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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum

Aug 8th, 2011

JH: Of all the battles or campaigns that have descended into a historical rut—a rut that keeps the wheels of history on an unvarying path—perhaps First Manassas is foremost.  It’s a battle that many Americans know something about (which is more than you can say for most, save Gettysburg and Antietam), and yet it has received less serious attention from serious historians than most others. That curious disparity is rooted in conceptions and misconceptions that seem to be shared by public and historians alike—conceptions and misconceptions that attract the masses and repel the scholars.  America’s view of First Manassas is derived from the rote acceptance of a campaign narrative that was little revised in the succeeding 140 years.

Some of the common conceptions and misconceptions that warrant a new look:

1) The battle didn’t matter much.

JH: This, perhaps more than anything, has discouraged scholars from looking deeper into the campaign and its circumstances. In some ways the scholars are right: the armies tested themselves, redefined the scale of human suffering American warfare entailed, and then went back to the starting line to start over again nine months later in much larger form.  But to leave it at that misses a few important points (more on that below).

ER: Then there is the matter of the decision to launch the campaign at all, which has been criticized as reflecting a naiveté on the part of the Lincoln administration and northern public about the nature of the conflict they had entered, which led them to launch a major campaign with an army that just was not ready to do so successfully.  It is always tempting when something does not work out to see virtue in the road not taken—specifically in this case for heeding the advice of Winfield Scott and exercising more patience in the summer of 1861.  But this just was not realistic given the political climate of 1861.  Moreover, the idea that you could win the war quickly had just enough logic behind it that it had to be tested.  In addition, it was not unreasonable to deduce from events in Missouri and western Virginia that a quick victory in battle was not only eminently possible, but would have the effect of bringing about a collapse of Confederate authority.  Finally, the fact that the battle was in many ways a very near-run thing and could have turned out very differently should make us wary of condemning the idea of fighting it at all outright.

2) Patterson’s failure in the Valley foiled things for the Yankees.

HS: A conspicuous misconception is the notion that Irvin McDowell’s “plan” for the campaign was sound and only foiled by the failure of Robert Patterson to hold the forces under Joseph Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley.  This judgment consists of two conclusions: a) that McDowell’s plan was sound and b) that its failure was due to Patterson’s failure.  Criticism of the clarity of McDowell’s strategic goal and his handle on logistics is reasonable.  While its execution was certainly faulty, tactically his plan has received high marks – all things considered.  This discussion focuses narrowly on the rationalization that the overall failure of the plan – not of the campaign itself – was the result of the timely arrival of Johnston’s army at Manassas.   McDowell’s plan for the campaign, submitted in the last week of June, estimated he would be facing “about 35,000 men” around Manassas after reinforcements were forwarded from fronts other than the Shenandoah Valley.  After the arrival of Smith’s brigade on the 21st, Confederate forces at Manassas totaled between 33,000 and 35,000 – essentially the number McDowell had calculated nearly a month earlier.  That the bulk of the anticipated reinforcements had come from Johnston is immaterial.  If we accept that McDowell’s plan was, in fact, sound, then any number of factors was responsible for its failure at First Bull Run.  The arrival of reinforcements, which the plan anticipated, was not one of them.  This despite what McDowell and others said – or were encouraged to say – before the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War.

JH: All the revisionist history on earth ought not to get us to the point where we define Patterson’s efforts in the Shenandoah Valley as a success, but it does not necessarily follow that Patterson’s failure to detain Johnston’s army led to McDowell’s defeat at First Manassas.  Fact is, Irvin McDowell had sufficient men and—largely due to his own skill—sufficient opportunity to win the battle of July 21, 1861.  Had Johnston’s army remained in the Shenandoah Valley, McDowell’s chance for decisive victory would have been greater (indeed, the majority of troops engaged on July 21 were Johnston’s, not Beauregard’s).  But had McDowell recognized the need for decisive follow-up to his morning victory on Matthew’s Hill, and had he ascended Henry Hill in force, rather than in a procession of regiments, the outcome may well have been Union victory, despite Johnston’s presence. Patterson is the refuge for McDowell’s apologists.

And yet perhaps,

3) Irvin McDowell deserves better from history.

ER: To be sure, he and the other Federal commanders made their fair share of errors in conducting the campaign.  But the decisions they made that proved to be mistaken become far more understandable and eminently sensible when one considers the complexity of the situations they faced and the alternatives—or in some cases, lack thereof available at the time.  Even what, for instance, were clearly in retrospect mistakes on McDowell’s part—relying on the advice of his engineers regarding the route to Sudley Ford and pausing after overrunning the Confederates on Matthews Hill—had sound rationales behind them. Given how central he was to the first year of the war, the absence of a good, balanced biography of the general that fully takes these into account and explains who the man who made them was is a glaring gap in Civil War literature

4) “The Union Army” was pressured by “The Press” to move into Virginia.

HS:  This assumes that “The Army” took its marching orders from someone other than the Lincoln Administration.  It did not – this was Lincoln’s call.  And while the Lincoln quote “You are all green alike” is a quote typically used admiringly, it was a very naïve notion to say the least. “The Press” was hardly unified in a desire for rapid movement.  Some were, others weren’t.  There was more to “The Press” than the New York Tribune. The myth then fails to consider Lincoln’s motives for ordering the movement outside of “The Press.”

ER: The notion that the press and public expectations played a role in driving Lincoln to push for military action is not, however, completely off base.  Lincoln always kept a keen eye out for what public expectations and demands were–or he thought might be–in any situation.  And given how tenuous his relationship was with much of the Republican Party outside Illinois, especially the more radical anti-South faction who were the “base” of the party, Lincoln was especially sensitive to their wishes and concerns.  Regardless of the timing of the Tribune editorials demanding action and Lincoln’s de facto orders for action, there can be little doubt that Lincoln issued the latter in part out of anticipation of the former.

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