General Winfield Scott wanted to wait. He didn’t think much of the flood of volunteers that had rushed to enlist following Fort Sumter. They needed months of training before they could be sent into battle. But the Northern public was anxious for action, anxious to return the violence begun by the rebels in South Carolina. And a few successful skirmishes in western Virginia had led them to think that the Union soldiers were ready. George McClellan, with about 20,000 men, had won victories at small battles fought at Philippi and Rich Mountain. And he had written enthusiastically of the way his troops “annihilated” the Southern traitors.
As a result Scott was pressed to mount a major attack against the bulk of the Confederate Army (about 20,000 men) stationed at Manassas Junction in Virginia along Bull Run creek. Scott gave the assignment to General Irvin McDowell and an army of 35,000 Union troops.
As the Union army set off on the 25 mile march from Washington, D.C. to Manassas, it looked terrific. The locally-raised militias sported a variety of locally-designed uniforms. Most spectacular were the Zouave units with their yellow sashes and red hammer pants. Running a close second was a kilted New York unit.
But inside the flashy uniforms were some pretty green troops and some inexperienced officers. Not surprisingly, the blundering began even before the actual battle. Union General Robert Patterson was sent to intercept Confederate forces under Joseph Johnston. But Patterson bit on Johnston’s fake attack allowing Johnston to sidestep the Union army and deliver an additional 9000 troops to Beauregard at Manassas.
Union General McDowell therefore lost the numerical advantage he had expected. But given the inexperience of his men and officers, superior numbers may not have made a difference. Actually, the battle could have been an even bigger fiasco than it was—Beauregard and McDowell had been classmates at West Point. The both studied the same military theorists and, consequently, they both intended at Bull Run to overload their right side and attack their enemy’s left flank. If properly executed, the two armies may have spun one another around like multi-colored pinwheels.
But the armies and their officers were not really up to executing the plan. The Southern advance against the Northern left stalled completely. The Northern attack did a bit better and, although clumsily maneuvered, might have succeeded. But then a Virginia unit led by Brigadier General Thomas Jackson rallied and stood “like a stonewall” turning back the Northern attack.
Soon after, McDowell called off the Northern attack and ordered his troops back toward Washington. But it was neither a quick nor organized retreat. The road was clogged with picnickers and press who had come to watch the afternoon spectacle. No doubt disappointed by the home team’s poor showing, they now returned to the capital to analyze the debacle.
It was not hard to breakdown—the Northern army was unprepared and sloppily managed. It would need to be trained before it risked another encounter. But the South’s supporters could not have been all that pleased with their army’s performance either. A few commanders, like Jackson, had argued that the Union army should be pursued. But Beauregard recognized that his army had been more lucky than good—that it too needed further training—and that he should be content with the victory already secured.
At this first battle at Bull Run, the South won bragging rights and a morale-boosting victory. But the commanders on both sides learned that their armies were yet not ready for the major battles that lay ahead. The Northern public was perhaps the most shocked by the battle. Their army suffered almost 3000 casualties against en enemy that many did not take seriously. For these picnickers, the war suddenly took on a far less festive character.