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Posted on Feb 9, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

The First Battle Of Bull Run, An American Rubicon

By Bryce T. Valentine

General McDowell’s Forces, then known simply as the Union Army, enjoyed many of the strategic characteristics that would become more familiar when it eventually became known later as the Army of Potomac. This day, as in many more to come, they would enjoy numerous advantages in men and material. With 35,700 men, they enjoyed numbers that were slightly higher than its counterparts, although the arrival of 9,500 auxiliary Southern forces under General Johnston via rail from the western Valley region of Virginia brought up Southern manpower to approximately 31, 300 men. The relative quality of materials, at this stage of the War, was also largely equal. The South had yet to feel the long-term strategic effects of the Anaconda Plan and, as such, was therefore as well-equipped as it would be at any subsequent point in the War. This may have been the only battle which both sides had adequate, albeit largely non-standardized, numbers of arms, medical supplies, and uniforms. This non-conformity of uniforms would bedevil unit identifications on both combatants during the First Battle of Manassas and would add greatly to the general confusion of the day. Indeed, as was typical of the day, both Armies employed the colorfully arrayed, irregular Light Infantry Units known contemporarily as “Zouaves”, and these units, which would often stand out immediately to its foe - would inevitably draw fire and, subsequently, suffer disastrously higher personnel loss rates during the War. It would be much later before both sides realized that the deadly stopping-power afforded by the rifled barrels employed during the War had rendered such units to a status of frivolous irrelevancy. Such units would eventually be fondly remembered by the Armies of Appomattox before the days of Total War.


Here at First Manassas, many of the key individuals of the War received their first baptism of fire in the conflict which would eventually propel them to historical fame. A young William T. Sherman would play a key role in the battle. He learned much from his defeat there; later, he would doggedly pursue his enemies until he, like the units which would eventually become the great Northern Army of the Potomac, would in time, return to the South as an incredibly formidable opponent. He and this Army, which both fled the field in complete disarray, would both later return as irresistible martial forces: By 1865, this army would eventually become the premier Army of its day and victoriously end The War Between the States. Internationally, the might of this Army helped cement the United States as an military nation to be reckoned with.

On the other side, names such as Jackson, Longstreet, Johnston, Beauregard, and J.E.B. Stuart would rise from the dust and smoke of that distant, hot day in July to eventual celebrity in the Army of Northern Virginia. After this battle they would emerge as the victors, and go on   from here to carve out a singular place in the military history of this country. Later, when joined in the field by its eventual leader General Robert E. Lee, it would return to these fields to successfully end another summer campaign in Virginia, in 1862. The Southern armies born of this field would campaign unabated until 1865. Eventually, they would rise to fame as the premier singular Army in American history, the Army of Northern Virginia. The campaigns of this Army have been studied internationally continuously since the War, and will probably continue to be admired long into the distant future. Come here, then, to Manassas and walk these quiet fields in Virginia and see a place where history was truly made.

The battlefield memorial


In the days to follow the First Battle of Manassas, the combating societies of the North and Confederacy both grappled with assessing the impact of the event. Given the enormous casualties suffered by both sides in what was, at the time, the largest battle ever fought in America, the reactions of the citizens was exaggerated on both sides. As both sides had envisioned the War to be a quick affair, the effects of the Battle had an enormous effect on the respective citizens. The North was affected as if a palpable gloom had settled among them. There were editorials pleading for the transfer of the Capitol to the safety of Philadelphia while in the South, the victory had an euphoric effect upon the populace. Many Southern newspapers speculated that the North would simply give up after having learned such a grim lesson. Others did not think so. Henry Kyd Douglas wrote of General Thomas Jacksons’ response after the Battle, saying “…Jackson afterwards was never enthusiastic over the results of the battle; on the contrary,…he believed a defeat of our Army then had been less disastrous to us. The South was proud, jubilant, self-satisfied; it saw final success of easy attainment. The North, mortified by defeat and stung by ridicule, pulled itself together, raised armies, stirred up its people and prepared for War in earnest.”   Indeed, Mr. Lincoln himself was said to have been on a carriage ride during the battle. When he had had left, the initial reports had indicated a Union victory was being attained. Upon his return to the White House, aides ran to his carriage to deliver the terrible news of the defeat and rout. Silently, he took the news and grimly strode back into the White House to work. As General Jackson had rightly surmised, his efforts would not cease until after he, and the Nation, had traveled a long, terrible road towards Appomattox.

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