Civil War (detail of painting 'First Battle of Bull Run' by Kurz & Allison)

Battle of Bull Run

The Battle of Bull Run, the first major clash in the Civil War, ended in a Confederate victory. It shattered illusions that either side would win quickly or easily. The battle came about when President Lincoln ordered General Irvin McDowell to strike Confederate forces at Manassas Junction, as a step toward taking Richmond. He wanted to move quickly against the enemy, hoping a decisive victory would quell the rebellion. Attacking early in the morning, Union forces first seemed to be winning, but the Confederates checked their advance. Confederate general Thomas Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall” for his stout defensive stance. Late in the day, the Confederates counterattacked. Weary Union troops retreated, then panicked and fled helter-skelter back to Washington.

Confederate War Strategy

The goal of the Confederates was to win the war by not losing. They needed only to prolong their conflict long enough to convince the Union that victory would be too costly to bear. When opportunities arose, they would augment this strategy with selective offensive strikes. The Confederacy had fewer men, less capital, and less industrial capacity than the North, but its defensive strategy might prevail. And if it could convince France or England to recognize and support its government, chances of victory were even greater.

Union War Strategy

Unlike the Confederates, the Union had to fight and win an offensive war. Lincoln and his advisors developed a multipronged strategy to defeat the South. First, they would negotiate with border states like Maryland to keep them in the Union. Second, they would blockade Southern ports, thus restricting trade with Europe. Third, they would capture strongholds along the Mississippi River, isolating the southwestern states from the eastern ones. Finally, they would advance into the Confederate heartland, especially toward its capital in Richmond, Virginia. Although details of this plan changed during the war, the basic outline remained the key to victory.

Lithograph of the Battle of Bull Run
Map of the battle of Bull Run
Virginia militiamen, 1859

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