First Manassas

In mid-summer 1861, Abraham Lincoln ordered General Irvin McDowell to advance his army from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Virginia. Lincoln, motivated at least in part by the spirit of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and its masthead proclaiming “On to Richmond,” had concluded that a successful assault on the Confederate capital would boost Northern morale while simultaneously dealing a serious blow to the Confederacy. General McDowell was a regular army officer with over two decades of experience, and was “by all accounts a loyal and capable officer, though he had never before commanded troops in battle.”[1] McDowell pleaded for more time to train and prepare the soldiers in his army, but Lincoln dismissed his doubts, saying, “You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are green alike.”[2] The plan called for McDowell to move on Richmond while General Robert Patterson’s army pinned down Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s men in the Shenandoah Valley. As James McPherson pointed out, “McDowell’s plan was a good one—for veteran troops with experienced officers. But McDowell lacked both.”[3]

McDowell and his thirty-five-thousand-man army left Washington on July 16 and headed west toward Manassas Junction, where General P.G.T. Beauregard waited with twenty thousand Confederate troops. The inexperienced and poorly-disciplined Union soldiers travelled slowly as they made their way toward the waiting Confederates, and the planned one-day march to Manassas turned into five. The delay provided Beauregard with additional time to dig in, but more importantly it allowed Johnston to slip away from Patterson in the Shenandoah Valley and make his way toward Manassas by rail. These reinforcements were critical to Beauregard, since they increased his numbers to a level of parity with the invading Union army.[4] Upon his arrival at Beauregard’s headquarters on July 20, Johnston informed Beauregard that Patterson probably would attempt to link up with McDowell no later than July 22. Beauregard began making plans for an assault that would disrupt this anticipated rendezvous, but McDowell beat him to the punch by launching an attack early on the twenty-first.[5] McDowell’s assault began promisingly enough as his flanking movement threatened to panic and rout the inexperienced Confederate soldiers on Beauregard’s left. Beauregard, however, was able to rush reinforcements in time to slow the advance, and Confederate resistance was further stiffened by General Thomas J. Jackson’s brave stand at Henry House Hill, an action which earned him his nickname—Stonewall. McDowell was unable to organize his brigades into a massed attack, and the Union advance began to crumble. As the Union army lost its momentum, it began to disintegrate and panicked soldiers began fleeing the battlefield.[6] In their headlong retreat, they passed U.S. Congressmen who had come out to witness the battle, some of whom threatened to shoot the fleeing soldiers.[7]

As a result of the Confederate victory at Manassas, Southern hopes for independence soared while Northern optimism for a speedy end to the war and its attendant reunification crumbled. Horace Greeley, who had trumpeted a Union advance to Richmond, gloomily advised Lincoln that seeking peace with the rebels on their terms was the Union’s only option. Lincoln refused to give in to the naysayers, however, and he called for a million three-year enlistees. The throngs of volunteers who answered the call came to Washington and joined the new Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George B. McClellan.[8]

Perhaps the most significant outcome of the First Battle of Manassas was McClellan’s assignment to this command. McClellan had graduated from West Point in 1846 and fought bravely in the Mexican War before leaving the army and becoming a successful railroad executive. When the Civil War broke out, McClellan returned to the army “and rose rocket-like through the ranks. When the Confederates bombarded Fort Sumter, he was a civilian. Six months later he was general in chief.”[9] McClellan was greeted by all—soldiers, civilians, politicians, and even Lincoln himself—as the man who would save the Union army and thus the Union itself. McClellan’s ego delighted in the attention as he set out to rebuild the shattered and demoralized army. By all accounts he did an admirable job of reorganizing and training the Army of the Potomac, instilling discipline and pride in all who served.[10] McClellan, however, resisted deploying his army, despite Lincoln’s pleading and prodding, and his insubordination toward the president bordered on treasonous. After his poorly executed Peninsula Campaign failed miserably, McClellan was removed as general-in-chief, though he retained command of the Army of the Potomac. Even in this capacity, though, he seemed intent on thwarting all attempts at an overall Union victory. The man whom Lincoln believed would save the Union after the disaster at Manassas instead became an enormous hindrance to the Union cause, but Lincoln lacked the political capital to relieve a man so popular with his soldiers and the general population.

[1] Steven E. Woodworth, This Great Struggle: America’s Civil War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 44-45, quotation on 44.

[2] quoted in Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 38.

[3] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 335,;cc=acls;idno=heb00677.0001.001;node= heb00677.0001.001%3A1;view=toc.

[4] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 46-47.

[5] Donald Stoker, Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 42,

[6] Woodworth, This Great Struggle, 47-49.

[7] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 345.

[8] Ibid., 347-8.

[9] Stoker, Grand Design, 52.

[10] Ibid., 53.

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