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The war begins

July 24, 2011

'Capture of Ricketts' Battery' by Sidney E. King

The brutal Texas heat has kept me indoors for most of the weekend, and there’s no better place to lounge away the summer hours than in the long, cool shadows of my Civil War library. Recollections and histories of the Civil War’s first major battle have dominated my recent reading.

This week in 1861, on July 21, the Battle of Bull Run — or the Battle of Manassas, as Confederates called it — was fought just southwest of Washington, D.C. (we add “First” to each version of the name because there was a second battle in the general area 13 months later). I won’t get into the actual play-by-play of the fight because one of my favorite Civil War historians, Gary W. Gallagher, has already taken care of that with a piece on the New York Times Disunion blog. I strongly encourage all of you to check it out. It’s a great account of a fascinating battle.

A good companion piece to Gallagher’s introduction comes from the Civil War Trust, which put together a pretty good online package that includes narration, placing the fight in its historical context and animating the military manuveurs, recommending reading, slideshows showing the battlefield today and video chats with historians. Also check out the magnificent Bull Runnings, a blog and digital archive that has collected diaries, biographies, articles on the battle, slideshows of the battlefield, unit histories and much more.

On the news side, the Associated Press produced an interactive feature on the war and published some interesting pieces on the Manassas battle on its Facebook page. Finally, the Washington Post reported earlier today that re-enactors re-fought the battle in Virginia.

Tactically, as Gallagher explains, the battle was a mess, especially once the Confederates struck the Federal army for the last time. The Union’s front lines broke, and any sense of military cohesion collapsed. In “Battle Cry of Freedom,” James McPherson wrote that “the men on both sides fought surprisingly well. But lack of experience prevented northern officers from coordinating simultaneous assaults by different regiments.”

In “The Coming Fury,” Bruce Catton agreed, writing that [Union commander Irvin McDowell] and his officers did their best to reorganize the men and make a stand, but the effort was hopeless. These untrained regiments had simply been used beyond their capacity and they had fallen apart.” Wounded men, stragglers, and exhausted and frightened troops flowed northward, away from the battlefield, coursing through the lines of civilians that had come south to watch the battle. Wild rumors that the Confederates were about to pounce on the retreating masses for one final massacre spread panic like wildfire, turning the lurching and limping into a stampede.

William Howard Russell, writing for The Times of London, remembered that as he watched the northerners stagger from the battlefield he “felt an inclination to laugh, which was overcome by disgust, and by that vague sense of something extraordinary taking place which is experienced when a man sees a number of people acting as if driven by some unknown terror.” Mired in the chaotic traffic jams, Russell simply didn’t appreciate the totality of the Union military disaster on July 21.

Heavy rain drenched the region in the days after the fight but it did little to dampen Southern excitement. Confederate officer Lafayette McLaws wrote on the 23rd, “The news from Manassas is so very glorious that I cannot believe all that is told. It seems a dream only, to think of our army meeting with such extraordinary success.” Word of the Southern victory reached Louisiana a few days after the battle, and a pleased Kate Stone recorded the news in her diary: “[O]ur side victorious, of course. … It was gallantly fought and won.” And Mary Chesnut, writing from Richmond, remembered the extra little thrill, above and beyond the martial glee she already felt, when someone showed her letters a Union soldier left behind on the battlefield: “[W]hat a comfort the spelling was! We were willing to admit the Yankees’ universal free school education puts them ahead of us in a literary way of speaking, but these letters do not attest that fact. The spelling is comically bad. …”

In Shelby Foote’s first volume of “The Civil War: A Narrative,” he wrote that the Battle of Bull Run afforded Southerners the reassurance “that the Yankees had been shown for once and for all. The war was won. Independence was a fact beyond all doubt. Even the casualty lists, the source of their sorrow, reinforced their conviction of superiority to anything the North could bring against them.”

As quoted in McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom,” the Richmond Whig newspaper had perhaps the most magnificently pompous reaction to the battle’s outcome: “The breakdown of the Yankee race, their unfitness for empire, forces dominion on the South. We are compelled to take the sceptre of power. We must adapt ourselves to our new destiny.”

David Herbert Donald, in “Lincoln,” wrote that the “next day, Lincoln began to assess the damage. He learned that many [Federal] troops had fought bravely and well. … [Most] of the volunteer Union regiments had retreated in good order, and the demoralized mob described by so many witnesses was largely composed of teamsters, onlookers and ninety-day troops whose terms of enlistment were about to expire. The army was defeated but not crushed. …”

The president, Donald wrote, visited soldiers stationed in forts protecting Washington D.C., publicly reassuring them they would be well-supplied while privately realizing that they were not well led. Irvin McDowell was not going to work out. Lincoln saw a flicker of fresh hope in a new commanding general: George B. McClellan.

In the days following the Union defeat, McPherson concludes, the psychological impact “on the North was not defeatism but renewed determination.” As northern newspapers published defiant editorials, Lincoln signed legislation authorizing the enlistment of one million men into the Federal armies. More men would be equipped, trained, armed and sent south.

In the long run, Bull Run was merely a tactical victory for the South. More importantly, it was the psychological defeat the North needed for its people and its leaders to comprehend what was necessary to achieve complete victory over the Confederacy.

Works cited and consulted:
— Catton, Bruce. The Coming Fury. London: Phoenix Press, 2001. 458, 463. Print.
— Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary From Dixie. Ed. Ben Ames Williams. Cambridge: Harvard UP. 1980. 89. Print.
— Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 307-308. Print.
— Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. 84. Print.
— McLaws, Lafayette. A Soldier’s General: The Civil War Letters of Lafayette McLaws. Ed. John C. Oeffinger. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002. 96. Print.
— McPherson, James. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
— McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. 341. Print.
— Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. 44-45. Print.

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