Battle of Bull Run: July 21, 1861

by Diana Castaneda

The United States Civil War spanned from 1861 to 1865, and is known as the deadliest war in United States history. This year will be the 159th anniversary of the first major battle of the Civil War: The Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas.

Brief Overview of Causes of The Civil War

A variety of causes coupled with racial tension contributed immensely to the commencement of the Civil War. Some even argue that it was inevitable. The north and the south were very different from each other, especially in terms of what their economies relied on. The south relied on slave labor to produce crops like cotton in plantations. The north, however, was more focused on industry and manufacturing.

An issue arose after the United States acquired a large amount of land. In the 1840s and beyond, the idea of Manifest Destiny led many in the United States to believe it was the destiny of the United States to expand westward.

Due to Manifest Destiny and other desires to expand, the United States acquired new land. This new land brought up a debate: should slavery be allowed in this territory?

Years before, in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, it was decided that Missouri would be a slave state and Maine a free state and that there wouldn’t be slavery above the 36º 30’ line-in this context came up the question, did this apply to the newly acquired land?

Many northerners wanted the new land to be free of slavery to have the land for their own economic opportunities. Attempts at a resolution of the debate, such as popular sovereignty (majority decide) only led to a palpable increase in tension, as these problems were never fully resolved.

In the north, there was a growth of awareness about the issue of slavery. There were also abolitionists, those who wanted to completely get rid of slavery in the entire country, not just the new territory.

For many years of early United States history, there had been debates over states’ rights. Typically, the north believed in a strong federal government, while the south largely believed in a weaker federal government and a focus on the rights of the states.

Eventually, the Election of 1860 would prove a deadly blow to stability. Abraham Lincoln initially ran on a platform that was favored by the north, with the inclusion of not allowing slavery in the new land. Some in the south threatened to secede if Lincoln were to win.

After the results came in that Lincoln won in November, within the following month, South Carolina became the first to secede. Not long after six more states seceded. These newly-seceded states created their own government, the Confederate States of America.

Although Lincoln had no intention to abolish slavery in the south, he largely disapproved of the secessions and threatened to take action.

The Battle

Following Lincoln’s message, he decided on supplying a southern Carolina fort, Fort Sumter, with food. Sumter was a federal fort, and once the food was supplied, violence broke out. April 12, 1861, marks the beginning of the civil war.

Many thought the fighting would stop after some weeks. Abraham Lincoln initially went on the offense and planned for an attack led by General Irvin McDowell that would possibly lead towards Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, bringing the war to an end through a successful attack.

Beginning on July 16, thousands of Union troops went from Washington D.C. towards Virginia. The Confederate commander, P. G. T. Beauregard, heard of the planned attack and that the troops had left. Joseph E. Johnston (a Confederate General) led thousands of confederate soldiers towards Manassas, Virginia.

Finally, on July 21, McDowell’s troops arrived. The fighting at Bull Run Creek had begun. Initially, the Confederate forces were pushed back towards Henry Hill by Union Forces.

Spectators watched the battle and were expecting the Union to win as they had been off to a strong start. It seemed like a positive start for the Union until backup forces from Joseph E. Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard arrived. Upon arrival, even more backup Confederate forces arrived, making it difficult for the Union forces to keep up with the attacks.

Later in the day, the number of soldiers fighting on one side matched the number of soldiers fighting on the other. Eventually, a counterattack was set on the Union forces by Beauregard. It was said that as the Confederate forces approached, they were yelling. This would become known as the rebel yell. The Confederate forces were soon able to get through the Union forces, leading to their retreat.


From over 60,000 forces that were involved in fighting, there were nearly 5,000 estimated casualties from the Battle. More than half of the casualties were from Union forces, after being outnumbered by opposing forces.

In the end, the battle was a Confederate victory. The north, who had been expecting a win, found themselves at a loss for the first major battle. Those in the south saw this as potentially being a step in the direction towards winning the war.

Again, at this time many thought fighting would only go on for a few more weeks and were not anticipating a war that would last for years and result in hundreds of thousands of casualties.


  • “Battle of Bull Run Facts & Summary.” American Battlefield Trust, 19 Mar. 2020,

  • Hassler, Warren W., and Jennifer L. Weber. “American Civil War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 June 2020,

  • Editors. “Civil War.”, A&E Television Networks, 15 Oct. 2009,

  • Editors. “First Battle of Bull Run.”, A&E Television Networks, 1 Apr. 2011,

  • Newman, John J., and John M. Schmalbach. United States History. Perfection Learning, 2019.

  • “States' Rights.” American Battlefield Trust, 25 Mar. 2019,

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