What If…First Bull Run Was Fought with Experienced Armies?

The first major battle of the American Civil War is remembered for a lot of reasons. “Green” troops. Scurrying Yankees. “Stonewall.” Artillery batteries that got way to close to each other. A civilian casualty. In the oft-told tales of First Bull Run (Manassas), the intricacies of the battle plan are not the stuff of legends. That’s usually left for the in-depth tours or the many-paged books.

As I revisited Bull Run battle history earlier this year, I noticed that the battle plan itself isn’t terrible. But there was no way that Union officers should have expected their inexperienced volunteer troops to complete the long marches needed to pull off the pronged attack plan. I started wondering “what if.”

What if the Federal attack plan of July 21, 1861, could have been attempted with veteran troops?

Same plan, just with soldiers from 1862 or 1863. This idea prompted me to take a closer look at the concept, the topography, the distances, and the positions of the soldiers. For the sake of keeping this blog from trailing into endless what ifs, I’m focusing on the Union side and giving them the variable and looking at the march and set-up for battle, rather than the actual heavy shooting portion of the day. How might the march and battle plan have unfolded with not so “green” troops in Union blue?

First the facts…

On July 18, 1861, a fight broke out at Blackburn’s Ford as a Union column attempted to cross the creek. At this point, Confederate troops basically sat parallel to the winding Bull Run, using it as a natural line for their position.

Stymied in this advance, Union General Irvin McDowell delayed and then hatched a complicated plan for July 21. While one column of troops would attack at Blackburn’s Ford again, another column would push along the Warrenton Turnpike toward the Stone Bridge over Bull Run. Meanwhile, another column would execute a flanking march, cross the creek at Sudley Ford and Popular Ford and then swing onto the Manassas-Sudley Road, allowing them to come onto the Confederate left flank and threaten their rear. If the plan succeed, the Confederate line would be caught off guard and have to change fronts or retreat.

On paper, the plan doesn’t look bad. But take the distances into consideration: the “flanking column” had to march approximately 10 miles at night just to get to their starting attack position.

“Plan of First Bull Run” – map from John J. Hennessy’s book “The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, Revised Edition”

Part of the Federals’ problems started early. McDowell let the column heading for Stone Bridge (just 3 miles to march) leave before the column heading for Sudley Ford (10 miles). The traffic jam on the road as inexperienced troops fumbled through the darkness created the first delay and ensured that the 10-milers would not reach their destination in the allotted ~5 hours. The delays for the Sudley column meant that the Confederates would have time to repulse other parts of the attack and ultimately shift troops to Matthews Hill and Henry House Hill to confront the “flanking column.”

Now some context…

Should McDowell have expected his troops to cover 10 miles in a night march? Some of his troops had experienced some night marching as they moved from Washington City a few days earlier, but not night marching going into battle. On the whole discipline was an issue during McDowell’s entire advance, and as he later wrote, “They would not keep in ranks, order as much as you pleased. They were not used to denying themselves much.”[i]

Add unfamiliar roads, a water crossing, darkness, and a late start for the 10-mile-march-column and McDowell asked a lot of his new soldiers in 1861.

How might this plan have played out with Union soldiers of a later period? Probably better. Ten miles is long, but not unreasonable for a well-ordered, disciplined column. Give them good scouts to guide them and they likely could have made the trek in the estimated time that McDowell had allotted. Without a seriously delayed march, the Union troops theoretically should have been in position for their 7am attack, allowing the assaults to coordinate across the three Union “prongs.” Likely, it would have been more difficult for the Confederates to shift their lines with the attack from Sudley Ford crossed on time and then advanced rapidly along the road toward the Confederate flank. Would the Confederates have been able to get troops to Henry House Hill? If the Confederates had no “what if” changes and it’s only the Union side with variables, it’s not a good scenario for the Rebels. However, for the sake of argument, if the Confederates had more experience as well, they should have had a cavalry force on their flank and keeping an eye on the other fords along Bull Run, meaning that attack may or may not have been as good of a surprise.

Of course, there are many, many variables to introduce into “what ifs”, but the take away from this one is: the Federal plan for July 21, 1861, was not awful in the military sense, but with the realities of their troops, it was a little too much to ask.


William C. Davis, Battle at Bull Run. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1977).

John J. Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861, Revised Edition. (Mechanicsburg, Stackpole Books, 2015).

[i] Hennessey, Page 9.

5 Responses to What If…First Bull Run Was Fought with Experienced Armies?

  1. At the operational and tactical level it depends on who can get There first with the Most soldiers & take and hold the ground. I think even in 1862 the CSA troops are better led. . So, I’m giving it to CSA. Now in 1863 the Union may have a leg up.

  2. Thanks Sarah, great essay … I think you’ve got a streak of infantry in you … ever thought about “what if” you joined the army?

    You’re exactly right — a seasoned force would have done the recon and preps to ensure a successful ten-mile march, even at night … so, one would expect the AOP to have figured this out by 1863, 1864 at the latest.

    Unfortunately, Bruce Catton explains the AOP’s leaders never became the veteran chain of command you describe … I was re-reading “A Stillness at Appomattox” this week and Catton uses Second Corps’ night march to Cold Harbor as an exemplar … the plan was to begin a 9-mile march at sunset on 1 June and be ready for a pre-dawn assault on the 2nd.

    Explaining what happened,Catton writes: “ … the reflexes of the chain of command in the AOP had never been trained for speed … there was power, bravery, and determination – but the furious, implacable insistence on doing simple things quickly was not there … it had been bred out of the army in 1862 when a month delay (made little) difference and a delay of a day made no difference at all … and nothing (Grant) did changed things much … (at the) back of almost every defeat was the story of chances lost because some commander had not (acted) with the necessary vigor and speed … “ (p. 154).

    So, we know Hancock didn’t make the 9 miles, the attack was delayed until the 3rd, and the rest is the sad history of Cold Harbor, where 24 hours made a big difference … the same lack of attention to detail was evident throughout the Overland Campaign and Petersburg.

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