Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas)

The battle of First Manassas is generally regarded as the first major battle of the Civil War. It was fought on Sunday, July 21, 1861. Many accounts of the battle have been written and are available in print and on the Internet. If you are looking for a good overview of the battle one source may be Official Records (http://www.civilwarhome.com/1manassa.htm). A source with a Danville connection is an article which appears on pages 56 – 64 if the July/August 2011 issue of the Smithsonian magazine entitled “The End of Illusions” which was written by Ernest B. Furgurson, a Danville native who grew up on Lee Street which is named after Robert E. Lee. In this article he points out how the illusions of a quick and easy war with victory on their side were shattered for both the Confederacy and the Union. Just prior to the battle of First Manassas inexperienced armies of both the North and the South gathered in northern Virginia with grandiose ideas of what they might accomplish. The South envisioned winning a battle, moving on to capture Washington and gaining their independence as a nation. The North envisioned winning the battle and with the cry, “On to Richmond!” ringing in their ears putting an end to the secession and restoring the union. The North was so sure of their success that a number of civilians came out from Washington to watch the battle. Up until the time of the battle there had been only minor skirmishes, particularly in some of the Border States where loyalties were divided. George B. McClellan had established a name for himself by military success in the northwestern counties of Virginia where there were many Union sympathizers in the area which in 1863 would be split off from Virginia to form West Virginia. Otherwise the early months of 1861 had been spent in arguments on secession within the seceding states, their eventual secession and calls for troops and mobilization on both sides.

It was not until June 1, 1861 that local units that were to make up the 18th Virginia Infantry were officially designated as such by the Confederate War Department. The 18th was commanded by Col. Robert Enoch Withers, age 39, a Campbell County physician who had moved to Danville in the mid-1850s and had become one of the most prominent men in the community. The 18th was made up of ten companies, mostly from Southside Virginia as follows:

  • Company A: “Danville Blues,” Capt. William P. Graves
  • Company B: “Danville Grays,” Capt. Thomas D. Claiborne
  • Company C: “Nottaway Rifle Guards,” Capt/ Henry T. Owen
  • Company D: “Prospect Rifle Grays,” (Prince Edward County), Capt. Edward G. Wall
  • Company E: “Black Eagle Rifles,” (Cumberland county), Capt. Carter H. Harrison
  • Company F: “Farmville Guard,” Capt. Richard A. Booker
  • Company G: “Nottaway Grays,” Capt. Reps Connaly
  • Company H: “Appomattox Grays,” Capt. Thomas P. Matthews
  • Company I: “Spring Garden Blues,” (Pittsylvania County), Capt. James C. Luck
  • Company K: “Chatham Rifles,” Capt. Thomas J. Spencer

Each Company was normally 100 men for a total for the Regiment of 1000. On the morning of the battle the 18th was guarding fords along Bull Run against an expected Union attack from the east. About 2 P.M. while standing at ease waiting for orders and with Col. Withers elsewhere, Withers was found and ordered the 18th to advance to the fighting front to fill a gap that had developed between Hampton’s South Carolina Legion and Jackson’s Virginians. It was there that they participated in the battle in which they suffered 6 killed and 13 wounded. After taking part in the final Rebel charge and pursuit of the retreating Yankees, the 18th was called back to guard against a rumored Union attack that never came. At the end of the battle Union forces and the spectators who had come out to view the battle fled back to Washington in disarray, but the Rebel forces were too tired and disorganized to pursue them effectively. More devastating than the casualties suffered in battle were the casualties suffered from disease. After the battle the 18th remained in its camps on and around the battlefield where an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out. The epidemic was intensified by streams and springs being contaminated from putrefying bodies and parts of bodies of men and horses. By the end of August the 1,000 man regiment was down to 300 men present for duty due to deaths and illness.

Another Rebel unit predominately from Southside Virginia, the 38th Infantry which was attached to General Johnston’s army stationed at Winchester was supposed to participate in the battle, but due to delays on the railroad which was supposed to transport them to Manassas did not get there until the battle was over.

Some of the illusions which were shattered by the battle were that the war would be short and easy and that fighting men on either side were inherently better fighters than those on the other side. Gone would be the 90-day enlistments to be replaced by enlistments for the duration of the war. The blockade of Southern ports by Union warships was becoming more effective and the hope of relief from England or another foreign power was not being realized. Confusion caused by the lack of uniformity in uniforms on both the Union and Rebel forces would result in the adoption of blue uniforms for the North and gray ones for the South. The confusion between the Union flag and the “Stars and Bars” flag of the south, especially when partially furled, would be remedied by the adoption of the Confederate Battle Flag which became the best recognized flag of the Confederacy even to this day. Due to the practice of the Union to name battles after adjacent streams and the practice of Confederates to name battles after nearby towns and the fact that another battle would be fought on the same ground later, the battle was known as 1st Bull Run in the North and as 1st Manassas in the South.

One of the casualties of the 18th Virginia was Harry Wooding of Company B who was wounded in the shoulder. He later transferred to the 5th Virginia Calvary and, after the war, served as Mayor of Danville for 46 years, the longest in American history. There is an obvious typographical error in his death date in the regimental history of the 18th which states that he died on November 16, 1838 when the date should be 1938. After the battle of 1st Manassas there would be no more major battles until the following year as both sides, realizing that they were in for a long hard war, began to recruit, plan, equip and train for it.

Although the abolition of slavery would be one of the outcomes of the Civil War, at this point in the war the emphasis was on maintaining the Union, not on abolishing slavery. In Washington on July 22, the day after the battle, the House of Representatives passed the Crittenden Resolution announcing that the war was being waged “To defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution and to preserve the Union,” and not to interfere with slavery or subjugate the South. On July 25 the United States Senate passed the same resolution by a vote of 30 to 5.