The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18

Author: Horace Greeley  | Date: A.D. 1861

The Battle of Bull Run

A.D. 1861


When Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, was bombarded and compelled to surrender (April 12-13, 1861), it could no longer be doubted that war was inevitable, and President Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to suppress the insurrection. These were forthcoming without delay—in fact, more were offered than could be accepted. Most of those from the Western States were concentrated at Cairo, Illinois, while those from the Eastern States were forwarded to Washington. As soon as these were uniformed and armed, there was an impatient popular demand that they be marched against the enemy without delay, regardless of the fact that they needed thorough organization and discipline in order to become an effective army. The most noticeable form of this demand was the cry "On to Richmond!" which appeared first in the New York Tribune, edited by Horace Greeley, whose narrative of the consequent battle we give herewith. The important effect of that battle was not purely military; for as soon as the people of the North had recovered from their surprise at the defeat, they set to work to make stronger and better preparations for continuing the conflict. The correspondents of European papers wrote it up in such a way as to convince their readers that there could be no doubt as to the speedy triumph of the Confederacy, and this enabled the Confederate Government to sell bonds in Europe and thus raise funds for carrying on the war. At the same time the victory confirmed the Southern people in their belief that the South was invincible. Thus this battle—the greatest, up to that time, that had ever been fought on this continent—had an important influence in prolonging the contest.

THE movement of the Union Grand Army, commanded in the field by General Irvin McDowell, but directed from Washington by Lieutenant-General Winfield Scott, began on Tuesday, July 16th. General Royal O. Tyler’s column, in the advance, bivouacked that night at Vienna, four and a hali miles from Fairfax Court House. It rested next night at Germantown, two miles beyond Fairfax; and, on Thursday, at 9 A.M., pushed on, to and through Centerville, the Confederates retiring quietly before it. Three miles beyond that village, however, they were found strongly posted at Blackburn’s Ford, on Bull Run, and, on being pressed, showed fight. This was at 1.30 P.M. A spirited conflict, mainly with artillery, resulted, the Confederates being in heavy force, under the immediate command of General James Longstreet. The Unionists, more exposed, as well as outnumbered, finally drew back. The losses were nearly equal: eighty-three on our side; sixty-eight on the other. Sherman’s battery, Captain Romeyn B. Ayres, did most of the actual fighting, supported by Colonel Israel B. Richardson’s brigade, consisting of the First Massachusetts, Twelfth New York, and Second and Third Michigan. Regarded as a reconnoissance in force the attack might be termed a success, since the result demonstrated that the main Confederate army was in position along the wooded valley of Bull Run, halfway between Centerville and Manassas Junction, and purposed to remain.

General McDowell’s army was moved up to and concentrated around the ridge on which Centerville is situated during the 18th and 19th, with intent to advance and attack the enemy, posted along Bull Run and between that stream and Manassas Junction, on Saturday, the 20th. But delay was encountered in the reception of adequate subsistence, which did not arrive till Friday night. On Saturday three days’ rations were distributed and issued, and every preparation was made for moving punctually at two o’clock next morning. Meantime General P. T. Beauregard, maintaining an absolute quiet and inoffensiveness on his front, and fully informed by spies and others of every movement between him and Washington, had hastily gathered from every side all the available forces of the Confederacy, including fifteen thousand, or nearly the full strength, of General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah, and had decided to assume the offensive and attack our forces before General Robert Patterson could come up to join them. Had the advance been made on Saturday, as originally intended, it would have encountered but two-thirds of the force it combated; had it been delayed a few hours longer, the Federal troops would have stood on the defensive, with the immense advantages of knowing the ground and of choosing the positions whereon to fight. Such are the casualties and fatalities of war.

Bull Run is a decent mill-stream, fordable in summer at intervals of half a mile to a mile. Its immediate valley is generally narrow and wooded, enclosed by bluffs, neither high nor very steep, but affording good positions for planting batteries to command the roads on the opposite side, so screened by woods and brush as to be neither seen nor suspected until the advancing or attacking party is close upon them. This fact explains and justifies General McDowell’s (or Scott’s) order of battle. This was, briefly: to menace the enemy’s right by the advance of our First division on the direct road from Centerville to Manassas Junction, while making a more serious demonstration on the road running due west from Centerville to Groveton and Warrenton, and crossing Bull Run by the Stone Bridge; while the real or main attack was to be made by a column fifteen thousand strong, composed of the Second (David Hunter’s) and Third (Samuel P. Heintzelman’s) divisions, which, starting from their camps a mile or two east and southeast of Centerville, were to make a considerable detour to the right, crossing Cub Run, and then Bull Run, at a ford known as Sudley Spring, three miles above the Stone Bridge, thus turning the enemy’s left, and rolling it up on the centre, where it was to be taken in flank by our First division (Tyler’s) crossing the Stone Bridge at the right moment, and completing the rout of the enemy. The Fifth division (D. J. Miles’s) was held in reserve at Centerville, not only to support the attacking columns, but to guard against the obvious peril of a formidable Confederate advance across Blackburn’s Ford to Centerville, flanking our flank movement, capturing munitions and supplies, and cutting off the line of retreat. The Fourth division (Runyon’s) guarded communications with Alexandria and Arlington; its foremost regiment being about seven miles from Centerville.

