First Battle of Bull Run

July 21, 1861

On the afternoon of July 21, 1861, Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard looked through his field glasses at a column of soldiers advancing toward the battlefield at Bull Run, where fighting had raged since early morning. Beauregard could not tell if the approaching troops were Confederate or Union, but he knew that if they were the enemy, the day would be lost, and he would have to order a retreat. A breeze swept across the fields and unfurled the flag at the head of the column; it was the Confederate Stars and Bars.

The fresh troops attacked the right flank of the advancing Union army at the same time Beauregard ordered the main Rebel line to charge. The Yankees heard for probably the first time a sound that would bring instant chills in the days to come. The 6,500 attacking soldiers loosed a shrill, yelping fox hunter's call, an eerie quaver that was to become known as the "Rebel Yell." The onslaught was too much for the exhausted Union troops. "The enemy soon was forced over the narrow plateau . . . in disorder in all available directions toward Bull Run. The rout had seen become general and complete," said Beauregard.

Union commander Gen. Irvin McDowell lamented, "The retreat soon became a rout, and this soon degenerated into a panic." Said another Union officer, "No efforts could induce a single regiment to form after the retreat was commenced." The disorganized mob of Yankees ran back toward Washington, sweeping along with them picknicking civilians and members of the U.S. Congress who had come out to watch the battle.

Gen. Thomas J. Jackson wanted but did not get the 5,000 men with whom he said he could destroy the enemy. In Washington, President Lincoln received a note: "The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army. The routed troops will not reform." The Union lost 460 men killed, 1,124 wounded, and 1,312 captured or missing. The Confederacy lost 387 killed, 1,582 wounded, and 13 missing, and captured 28 cannon.

Fascinating Fact: Although the total number of Union troops at Bull Run was about 35,000 and the Confederates had about 32,500 only about 18,000 men on each side were actually engaged in combat.