The First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, was the first major battle of the Civil War. A Confederate victory, it gave lessons to those paying attention:
1. It amply demonstrated the hazards of sending half-trained troops into combat. Both the Union and Confederate armies were green, and it showed in clumsy battlefield maneuvers and an inability to coordinate attacks.
2. An early indication that it was much easier to defend and counter-attack than to launch an initial attack in the Civil War.
3. Rifled muskets were going to make this an exceptionally bloody war. 5,000 Union and Confederate casualties resulted from this battle, just slightly below the total American killed and wounded for either the entire War of 1812 or the entire Mexican War.
4. One able general, Stonewall Jackson in the case of Bull Run, could seize the initiative and turn the tide of a battle.
5. Decisive pursuit was going to be a rare thing in this war. The Union army was routed from the field, but the Confederates, almost as disorganized in victory, were unable to pursue and destroy large portions of the Union force. The longer range of rifles made even a fleeing force hazardous to a pursuing force, one of the traditional roles of cavalry, a mounted horse making a poor firing platform.
6. Railroads allowed rapid reinforcement of troops.
7. Both sides were determined to win, and no one battle would lead to the end of the war.
The Confederates were overjoyed in winning the first big battle and the Union was depressed. However, to an objective observer the main lessons drawn from Bull Run would have been that even with raw troops both sides had withstood heavy fighting for several hours, that the issue was in doubt for most of the battle and that the results of the battle were not decisive for either side. A long war, desperately waged by both sides, was clearly foretold by the first major fight of the Civil War.
Six miles away, McDowell had planned his battle
And planned it well, as far as such things can be planned–
A feint at one point, a flanking march at another
To circle Beauregard’s left and crumple it up.
There were Johnston’s eight thousand men to be reckoned with
But Patterson should be holding them, miles away,
And even if they slipped loose from Patterson’s fingers
The thing might still be done.
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
–A string of blocks curling smoothly around the left
Of another string of blocks and crunching it up–
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way–
The General loses his stars and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block-parts.
McDowell was neither a fool nor a fighting fool;
He knew his dice, he knew both armies unready,
But congressmen and nation wanted a battle
And he felt their hands on his shoulders, forcing his play.
He knew well enough when he played that he played for his head
As Beauregard and Johnston were playing for theirs,
So he played with the skill he had–and does not lie
Under a cupolaed gloom on Riverside Drive.
Put Grant in his place that day and with those same dice,
Grant might have done little better.
Irvin McDowell, half-forgotten general,
Who tried the game and found no luck in the game
And never got the chance to try it again
But did not backbite the gamblers who found more luck in it
Then or later in double-edged reminiscences;
If any laurel can grow in the sad-colored fields
Between Bull Run and Cub Run and Cat Hairpin Bend
You should have a share of it for your hardworking ghost
Because you played as you could with your cold, forced dice
And neither wasted your men like the fighting fools
Nor posed as an injured Napoleon twenty years later.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body