On July 21st, 1861 the first real battle of the Civil War was fought at Manassas, Virginia. The battle would become known in the north as the Battle of Bull Run or the 1st Battle of Bull Run. In the south it is called 1st Manassas. The National Park Service operates Manassas National Battlefield Park on the original battlefield.
The feeling in Washington, and Union forces General Irvin McDowell, was that this would be an easy and decisive victory and therefore a quick end to the war. The problem with this was that no one had shared this strategy with the Confederate Army or General Pierre Beauregard and his soldiers. Beauregard, already battle seasoned at Ft. Sumter; also counted on a major victory which he felt would lead to peace as well. He got his victory, chasing the Union soldiers all the way back to Washington but an early end to the war was not to be.
Both Union and Confederate sides were divided into three major fighting units. Beauregard had 20,000 troops behind Bull Run creek near Manassas Junction and McDowell commanded 30,000 men staged along the Potomac River. Confederate General Joseph Johnson with 12,000 soldiers was facing 18,000 Union soldiers at Harpers Ferry led by Union General Robert Patterson. Not actually seeing any action at Bull Run, there were also 10,000 men under Union General Benjamin Butler being held at bay at Fort Monroe in Virginia by a considerably smaller Confederate unit led by General John Magruder.
McDowell’s army had left Washing on July 16th, heading for Manassas Junction with an army of inexperienced soldiers and a large supply train. The inexperienced and undisciplined soldiers, together with the large number of wagons made for slow going and did not arrive until July 18th. Upon arrival he sent out recon units to scout out the enemy forces that were driven back by a small number of Confederate forces in the Unions first small but demoralizing defeat.
McDowell’s plan was to have General Patterson keep Johnson in place at Harpers Ferry, thus giving him the decided advantage in numbers of troops against Beauregard’s forces. In the early stages of the battle it appeared that the Union forces would be victorious due in part to the advantage of having the larger force, as well as having won several small skirmishes in their advance to Henry House Hill. The tide turned when Johnson was able to make it around Patterson and his soldiers, and come to the aide of General Beauregard, as did numerous other rebel units.
The aggressive fighting of the Confederate soldiers caused McDowell to call for a retreat. The retreat soon became a rout as Union officers began deserting their men and soldiers started fleeing for their lives, leaving the supply train in a shambles behind them. The many civilian sightseers that had came down from Washington and gathered on the surrounding hills, made the retreat even more chaotic. This first Civil War battle claimed approximately 5,000 casualties, including dead and wounded. This number includes those civilians killed or wounded as well. This battle sent the message to Washington that a quick and easy victory was not going to happen.
As a Civil War reenactment, the Battle of Bull Run is especially near and dear to those southerners who get out their replica civil war guns, dress up in a Confederate uniform and fly the Confederate flag. The 1st Battle of Bull Run is reenacted, in force, every five years and draws tourists from the U.S. and abroad.