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What You Need to Know About the Battle of Bull Run

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 7/12/2012

If you've been trying to make sense of the Battle of Bull Run, you're not alone. For some of us, history can seem pretty obscure. Read this summary to get a better handle of the event also known as Manassas. What happened and who was there?

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    Manassas, VA Battlefield Park Have you ever seen a Civil War re-enactment? Chances are, even if you haven't seen one in your hometown, you may have seen one on TV. One of the most re-enacted events was an event known as the Battle of Bull Run, an event that recently has reached its 150th anniversary. Depending upon what side you were on, you might have a different name for the battle. The Union called the event The Battle of Bull Run. The Confederacy called the event Manassas. Before describing the events of this battle, it's important to quickly review who was fighting and why.

    The Union was largely made up of the Northern states. This was the group of individuals who were aligning themselves on the side of the federal government of the United States, which at this point was not quite 100 years old. Union states included:

    • California
    • Nevada
    • Oregon
    • Kansas
    • Missouri
    • Kentucky
    • Connecticut
    • Delaware
    • Rhode Island
    • Vermont
    • Pennsylvania
    • West Virginia
    • Wisconsin
    • Ohio
    • Illinois
    • Indiana
    • Iowa
    • New York
    • New Hampshire
    • New Jersey
    • Massachusetts
    • Michigan
    • Maine
    • Minnesota
    • Maryland

    Some of these states - Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware, and West Virginia - were border states. This meant that the states were made up of some Union fighters, but they also had fighters on the side of the Confederacy. Union states often had factories and were less dependent upon agriculture than their Confederate opponents.

    Confederacy - The Confederacy was a group of states who set up an autonomous (independent) government. They were states that wanted to maintain slavery, and they were largely dependent upon agriculture. Those living in these states often had large plantations. A plantation is a large farm with a house - plantation owners, known as "planters," would have many slaves who would then tend to the plantation and fields - without any pay. The Confederate states were angry about the desire of the North to eradicate slavery, and thus seceded (broke off) from the Union in order to form their own government. The seceding states included:

    • South Carolina
    • Mississippi
    • Georgia
    • Texas
    • Florida
    • Alabama
    • Louisiana
    • Virginia
    • Arkansas
    • Tennessee
    • North Carolina

    Of course the border states had some members of the Confederacy as part of their population, and some other regions and territories (Not all 50 states were part of the United States at the time) had joined the South's fight.

    While the Civil War began at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 (before Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina seceded), the Battle of Bull Run went down in history as the first major battle of the war, and those fighting it realized that it was going to be a bloody, bloody battle.

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    The Seeds of War

    The first seeds of the battle came about due to the desire of President Lincoln to quickly put an end to the fighting from the South. His belief was the sooner an army could be put together, and the sooner they could go into battle, the sooner the Union would win against the Confederacy. In order to do this, he needed someone to lead the troops. The person he put in charge of this was Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. He rounded up 35,000 men for the job.

    Meanwhile, the Confederate Army had been stationed at Manassas Junction - a location that's about twenty-five miles from the U.S. capital at Washington DC. Remember that at this time, they didn't have cars - so while that might be a half hour drive for most people, for the soldiers, who were on foot and horseback, that was at least a day's walk. Brigadier General Beauregard was in charge of these groups, and the Union had planned to attack them.

    The Union Army set out to march to the Manassas Junction on July 16, 1861. It took them two days to reach Centerville due to the heat. During the marching process, the Confederate army had spread out across Bull Run with the idea that they would be able to outsmart the Union officers. Because the Union army was so slow marching to Manassas Junction, the Confederacy had time to prepare.

    Bull Run is a stream flowing to the Potomac River, located in Virginia. Because Brigadier General Beauregard had his men holding Bull Run, the Union had to rethink their strategy. No progress was being made. Brigadier General McDowell decided instead that he would attack another army group, located to the Northwest. They made a plan to go around, and to come back up from the South.

