First Battle of Manassas/Bull Run

A couple of days ago, the first significant Civil War battle reenactment began, with the First Manassas. Civil War enthusiastists, reenactors, and some historians flocked to this event:

Manassas for this event:

The First major military encounter of the Civil War took place on July 21, at Manassas Junction, Virginia. The battle is also known as Bull Run, since the Federals tended to name battles after local geographical landmarks, whereas the Confederates named them after local towns or railroad junctions. This battle was not reported in the local paper, the combined Hampshire Gazette and Northampton Courier until Tuesday July 23, since it only published once a week (unlike the current Daily Gazette).

The Gazette’s account consisted of dispatches from major newspapers, and reflected the leisurely holiday spirit with which the troops, and observers from Washington displayed as the long anticipated troop movements began and moved southward: “The U.S. forces under Gen. McDowell, begun the long-expected advance on Richmond, last Tuesday. On that day and the day following they occupied Vienna and Fairfax Court House, but the rebels having made a precipitate retreat on learning of their approach, no fighting was done on those days but a considerable quantity of provisions, baggage, &c., belonging to the enemy, fell into the possession of the advancing forces…

“Senator Lane of Kansas and representative Vandever, Colfax, Verre, Washburne and Porter, went with our advance guard to Fairfax Court House, Wednesday morning, and returned at 9 P.M., having left that village at 4 1-2. They report that our skirmishers reabed [sic] Fairfax at 11 1-2 A.M., and the advance guard entered the village exactly at noon. Trees had been felled across the road that three points, to obstruct their march, but they proved feeble impediments to our enthusiastic troops…

“The entry of the federal army into Fairfax is said to have been inspiriting beyond description. The main street was filled as far as the eye could see with soldiery marching with fixed bayonets and loaded guns, cheering for the Union, and bands playing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’

What is notable to me is then tone of optimism almost nonchalance in the reporting. That would change soon, and a week later, July 30, with the next edition, the Federal loss would be reported under such banners as “Our Army Seized with Panic!”, and “The Army in Full Retreat!”

Here is an interesting excerpt from that edition, with a couple of notable points:

“A rebel officer captured by a member of the Wisconsin regiment, reports that our artillery has created great havoc among the rebels, of whom there were from 30 to 40,000 in the field under the command of Beauregard, while they have a reserve of 75,000 at Manassas Junction. He says an officer most prominent in the fight, and distinguished from the rest by his white horse was Jeff Davis. He confirms the previous reports of a regiment of negro troops in the rebel army, but says it is difficult to get them under proper discipline in battle array.”

This report of “negro troops” is interesting, as the fear of Confederates using blacks as troops against Federal forces had already begun to appear as rumors in the Northern press. The Confederacy believed that the manpower represented by slavery would be an advantage for them, though contrary to recent attempts by Southern heritage groups, there were no black Southern troops recruited until the very last weeks of the war in desperation, when all was lost. With the exception of “faithful slave” accounts of body servants picking up guns to aid their masters, all accounts of blacks serving as soldiers in Confederate ranks during the war come from Union sources.

[Update: Here is another take, and a more serious one, on the African-American presence at Manassas;]

The account of the defeat continues:

“Our troops, after taking the three batteries at Bull Run, and gaining a great victory, were eventually repulsed by the bringing up of fresh troops by the rebels, and commenced a retreat on Washington in good order, with the rear well covered by a good column.

“The following particulars were reported by telegraph on Mondary [sic] afternoon and evening, in part, and a portion gleaned from other sources:—

“Our army was seized with panic at Bull Run, commenced by some teamsters who had approached too near the enemy’s lines. The panic commenced on the left, but gradually extended to the right and eventually over the whole army, who are in full retreat toward the entrenchments and Washington.

“Our loss in retreat is heavy; 3000 men, and Sherman’s, Carlisle’s and West Point Batteries left…

“Fears are entertained in some quarters for the safety of Washington.”

With McDowell’s troops in retreat, and amid fears for the safety of Washington itself, the search for a new commanding general to put things right began immediately:

“Changed of Commanders and Reorganziation of the Army.”

“Gen. McClellan has been summoned by the federal government from Western Virginia, to Washington to take command of the army of the Potomac.”



On July 21, 1861, Charles Harvey Brewster and the 10th Mass Volunteer Regiment was still in the Boston area drilling. He wrote this letter to his mother:

[begin letter]

Sunday morning July 21st

Dear Mother

Since writing the above I have seen Mat and received two letters from you one by her and one by Mrs Marsh. I received your box of goodies but as to carrying them with me to prevent seasickness or for any other purpose it is utterly impossible as I have no possible place to carry them and besides I cannot have any such things and not share it with them. I shall try to go over to Boston to dinner but I think it will be impossible as they are very strict about passes we have just passed through inspection and we have nothing to do until Dress Parade at 7 o’clock that is the Company have not I expect to write all day So again good bye Aff yours


[end letter]

I find it interesting to juxtapose these first accounts from battle with Brewster’s letter describing rather casually life in camp, a schedule Dress Parade, receiving a “box of goodies from home,” and hoping to go into Boston for dinner.


About marcferguson

I teach history, including the American Civil War Era, as an Adjunct at American International College in Springfield, Ma. I also teach survey courses in U.S. history, Western Civilization, and World History, and have taught at other area colleges, including the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, and Holyoke Community College. While my academic background is in European History, my interest in the American Civil War began about a decade ago. Other areas of interest include Modernism, 20th century World Thought and Culture, The Rise of the West after 1400, 19th c. American Society and Culture, Central and Eastern European History and Culture, and Local History. I have in recent years cut back my teaching drastically in order to devote more time raising my kids (15 year old twins now), including working part-time at their elementary/middle school for the past 6 years, they are now launched and off to High School, and I plan to crank up my involvement in teaching history and local history projects, particularly in light of the American Civil War Sesquicentennial.
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