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First Bull Run

June 2024
6min read


Sullivan Ballou Letter

Sullivan Ballou

Commissioned a major in June, Rhode Island lawyer and legislator Sullivan Ballou wrote the following letter to his wife, Sarah, a week before the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas. During the engagement, a six-pound Confederate cannonball tore off Ballou’s right leg and killed his horse. He died several days later.

Headquarters, Camp Clark

Washington, DC, July 14, 1861

My Very Dear Wife:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days, perhaps to-morrow. Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write a few lines, that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

Our movement may be one of a few days dura- tion and full of pleasure—and it may be one of severe conflict and death to me. Not my will, but thine, O God, be done. If it is necessary that I should fall on the battle-field for my country, I am ready. I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American civilization now leans upon the triumph of the govern- ment, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution, and I am willing, perfectly willing to lay down all my joys in this life to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

But, my dear wife, when I know, that, with my own joys, I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows,— when, after having eaten for long years the bitter fruit of orphanage myself, I must offer it, as their only sustenance, to my dear little children, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly and proudly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country...

I know I have but few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me, perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.


Sullivan Ballou to Sarah Ballou, July 14, 1861. Brown University in the Civil War: A Memorial. Edited by Henry Sweetser Burrage (Providence Press Company, 1868).


Charles Minor Blackford Letter

Lt. Charles Blackford of the 30th Virginia Volunteers, who was recovering from a bout of dysentery, recorded his observations about the July 21 Battle of Bull Run/Manassas, in which Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s Confederate army repulsed, then routed, Gen. Irvin McDowell’s forces at the vital railroad center of Manassas Junction.

The bivouac of our squadron was on the extreme left near the Henry house as it was called. Mrs. Henry, who lived in it, and was so very old and infirm she refused to move out of it. She was said to have been a Miss Carter, and to have been one of the family who once owned the Sudley farm nearby. Mrs. Henry’s house during the day became a strategic point of great importance and was much torn up by shot and shell, by one of which she was killed. In her yard General Bee was killed and near it Colonel Bartow. Near it also it was that General Jackson formed his heroic brigade and received the baptism of fire during which he received the immortal name of "Stonewall."

We were thrown into line about sunrise on the brow of a hill which overlooked Bull Run, with quite a wide valley (two hundred yards at least), below us. On the other side the bluff rose quite steeply, but on the top of it there was an open field. We were placed in that position to support a battery of artillery, whose I did not find out for it was moved very soon after the battle began to rage on our extreme left above the stone bridge...

While we stood there in nervous anxiety we all concluded our generals had been out-generaled, and the enemy had gained a great point upon them in transferring so many troops without their knowledge to the left, and forcing that wing back as they did. Our troops were put to a great disadvantage when run directly into a fight after moving at almost double-quick from six to ten miles on a hot July day, yet many of them were put to the test. We wondered also why, after it was discovered how the attack was made and that the enemy had stretched out his column from Centreville parallel to our front in the march towards Sudley, an attack was not made on his column, or upon the rear of the column, cutting him off from his base. Instead large forces, even after sending troops to the left, were idle all day at Mitchell’s and Blackburn’s Fords. No use was made of the cavalry until late in the day and then it was scattered about in small detachments, each acting under different orders, its attack was of little avail except to increase the panic of the enemy inducing a greater loss to them of the material of war. If when the enemy commenced to break, a column of cavalry had crossed Bull Run half way between Manassas and the stone bridge, and opened fire upon them as they moved back on the Warrenton Pike the victory would have been far more disastrous to the enemy and our gain in material so much the greater...

Letters from Lee’s Army: Memoirs of Life in and out of the Army in Virginia During the War between the States. Compiled by Susan Leigh Blackford from original and contemporaneous memoirs, correspondence and diaries, annotated by her husband, Charles Minor Blackford, edited and abridged for publication by Charles Minor Blackford, III. (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1947).


Barnard Bee, Jr. Quote

As Confederate lines crumbled at Bull Run, Brig. Gen. Thomas Jackson’s brigade held fast at Henry House Hill, causing nearby Brigadier General Bee to compare Jackson to a stone wall, which became Jackson’s nickname. Bee died moments later.

There is Jackson standing like a stone wall. Let us determine to die here, and we will conquer. Rally behind the Virginians!

~Brig. Gen. Barnard Elliot Bee, Jr.


Russell Diary

William Howard Russell, Times of London reporter

Along with a number of sightseers, Times of London reporter Howard Russell hired a carriage for the 25-mile trip from Washington, D.C., to Manassas Junction to witness the anticipated Union rout of Confederate forces. A determined Confederate counterattack by Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard reversed early Union advances, leading to a panicked retreat back toward Washington.

On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex. A few officers and some soldiers, who had straggled from the regiments in reserve, moved about among the spectators, and pretended to explain the movements of the troops below, of which they were profoundly ignorant.

The cannonade and musketry had been exaggerated by the distance and by the rolling echoes of the hills; and sweeping the position narrowly with my glass from point to point, I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting. The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera-glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharge roused the current of her blood—“That is splendid. Oh, my! Is not that first-rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time to-morrow.”...

I had ridden between three and a half and four miles, as well as I could judge, when I was obliged to turn for the third and fourth time into the road by a considerable stream, which was spanned by a bridge, towards which I was threading my way, when my attention was attracted by loud shouts in advance, and I perceived several wagons coming from the direction of the battle-field, their drivers of which were endeavoring to force their horses past the ammunition carts going in the contrary direction near the bridge; a thick cloud of dust rose behind them, and running by the side of the waggons, were a number of men in uniform whom I supposed to be the guard. My first impression was that the waggons were returning for fresh supplies of ammunition. But every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, “Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.” They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers. Emerging from the crowd a breathless man in the uniform of an officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side, was cut off by getting between my horse and a cart for a moment. “What is the matter, sir? What is this all about?” “Why it means we are pretty badly whipped, that’s the truth,” he gasped, and continued.

From My Diary North and South by William Howard Russell (Bradbury and Evans, 1863).


George B. McClellan Letter

General George B. McClellan

After the Union rout at Bull Run/Manassas, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan assumed command of the Military Division of the Potomac, and soon wrote home to his wife complaining about Lincoln and Gen. Winfield Scott.


... I am here in a terrible place—the enemy have from 3 to 4 times my force—the Presdt is an idiot, the old General in his dotage—they cannot or will not see the true state of affairs. Most of my troops are demoralized by the defeat at Bull Run, some rats even mutinous—I have probably stopped that—but you see my position is not pleasant...

George B. McClellan to Mary Ellen McClellan, August 16, 1861. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860–1865, edited by Stephen Sears (Ticknor & Fields, 1989).

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