The movement of the Federal army was appointed for 2.30 A.M., and the battle should have been opened at 6 A.M.; but the raw troops never had been brigaded before this advance, and most of their officers were without experience; so that there was a delay of two or three hours in the flanking divisions reaching the point at which the battle was to begin. General Tyler, in front of Stone Bridge, opened with his artillery at 6.30 A.M., eliciting no reply; and it was three hours later when Hunter’s advance, under Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside, crossed at Sudley Spring; his men, thirsty with their early march that hot July morning, stopping as they crossed to drink and to fill their canteens.

Every movement of the Federal forces was revealed by Beauregard, watching them from the slope two or three miles west, by the clouds of dust that rose over their line of march; and regiment after regiment was hurried northward by him to meet the imminent shock. No strength was wasted by him upon, and scarcely any notice taken of, the feint on his right; but when Burnside’s brigade, after crossing at Sudley, had marched a mile through woods down the road on the right of Bull Run, and come out into a clear and cultivated country, stretching thence over a mile of rolling fields down to the Warrenton turnpike, he was vigorously opened upon by artillery from the woods in his front, and, as he pressed on, by infantry also. Continuing to advance, fighting, followed and supported by Hunter’s entire division, which was soon joined on its left by Heintzelman’s, which had crossed the stream a little later and farther down, the attacking column reached and crossed the Warrenton road from Centerville by the Stone Bridge, giving a hand to William T. Sherman’s brigade of Tyler’s division, and all but clearing this road of the enemy’s batteries and regiments, which here resisted our efforts, under the immediate command of General Joseph E. Johnston.

Here Simon G. Griffin’s battery, which, with James B. Ricketts’s, had done the most effective fighting throughout, was charged with effect by a Confederate regiment, which was enabled to approach it by a mistake of the Federal officers, who supposed it one of their own. Three different attacks were repulsed with slaughter, and the battery remained in our hands, though all its horses were killed. At 3 P.M. the enemy had been driven a mile and a half, and were nearly out of sight, abandoning the Warrenton road entirely to the victorious troops.

General Tyler, on hearing the guns of Hunter on the right, had pushed Sherman’s and soon afterward Keyes’s brigade over the Run to assail the enemy in his front, driving them back after a severe struggle, and steadily advancing until checked by a heavy fire of artillery from batteries on the heights above the road, supported by a brigade of infantry strongly posted behind breastworks. A gallant charge by the Second Maine and Third Connecticut temporarily carried the buildings behind which the enemy’s guns were sheltered; but the breastworks were too strong, and our men, recoiling from their fire, deflected to the left, moving down the Run under the shelter of the bluff, covering the efforts of Captain Alexander’s pioneers to remove the heavy abatis whereby the enemy had obstructed the road up from the Stone Bridge. This at length had been effected; and Schenck’s brigade and Ayres’s battery, of Tyler’s division, were on the point of crossing the Run to aid in completing the Federal triumph.

But the Confederates, at first outnumbered at the point of actual collision, had been receiving reenforcements nearly all day; and at this critical moment General Kirby Smith, who that morning had left Piedmont, fifteen miles distant, with the remaining brigade of General Johnston’s army, appeared on the field. Cheer after cheer burst from the Confederate hosts, but now so downcast, as this timely reenforcement rushed to the front of the battle. Smith almost instantly fell from his horse, wounded; but the command of his brigade was promptly assumed by Colonel Arnold Elzey, who pressed forward, backed by the whole reassured and exultant Confederate host, who felt the day was won.

