Battles at Bull Run

Two battles were fought at Manassas. The first in July, 1861, and the second thirteen months later in August of 1862.

I spent three days at Bull Run, walking the battlefields, researching the events and talking with park rangers and volunteers. Manassas is about the best curated of all the battlefields I visited. The National Park Service is trying to return the battlefields to the way they were when the battle occurred. That means removing trees and structures as well as planting trees and restoring or recreating structures. Manassas staff has made the most progress on these projects.

It is hard to explain how and why these battles happened. An outstanding resource for understanding is from the work done by the American Battlefield Trust. I will provide relevant links that you can follow to find the details I am too lazy to write!

First Manassas

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to “right the wrong”, and many more than 75,000 answered by enlisting for 90 days. “Common wisdom” was that it would not take any longer that that to put the rebels in their place, march to Richmond, and force the southern states back into the Union. The Confederates were equally confident they could take Washington, quickly win the war, and preserve their way of life. By July, the enlistment terms were coming to an end, and Union politicians were eager to “get the war done.” And then it all began on July 21, 1861.

As the Union Army marched from Washington recruits eager to be soldiers did not want to miss the “only battle of the war.” Congressman and citizens packed wine and picnic baskets and followed the army into the field, expecting a colorful show – the first “National Championship.”

It did not turn out the way they expected. Both soldiers and spectators were stunned by the violence and destruction of that first day. After 10 hours of fighting, 900 young men lay dead on the hills along Bull Run creek. The naivete of the North was burned away. The resolution of the South was demonstrated. It was here that General Thomas Jackson earned the name “Stonewall” by standing un-moving on his horse in the middle of the battle urging his troops.

The day was a Confederate rout. The Union army dashed back to Washington, overtaking the retreating spectators.

First Manassas casualties

Animated map of First Manassas at American Battlefield Trust

Looking from Matthews hill toward Henry hill at the horizon tree line (2024)

Second Manassas

Eroded Railroad Cut (2024)

Union General John Pope was given the task of defending Washington and operating in Confederate territory Northwest of Richmond. Lee sends Stonewall Jackson on a 55 mile march to flank Pope and he captures the Pope’s supply depot at Manassas Junction. Pope is forced back toward Washington. As Jackson’s army is sitting in a deep railroad cut near the Brawner Farm, he sees Pope passing in front of him a thousand yards away. He attacks and Second Manassas has begun. Over the following two days Pope trys again and again to drive Jackson from the railroad cut, and on the second day, Confederate General Longstreet massively attacks the Union left flank. In the dark, Pope leaves the field and retreats across Bull Run Creek.

As in the first Manassas, it was a resounding Confederate victory, giving Lee the confidence that he could invade the North, and he heads toward Antietam in Maryland.

Second Manassas casualties

Manassas National Battlefield from the National Park Service

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