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Setting the Stage

The Confederate States of America was formed between December 1860 and May 1861, when 11 Southern states seceded from the United States. The division came about as a result of decades of sectional tension between the North and the South. After the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November 1860 and the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, the nation seemed inevitably headed for war. Most Northerners and Southerners believed the coming conflict would consist of one climactic, winner-take-all battle. Federal troops were enlisted for only 90 days, more than enough time, Northern leaders believed, to rout the Southern army and end the "callow" rebellion.

The Union's first goal was Richmond, Virginia, the newly designated capital of the Confederacy and only 100 miles from Washington, D.C. To reach Richmond, the army first had to capture Manassas Junction, an important railway junction 30 miles southwest of Washington. Troops set out for Manassas on July 16, 1861. So naive was the nation about the coming horrors that 200 or so private citizens from Washington, D.C., accompanied federal troops on the march. They hoped to witness and be entertained by this once-in-a-lifetime event.

The two armies met in battle on the morning of July 21, 1861, along the banks of a small stream known as Bull Run. In a ten-hour contest, the green, inexperienced troops of both sides bravely fought and held their ground. By late afternoon, however, the federal troops, driven from the battlefield along with many of the sightseers, were in retreat. Hope of a quick and easy victory was a casualty of the day, along with almost 5,000 members from both armies and bystanders. Daylight faded from the once peaceful fields, bringing to an end not only the first major confrontation of the Civil War, but also the romantic way in which the majority of Americans had viewed the coming conflict.

 

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