July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run

History is unkind to defeated generals.  All most of us recall about Irvin McDowell is that he commanded the Union army at First Bull Run, First Manassas south of the Mason-Dixon line, and was beaten by the Confederates.  He had a long and illustrious career in the Army both before and after Bull Run, but none of that matters.  He is the defeated general at Bull Run, and after History places that stamp on him, nothing else really matters.  In John Brown’s Body, his epic poem on the Civil War, Stephen Vincent Benet has a few words on McDowell that I believe should be remembered.

Six miles away, McDowell had planned his battle
And planned it well, as far as such things can be planned–
A feint at one point, a flanking march at another
To circle Beauregard’s left and crumple it up.
There were Johnston’s eight thousand men to be reckoned with
But Patterson should be holding them, miles away,
And even if they slipped loose from Patterson’s fingers
The thing might still be done.
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares.  They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
–A string of blocks curling smoothly around the left
Of another string of blocks and crunching it up–
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way–
The General loses his stars and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block-parts.
McDowell was neither a fool nor a fighting fool;
He knew his dice, he knew both armies unready,
But congressmen and nation wanted a battle
And he felt their hands on his shoulders, forcing his play.
He knew well enough when he played that he played for his head
As Beauregard and Johnston were playing for theirs,
So he played with the skill he had–and does not lie
Under a cupolaed gloom on Riverside Drive.
Put Grant in his place that day and with those same dice,
Grant might have done little better.
Wherefore, now,
Irvin McDowell, half-forgotten general,
Who tried the game and found no luck in the game
And never got the chance to try it again
But did not backbite the gamblers who found more luck in it
Then or later in double-edged reminiscences;
If any laurel can grow in the sad-colored fields
Between Bull Run and Cub Run and Cat Hairpin Bend
You should have a share of it for your hardworking ghost
Because you played as you could with your cold, forced dice
And neither wasted your men like the fighting fools
Nor posed as an injured Napoleon twenty years later.

Go here for my thoughts on the lessons to be gleaned from Bull Run by observant individuals.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. An ancestor, an Irish immigrant, gave his life on that field with the 69th New York Militia. His daughter was my great, grandmother’s mother. My sister has a tin-type (or whatever) picture.

    The war was one long and bloody meat grinder. Tactics were outdated compared with the weapons: rifled muskets, and improvements in artillery and logistics. Both sides were in it for the long haul.

    Then, it devolved (if that were possible) into trench warfare: Petersburg.

    Seems no one (except Lee at Fredericksburg, then he did the opposite at Gettysburg) was able to marry the strategic offensive with tactical defensive. The attacker always had the disadvantage in casualties. Years ago (our office was across from the NY Public Library) I read a scholarly book detailing the disadvantages of the CW attacker.

    The Unon cavalry was ineffective until Gettysburg.

    The Union had the advantage in men, industrial capacity, and it was executing the Anaconda Plan.

    The Union could have lost, or lost the will to contuinue. The South was at a significant disadvantage with slight chance of success.

  2. McDowell’s plan was a good one, but it was too complex for green troops. He should have tried something simpler.

    “I read a scholarly book detailing the disadvantages of the CW attacker.”

    Yes, the tacticians of the war never quite understood the effect of the rifled bullet. With one often unremembered exception: Col. Emery Upton of the Union. His approach was to launch a massed column against a short part of the front, which charged the position without bothering to trade fire with the defenders. It worked reasonably well against improvised defenses, twice at Spotsylvania.

  3. Another problem with McDowell’s plan was that it relied on Patterson to hold Johnston in the valley. Patterson was completely out of his depth and did nothing. He deserves an honored place in the pantheon of Union incompetent generals.

    If McDowell had won the battle, I doubt if it would have made much difference. His army in victory would have been too disorganized to engage in pursuit, and the Union lacked the advantage in manpower that it had later in the war. McDowell would have confronted a Confederate force with enough men sufficient to stimie any advance south from Manassas. The truth was that the Union needed time to build up a huge force in the east and train it. That is what McClellan accomplished. The tragedy for the Union was that after this superb job of building an army, McClellan proved to be a useless battlefield commander, unable to effectively utilize the army he had created.

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