Soldiers’ Graves

An 1861 photograph of a man looking down at soldier grave markers at the battlefield in Manassas, Virginia

Courtesy: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B811-321.

On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate troops fought the single largest and bloodiest battle Americans had yet waged in their history—the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), in Virginia. Union troops, led by Gen. Irwin McDowell, sought to disrupt a major rail junction linking the Shenandoah Valley to the Deep South and seize Richmond, Virginia, the new Confederate capital. McDowell’s troops faced off against Confederate forces led by Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard and Gen. Joseph T. Johnston. Republican politicians from Washington, D.C., only twenty-five miles northeast of Manassas, came to watch the action, expecting a speedy and gallant victory over the rebels. McDowell’s well-conceived plans, however, fell prey to poor coordination and green troops. By midday, the tide had turned in favor of the Confederacy. Union forces ended the day with a panicked and disorganized retreat back to Washington. The first Battle of Bull Run resulted in almost 5,000 Union and Confederate casualties and shattered widespread Northern illusions that the Confederacy could be quickly and easily beaten. In this photo, taken in the aftermath of the battle, an unidentified man visits the graves of fallen soldiers, marked only by rough planks of wood.