With a Union attack in northern Virginia imminent, Major General P. G. T. Beauregard called out for help from General Joseph E. Johnston located in the Shenandoah Valley. Sneaking away from Winchester, Va., Johnston began a 57-mile journey to Manassas and the first great battle of the Civil War. Serving as Johnston’s vanguard was a brigade of Virginians lead by Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson.
Since the secession of the Southern states, there had been a great clamor by many in the North to teach the South a lesson. Brigadier General Irwin McDowell had been given command of the Union army but was hesitant to attack, knowing his volunteers were still too inexperienced. Sensing McDowell’s apprehension, President Abraham Lincoln told his general, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike.”
While McDowell was training for offensive operations, the Confederacy was working equally hard to defend its homeland. Jackson, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican War, had many of his VMI students serving in his brigade.
At VMI, Jackson was professor and instructor of artillery but was viewed as eccentric by his students. Cadets often mocked Jackson for his stern religious beliefs and rigid way of teaching class. Jackson would memorize his lessons. If a cadet had a question, Jackson would merely repeat, word for word, what he had just said. If the cadet repeated his question, Jackson viewed this as insubordination.
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Initially, McDowell had planned to attack the Confederate right flank but that plan was altered after clashing with Rebels near Blackburn’s Ford. Now, McDowell planned to attack the Confederate left flank near Manassas.
McDowell intended for his Federals to sweep around the Confederate left flank at the Stone Bridge near Sudley Springs. This would allow the Federals to attack the rear of the Confederate army.
McDowell’s plan would have worked had it not been for Colonel Nathan Evans and his 1,100 Confederates. Evans first clashed with the Federals at the Stone Bridge but realized it was a feint. Soon, Evans was told of Federals crossing at the Sudley Springs Ford and he raced 900 of his men to Mathews Hill to slow their advance.
General Bernard Bee’s brigade of Mississippians, Alabamians and North Carolinians, were some of the first reinforcements to arrive to Evans. Soon Bee’s brigade was badly damaged in the fighting. Bee’s disorganized brigade was driven from Mathews Hill.
Meanwhile, Jackson’s Virginians arrived at Manassas Junction around noon and immediately advanced toward the fighting, deploying his men on Henry House Hill. Jackson placed his men on the reverse side of the slope and told them to lie down in order to avoid the flying lead. Jackson remained on his horse, surveying the scene before him. Jackson was said to never fear being wounded or killed, choosing instead to place total faith in God to protect him.
Bee encountered Jackson, telling him that his brigade was being driven by the Federals. Jackson replied, “Then, Sir, we will give them the bayonet.” Bee returned to his retreating brigade in an attempt to rally them. Pointing to Jackson sitting on his horse at Henry House Hill, Bee exclaimed, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians.”
Bee was mortally wounded immediately after speaking these words but his disorganized troops did reform behind Jackson. The Virginians stood firm, answering volley for volley against the Federals.
Eventually, Jackson’s brigade captured James Rickett’s Battery and Colonel J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry helped to sweep the Federals from the field. The Federal retreat became mass confusion when a Union wagon was overturned at the Stone Bridge. Many Federals threw down their weapons and began to run the 25 miles back to Washington in what became known as the “great skedaddle.”
The Union and the Confederacy could not even agree on names of the battlefields. The Union preferred to name a battle after the nearest body of water. If one is north of the Mason-Dixon Line, this first major land battle of the war was known as the battle of First Bull Run. The Confederacy usually named the battle after a nearby town or church. The town of Manassas was the closest settlement to this battlefield.
Whether one called this battle First Manassas or Bull Run, one thing was certain. The Confederacy had a new hero and his name was Stonewall.