by Andy Mateja

Thursday marks the 150th Anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run or First Manassas as it was called in the South. This was the first major engagement between the opposing armies , hastily slapped together just a few months before. Both sides believed this would be the deciding battle and the war would be over by nightfall……..
July 21st 1861 was a scorcher –over 90 degrees by midday. The battle was to take place approximately 25 miles outside of Washington DC where the Confederate “Army of the Potomac” was located under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard – the “Hero of FT Sumter”. The Northern “Army of Northern Virginia” under the command of Brig General Irvin McDowell was ordered by President Lincoln to confront the rebel force and defeat it. 30,000 “green” Union troops were on their way to battle 22,000 equally “green” Confederate troops and a rendezvous with destiny.
Ironically both Beauregard and McDowell developed similar battle plans Each was going to attempt to flank each other on the left while a feint attack took place on the right. Beauregard had the added surprise impetus of Gen Joseph E. Johnston’s army of the Shenandoah – an additional 13,000 men – most of whom arrived secretly by train in the early hours before the battle. Johnston had eluded his Northern counterpart in the Shenandoah Valley – Gen Robert Patterson and his 18,000 Union troops who were supposed to hold Johnston’s forces in check.
Missteps by both armies caused both to modify their attack plans – McDowell attacking later than planned and Beauregard reverting to defensive tactics instead of offensive. Confederate troops were transferred from the right to the left flank to defend against the union attack. Barnard Bee was one of the first to arrive to shore up the Confederate right but slowly had to retreat to Henry House Hill where they were braced by Brig General Thomas J. Jacksons brigade of Virginians This is where Barnard Bee , who soon fell mortally wounded, uttered the immortal words “Look ! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall ! Rally behind the Virginians !. From this moment on Thomas J. Jackson became the one and only “Stonewall “Jackson.
The battle waged fiercely on Henry House Hill and the nearby vicinity with each side charging and countercharging. Finally at around 4:00PM, the oppressive heat and continual fighting took their toll on the Union troops who began to fall back. The Confederates, sensing victory increased their attacks on the retreating Federal troops and turned their orderly retreat into an absolute rout. A Confederate cannon shell increased the panic by sending a shell onto the bridge crossing Cub Run which blocked the escape route back to Washington DC. Panic-stricken Union troops became tangled with U.S. congressmen and other sightseers who came out in their coaches with packed picnic lunches to watch the Northern Army defeat the perceived “inferior” Rebel horde. Congressmen and soldiers alike scrambled back to Washington DC as fast as their legs could carry them. The road to Washington DC was littered with muskets, haversacks, blankets, canteens, camp equipment and anything else the soldiers could discard in order to run faster.
By late afternoon, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military advisor, Gen Robert. E. Lee arrived on the battlefield to assess the apparent victory. Davis wanted Beauregard and Johnston to press their victory all the way to Washington DC, but like the Union troops, the Confederates were exhausted and thirsty……….some fighting for twelve straight hours. The South had within its grasp a chance to end this war and complete victory with only a few thousand casualties instead of the 600,000+ casualties and total defeat four long years later
For the rest of his life McDowell firmly believed that if his army has attacked just a few hours sooner, the Union would have won and perhaps the war. No one will ever know for sure.
One interesting anecdote occurred when retired grocer Wilmer McLean and his estate were caught up in the battles preceding the main event at Bull Run. A cannonball dropped into his chimney and his barn housed wounded soldiers. Wanting to get away from the war, McLean decided to move 90 miles southwest of Bull Run to live peacefully. However fate would not let that happen as the town that McLean moved to was called Appomattox Courthouse and on April 9th 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant in McLean’s parlor. The war actually followed him and virtually ended in the house he purchased to get away from the fighting four years before……………….