The United States is marking the 150th anniversary of its 1861-1865 Civil War with a series of events nationwide. Huge crowds from the Washington D.C. area flocked to nearby Manassas on the weekend of July 26 to watch nearly 9,000 re-enactors wearing in heavy wool period uniform re-enact the first major encounter of the war.
This is a slightly modified version of a story that I wrote on the actual battle that appeared on at least 18 websites, including this one. I didn’t realize there was so much foreign interest for US Civil War stories.
US marks 150th anniversary of the first major Civil War clash
MANASSAS, Virginia, July 21, 2011 (AFP) – Americans this weekend mark the 150th anniversary of the first major battle in their bitter 1861-1865 civil war, an engagement that both sides thought would result in a quick victory but instead shocked the public into realizing they were in for a long and bloody conflict.
Historians have described the July 21, 1861 Confederate victory as the end of American innocence, when the young nation faced a war that threatened its very existence.
War broke out in April 1861 soon after 11 southern states formed the Confederate States of America. The agricultural south relied heavily on slaves to work their rich cotton plantations and feared the new US president, Abraham Lincoln, would set them free.
How to deal with slavery had been an unsolved problem since the start of the nation — the 1776 declaration of independence after all claimed that “all men are created equal” — and reached a boiling point with Lincoln’s election.
Lincoln declared the split a “rebellion,” and in April began to organize a large army to preserve the Union. Fearing other states could also leave, Lincoln did not declare an end to slavery until 1863, well into the war.
The southerners were certain they could quickly capture Washington, while northerners believed they could easily take the Confederate capital of Richmond, a mere 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the south in Virginia. Both sides was convinced the war would end quickly, perhaps in one big battle.
“It was America’s baptism by fire, where naive, romantic ideals of warfare came to an abrupt end,” said Henry Elliott, a historian with the National Park Service, on a recent tour of the Manassas battlefield. “The battle ended any notion that the war would be quickly decided.”
— Forward to Richmond! —
In 1861 there were just 15,000 soldiers in the US army, and many of them left to join the Confederacy. Forced to quickly form an army, the new president, Abraham Lincoln, in April called for 75,000 volunteers for three months of service to put down the “insurrection.”
Enthusiastic, ill-trained soldiers rushed to the US capital wearing flashy uniforms supplied by their states, or sometimes by private patrons. Some wore Scottish kilts, while others dressed like French Zouave soldiers. Many Confederate officers who left the Union army continued wearing their old service uniforms.
The pressure for quick action was enormous. “The Nation’s War-Cry! Forward to Richmond!” screamed the New York Tribune in a June headline. “Why is Richmond not taken? Why is not our army moving southward … scattering the hosts of treason before it like dead leaves?” added the Freedom’s Champion newspaper from Atchison, Kansas in mid-July.
The Union commander, Irvin McDowell warned that his untested soldiers were not ready. “You are green, it is true,” Lincoln reportedly told him. “But they are also green. You agree green alike.”
In July a Union army of 30,000 finally headed west from Washington aiming to capture a key railroad junction in Manassas, and then move on Richmond. A slightly smaller Confederate force lined up along the east-west course of Bull Run, a creek with steep banks ideal for defense, to stop them.
McDowell’s plan was to feint an attack on the main Confederate line, then swing his troops around their lines in a surprise maneuver. While the plan was solid, the green Union soldiers were not up to the task. The pre-dawn march was delayed, scouts got lost in the dark woods, and by the time they were ready to attack the Confederates recognized the moved and prepared for the onslaught.
“It was a whirlwind of bullets,” a Confederate survivor later wrote when the two forces clashed. “Our men fell constantly. The deadly missives rained like hail among the boughs and trees.”
The cannonade and gunfire was so intense it was heard by Sunday churchgoers in downtown Washington, some 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the east.
In the days before smokeless gunpowder battles were noisy, confusing affairs, and battlefields were often shrouded in acrid black smoke, leading even the best trained soldiers astray. Commanding officers couldn’t be found and messengers got lost or arrived bearing outdated orders — even the most level-headed generals had difficulty figuring out how best to deploy their troops.
The outnumbered southerners put up a stiff fight, but by mid-day had taken heavy casualties and were forced to fall back.
“Victory! The day is ours!” cried out McDowell as he visited advancing troops, who cheered wildly at seeing their commander.
The exhausted Union soldiers paused to wait for rear units to arrive for a final attack. This gave news reporters time to rush off to file stories.
“We have carried the day. The rebels… are totally routed,” the New York Herald reporter telegraphed his editors. In New York, where competition among the city’s 18 dailies was ferocious, the late editions announced a great Union victory that same afternoon.
A large cluster of civilians, including US senators and members of Congress, gathered on a nearby hill and had a picnic as they watched the battle.
“The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera glass who was near me was quite beside herself when an unusually heavy discharged roused the current of her blood,” wrote London Times correspondent William Howard Russell. “‘Is it not first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond tomorrow,'” the woman exclaimed.
— “Stonewall” Jackson rallies the Confederates —
By the time the Union troops resumed their attack the Confederates had been reinforced by fresh troops arriving by train, including a brigade led by Thomas Jackson, an eccentric, deeply religious military academy teacher.
“There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” Confederate General Barnard Bee called out to his battered troops, urging them to rally behind the newcomers. Bee died that day, an it was never clear if he was admiring Jackson’s sang froid or was angry because he didn’t order his soldiers forward to help him. In any case the moniker stuck, and “Stonewall” Jackson went on to be one of the south’s most revered commanders.
The clash that followed was ferocious.
A New York Zouave wrote that the bullets “came crashing through the cornfield, singing and whistling around our ears, making the air blue and sulfurous with smoke.”
A Virginia soldier wrote: “We came up in good order amidst a hail of bullets, bomb shells & cannon balls, stepping over dead horses & men and in direct range of those belching cannons. The cannon balls struck all around us, the shells bursting at our feet and the Minies (bullets) sung their song of death around our ears.”
After hours intense combat, fresh southern reinforcements arrived to strike the Union flank. The Union soldiers wavered, panicked and broke, fleeing in a disorderly melee. On their rush back to Washington they got caught up with the fleeing civilians.
In the evening, when New York Times correspondent Henry J. Raymond tried to file an update to his earlier “victory” story, the military censor closed the telegraph office. Protests broke out in northern cities when the extent of the defeat was finally learned.
Some 5,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, an astonishing high casualty rate for the day — yet small compared to the 23,000 killed one year later in a second battle also fought at Manassas. By the time the war ended in 1865 more than 600,000 soldiers had been killed.
“I had a dim notion about the ‘romance’ of a soldier’s life. I have bravely got over it since,” a Union soldier who fought at Manassas wrote in a letter home.
SOURCES: Davis, William C. “Battle at Bull Run” (1977 Stackpole Books); online historical newspapers here and here; Manassas Battlefield Park rangers and literature; “How the Civil War Changed Journalism,” presentation by historian Harold Holzer at the National Press Club (April 11, 2011); Ken Burns “The Civil War” (1990 PBS).