Last Thursday was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, also known as the Battle of Manassas. It was the first major engagement of the American Civil War with 28,000 soldiers on the Union side and 21,000 on the Confederate. The Union commander, General Irving McDowell, was hesitant to attack because of the inexperience of his troops, but since President Lincoln’s initial call for troops had been for a period of only 90 days, many of the enlistments were expiring and, as Lincoln told McDowell in ordering him to attack, “You may be green, but so is the other side.”
McDowell attacked at dawn and met some initial success. Historians claim the turning point of the battle occurred when a Confederate commander, seeking to reorganize fleeing troops, pointed to an unwavering brigade of Virginia militia under the command of Thomas J. Jackson, a former US Army officer and current instructor at Virginia Military Institute, and said, “Look there at Jackson; he stands like a stonewall.” Not only did that rally the fleeing troops, it gave birth to one of the best known nicknames of that or any other war.
But beyond the Stonewall Jackson anecdote, the key to the Confederate victory may have been the sudden arrival at the battlefield of reinforcements who had rapidly traveled from the Shenandoah Valley by train. This was particularly significant since the Civil War was the first war in history to make widespread use of rail for troop movements and logistical support of large armies. It was a development that revolutionized warfare. In fact, the reason Manassas was the Union objective that day was that it was a key rail junction that lay only about 20 miles west of Washington. (Rail intersections such as Manassas would become strategic targets throughout the war).
The fears that McDowell harbored about the reliability of his inexperienced troops were well founded. When the battle turned against them, their orderly retreat quickly turned into a chaotic rout with many of the troops fleeing all the way back to Washington. The battle was costly for both sides. Casualties were 2900 for the Union and 2000 for the Confederates. Much like the Battle of Bunker Hill at the start of the American Revolution, the scale of the casualties at Bull Run showed to all that this war would not end quickly or easily. The next day President Lincoln called for an additional 500,000 troops, but this time, it was for a term of 3 years. Unfortunately, those who survived that term of enlistment were asked to re-up, as the war continued on into 1865.