The First Battle of Bull Run

On July 21, 1861, a dry summer Sunday, Union and Confederate troops clashed outside Manassas, Virginia, in the first major engagement of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run.

Battle field of Bull Run, Va. July 21st 1861, Showing the positions of both armies at 4 o’clock, P.M. [S.I., 1861]. Civil War Maps. Geography & Map Division

Union General Irvin McDowell hoped to march his men across a small stream called Bull Run in the vicinity of Manassas, Virginia, which was well-guarded by a force of Confederates under General P. G. T. Beauregard. McDowell needed to find a way across the stream and through the Southern line that stretched for over six miles along the banks of Bull Run.

McDowell launched a small diversionary attack at the Stone Bridge while marching the bulk of his force north around the Confederates’ left flank. The march was slow, but McDowell’s army crossed the stream near Sudley Church and began to march south behind the Confederate line. Some of Beauregard’s troops, recognizing that the attack at Stone Bridge was just a diversion, fell back just in time to meet McDowell’s oncoming force.

[Bull Run, Va. Matthews’ or the Stone House]. George N. Barnard, photographer, March 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division
[Cub Run, Va. View with Destroyed Bridge]. George N. Barnard, photographer, March 1862. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints. Prints & Photographs Division

The photographs above of the first Battle of Bull Run were not made at the time of the battle on July 21, 1861; the photographers had to wait until the Confederate Army evacuated Centreville and Manassas in March 1862. Their views of various landmarks of the previous summer are displayed here according to the direction of the Federal advance, a long-flanking movement along Sudley’s Ford.

When Beauregard learned of the attack, he sent reinforcements to aid the small group of Southerners, but they were unable to hold back the oncoming tide of Union troops. As more Union soldiers joined the fray, the Southerners were slowly pushed back past the Stone House and up Henry Hill.

The battle raged for several hours around the home of Mrs. Judith Henry on top of Henry Hill, with each side taking control of the hill more than once. Slowly, more and more Southern men poured onto the field to support the Confederate defense, and Beauregard’s men pushed the Northerners back.

At this point in the battle, Confederate General Barnard Bee attempted to rally his weary men by pointing to Brigadier General Thomas Jackson, who proudly stood his ground in the face of the Union assault. Bee cried, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” From that moment on, Thomas Jackson was known as “Stonewall” Jackson.

As the day wore on, the strength of McDowell’s troops was sapped by the continuous arrival of fresh Southern reinforcements. Eventually, the stubborn Confederates proved more than a match for McDowell’s men, and the Northerners began to retreat across Bull Run.

The Union pullout began as an orderly movement. However, when the bridge over Cub Run was destroyed, cutting off the major route of retreat, it degenerated into a rout. The narrow roads and fords, clogged by the many carts, wagons, and buggies full of people who had driven out from Washington, D.C., to see the spectacle, hampered the withdrawal of the Union Army. The Southerners tried to launch a pursuit, but were too tired and disorganized from the day’s fighting to be effective.

The morning of July 22 found most of the soldiers of the Union Army on their way back to Washington or already there. It was more than a year before the Northerners attempted once again to cross the small stream outside of Manassas named Bull Run.

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Ernest Hemingway

On July 21, 1899, Dr. Clarence Hemingway stepped onto the porch of his Oak Park, Illinois home and blew his cornet to announce the birth of his son, Ernest. During Ernest Hemingway’s boyhood, his family spent much time at their cottage near Walloon Lake in northern Michigan where his father enjoyed hunting and other sports. The love for the great outdoors and the physically active life his father instilled in him remained with Hemingway for the rest of his life.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon. (New York: Scribner, 1932), 192.

Ernest Hemingway, drawing by Ralph Barton, first published in Vanity Fair. Caroline and Erwin Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon. Prints & Photographs Division

After graduating from high school, Hemingway worked briefly as a reporter for the Kansas City Star before volunteering for service in World War I. Excluded from regular military duty because of a defective eye, he worked as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in Italy, where he was badly injured. Hemingway drew on his wartime experience of falling in love with his nurse while recuperating in a Milan hospital as background for his novel A Farewell to Arms.

Hemingway returned to Europe after the war, working in Paris as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. There, he became part of a group of expatriate American artists and writers who would come to be known as the “Lost Generation,” a term coined by writer Gertrude Stein and used by Hemingway as an epigraph to his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Hemingway developed a passion for Spain and for the country’s national sport of bullfighting, and he worked there as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. As a reporter during World War II, Hemingway flew several missions with the Royal Air Force, crossed the English Channel with the American troops on D-Day, and participated in the liberation of Paris. His remarkable adventures found their way into books such as For Whom the Bell Tolls.

The final paragraph of the following 1943 letter includes an appeal to Hemingway’s friend, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish, the poet and dramatist who, at that time, was also serving as assistant director of the Office of War Information. Although MacLeish was unable to grant him accreditation, Hemingway did become a foreign correspondent during World War II. In the letter, Hemingway also writes of Ezra Pound’s problems and makes suggestions as to how the poet’s friends might help him.

Is there any chance that we might send guys to the war not to write govt. publications or propaganda but so as to have something good written afterwards?…What do you think? Maybe I could be the accredited correspondent for the Library of Congress? Write me about it seriously will you?

Letter, Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish discussing Ezra Pound’s mental health and other literary matters, August 10, 1943. Archibald MacLeish Papers, 1907-1981. Manuscript Division

Hemingway received a Pulitzer PrizeExternal in fiction for The Old Man and the Sea in 1953 and the Nobel Prize for Literature External in 1954. Suffering from anxiety and depression, Hemingway took his own life in 1961. His use of terse prose and dialogue, and short simple sentences stripped of emotional rhetoric, is perhaps the most frequently appropriated writing style of the twentieth century.

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  • Search Today in History on writer to find more features on American literary figures including Hemingway’s friends and contemporaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, William Faulkner, and Archibald MacLeish.
  • Learn about the complex rivalry between Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the latter also a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, through this webcast by Joseph Fruscione, author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry.
  • View the webcast “Hemingway in Pamplona,” featuring former mayor of Pamplona, Spain, Yolanda Barcina. Hemingway came to Pamplona for the first time, traveling from Paris, in 1923, in the full swing of the Fiesta of San Fermin. The atmosphere in the city and, particularly, the bullfights, made such an impression on him that he chose the fiesta as the backdrop to his first successful novel, The Sun Also Rises, published three years later.
  • Visit the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak ParkExternal website to learn more about Hemingway’s life and work and to take a tour of his birthplaceExternal.
  • Read Hemingway’s work, available at your local public library, and then see some of the classic films adapted from his stories and novels, such as The Sun Also Rises (1957), A Farewell to Arms (1932 and 1957), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Killers (1946), To Have and Have Not (1944), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). Hemingway was often vocal about his disdain for these adaptations which are viewed as film classics by less vitriolic critics. Screenplays of some of the adaptations were written by writers, such as Hemingway’s friends Fitzgerald and Faulkner, who did not disdain earning extra cash by writing for Hollywood.