begins

When McDowell and his forces neared Bull Run creek on July 21, 1861, the general decided to send out a division ahead of his army. The goal of this force was to probe the Confederate forces and view their defenses around Black Burn’s Ford. However, this force ran into Confederates under the command of James Longstreet.

After this force was repelled, McDowell decided to attack at a different point.

An Escape Artist

While this was going on in Manassas, in the Shenandoah valley, Robert Patterson had failed his mission to keep Johnston occupied.

Johnston was able to slip away from the Union force. They got aboard railroad cars and traveled to Manassas junction. This consolidation of Confederate forces (12,000 and 20,000) made the Union and Confederate forces nearly equal at Manassas junction.

Back to Manassas

McDowell turned his attention to the Stone Bridge after probing Black Burn’s Ford. He began to send troops across the bridge to do a demonstration. A demonstration is an attack designed to keep the enemy occupied, but it is not a full-fledged attack.

While this demonstration was going on at the Stone Bridge, McDowell sent troops around the Confederate left to flank the rebels.

While attempting this flanking maneuver, the Union forces reach a place called Sudley Springs.

The Confederate troops hurried to try to stop this Union advance and ran into the advancing Federals at Matthew’s Hill.

The rebels at Matthew’s Hill were outnumbered, but they attacked anyway. These forces were led by General Barnard Bee.

The Confederates were able to keep the Union troops occupied on this hill for two hours. After 120 minutes of fighting, the secesh (Confederate) troops retreated to Henry Hill.

A Fight For Henry Hill

Situated atop Henry Hill was a home that the Henry family owned. The Confederate troops rallied on the backside of Henry Hill.

These forces, while regrouping, were joined by a brigade under General Thomas Jackson.

A Stonewall

Jackson, like many of his peers, had graduated from West Point. He was a veteran of the Mexican-American War and had served as a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. At the Battle of Bull Run he was in command of a Confederate force.

This brigade under Thomas Jackson revitalized the secesh troops.

General Bee found Jackson and one of the most famous interactions of the war ensued.

Bee told Jackson, “General, they are beating us back.”

Jackson replied to the general, “Sir, we will give them the bayonet.”

Then, Bee famously stated, “There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall, rally behind the Virginians.”

Thus, the legend of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was born.

Henry House Hill

While the Confederate troops were regrouping, the Union forces prepared for an attack at the Battle of Bull Run. The attack took two hours to begin and when it did, not every Union force attacked in unison. The federal troops placed 11 cannons on Henry House Hill.

Judith Henry and Henry House Hill

While the Union forces were occupying the hill, inside the house was an 84-year-old widow named Judith Henry.

Judith Henry was lying on her deathbed when this was happening.

During the fight for Henry Hill, the Confederates put a sniper in the house. The Union fired on the house to kill this sniper and Judith Henry was tragically killed.

Cannon Fire

The Union troops fired around the house and then got into a heated exchange with the rebel cannon. The rebel cannon won a resounding victory over the Union.

The Confederate troops decided to capitalize on this victory.

The Rebel Yell

Secesh troops decided to charge and take the Union cannon. It was then that Jackson told his troops to “yell like furies!”

This is when the famous rebel yell was born.

Union Forces Counterattack

Union forces then attempted to retake their cannon.

Back and forth fighting then ensued for the hill. The Confederates were reinforced by Jackson, and they flanked the Union troops.

The Union troops retreated across Sudley Springs and the Stone Bridge, all the way back to Washington D.C.

A Retreat Turns Into a Route

The Union retreat quickly turned into a route. A retreat is an orderly withdrawal. A route, on the other hand, is every man for himself. The Union troops threw their guns and supplies aside and ran from the Confederate forces.

A Bad Ending for a Picnic and the Union Army

As the Federal troops ran from the battlefield of the Battle of Bull Run, the discombobulated retreat ran into the Washington citizens picnicking and watching the battle.

These civilians got caught up in the fleeing soldiers. The Battle of Bull Run was a major disaster for the Union.

Confederate Forces Fail to Capitalize after the Battle of Bull Run

The rebel troops were too green and tired to chase the fleeing Union soldiers, despite the urging from C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis.

However, this was still a major Confederate victory for the South early on in the Civil War.

The Toll of War

The level of destruction had never been seen before in American history.

Until this point, this was the bloodiest battle in the history of the nation. The Union saw 2,700 casualties. This included 500 killed, 1,000 wounded, and 1,200 captured or missing. The Confederates saw 2,000 casualties, including 400 killed, 1,600 wounded, and 10 captured or missing.

The Importance of the Battle

This major defeat demoralized the Union after the Battle of Bull Run. This was a defeat that Union forces would remember.

McDowell would be removed from command after this humiliating defeat. Just days after this decisive Confederate victory, McDowell was replaced by George B. McClellan. General McClellan would spend months whipping the Army of the Potomac into shape. No small task after the defeat they took at the Battle of Bull Run.

This defeat also showed the North that this would not be a quick war. They realized it would be a long, deadly war. Previously, the North believed they would march into the rebel land and the rebellion would come to an end. However, with the blood bath that occurred at the Battle of Bull Run, they realized this would not be the case.

President Abraham Lincoln, in response to this defeat at the Battle of Bull Run, called for 75,000 90-day volunteers to help put down the rebellion after the Confederate victory.

For the South, they saw the victory at the Battle of Bull Run as proof that they were equal to the powerhouse of the North. This proved to them that they could defeat the North and they could win the war and have a Confederate victory.

Lack of Uniforms

While we have summed up the battle and its significance of it, there are a few stories still to share.

The first is that there was a lot of confusion at the Battle of First Bull Run because there were no standardized uniforms at this point.

There were troops on both sides wearing blue, gray, plaid, revolutionary style uniforms, and even civilian clothes. This led to a lot of uncertainty over who was a friend and who was a foe and was a major problem during the early part of the Civil War.

Wilmer McClain

Another interesting story has to do with a man named Wilmer McClain. McClain was a homeowner of a house on the battlefield. P.G.T. Beauregard used this house as his headquarters. During the general’s dinner one night, a cannonball fired by the Union landed in the fireplace of the house.

As a result, Wilmer McClain decided to move to a place where he would not be impacted by the war. That place was Appomattox Courthouse.


Rank, S. & Early, J. (Hosts). (2019, February 7). Episode 2: Battle of First Bull Run (No. 1) [Audio podcast episode]. In Key Battles of the Civil War.

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