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The First Battle of Bull Run: Civil War Blood is Shed

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  • 0:04 Secession Leads to War
  • 1:48 North and South Mobilize
  • 3:21 First Battle of Bull Run
  • 4:20 Aftermath
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Three months after the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Northern troops attacked Southern forces near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. The first Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas) was the first major engagement of the Civil War and a terrifying defeat for the Union spectators who came to watch.

Secession Leads to War

South Carolina's secession in late 1860 didn't have to mean war. The formation of the Confederacy didn't have to mean war. The Union really could have just walked away. President Buchanan thought secession was wrong, but that there wasn't much he could do about it. President Lincoln felt differently.

Soon after Lincoln took office, Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent diplomats to Washington offering to buy Fort Sumter and other federal property. Lincoln refused to meet with them because he didn't view the Confederacy as a legitimate government.

(Lincoln speaking) 'The Confederate States of America is not a new, legal nation. It is a conspiracy by a limited number of rebellious individuals. The southern states, like all the other states, have sworn to defend this Union, and their leaders are in rebellion. They must be brought back into submission and forced to uphold the promises they made.'

(Davis speaking) 'For 25 years, the United States of America has ignored the rights of slaveholding states as defined by the Constitution. Now that the Republican Party has taken over the government, there is no hope for us. If we wish to preserve our sovereignty, we must leave the USA and form our own government. We will defend ourselves against Northern aggression!'

Lincoln sent reinforcements to the fort, prompting Southern troops to attack before the shipment could arrive. They were the first shots of the Civil War, but following the fall of Fort Sumter on April 14, 1861, the guns fell silent for a while. But there was still plenty of action.

The fall of Fort Sumter in 1861
Fall Fort Sumter

North and South Mobilize

With Congress out of session, Lincoln asked for 75,000 troops from all remaining states to defend or retake all Southern garrisons. Rather than send soldiers to assist Lincoln against their own territory, four more Southern states decided to secede (including Virginia), and several of the 'border' slave states refused to send troops. Afraid that Maryland would secede, swallowing Washington, D.C. into the Confederacy, Lincoln dispatched troops to protect the capital. When a mob of 20,000 secessionists in Baltimore attempted to derail a train full of these soldiers on April 19, Lincoln arrested the men and suspended the writ of habeas corpus (meaning they lost their Constitutional right to face a judge before being imprisoned). On the same day, he set up a naval blockade of Southern ports which soon extended from Virginia to Texas.

Meanwhile, the Confederacy set up their new capital at Richmond, Virginia, and Southern troops moved in to protect it. Union General Irvin McDowell hesitated to attack, believing his troops were not adequately trained. But by July, Northern leaders - including President Lincoln - were growing impatient. The troops only had a 90-day enlistment period. Everyone wanted a decisive battle to invade the Confederate capital and end this nonsense once and for all. So on July 21, 1861, the Union Army finally advanced, trailed by naive and excited picnickers from Washington D.C. who expected to see their soldiers call the Confederacy's bluff and go home triumphant.

The Confederacy set up their new capital in Richmond
Confederacy Capital Richmond

The First Battle of Bull Run

General McDowell had a three-part plan of attack, which was way too complicated for an inexperienced army, and his movements were too slow to prevent the South from consolidating its forces. Following some initial success, Union troops followed the retreating Southerners over a hill, where they encountered the brigade of Confederate General Thomas Jackson stationed there, as one of his colleagues declared, 'like a stone wall.' The North was unable to penetrate Stonewall Jackson's line. Later that afternoon, Jackson ordered his troops to 'yell like furies' and advance. The charge, complete with the first so-called 'rebel yell,' successfully captured the Union artillery and turned them, inciting a panicked retreat by both soldiers and civilians back to Washington.

In short, the first Battle of Bull Run resulted in nearly 5,000 casualties - dead, wounded, captured or missing. Hardly a picnic in the park.

The first Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861
Battle of Bull Run Picture

Aftermath

The next day, President Lincoln signed legislation for the enlistment of a million troops to last three years, and replaced McDowell with General George McClellan. He quickly annoyed both the president - by waiting seven months to attack - and the Union commander, General Winfield Scott - by mocking his long-term plan to win the war, calling it the Boa Constrictor plan. Undeterred, Scott submitted his four-part plan to President Lincoln:

1) Blockade the South to cut off the export of cotton and the import of war supplies.

2) Seize the Mississippi River to keep the South from expanding west, and disable the movement of Confederate supplies.

3) Divide the South along the Tennessee River and march east through Georgia.

4) Capture Richmond, the Confederate capital.

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