A correspondent of the Richmond Dispatch wrote: "Between two and three o’clock large numbers of men were leaving the field, some of them wounded, others exhausted by the long struggle, who gave us gloomy reports; but, as the firing on both sides continued steadily, we felt sure that our brave Southerners had not been conquered by the overwhelming hordes of the North. It is however due to truth to say that the result at this hour hung trembling in the balance. We had lost numbers of our most distinguished officers. Generals Bartow and Bee had been stricken down; Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson, of the Hampton Legion, had been killed; Colonel Hampton had been wounded. But there was at hand the fearless General whose reputation as a commander was staked on this battle: General Beauregard promptly offered to lead the Hampton Legion into action, which he executed in a style unsurpassed and unsurpassable. General Beauregard rode up and down our lines, between the enemy and his own men, regardless of the heavy fire, cheering and encouraging our troops. About this time a shell struck his horse, taking his head off, and killing the horses of his aides Messrs. Ferguson and Hayward. General Johnston also threw himself into the thickest of the fight, seizing the colors of a Georgia regiment and rallying them to the charge. His staff signalized themselves by their intrepidity, Colonel Thomas being killed and Major Mason wounded. Your correspondent heard General Johnston exclaim to General Cocke just at the critical moment, `Oh for four regiments!’ His wish was answered; for in the distance our reenforcements appeared. The tide of battle was turned in our favor by the arrival of General Kirby Smith from Winchester, with four thousand men of General Johnston’s division. General Smith heard, while on the Manassas railroad cars, the roar of battle. He stopped the train and hurried his troops across the fields to the point just where he was most needed."

The Federal soldiers, who had been fighting thirteen hours, weary, hungry, thirsty, continually encountering fresh regiments, and never seeing even a company hurrying to their own support, became suddenly dismayed and panic-stricken. Elzey’s and Jubal A. Early’s fresh battalions filled the woods on their right, extending rapidly toward its rear, firing on them from under cover, and seeming, by their shots and cries, to be innumerable. Two or three of the regiments recoiled, and then broke, rushing down to the Run. Jefferson Davis, who had left Richmond at 6 A.M., reached the Junction at four, and galloped to the battlefield just in time, it was said, to witness the advance of his cavalry, fifteen thousand strong, under Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. B. Stuart, on the heels of the flying troops. He telegraphed that night to his Congress as follows: "Night has closed upon a hard-fought field. Our forces were victorious. The enemy was routed, and fled precipitately, abandoning a large amount of arms, ammunition, knapsacks, and baggage. The ground was strewed for miles with those killed, and the farmhouses and the ground around were filled with wounded. Pursuit was continued along several routes, toward Leesburg and Centerville, until darkness covered the fugitives. We have captured several field-batteries, stands of arms, and Union and State flags. Many prisoners have been taken."

Before 3 P.M. there had been fitful cannonading and skirmishing, but no serious engagement, on the left. But, when a defeat on the right became manifest, General Johnston again ordered General Richard S. Ewell to advance and attack, which he did, but was received by the Second brigade, Colonel T. A. Davis, with so rapid and spirited a fire of canister that he precipitately retreated. There were still more than three hours of good daylight when the Confederates saw the routed right rushing from the field, like frightened sheep, yet their pursuit amounted to nothing. They came across Bull Run, preceded by their cavalry, and seem to have taken a deliberate, though rather distant, survey of the Fifth division, drawn up in good order along the slope west of Centerville and eagerly expecting their advance. But they appear to have been aware that their victory was a lucky accident, and they did not choose to submit its prestige to the chances of another fray. Having gratified their thirst for knowledge, considerably out of musket-shot, they returned to their previous hiding-places in the woods skirting Bull Run.

During the fore part of the night some Union men, who had not been stampeded, went down toward the battle-field and brought away one or two guns, which had been abandoned in the flight, but not captured by the enemy. The Fifth division, constituting the reserve, now become the rearguard of the army, remained in position until after midnight; when, under orders from General McDowell, it began its deliberate retreat.1

General McDowell reported our losses in this engagement at 481 killed and 1011 wounded, but says nothing of how many wounded or others were taken prisoners.2

General Beauregard reports his loss at 269 killed and 1533 wounded; in all, 1852; saying nothing of any loss in prisoners, of whom two or three hundred were taken by our soldiers in the early part of the battle and forwarded to Washington. He says he had sent 1460 wounded and other prisoners to Richmond. He adds: "The ordnance and supplies captured include 28 field-pieces of the best character of arms, with over 100 rounds of ammunition for each gun, 37 caissons, 6 forges, 4 battery-wagons, 64 artillery horses completely equipped, 500,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition, 4500 sets of accoutrements, over 500 muskets, and 9 regimental and garrison flags, with a large number of pistols, knapsacks, swords, canteens, blankets, a large store of axes and intrenching-tools, wagons, ambulances, horses, camp and garrison equipage, hospital stores, and some subsistence."3

