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Battle at Bull Run

July 21st, 2011 · No Comments

One hundred and fifty years ago today, the first major battle of the Civil War was fought.  In honor of the anniversary, the next book in my Civil War reading project is Battle at Bull Run by William C. Davis.  Familiar to many Civil War buffs as a regular on the History Channel and other cable networks, Davis is a well respected historian who teaches at Virginia Tech.

I got this book a number of years ago for a few pennies at a used book store but never got around to reading it.  For some reason I can’t quite put my finger on, Bull Run has never interested me much.  Learning more about the chaos that gripped the country in 1861 through the other books I’ve read, however,  kindled my interest.  Besides, how can you embark on a project like this without reading a book on the first major battle of the war?

The book itself is worth the read.  Davis is not a brilliant writer but he is a competent historian with a solid grasp on his subject and is more than capable of producing a readable book.  The maps are not quite up to the standard established in more recent popular Civil War books but that’s what Wikipedia is for, right?  There are some photographs, mostly of the generals on both side who often manage to look tough and a bit seedy at the same time.

Contrary to the title, Battle at Bull Run covers a lot of ground before the actual battle on July 21, 1861.  Davis shows the panic in Washington DC, surrounded by Virginia (part of the Confederacy) and Maryland (never actually succeeded but only because Lincoln ordered many leading citizens arrested indefinitely without formal charges and no right to habeas corpus).  It took weeks for substantial numbers of troops to arrive at the city; weeks during which the rumor mill was working overtime with stories of an imminent Confederate attack.  Of course, we know now that the Confederates were still getting their own act together in the Spring of 1861 and had no way of assaulting Washington DC.  But the terrified Unionists didn’t know that.

Eventually, the armies on both sides were organized and the first major campaign in the east got underway.  The book details the movements of the troops and the personalities of the generals.  I’ll skip the blow-by-blow account here.  Suffice to say that two small Confederate armies, under Generals Johnston and Beauregard spread out over northern Virginia to wait for the attacking Union army under General McDowell.  As the attacker, the burden of planning the offensive move fell to him and he developed an ambitious plan which involved a smaller Union force under General Patterson keeping Johnston occupied while McDowell crushed Beauregard.  It was a good plan and, later in the war, when the Generals and troops were more experience it might have worked.  It also might have worked had it been the Confederate’s plan for it didn’t take long for Johnston (a seasoned veteran of the old US Army) to outmaneuver the hapless Patterson and use the railroad to get his army united with Beauregard faster than anyone thought possible (this was the first use of a railroad for operational movements in the history of warfare).  When Johnston reached Beauregard’s position on the Bull Run, McDowell’s attack was underway and going well.  Beauregard had been pushed to the crest of a large hill (Henry House Hill) and had dug in for his final defense.  At that moment, Johnston’s men crashed into McDowell’s flank and bolstered the main line, which counterattacked.  Exhausted by days of marching in the hot July sun and a full day of battle, the shocked troops of the Union army broke and ran for their lives.  Many didn’t stop running until they made it back to Washington DC.

It was at Bull Run that the self-fulfilling prophecy of Confederate military supremacy was born.  Davis is pretty hard on Beauregard, painting him as the kind of General who was good at organizing an army but hopeless at planning and executing military operations.  Otherwise, however, the Confederate officers from the Generals all the way down to the regimental commanders are consistently superior to their Union counterparts.  McDowell comes off well but was ultimately failed by his subordinates, notably Patterson, who failed to execute his plan.  For the next two years, the war in the east would be marked by one Confederate success after another, causing many on both sides to believe that the Confederate army was hopelessly superior to that of the Union.  The true story was not that simple, of course, and the situation was entirely reversed out west where it was the North that was winning most of the battles.  But the myth grew and provided a much-needed anchor of faith for the Southern people.

Bull Run was also the birthplace of Stonewall Jackson.  Not the man, of course, but the legend whose story did so much to bolster the Southern narrative.  As a brigade commander in Jonhston’s army, Jackson had already shown great promise but at Bull Run, he shined.  Finding Beauregard’s line wavering, he organized a defense that shattered the attacking Union line and paved the way for the final counterattack.  Hence the nickname “Stonewall”.  Interestingly enough, the nickname may not have been meant to be complimentary at first.  When Johnston’s men arrived at Bull Run and set up the defensive line mentioned above, some of Beauregard’s men were angered.  The new defensive line was behind their position and they wanted the reinforcements to join them.  Jackson, in particular, judged their chances of success as low and dug in where he was instead.  Let the Yankees break themelves on our line of fresh troops in this more defensible position and then we’ll attack was the reasoning.  Events proved Jackson exactly right.  As the exposed Confederates retreated back to the top of Henry House Hill, one of the brigade commanders (General Barnard Bee) cried out to his men: rally around the Virginians, there stands Jackson like a stone wall! Bee was shot moments later and died the next day, never knowing that he had given Jackson his famous nickname.  Some of those on Bee’s staff quietly insisted that the General was being sarcastic and was angry with Jackson for standing in place while his (Bee’s) command was being mauled right in front of him.  Being busy dying, Bee never clarified the issue.  And, after Bull Run, it was academic.  Jackson was the hero of the hour and the fledgling Confederacy had a new hero.

Tags: The Civil War

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