General Irvin McDowell at Bull Run: History & Facts

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Irvin McDowell was the general who led Union forces in the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major land battle of the American Civil War. With nearly 5,000 combined casualties, the First Bull Run was a major defeat for Federal forces.

The First Battle of Bull Run is infamous in American history as the first major bloodshed of the American Civil War. Fought on July 21, 1861, the battle resulted in a Confederate victory. For years, historians have blamed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, commander of the Union army at the battle, for the defeat. Let's learn more about the man who led Union forces in the first major battle of the American Civil War.

Union General Irvin McDowell

Early Career

An 1838 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, McDowell was certainly well qualified for military command at the start of the Civil War. In his early career, McDowell taught at West Point after receiving his commission as a second lieutenant of artillery. During the War with Mexico in the 1840s, McDowell was an aide on the staff of General John Wool. He continued his role as a staff officer throughout the 1850s. He became close to many high ranking officers in the U.S. army, including General-in-Chief Winfield Scott.

First Command

At the start of the Civil War, many in both the North and the South believed that the fighting would not be long. Many were convinced that the entire struggle would be ended in one grand battle. Romantic depictions of war dominated the newspapers throughout the nation, and young men went off to war with visions of glory and fame in their minds.

With both North and South preparing for war, armies were being formed. In May 1861, in Washington D.C., Irving McDowell was chosen for a premier command. He was promoted to Brigadier General and put in charge of the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Forming near Manassas Junction in Northern Virginia, the Confederate Army of the Potomac (not to be confused with the Union Army of the Potomac that formed later in the war) was the nearest threat to Washington. Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard was in charge of this force; Beauregard was a classmate of McDowell's at West Point.

While both armies were inexperienced, politicians in both capitals - Washington and Richmond - demanded action. In July 1861, McDowell responded by moving his army, nearly 30,000 men, out of Washington and toward Manassas. In response, reinforcements were sent to the Confederate army. These reinforcements were men of the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah under the command of Brigadier General Joseph Johnston. Before the war, McDowell had served under Johnston, who was the highest ranking U.S. army officer to resign and join the Confederacy.

The First Battle of Bull Run

After an initial encounter along Bull Run near Blackburn's Ford on July 18, McDowell formulated a battle plan. Confederate forces were positioned on the western bank of the stream. McDowell would send some troops toward and across the Stone Bridge along the Warrenton Turnpike. While drawing the Confederate's attention, additional Union forces would cross Bull Run to the north at Sudley Springs Ford. Essentially, he would try to turn the right flank of the Confederate army. While this was a good plan, McDowell was commanding an army composed largely of amateur soldiers; thus, the plan was too complex for many of his men to execute.

On the morning of July 21, Union troops began putting McDowell's plan into action. Confederate forces were initially caught off guard and pushed back. Union troops advanced to Matthew's Hill, where several Confederate brigades made a desperate attempt to slow the Federal advance.

By noon, Confederate forces had fallen back to Henry House Hill, where an 85 year old widow named Judith Henry lived (she was killed by artillery fire during the battle that day). While Confederate forces gathered on this hill, Union troops halted their advance to bring up fresh troops. By the time the Union push continued, Confederate troops had a firm defensive line on the hill, anchored by the brigade of Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, soon to be known as 'Stonewall' Jackson for his heroics that day.

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