Scarcely more than three months after Lincoln’s recruitment order, federal troops invaded Virginia (which had, by then, also seceded from the Union). Thousands of people, oblivious to the horrors of war, gathered to watch a spectacle near Manassas Junction as the first land battle of the Civil War - near the tree-clogged Bull Run Creek - took place on 21 July 1861.
Early in the afternoon of July 21st, despite Confederate fortifications on the battlefield, General Barnard Bee’s troops were retreating in disorder. Thomas Jonathon Jackson, who a few months before was professor of artillery tactics at Virginia Military Institute, came to Bee’s aid.
With a battery of his men, Jackson advanced to the ridge behind the Robinson House. Fearlessly, the former professor stood his ground. Amazed at the Virginian’s fortitude, Bee was able to rally his own troops when he told a remnant of the Fourth Alabama:
Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall. Let’s go to his assistance.
Not long thereafter, Bee was dead of a federal bullet. But Jackson’s men (who sustained massive losses and, that day, earned the nickname “The Stonewall Brigade”) stopped the Union assault on Henry House Hill. Judith Henry, the bedridden widow who refused to leave her house during the battle, also died.
Men from both sides, who had never been fired at before, showed remarkable courage during the Civil War’s first battle. But as the day wore on, exhausted Union soldiers (who had signed up for ninety days and were near the end of their term) panicked and fled when General Beauregard’s reinforcements commenced a counterattack.
Yankee soldiers had heard Beauregard’s men scream what would soon be known as “the rebel yell.” Described after the war by a northern veteran, it was a wail that never ceased to strike fear whenever it was heard:
There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it. (Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson, page 344.)
Congressmen, who had come to watch the fighting, tried to stop the fleeing Union soldiers. But their efforts were fruitless. When the battle of Bull Run was over, the Confederates had won the day.
Union Colonel Adelbert Ames, who was promoted to Brig. General in 1863, showed great courage in the first battle at Bull Run. Although federal troops did not prevail in that fight (or in the subsequent battle for Fredericksburg in which Ames also demonstrated extraordinary skill with his 20th Maine unit), Ames was eventually awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in battle. (He was the oldest surviving general officer of the war when he died, aged ninety-seven, in 1933.)