First Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861) – Also called the First Battle of Bull Run, this was the first major land battle of the Civil War. Fought in Prince William County, Virginia, near the city of Manassas, the two armies met in battle on July 21, 1861, along the banks of a small stream known as Bull Run. Under Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, the untried Union army crossed at Sudley Ford and attacked the Confederate left flank on Matthews Hill. Fighting raged throughout the day as Confederate forces were driven back to Henry Hill. Late in the afternoon, Confederate reinforcements arrived, and the federal troops were driven from the battlefield along with many of the sightseers.
Although victorious, Confederate forces were too disorganized to pursue. Confederate General Bee and Colonel Bartow were killed. Thomas J. Jackson earned the nickname “Stonewall.” The conflict, which engaged some 60,680, resulted in an estimated 2,950 casualties for the Union and 1,750 for the Confederate Army.
This battle brought an end to the romantic way in which most Americans had viewed the coming conflict. By July 22, the shattered Union army reached the safety of Washington. This battle convinced the Lincoln administration that the war would be a long and costly affair. McDowell was relieved of command of the Union army and replaced by Major General George B. McClellan, who set about reorganizing and training the troops.
McClellan’s Operations in Northern Virginia (October-December 1861)
The Union defeat at the First Battle of Manassas shocked the North, and a new sense of grim determination swept the United States as military and civilians alike realized that they would need to invest significant money and manpower to win a protracted, bloody war. Major General George B. McClellan was summoned east in August to command the newly forming Army of the Potomac, which would become the principal army of the Eastern Theater. As a former railroad executive, he possessed outstanding organizational skills well-suited to training and administration tasks. He was also strongly ambitious, and by November 1st, he had maneuvered around Winfield Scott and was named general-in-chief of all the Union armies.
Ball’s Bluff (October 21, 1861) – Also known as the Battle of Harrison’s Island or the Battle of Leesburg, this battle was fought in Loudoun County. While a minor engagement in comparison with the battles that would occur in years to follow, this was the second largest battle of the Eastern Theater in 1861.
On the evening of October 20, 1861, Brigadier General Charles Stone sent a small scouting party across the Potomac River in Leesburg, Virginia. In the darkness of night, the inexperienced head of the scouting party, Captain Chase Philbrick, mistook a tree line for a line of tents and returned to Stone with a report of an unguarded camp.
Stone decided to take advantage of this opportunity with a nighttime raid and sent about 300 men under Colonel Charles Devens back across the river. When Devens discovered that the line of trees was not a campsite, he decided to stay and wait for reinforcements to attempt to reach Leesburg. As dawn broke on the 21st, Mississippians under Colonel Nathan “Shanks” Evans encountered Devens’ advanced units, and a sharp skirmish began. General Stone sent Colonel Edward Baker, a U.S. Senator, to command the field and assess the situation. Baker immediately began gathering troops to reinforce the men on the Virginia side of the river. When support finally arrived four hours later, communications between the various Union commanders had been inefficient and often misunderstood.
Lightly schooled in military tactics, Baker led his 1,700-member brigade across the Potomac River, up the steep ridge known as Ball’s Bluff, and into the range of waiting enemy guns. Led by Brigadier General Nathan G. Evans, the Confederates drove the Federals over the 70-foot cliffs to the rock-studded river below. More than 1,000 Union troops were killed, wounded, or captured, including Colonel Edward Baker’s death. This disaster led directly to the creation of the toughest congressional investigating committee in history — the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. Of the Union troops engaged, there were 1,070 casualties, 700 of which were captured. Of the 1,600 Confederate soldiers involved, there were an estimated 149 casualties.
Dranesville (December 20, 1861) – Taking place in Fairfax County, Confederate Brigadier General J.E.B Stuart led a brigade-sized mixed force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery to protect a foraging expedition in the vicinity of Dranesville. Though major offensive action had been halted in the Eastern Theater, as both armies went into winter quarters, small detachments were still sent out to probe the enemy’s position and obtain forage. As General Stuart led his brigade, the Confederate troops encountered Union Brigadier General E.O.C. Ord and his troops advancing on the Georgetown Pike. Both sides deployed as more units arrived on the field, and a sharp firefight developed. Stuart withdrew in the mid-afternoon after ensuring that his wagons were safely in the rear. The Union victory resulted in 71 Federal casualties and 230 Confederate casualties.
Blockade of the Potomac River (October 1861-January, 1862)
After the First Manassas victory, the Confederate army established a defensive line from Centreville along the Occoquan River to the Potomac River. In October, the Confederates constructed batteries at Evansport, Freestone Point, Shipping Point, and Cockpit Point to close the Potomac River to shipping and isolate Washington. By mid-December, the Confederates had 37 heavy guns in position along the river.
Cockpit Point – (January 3, 1862) – Also called the Battle of Freestone Point or the Battle of Shipping Point, this attack took place in Prince William County, Virginia. On January 3, Cockpit Point was shelled by Anacostia and Yankee, with neither side gaining an advantage. Union ships approached the point again on March 9 but discovered that the Confederates had abandoned their works and retired closer to Richmond, after effectively sealing off the Potomac River for nearly five months.