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Military Strategy at the Battle of Bull Run

Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College‘s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. His most recent book is The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War, and in the original post below, he dismantles a common myth about the Battle of Bull Run–the first major land battle of the Civil War–which was fought 149 years ago, today.

On July 21, 1861, the Union troops under Irvin McDowell were defeated by the combined forces of Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston on the banks of Virginia’s Bull Run Creek. Too often it is reported that this clash was the result of press pressure on Abraham Lincoln to act against the Rebels. This was not the case.

Lincoln did push for action, but he pushed because he wanted a quick end to the war. Moreover, something often ignored is that the Union plans were bigger than just marching an army into Virginia and hoping something good happened. McDowell’s advance was only one prong of the Union operation. Major General Robert Patterson commanded another Union force in the Shenandoah Valley, one that was supposed to pin Johnston’s forces in the Shenandoah. Union troops under Benjamin Butler at Fortress Monroe, at the end of the Virginia Peninsula that George McClellan would soon make famous, were to hold Confederate forces in that area. McDowell, using multiple prongs of attack, aimed at Manassas Junction with the intent of defeating 20,000 Confederates with 30,000 Union troopers.

For the North, none of this went according to plan. The Union forces in the Shenandoah needed a vigorous and aggressive commander. This, Patterson, was not. A veteran of the War of 1812 branded “Granny” by his troops, failed to do his job. As happened so many times in the Civil War the South stole a march on the Union. This allowed them to deliver Johnston’s troops to Bull Run in time to stop McDowell.

The events after the battle greatly impacted the course of the war. Union defeat meant McDowell’s replacement with McClellan, and the subsequent paralysis that then gripped the Eastern Theater until the spring of 1862. Confederate President Jefferson Davis failed to give his generals proper credit for their victory. Both Beauregard and Johnston were very prickly in regard to personal honor and reputation. This perceived slight helped poison the relations between the Confederate president and these two generals for the rest of the war, adding to the South’s difficulties prosecuting the struggle.

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  2. [...] book on strategy in the Civil War was the subject of this post, sent me a link to his summary of military strategy at the battle of Bull Run.  Check it out, see what you think.  As usual, I can quibble a bit.  For an expansion on [...]

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