For four straight years, the people of the United States fought one another in a brutal war. The Civil War would result in the deaths of about 620,000 men in uniform. More Americans died during this bloody nineteenth-century conflict than in all other American wars combined. They fought on battlefields across the South and on Northern soil in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Kentucky (even though that state's government was officially neutral).

The war's battles are nearly countless, ranging from minor skirmishes to full-scale engagements that sometimes stretched across battlefields measuring miles in length. Some of those battles would become key to the overall outcome of the war and revealed the honor of the armies that clashed across bloodied ground. Sometimes these battles displayed the limits of a man's endurance and the frayed ends of his ability to cause death, watching it up close and personal. The story of these battles is the story of the men who risked their lives for a personal cause. In the end, some of those men paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The U.S. Civil War had been decades in coming. For most of the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States was expanding into a continental nation, one spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific. During this time, a great debate was swirling over the issue of the expansion of slavery. By mid-century, one out of every seven people living in the United States was a black person held in permanent bondage.

In the North, where limited slavery had existed during the colonial era of the 1600s and 1700s, many people did not feel that slavery had an impact on their lives. Many Northerners were not opposed to Southerners holding slaves. They simply did not want to see the "peculiar institution" spread into the territories as more and more Americans migrated into the vast open lands of the West. The expansion of slavery had divided the country and had been the focus of constant debate and congressional argument. Congressmen had written up repeated compromises that allowed slavery in one place while denying it elsewhere.


The arguments over slavery's expansion merely put off what was sure to happen. By the 1850s, the issue had turned white hot. A new political party, the Republican Party, had been established in 1854. They were nearly all Northerners who opposed the expansion of slavery into the western lands. When they nearly elected a president in 1856 without a single Southern vote, Southerners panicked. Then, Republicans elected Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. Many Southerners believed he was not only opposed to slavery's expansion, but to even the existence of slavery. Because of this, when he was elected, they chose to leave the United States altogether.

In December 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Over the following six months, another 10 Southern states joined with it to form their own country, the Confederate States of America. When the newly inaugurated President Lincoln insisted that the U.S. government have control over federal lands in the South, Southerners in Charleston, South Carolina, decided to fire on a federal fort out in the city's harbor—Fort Sumter. On the morning of April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery batteries opened fire and bombarded the Union stone fortress for 36 straight hours until it surrendered. The Civil War had begun.

Meanwhile, both sides had already gathered massive armies for the coming fight. Many thought a single large battle might actually determine the outcome of the war. To hurry that battle along, a Union army that was gathered outside Washington, D.C., was sent across the Potomac River toward the Rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia. The battle that unfolded would become the first major field engagement of the war.


When the two armies met on the ground that would become the battlefield of Bull Run, both commanders came with the same strategy in mind: to attack one another's right side. The leader of the Union forces was Brigadier General Irwin McDowell; the leader of the Confederates was Brigadier General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who had commanded Southern forces during the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Since they both had the same idea for an attack, it was important who went first.

McDowell made the first offensive steps on the morning of July 21, which caused Beauregard to abandon his plans. The Union commander's attack plan called for an operation that would swing several miles to the northwest before dawn and then cross a local stream known as Bull Run at Sudley's Ford. The Union men were to then turn toward the southeast and attack Beauregard's flank. McDowell anticipated that the Confederates would retreat in the face of the Yankee advance, as more Union troops crossed the creek and joined in the overall assault against the Rebels. All did not go according to plan.

Manassas Union Historians

The first significant battle of the Civil War occurred when Union and Confederate forces met at Bull Run in Virginia. Although both sides were disorganized and undisciplined, Union general Irwin McDowell pushed to seize an advantage over Southern forces. Despite his efforts, the Union Army was not successful in its first charge against the Confederacy (above).

The first significant battle of the Civil War occurred when Union and Confederate forces met at Bull Run in Virginia. Although both sides were disorganized and undisciplined, Union general Irwin McDowell pushed to seize an advantage over Southern forces. Despite his efforts, the Union Army was not successful in its first charge against the Confederacy (above).

Prior to the attack, General McDowell was uncertain of its timing. The Union Army was still a largely unorganized force that faced constant supply shortages and a lack of transport wagons. That summer, commanders were still identifying regiments (organized groups of a large number of soldiers), and dividing them into the smaller units called brigades. By the time McDowell's army moved southward on July 16, beginning the Union's "Forward to Richmond" campaign, many of his men were coming close to the end of their original 90-day service contract, called an enlistment. In fact, in the days just before the approaching battle, an infantry regiment and artillery battery finished their enlistments and left to go home. On the Confederate side, soldiers had signed up for longer enlistment periods, so there was little possibility of losing men before a fight. This perhaps gave the Southerners a psychological advantage going into the battle.

Even as McDowell marched out of Washington, D.C., Beauregard knew he was coming. Here, in the early months of the war, a significant spy network was already well established in the nation's capital. It provided information, as historian James McPherson describes, through "coded messages carried by southern belles riding fast steeds." Despite knowing what was coming, Beauregard would have to fight against the Union troops without expectation of help from General Joseph Johnston, who was in command of all Confederates troops in Virginia.

All the newly enlisted men on both sides were green and inexperienced in the arts of war. These early soldiers, carrying their 50-pound (23-kilogram) packs, were easily tired out and required three days to cover the same distance on foot as troops later in the war covered in just one. Thus, McDowell's advance out of Washington moved excruciatingly slow and faced constant delays. There was also a lack of discipline as soldiers, tired of waiting along a dusty Virginia road, wandered out of formation to search for wild animals to hunt or a water supply. By the time they reached Centreville, Virginia, McDowell's men had eaten all the food in their packs, causing the march to stop and wait while new rations were delivered by wagon.

The Union Army suffered from other shortages, as well, such as a lack of well-trained cavalry. Infantry troops are soldiers who travel and fight on foot, while cavalry are those who travel and fight on horseback. Many of the Union's best cavalry commanders and enlisted men were from the South and they had left Union service to defend the land of their births.

McDowell himself had to go out and scout the terrain to see where Beauregard's men were located. Once he found them, he realized they were strung out across rugged and difficult terrain and had built good defense systems in case of direct assault. This led McDowell to abandon his plan of attacking the Confederate right flank. Instead, he decided to attack their left. Because of all its delays, the Union Army did not attack before the morning of July 21, which gave the Rebels enough time to deliver by train an additional three brigades to the future battleground.

Nevertheless, when McDowell did attack, he and his green forces came close to a quick and clear victory. Beauregard, prior to the battle, had spread out his men along the south banks of Bull Run, which flowed just a matter of miles north of Manas-sas Junction, a rail town. On the Confederate right, troops held a railroad bridge, while their comrades on the left had control of another bridge, crossed by the Warrenton Turnpike. Six miles (10 kilometers) of rolling Virginia land separated Beauregard's two flanks. Prior to the fight, the Southern commander anticipated McDowell would attack along the railroad line, which led him to position 9 of his 10 and a half brigades along his right side. From there, he intended to launch his own attack before McDowell could make his first offensive move. But the Union commander beat him to it.

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