Neither Irvin McDowell (above) nor Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard could have predicted the outcome of the battle in which they were about to engage on the morning of July 21, 1861. The soldiers were untested. Many of the officers were untested. Also, the soil of Virginia had not seen large scale combat since the British sailed down the Chesapeake after torching Washington, D.C. in 1814, an event that occurred well before the lives of most of those involved in this action. After almost a half-century of peace, Virginia would again play host to war.
McDowell commanded the Union Army of the Potomac, and his intention was to march west to where a large contingency of rebel troops were encamped at Manassas, Virginia, through which ran a small stream called Bull Run. The thin few miles—less than thirty—from Bull Run to the White House provided the reason for an urgent campaign against the Confederate occupancy.
Other than his participation in this coming battle, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard (right) of the Confederate army had two things in common with Irvin McDowell. First, they had both served in the Mexican War. Prior to that, and perhaps more important, they were both graduates of West Point, both class of 1838. Though both armies were, for the most part, inexperienced, their leaders were not.
Historian Shelby Foote writes of the battle plans:
. . . Beauregard and McDowell, on opposite sides of Bull Run, had more or less identical plans, each intending to execute a turning movement by the right flank to strike his opponent's left. If both had moved according to plan, the two armies might have grappled and spun round and round, like a pair of dancers clutching each other, and twirling to the accompaniment of cannon.
July 21, 1861 was a Sunday, and locals of the Manassas area were either in church and or just leaving church as the battle developed. At first, they heard the sounds of a Union victory falling into place as the rebels fell back from their initial positions, but later, as the southern side was reinforced, the day grew long for McDowell's men. One southern brigadier general, Thomas J. Jackson (below), earned his nickname "Stonewall" during the afternoon as he held his men steady in the face of the Union fire at Henry House Hill.
Toward the end of the day, the Confederate forces changed their posture from defensive to offensive, and in so doing, sent the Union Army of the Potomac over Bull Run again, this time in retreat. As Walt Whitman recorded, "The national forces at the last moment exploded in a panic and fled from the field." In the disarray following the disaster, the Union army regrouped weakly in Washington, according to Whitman, "…baffled, humiliated, panic-struck."
Over sixty thousand men fought in this first large battle of the war, with the total killed, wounded, and missing coming to almost five thousand. The casualties were massive, but that number would be few compared to the battles to come.
—Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery, Catalog of American Portraits
Irvin McDowell / Mathew B. Brady / Photograph, c. 1862 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mrs. F.B. Wilde
Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard / Unidentified artist, Copy after: Charles DeForest Fredricks / Engraving on paper, c. 1862 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Stonewall Jackson / M. & N. Hanhart Lithography Company, active 1855 –1863 / Lithograph with tintstone on paper, c. 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative, Volume One, Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Random House, 1958.
Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Literary Classics of the United States (Penguin Putnam), 1982.