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July 21 1861: The Day the Confederacy Nearly Won the War

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

A brief Description of the Bloody fighting on july 21, 1861 at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) and how it could have secured Confederate Independence in one fell swoop.



            By the new year of 1861, the country's fate had been unavoidably decided. Tensions between citizens had already reached and freefell wildly over the tipping point to the extent that for years civilians in Kansas and Missouri had butchered each other over the issue of slavery and a half crazed abolitionist named John Brown was hanged for seizing a federal armory at Harper's Ferry to fuel the coming slave uprising.

            Though probably the most central issue for the war it would irresponsible to state that slavery were the sole reason for eventual split of states at least according to most Southerners. Many within urban settings believed themselves as almost a new "aristocracy" in which it was their God given right owns slaves and that no man could tell them otherwise let alone common "Yankees". Others saw the argument over slavery as Northern aggression in trying to remove their rights as a republic as well as to control their bustling cotton industry to fund Northern manufacturers. The ultimate last straw came with the election of a Republican in Abraham Lincoln whom the South deemed as a chief person to strip away their rights they believed to be given them in the United States Constitution.

            On February 4, 1861 the first secessionist convention convened in Montgomery, Alabama and a provisional government was set up to govern the Confederate States of America. They immediately motioned to raise a 100,000 man army. Exactly one month later, seven states had voted to officially become part of the new C.S.A. and following Lincoln's response to the Confederate bombardment of Ft. Sumter on April 12th, four more states declared secession.

            Sporadic fighting occurred in the following months as both nations worked to raise the armies needed to fight the oncoming war. Lincoln initially calling for 75,000 Union troops to recapture Southern ports and destroy the Confederate army forming in Virginia and across the northern border of the two countries. By July, 1861 the Confederacy had won a series of small victories across this front but not met the Federal army in a major engagement. The Battle of the First Bull Run (aka Manassas) would change that.




            Maneuvers by Union general Irvin McDowell in northern Virginia went largely unchecked by the Confederate forces under the command of Joseph Johnston and his subordinate P.G.T. Beauregard. Following pressure from Northern politicians McDowell finally began his advance in mid-July in what was planned to be a three-pronged westward sweep which would aim to engage the Confederates around the Bull Run river with two columns while another was meant to march onto to Richmond around the flank.

            McDowell, with 30,000 men, made straight march for Beauregard's less than 22,000 man army stationed at Manassas Junction. A simultaneous attack by Union Major General Robert Patterson to the west of the Bull Run would prevent Confederates from effectively reinforcing the under strength Beauregard.

            McDowell's plan met numerous obstacles almost immediately during the march toward Manassas. Blazing heat, an un-traversable river and Confederate skirmishers all slowed the progress of the lumbering army and prevented a swift engagement that would drive the Confederates back toward Richmond.

            The inexperience of the army's was apparent and would destroy whatever advantage the Union had once had. Patterson did not move to engage at the proper time in the west which was echoed by the inability to coordinate attacks simultaneously by generals and officers directly under McDowell's command. The major delay allowed General Johnston to board his troops onto trains at Piedmont Station to the south and head north to reinforce Beauregard's divisions.


The Fight

First Battle of Bull Run Kurz & Allison.jpg

            The morning of July 21st began with more inexperienced advances by Union generals that moved forward to cross the Stone Bridge in Sudley Springs. Due to wrong troop positions and an exceptionally narrow road leading to the bridge, advance units of the army didn't began to cross until 9:30 AM, a full three and a half hours after arriving.

            Around 5 AM Union batteries opened up on the Confederate right flank, destroying part of Beauregard's headquarters. Successful delaying actions by Confederate forces on the left flank, that were outnumbered 20 to 1, slowed the Union fording of the river enough for reinforcements to arrive but after bloody fighting and flanking assault by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, of later fame, the Confederate line collapsed. Due to quick cover from Confederate 6 pound cannons McDowell decided against full pursuit fearing a larger force was awaiting them instead of the 2,800 men that had taken up on Henry House Hill.



           General Thomas Jackson advanced five Virginia regiments behind the slope of Henry Hill on the right flank while Col. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry moved to support the left. Artillery batteries on both sides opened up on one another; the Union trying to drive the Rebels from the Hill and the Confederates seeking to push the Yankees back. Union infantry steadily advanced underneath the cannon fire which was concentrated overhead to destroy the Federal batteries.

            Small arms fire from the advancing Federal troops un-eased many of the Confederates atop the hill; most of which were receiving their first bitter taste of combat. Jackson's actions on the hill would become the stuff of legend. When General Barnard Bee was said to exclaim "The Enemy is driving us back" Jackson stood firm and calmly replied "Sir, we will give them the bayonet". Inspired by this remark and Jackson's tenacious determination to hold the ground, Bee uttered what would become the most famous nickname of the war, "There is Jackson standing like a stone wall". He then re-formed his retreating men behind Jackson's regiments.

