The first major battle of the Civil War was fought in northern Virginia about twenty-five miles southwest of Washington, D.C. on July 21, 1861. Both the Union and Confederate armies were composed of barely trained volunteers. Both sides expected a single, decisive battle would end the war. The outcome of the Battle of Bull Run (known as the Battle of Manassas in the South) signaled instead that the war would likely be long and bloody. After an all-day fight in sweltering July heat, the Union army seemed poised for victory when fresh Confederate troops suddenly counterattacked. At that, the inexperienced and exhausted Yankees broke into a panicked retreat.
Caught up in the rout were hundreds of civilians, including members of Congress, who had come out from Washington to witness the expected Union victory. One of those civilians was Nebraska Territory’s delegate to Congress Samuel G. Daily, who wrote home to Nebraska three days after the battle:
“I was at and in the battle of Bull’s Run, but I will not attempt to give a description of it. I am fully convinced, however, that we have not men equal to the times we have fallen upon; or if we have, I don’t think they are the leaders of our brave army. Never was there an army more willing to fight, or who actually did fight with greater bravery and courage than did our soldiers on that fatal day
“I think, however, that it may all be for the best-that in the mysterious providences of God, he may have for the time blinded the eyes of our leaders, and let us suffer a temporary defeat, knowing that we were not yet sufficiently aroused to the importance of the work before us; and therefore were likely to quit before it was half accomplished. Now, I trust, we will do the work before us so thoroughly that we will not only destroy the traitors but the great cause of their treason.
Yours Sincerely, S. G. Daily”
Another Nebraska connection to the Battle of Bull Run was the Reily brothers, who had both lived in Nebraska City before the war. On August 24, 1861, the Nebraska City News reported: “Among the wounded at the battle of Bull’s Run we find the name of Phil. K. Reily, wounded severely in the thigh and calf of the leg. Phil. was four and a half years a citizen of this city. His strong pro-slavery affinities led him to join the rebel army. At the battle he was a private in Co. E, 1st Virginia Regiment, C. S. A.” The paper went on to say that Phil Reily’s younger brother, Dr. J. T. Reily, had passed the examination to become a Union army surgeon and served at Bull Run with the 71st Regiment of New York Volunteers. Evidently the brothers did not meet on the battlefield or the paper would have mentioned it, but their story is a classic example of how the Civil War pitted brother against brother, even brothers from far off Nebraska Territory.
Carrying in the wounded at the Battle of Bull Run. Harper’s Weekly, August 10, 1861.