At 7 A.M., Monday, the 22d, the last Union stragglers and wounded left Centerville, which a Confederate cavalry force was about to enter. But there was no pursuit, and no loss on our part after the battle, but of what our men threw away. Beauregard explains his failure to pursue, after the Union discomfiture: "An army which had fought like ours on that day against uncommon odds, under a July sun, most of the time without water and without food, except a hastily snatched meal at dawn, was not in condition for the toil of an eager, effective pursuit of an enemy immediately after the battle. On the following day, an unusually heavy and unintermitting fall of rain intervened to obstruct our advance with reasonable prospect of fruitful results. Added to this, the want of a cavalry force of sufficient numbers made an efficient pursuit a military impossibility."

The forces actually engaged in this celebrated battle, so decisive in its results and so important in its consequences, were probably not far from twenty-five thousand on either side;4

while the combatants actually on the battle-field, or so near it as to be practically at the disposal of the respective commanders, were, on either side, not far from thirty-five thousand. But the Confederates, who were somewhat the fewer at daybreak, fought under the encouraging stimulus of a knowledge that every hour, as it passed, added to their strength; that each railroad train arriving at the Junction brought fresh brigade after brigade to their support; and these, as they arrived, were hastened to that part of the field whereon their services could be most effective: while the Union men, who had been called to arms at two in the morning, and had generally thrown aside their knapsacks and haversacks to facilitate their movements, had been fourteen hours marching—some of them on the double-quick for miles—or fighting, and were utterly exhausted and faint with hunger and thirst; while not a single company had been added to their numbers. Some regiments fought badly, and had been demoralized and dispersed before the general catastrophe; but the great majority evinced a courage and devotion which, under favoring auspices, would have commanded victory. They gave way only when hope seemed dead—when the ever-increasing hosts of their foes not only outnumbered them in their front, but filled the woods on their right flank, exposing them to an enfilading fire, which they could not return with effect; and, their defeat once confessed, the confusion and panic of their flight are explained, not excused, by the fact that, owing to the long detour they had necessarily made in advancing to the attack, pursuant to the plan of battle, their line of retreat lay in part along the front of the foe, much of whose strength was actually nearer to Centerville than they were when the fortunes of the day turned against them.

The causes of this disaster, so shamefully misstated and perverted at the time, are now generally understood. No one could, at this day, repeat the misrepresentations that for the moment prevailed, without conscious, palpable guilt and ignominy. The true, controlling reasons of the Federal defeat were, briefly, these:

1. The fundamental, fatal error on that side was that spirit of hesitation, of indecision, of calculated delay, of stolid obstruction, which guided all military councils, scattering their forces and paralyzing their efforts. Had any real purpose of suppressing the rebellion been cherished by General Scott, he never would have scattered the eastern forces along the line of the Potomac and Chesapeake, from Cumberland to Fort Monroe, divided into three or four distinct armies, under the command of militia officers who had never smelled burning powder unless in a squirrel-hunt. His advance across the Potomac, after being put off as long as possible, was made, as we have seen, on May 24th.

2. The flagrant disobedience and defection of General Patterson, unaccountable on any hypothesis consistent with the possession, on his part, of courage, common-sense, and loyalty.

3. The failure of General Scott to send forward with General McDowell a force adequate to provide against all contingencies. The fact that twenty thousand volunteers remained idle and useless, throughout that eventful Sunday, in and immediately around Washington—Scott having obstinately resisted entreaties that they should be despatched to the front; insisting that McDowell had "men enough"; that he needed no cavalry, etc.—of itself attests strongly the imbecility and lack of purpose that then presided over our military councils.

4. The Confederates were kept thoroughly acquainted by their friends, left in the Union service, with all that took place or was meditated on that side, and so were able to anticipate and baffle every movement of those armies. Thus, a military map or plan of the region directly west of Washington had been completed for the war Department barely two days before the Union advance reached Centerville; but, the movement being rapid, the Confederates left here many articles in their hasty flight, and, among them, a copy of this map, which was supposed to be unknown to all but a few of our highest officers.

5. The fall, very early in the action, of General David Hunter commanding the Second or leading division, was most untimely and unfortunate. He was so seriously wounded that he was necessarily borne from the field. General Heintzelman, commanding the Third division, was also wounded, not as severely, but so as to disable him. General McDowell either had control of Runyon’s division, guarding his line of communication, or he had not. If he had, he should have ordered the bulk of it to advance that morning on Centerville, so as to have it well in hand to precipitate on the foe at the decisive moment; or, if he was so hampered by Scott that he was not at liberty to do this, he should have refused to attack, and resigned the command of the army, rather than fight a battle so fettered.