    The Confederates, however, had already been receiving a large number of reinforcing troops. And between the 19th and 21st of July, Brigadier General Beauregard's army grew substantially. Brigadier General McDowell had no idea as to what lay ahead as the reports he was receiving contradicted one another. The tension was mounting.

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    The Battle Breaks Out

    When General McDowell's group went to meet General Beauregard's army, the Union Army had dropped to 28,000 men while the Confederate Army had swelled to become 33,000 men. The first battle lasted five hours. At first, the Union soldiers were victorious - the Confederate soldiers were retreating! However, that sense of victory did not last long. General Jackson - who would later become known as "Stonewall" Jackson refused to budge. Because he held his ground so well, he was able to keep the Confederates in place until 9,000 additional men arrived. When this happened, General McDowell's army fled back to Washington. The only thing that kept the Union soldiers from meeting total annihilation was the fact that General Beauregard had not spent enough time ensuring his army was well-organized.

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    Unfortunately, death is a very real consequence of war. General McDowell's army lost about 10% of its forces, or 2,900 men. General Beauregard's army lost 2,000 men. When the casualties were so high, each side realized it was not going to be an easy victory. This encouraged the Southern armies, because they realized they did have power to effect change against the nation's armies. The Union army wanted revenge, and so they too were motivated by this gruesome battle.

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    Battle of Seven Pines

    Shortly after their defeat, the Union army found that a new general was in town. General George B. McLellan was given command of the Union forces-and reorganized the unit so that they were quite strong. The new army was called the Army of the Potomac, after the river that flows next to Washington, DC. In March, 1862, with part of his army fortifying the nation's capital, General McLellan led his soldiers into action toward Manassas.

    The Confederates were ready. They had begun to march under the leadership of General Johnston to meet the Union soldiers. When the two armies met on May 31, they fought. This battle was called the Battle of Seven Pines. General Johnston had tried to thwart Union efforts by having his troops aggressively assault the Union army. They wound up driving troops back, and reinforcements arrived. By the time the fighting was done on June 1, both sides were claiming they were victorious, and 11,000 men were lost in total.

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    The Rise of Robert E. Lee and the Second Battle of Bull Run

    During the Battle of Seven Pines, General Johnston was injured, and so a general was nominated by the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis, who would replace Johnston. This general was General Robert E. Lee. He reorganized troops, and called them The Army of Northern Virginia, before he sent them across the Chickahominy River. After several battles, General Lee's army pushed the Northern troops led by General McLellan away from Richmond, Virginia.

    At the same time, General John Pope, another Union general, had begun to organize the forces in Northern Virginia. This army was called the Army of Virginia (try not to confuse the two! - I'll refer to them as General Pope's Army to avoid confusion.) General Pope was receiving supplies at Manassas. General Jackson, of the Confederate army, did not want this to happen, and so he took command of the supply depot. He and his troops enjoyed the food before burning the Union supplies station.

    General Pope rerouted his army from holding the line at Rappahannock and instead marched his army toward Manassas. Knowing General Pope's intents, General Lee began moving his army toward General Jackson in an effort to realign the armies. General Pope did not know that General Jackson had reinforcements on the way, and believed that he would be able to crush Jackson before General Lee would show up. However, when General Pope sent his men after General Jackson's troops, they were forced back each time. By the time noon of August 30, 1862 came around, General Pope erroneously believed that the Confederate army was retreating. Little did he know that General Lee and General Longchamp had each arrived on site and were ready to fight. General Pope sent his army in to their slaughter. The Confederate army's troops had threatened the North with annihilation - but the Union army was able to retreat back to Washington.

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    Following the second retreat of the Union army, the Confederate army was able to invade the North. The Union army lost about 10,000 soldiers of their 62,000 soldiers. The Confederate Army lost 8,300 out of 50,000 soldiers. If you add the number of people missing or captured to the figures of those dead or injured, that number goes up to 14,500 for the Union and 9,500 for the Confederate army. It was one of the greatest loss of life during a war.


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