On July 21, 1861, a Union army under Irvin McDowell flanked the Confederate line along Bull Run. Success seemed certain, but Confederate reinforcements from the Valley and the defense of Henry Hill turned Southern defeat into a rout of the Northern army.
Private Hunter and his regiment in Alexandria, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where the major Northern army was gathering, soon had to fall back in the face of overwhelming Union numbers. The Confederates in northern Virginia concentrated in two places to defend the state. One body under Beauregard, brought up from his presumed victory in Charleston, concentrated around Manassas Junction, a vital rail link south of Washington on the way to Richmond. General Joseph E. Johnston commanded Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley where they faced a hero of the Mexican War, Union Major-General Robert Patterson.
Popular opinion in the North wanted a quick advance to revenge Fort Sumter and put an end to Southern rebellion. Sidney George Fisher, a civilian from Philadelphia, summed up the general feeling of how the war would go in his diary on June 5, 1861: “We have had civil war now for more than two months and yet active operations have scarcely commenced. The country had enjoyed the blessings of peace so long that the use of arms was almost forgotten and when the occasion arose which demanded them, tho men enough to form armies were forthcoming, everything else was deficient-discipline, clothing, weapons, & ammunition. All these had to be provided on short notice, and that they have been furnished so soon is proof not only of the intelligence and energy of the