6. The original call of President Lincoln on the States, for seventy-five thousand militia to serve three months, was a deplorable error. It resulted naturally from that obstinate infatuation which would believe, in defiance of all history and probability, that a revolt of nearly ten millions of people was to be put down in sixty or ninety days by some process equivalent to reading the Riot Act to an excited mob and sending a squad of police to disperse it. Hence, the many prisoners of war taken with arms in their hands, in West Virginia and Missouri, had up to this time been quite commonly permitted to go at large on taking an oath of fidelity to the Constitution—a process which, in their view, was about as significant and imposing as taking a glass of cider. The Government had only to call for any number of men it required, to serve during the pleasure of Congress, or till the overthrow of the rebellion, and they could have been had at once. Regiments were pressed upon it from all sides; and the hotels of Washington were crowded by keen competitors for the coveted privilege of raising more batteries and fresh battalions.

7. It is impossible not to see that the Confederate troops were better handled during the conflict than the Union men. General McDowell, who had not participated in any former battle but that of Buena Vista, where he served as aid to General Wool, appears to have had very little control over the movements of his forces after the beginning of the conflict.

8. Although the Federal army, before that disastrous fight, was largely composed of the bravest and truest patriots in the Union, it contained also much indifferent material. Many, in the general stagnation and dearth of employment, had volunteered under a firm conviction that there would be no serious fighting; that the Confederates were not in earnest; that there would be a promenade, a frolic, and ultimately a compromise, which would send everyone home, unharmed and exultant, to receive from admiring, cheering thousands the guerdon of his valor. Hence some regiments were very badly officered, and others gave way and scattered or fled just when they were most needed.

1Between the panic-stricken fugitives and the victors were not merely the reserve (Fifth) division, which remained in position, and had not fired a shot, but the First (Tyler’s) division forming our left, which had suffered little loss, but had signally repulsed the demonstration made upon it at the close of the fight; while the better portion of our beaten right and centre, including the regular infantry and cavalry, still stood its ground and sternly faced the foe. Major Barry, our chief of artillery in the battle, in his official report, after noticing the loss of ten of his guns at the close, through the flight of their supporting infantry, says: "The army having retired upon Centerville, I was ordered by General McDowell in person to post the artillery in position to cover the retreat. The batteries of Hunt, Ayres, Tidball, Edwards, Green, and the New York Eighth Regiment (the latter served by volunteers from Wilcox’s brigade), twenty pieces in all, were at once placed in position; and thus remained until 12 P.M., when, orders having been received to retire upon the Potomac, the batteries were put in march, and, covered by Richardson’s brigade, retired in good order and without haste, and early next morning reoccupied their former camps on the Potomac."

2 Among our killed were Colonel James Cameron, brother of the Secretary of War—of the Seventy-ninth New York (Highlanders); Colonel Slocum, and Major Ballou, of the Second Rhode Island; and Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty of the Sixty-ninth New York. Among our wounded were General David Hunter and General S. P. Heintzelman, commanding divisions; Colonel Oliver B. Wilcox, of Michigan; Colonel Gilman Marston, of the First New Hampshire; Colonel A. M. Wood, of the Fourteenth New York; Colonel H. W. Slocum, of the Twenty-seventh New York; and Colonel N. L. Farnham, of the Eleventh New York (Fire Zouaves). Colonel Wilcox was also taken prisoner, as well as Colonel Michael Corcoran, of the Sixty-ninth New York (Irish), and Major James D. Potter, of the Thirty-eighth New York.

3His statement of the number of muskets taken at "over five hundred," including all those dropped by our dead and wounded, proves that the stories told by excited correspondents and other fugitives, of our men throwing away everything that could impede their flight, were gross exaggerations.

4Pollard says, "Our effective force of all arms ready for action on the field, on the eventful morning, was less than thirty thousand men." This was before the arrival of that portion of Johnston’s army led to the field by Kirby Smith, or the brigade of Early—to say nothing of the reenforcements that were received during the day from the direction of Rich- mound.


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Chicago: Horace Greeley, "The Battle of Bull Run," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed May 24, 2019,

MLA: Greeley, Horace. "The Battle of Bull Run." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 24 May. 2019.

Harvard: Greeley, H, 'The Battle of Bull Run' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 18. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 24 May 2019, from