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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum

Aug 8th, 2011

The First Battle of Bull Run

“All of this McDowell knew, but the impassioned patriots who from a safe distance were providing the pressure for the great march on Richmond neither knew nor cared about any of it.  They wanted action; action was ordered, and on the afternoon of July 16 McDowell hauled his regiments out of camp, got them strung out on the road, and headed for Manassas….

There is an unreal quality to most accounts of this battle because they tend to describe it in terms of later battles which were fought after generals and soldiers had learned their trade, and it was not like those battles at all.  Nothing went the way it had been planned, except for that first clumsy lunge around the Confederate left.  After that, for Northerners and Southerners alike, it was simply a matter of pushing raw troops up to the firing line and hoping for the best….

There was little actual panic at first.  But as the men got out of the battle zone the confusion multiplied.  Not far to the rear—well back on the ‘safe’ side of Bull Run—a fantastic sort of picnic had been going on, with a big crowd of Washington civilians enjoying basket lunches in the fields and getting the thrill of battle from a convenient distance.  As the retreat began, these piled into their carriages and started for Washington at their best speed….all of a sudden there was a frenzied traffic jam, with army wagons, caissons, guns, and ambulances jouncing up in to the melee, straggling soldiers all around, everybody swearing, mass desperation rising higher every minute.  A few casual Confederate shells exploded not far away, and chaos became complete.  Now there was just a mob scene, miles long and a hundred yards wide, and there was no way to restore order until everybody had got back to Washington—which everybody undertook to do just as  rapidly as possible….

So there developed a national belief that troops at Bull Run had disgracefully fled in terror from a field they might have won….the legend became fixed: untrained troops had either refused to fight at all or had fled in panic once the fighting started, and the whole battle had been a blistering national disgrace.”

–Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground: The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War

Bruce Catton’s 1956 description of the First Battle of Bull Run, or First Manassas, quoted above, encapsulates a consensus about the battle that Americans have held from the moment the battle ended in July of 1861.  While Catton, to be fair, neither created nor fully accepted this narrative, nothing he—or any other scholar—has written about First Bull Run has seriously threatened the popular perception that First Bull Run reflected the inept maneuverings of rank, yet overconfident, amateurs who fled towards Washington, panic-stricken, as soon as the fog and chaos of war had derailed the initial plan.  (Significantly, their retreat would be shared by another column of amateurs, curious civilians who imagined they would be watching something more akin to a play than a battle.)

As the United States approaches the 150th anniversary of First Bull Run this summer, the editors of Civil War History thought it an auspicious moment to revisit this widely-known, but little-studied, episode in the history of the American Civil War.  Is there anything new about the battle that those who work on it would like to share with the public?  In what ways should the standard account be revised—and what accounts for its remarkable longevity?  Accordingly, we have convened a panel of experts who will not only provide their insights into the battle and its legacy, but suggest possible directions for future study.

Our panel comes to us from a variety of perspectives on the topic:

John Hennessy (JH) is the author of two books on Manassas, including An End To Innocence: The First Battle of Manassas. He is currently the Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Ethan Rafuse (ER) is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.  He is the author of A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas, as well as numerous other works.

Harry Smeltzer (HS) writes for America’s Civil War and Civil War Times magazines.  He hosts the blog “Bull Runnings” (, is vice-president of the Save Historic Antietam Foundation, and resides just outside Pittsburgh, PA.

We sent each panelist a set of questions asking them to consider the most common misconceptions of the battle, its overall significance to the war’s outcome and the battle’s legacy today.  Here are their responses:

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