Seminar Feature: Leadership Lessons from Bull Run

There is Jackson standing like a stone wall!  Let us determine to die here,
and we will conquer.
Confederate General Bee, rallying his brigade near Henry House Hill, at the Battle of First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.


One hundred and fifty years ago, on 21 July 1861, Union and Confederate armies met at Bull Run Creek in the first battle of the American Civil War.  In the aftermath of the attack on Ft. Sumter and the secession of ten southern states, President Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteers in mid-April, who were enlisted for 90 days as authorized by Congress. As Northern and Confederate military leaders organized their forces both sides believed firmly that the war would be very short.  One Alabama Congressman is reported to have said, “all of the blood that will be spilled in this conflict can be wiped up by one lady’s handkerchief.”

As the summer progressed, Lincoln, concerned the Union army of 90-day volunteers would evaporate, urged his military commander, General Irwin McDowell, to advance on the Confederate forces near Manassas, Virginia, roughly 30 miles south of Washington.  McDowell insisted that he needed more time, however, arguing that the Union army of volunteers was not ready.  He even  told the President that “this is not an Army!”  Lincoln agreed, but also observed “you are green but they are green as well.”  Capturing the railroad junction at Manassas would also provide the Union Army with a staging point to then proceed towards the newly created Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia.

Clearly outnumbering the forces commanded by Confederate General Beauregard at Manassas Junction, McDowell’s army departed Washington both deliberately and optimistically.  His optimism hinged on the hope that a second Confederate Army under General Johnston would be pinned down by another Union Army in the Shenandoah Valley and therefore be unable to reinforce  Confederate forces in Manassas.

McDowell began his attack at 5:30 in the morning. By midday it appeared that the Federals would destroy Beauregard’s army, to the delight of the crowd of onlookers from Washington. Many had driven in carriages from the capital to enjoy a picnic lunch on the warm summer day and watch the anticipated rout of the rebel army.

But McDowell halted the attack for roughly two hours at noon to reorganize his green troops for the final assault.  Unfortunately for the Union, Confederate General Johnston arrived by railroad with his army of 12,000 during the lull in fighting. They attacked at roughly 4PM, routing McDowell’s untested army and sending it back toward Washington in a disorganized mob.  Fleeing soldiers dropped their weapons and became entangled with frightened civilians who were racing home in their carriages.

In its aftermath, both sides began to realize two harsh realities. First, the war would not end quickly.  Second, the nation now faced the greatest threat to its survival in its short history.

William Howard Russell, one of the first war correspondents, wrote the following dispatch about Bull Run for a British newspaper:
Little did I conceive of the greatness of the defeat, the magnitude of the disaster which it had entailed upon the United States.  So short-lived has been the American Union, that men who saw it rise may live to see it fall.

Winston Churchill once said “the farther back we look, the farther forward we can see.” As we mark the 150th anniversary of this first Civil War battle, Diamond6 is once again offering a workshop that shows modern leaders how they can apply the lessons from the Battle of Bull Run to their own organizations.



This popular workshop takes a close look at the leadership challenges faced during this battle, starting with a strategic overview that places it within a context that explains the events leading to that fateful hot summer day in 1861.  Throughout the day, participants travel the field following the battle chronologically. At each stop, a military historian describes what happened and the role key leaders played.  The workshop facilitator then uses this historical background to lead a discussion of various leadership principles that are as appropriate today as they were during this historic conflict.

These include such topics as strategic leadership, strategic vision, initiative, innovation, communications within an organization, “managing your boss,” emotional intelligence, etc.  While there are numerous insights that can be drawn from this event, the following are a few that resonate as much in the 21st century as it did in the 19th.

  • Emotional Intelligence is critical for leaders.  It is fundamental to building trust in any organization.  It helps the leader confront the organization’s reality and communicate that to the team.
  • The physical presence of a leader is a critical component particularly in crisis.
  • Understanding your own organization’s culture is fundamental to success.  It allows the leader to conduct self-assessments.  Ignoring organizational culture is a recipe for failure.  Leaders must remember — Culture eats strategy for lunch every day.
  • Defining the mission is critical for any organization.  This must include bringing together all the stakeholders to define the mission, and determining who has the authority and responsibility to execute it.

The discussion concludes at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.,where the evolution of strategic vision is discussed using Lincoln himself as a backdrop. If you are interested in learning more about our battlefield leadership workshops please send us an email at

Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.

This article is from our July, 2011 newsletter. Click here to view all our newsletter articles and features.

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