The Battle of First Manassas (or Bull Run) and ‘Mighty Stonewall’
July 21, 2011 Leave a comment
This day, July 21st, 150 years ago, saw the first major engagement of the War Between the States at Manassas, Virginia. The date ranks as one of the most important in history. It was at Manassas that Lincoln and the Federal army believed they could crush the nascent Southern rebellion once and for all, and open up the way to the vulnerable new Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia. The Northern public’s enthusiasm for military action helped persuade Lincoln to command a more cautious General Irvin McDowell to move his 33,000 troops against 22,000 Confederates thirty miles west of Washington D.C.
The Northerners were optimistic. Many Washingtonians rode out with packed lunches in their carriages to view what they thought would inevitably be a whooping of the rebels. It did not turn out as they had hoped. The day initially went against the unseasoned Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard, until the arrival of reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley by rail that allowed the rebels to extend their lines and break the Unions right flank. The battle finished with a chaotic scramble of Federal troops and civilian onlookers back to Washington.
However, it was a relatively unknown newly-appointed brigadier general called Thomas Jackson who earned the most renown that day. Arriving later in the battle, he held his ground under heavy assault at Henry House Hill, famously remaining serene in the midst of the chaos and danger, which earned him the nom de guerre of ‘Stonewall’. His discipline encouraged the Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliot Bee Jr. to re-form his disordered brigade under the rallying cry: “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!” Stonewall and Bee’s brigades turned back a seemingly overpowering force against their strategic position.
In a single day of fighting, the Union’s hopes of ending the rebellion quickly were devastated. It would now be a long and grueling four year total war.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis visited the battlefield shortly afterward, to whom Jackson proclaimed: ”Give me ten thousand men and I will take Washinton tomorrow!” Davis refused, and he lived to regret the decision, considering it one of the greatest mistakes of the war. By all accounts, Washington was woefully under-defended at the time. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson was quickly promoted to major general and given command of the Valley District, thereby responsible for the defense of the Shenandoah Valley.
Jackson’s subsequent operations ranked as the most spectacular military achievements of the nineteenth century. His 16,000 troops defeated some 45,000 Federals during the Valley Campaign in the battles of Kernstown, McDowell, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic. Rumours circulated that he would indeed take Washington. Writers began comparing him to Napoleon. In the eyes of the Southerners, he became second only to Robert E. Lee. How history would have been different had he not been killed by friendly fire at Chancellorsville is a vexed question, but when General Lee learned of Jackson’s death, he told his cook, “William, I have lost my right arm” and “I’m bleeding at the heart.”
Here is an excellent portrayal of the Battle of First Manassas from the movie ‘Gods and Generals’. Notice the Confederacy had not yet adopted the famous ‘Stars and Bars’ as their flag.