The First Battle of Bull Run, referred to as the First Battle of Manassas in the South, (July 21, 1861), was the first major land battle of the American Civil War. (The difference in the two names results from the difference in naming conventions used by each side in the war. Confederates named battles for the nearest town or city; the Union named battles for the nearest physiographical feature.)
Brigadier General Irvin McDowell was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to command the Army of Northeastern Virginia. He was prodded to attack by politicians in Washington who wanted a quick victory to solidify their standing. McDowell did not want to attack, stating that his forces were green, but he eventually gave in.
McDowell’s plan was to use Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler’s division to feint an attack on Stone Bridge, which went across Bull Run, while Colonel Thomas A. Davies’ brigade would feint at Blackburn’s Ford. Under cover of these feigning maneuvers, the main attack would be by Brig. Gens. David Hunter and Samuel P. Heintzelman on the Confederate left flank (the Union’s right). This was a sound plan; however, McDowell’s forces were much too inexperienced to carry it out effectively.
On the other hand, the Confederate troops were also in disorder. Commanded overall by Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard (the hero of Fort Sumter), their order of battle was rather unwieldy, with about one third of their troops still marching from the Shenandoah Valley. Only a small brigade under Colonel Nathan Evans stood in the path of the Union Army. Had this unit faltered, or not been present, the flank attack would have succeeded. Ultimately these few men were unable to hold their positions after the entire Federal army attacked. The Confederate units retreated.
However, a brigade of Virginia soldiers commanded by Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson refused to lose ground. Confederate Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee then famously shouted the following order: “Look! There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” The Confederates did just that, and the battle resulted in a humiliating rout of Union forces and a disorderly retreat, bringing the battle to a halt. Because of Bee’s command, and the subsequent victory, General Jackson became known as “Stonewall Jackson” and the brigade as the “Stonewall Brigade”.
General Jackson’s arrival meant that the Army of the Shenandoah, under Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had arrived, and this force, along with Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac, attacked. The Federal right flank, which was in disorder because of the halted attack, was routed and driven back. By the end of the day these units were in full flight.
The elite of nearby Washington, D.C., expecting an easy Union victory, had come out to watch the battle and to picnic. When the Union Army was driven back, the roads back to Washington were blocked by panicked civilians attempting to flee in their carriages. Further confusion ensued when an artillery shell fell on a carriage, blocking the main road north.