            The two infant armies at this point were not at all that dissimilar in appearance with many of the Confederate forces wearing Federal blue uniforms that they had worn prior to the war and that the Union was currently using. In the confusion of the battle Union gunners failed to fire onto oncoming soldiers dressed in blue; it was the 33rd Virginia. Jackson and Stuart attacked the 11th New York Volunteer Unit and other surrounding artillery batteries which were captured by the Rebel forces.

            Failure on McDowell's part to commit more of his reserve regiments against the Hill and Jackson's ferocious defense wore down the Union forces assaulting the slope. By 4 PM fresh additional Confederate forces arrived onto the left flank and decimated the Union regiment fighting atop Chinn Ridge. Union forces began to retreat back toward the river but Confederate artillery turned the battle into a rout.

            Federal troops ran uncontrolled into the Bull Run, throwing aside their equipment in order to move with greater ease. Their panicked withdrawal was further hampered by the road blockages created by civilians that had traveled from Washington to picnic and observe what they were sure to be an easy Union victory. Federal soldiers poured back into Washington, many of which continued right through not stopping to form a defense, others couldn't even they were willing due to their lack of arms.

A Great Confederate Victory


            The Battle of the First Bull Run (Manassas) was bloodiest battle that had fought on American soil up until that date. Nearly five thousand causalities resulted from the fighting and more than 800 killed. The victory solidified the Confederate Army as a force equal to that of the Union and that this war would not be the sweeping one battle rout the Northern politicians had hoped for but a long that would drive the C.S.A. into peace talks but instead it would lead to the most destructive and deadly wars America has ever fought.

            But is did not have to be that way, it should have actually ended following that one large engagement...it should have been a Confederate decimation of Union forces and capture of Washington, Lincoln and the recognition of an independent Confederate States of America.


The War was lost at Bull Run and the South knew it


            An army in such panic as the Union had been during their retreat is almost something impossible to stop and especially to protect. Their slow wading of the Bull Run and traffic jam that essentially stopped all progress. The crowd, packed together presented an easy target for Confederate artillery and a steady, controlled advance of infantry; neither of which came.

            Generals Johnston and Beauregard greatly failed to notice and press their tremendous advantage at the conclusion of the battle; both looking at each other for command as well as Johnston's stubborn resistance to submit to any orders or control from Confederate President Jefferson Davis who urged the advance of Rebel forces at all costs.

            A straight advance or flanking movement would've have crushed the Union forces trapped behind the slow moving caravan heading back to Washington. Even if the assault was not pressed immediately but instead a careful, measured pursuit was ordered in which the Union forces were trailed at their heels; Washington would've fallen. There wasn't a single combat ready, unoccupied Federal division within 50 miles of Washington to defend. Confederate reinforcements of further south in Virginia could have arrived at Manassas Junction within the day to join the advance by Johnston and Beauregard but nothing happened.

            It's not to say that a Confederate attack against Washington would not have been a gamble; it would've but in hindsight, which is always 20/20, the war could've ended. The capture of Washington would've resulted in the permanent separation of the Confederate States into an independent nation, one that would eagerly have sought the continuance of slavery. It would also have put an end to the killing and devastation that war could bring.

            Instead after 4 long years of fighting, more than 600,000 dead and a million more casualties the war was finally settled with Union victory in April of 1865. The future would see the coming of Robert E. Lee to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia and a constantly revolving door of commanding generals in the Union Army of the Potomac which eventually settled under Ulysses S. Grant in 1864.

            Many in the South were pleased in the victory on July 21st but ultimately knew that the inevitable drawn out conflict that was to follow would only result in loss of thousands of Southern boys and destruction of the Confederate landscape. Their thoughts were immediately confirmed with President Lincoln's calling for an additional 500,000 more troops on July 24th.

            Regardless of which side one supports, try to imagine two similar but albeit different nations bordering each other on what is now the United States of America. Imagine what could have been, it's implications and just how close it came to happening on that bloody afternoon on July 21, 1861 - the day the Confederacy lost the war.

"Stonewall" Jackson Holds the Center
Credit: Unknown


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  1. "The First Battle of Bull Run." http://www.history.com. 3/December/2012 <Web >
  2. "Bull Run First Manassas." www.civilwar.org. 3/December/2012 <Web >
  3. "www.wikipedia.com." First Battle of Bull Run. 3/December/2012 <Web >
  4. Shelby Foote The Civil War: A Narrative - Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintge Books, a Random House subsidiary, 1986.

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