In July, 1861, Abraham Lincoln sent Major General Irvin McDowell and the Union Army to take Richmond, the new base the Confederate government. On 21st July McDowell attacked the forces of Pierre T. Beauregard near the stone bridge over Bull Run at Manassas Junction, Virginia. The advance was blocked by Thomas Stonewall Jackson, who was described as standing like a "stone wall" against the enemy.
With the arrival of Confederate troops led by E. Kirby Smith, the inexperienced Union Army retreated. Attacked by armies led by Joseph E. Johnston, James Jeb Stuart, Jubal Early, and Braxton Bragg, the Union forces rushed back North. The South had won the first great battle of the war and the Northern casualties totaled 1,492 with another 1,216 missing.
The battle was witnessed by several members of Congress including Benjamin Wade, Lyman Trumbull, James Grimes, and Zachariah Chandler. At one stage they came close to being captured by the Confederate Army and after arriving back in Washington they led the attack on the incompetence of the leadership of the Union Army.
I saw Burnside's men, who had come back from the field with their muskets gleaming in the sunshine. They had some appearance of formation and were resting on their arms. I noticed other troops more scattered; ambulances in long columns leaving the field with the wounded. There were men with broken arms; faces with bandages stained with blood; bodies pierced; many were walking or limping to the rear; meanwhile shells were shrieking and breaking in the heated air. I was sorry, indeed, that those left of my men had to pass that ordeal.
When forming, I so stationed myself, mounted, that the men, marching in twos, should pass me. I closely observed them. They were pale and thoughtful. Many looked up into my face and smiled. As soon as it was ready the first line swept up the slope, through a sprinkling of trees, out into an open space on high ground. An enemy's battery toward our front and some musketry shots with no enemy plainly in sight caused the first annoyance. Soon another battery off to our right coming into position increased the danger. And, worse than the batteries, showers of musket balls from the wood, two hundred yards away.
Many officers labored to keep their men together, but I saw could effect nothing under fire. At last I ordered all to fall back to the valley and reform behind the thicket. Before many minutes, however, it was evident that a panic had seized all the troops within sight. Some experienced veteran officers, like Heintzelman, entreated and commanded their subordinates, by turns, to rally their men; but nothing could stop the drift and eddies of the masses that were faster and faster flowing toward the rear.
Captain Heath, of the Third Maine, who, promoted subsequently to lieutenant colonel and fell in the battle of Gaines Mills, walked for some time by my horse and shed tears as he talked to me: "My men will not stay together, Colonel, they will not obey me," he said. Other brave officers pleaded and threatened. Surgeons staying back pointed to their wounded and cried: "for God's sake, stop; don't leave us!" Nothing could at that time reach and influence the fleeing crowds except panicky cries like: "The enemy is upon us! We shall be taken!" These cries gave increase to confusion and speed to flight.
Heintzelman, with his wounded arm in a sling, rode up and down and made a last effort to restore order. He sharply reprimanded every officer he encountered. He swore at me. From time to time I renewed my attempts. My brother, C. H. Howard, if he saw me relax for a moment, sang out: "Oh, do try again!" Part of the Fourteenth New York from Brooklyn rallied north of Bull Run and were moving on in fine shape. "See them," said my brother; "let us try to form like that!" So we were trying, gathering a few, but in vain. Then I stopped all efforts, but sent out this message and kept repeating it to every Maine and Vermont man within reach: "To the old camp at Centreville. Rally at the Centreville camp."
When the Unionists resumed their advance, the rebels successfully resisted their rather desultory attacks at different points. With every unsuccessful onward attempt there was a rapid melting away of the assailants. Fewer and fewer officers and men could be rallied for another advance. Towards four o'clock, the rebels felt strong enough to take the offensive. A brigade with a battery under Earle managed to strike the Federal right on the flank and rear and throw it into utter confusion, which spread rapidly along the whole front. Now came the disastrous end. Without any formal orders to retreat, what was left of the several organizations yielded to a general impulse to abandon the field. Officers and men became controlled by the one thought of getting as far as possible from the enemy.
There was a great battle yesterday. The Yankees are overwhelmingly routed. Thousands of them killed. I was in the fight. We at one time stood for two hours under a perfect storm of shot and shell - it was a miracle that none of our company was killed. We took all of their cannon from them; among the batteries captured was Sherman's - battle lasted about 7 hours - about 90,000 Yankees, 45,000 of our men. The cavalry pursued them till dark - followed 6 or 7 miles. General Scott commanded them. I just snatch this moment to write - am out doors in a rain - will write you all particulars when I get a chance. We start just as soon as we can get our breakfast to follow them to Alexandria. We made a forced march to get here to the battle - travelled about 65 miles without stopping. My love to all of you. In haste.
The conduct of General Jackson also requires mention as eminently that of an able, fearless soldier and sagacious commander, one fit to lead his efficient brigade. His prompt, timely arrival before the plateau of the Henry House, and his judicious disposition of his troops, contributed much to the success of the day. Although painfully wounded in the hand, he remained on the field to the end of the battle, rendering valuable assistance.
Our victory was as complete as one gained by infantry and artillery alone can be. An adequate force of cavalry would have made it decisive. It is due under Almighty God, to the skill and resolution of General Beauregard, the admirable conduct of Generals Bee, Kirby Smith and Jackson and of the Colonel Evans, Cocke, Early and Elzey, and the courage, and unyielding firmness of our patriotic volunteers.
The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22nd July. The day drizzling all through with rain. The Saturday and Sunday of the battle had been parched and hot to an extreme - the dust, the grime, and smoke, in layers, sweated in, their clothes all saturated with the clay-powder filling the air - stirred up everywhere on the dry roads and trodden fields by the regiments, swarming wagons, artillery. All the men with this coating of sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge - a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck. Occasionally, a rare regiment, in perfect order, with its officers (some gaps, dead, the true braves) marching in silence, with lowering faces, stern, weary to sinking, all black and dirty, but every man with his musket, and stepping alive; but these are the exceptions.
Brady, the irrepressible photographer, who like the war horse, sniffs the battle from afar. He got as far as the smoke of Bull Run and was aiming his nevertheless tube at friends and foe alike, when with the rest of our Grand Army they were completely routed and took to their heels, losing their photographic accouterments on the ground, which the Rebels no doubt pounced upon as trophies of victory. Perhaps they considered the camera as an infernal machine. The soldiers live to fight another day, our special friends to make again their photographs. When will photographers have another chance in Virginia.