Bull Run was the first great battle of the war. In the months following the opening attack at Fort Sumter, volunteers poured eagerly into the Northern and Southern armies. In the East, Beauregard, victor at Sumter, had by early July, 1861, set his small army in position to defend Manassas, a rail junction some thirty miles from Washington. In camps around the national Capital, General Irvin McDowell had assembled an army of 35,000, mostly 90-day enlistees, undisciplined and untrained. To the uninitiated it appeared a large enough force to put down a rebellion, and the newspaper-fostered cry arose: "On to Richmond!"
The authorities gave in to the public pressure for action. An unhappy McDowell marched with this amateur army on July 16, but not until the 21st was he in position to attack. Both commanders had the same battle plan: to attack his enemy's left flank and roll up his line. McDowell was able to strike first, but after an initial success his attack wavered on Henry Hill where Jackson, "standing like a stone wall," earned his famous nickname.
For several hours then the advantage see-sawed between the two tired armies until at a crucial moment fresh troops under Joseph E. Johnston arrived on trains from the Shenandoah Valley--the first occasion of troop transport to battle by rail--and were sent forward in a fresh attack. It was too much for the tired Federals. Their retreat across the Stone Bridge over Bull Run creek became a panic which swept with it the holiday crowd of Washingtonians who had followed the army with carriages and picnic baskets to witness the rout of the Rebels. A part of the army rallied at Centreville, but most of the bedraggled volunteers, minus arms and equipment thrown away in their flight, staggered into Washington to sink into exhausted sleep in the streets and doorways of the alarmed city.
The way lay open for the capture of Washington, but the Confederates were themselves too exhausted and disorganized to pursue. Next day, in the rain that so often followed Civil War battles, they went about the task of buying their dead.
In the South the victory lulled men into false confidence in an early, successful end to the war. The sobered North, on the other hand, now grimly prepared for the all-out struggle that loomed ahead.