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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum

Aug 8th, 2011

5) The battle was a tactical mess conducted by inexperienced officers who possessed little concept of what their men could or should accomplish on a battlefield.

JH: And so, the historiographical thinking goes, there’s little to learn from it.  The legacy of this belief is a battle narrative that is perhaps less understood than any in the Eastern Theater (I say that having spent a fair amount of energy trying to piece it together myself).  While I am not sure our understanding of the large themes of American history would be influenced by a greater understanding of the details of what happened on Henry Hill on July 21, 1861, I do think there is a good deal to understand about the state of American armies as they entered battle at the outset of the Civil War. While the army’s commanders were surely inexperienced in the management of such large numbers of troops, they were not unthinking buffoons who mindlessly hurled men into battle. McDowell had some shining moments, but failed to understand that the greatest gift to give a “defeated” enemy is time. He did not see, or at least failed to practice, the vast advantage of concentrating forces at the point of contact. During the entire battle for Henry Hill, at no time did more than two Union regiments go into action together, and then they did so largely coincidentally (this, of course, was a failure shared by McDowell and his subordinates in equal shares).  Beauregard focused at first entirely on what he might do to McDowell, without recognizing that McDowell might well do to him instead. Neither he nor Johnston fully recognized how maneuverable McDowell’s army might be—and so they were caught unawares by the morning Union flank march.

ER: Dennis Showalter has argued that military history is one of the few remaining refuges of Calvinism.  By this, he meant that there is a general assumption that if a commander was successful, he must have been a man of merit and the task of the historian is to explain how great and wise they were.  Conversely, it is presumed that the task in analyzing unsuccessful generals—ones who were “predestined” to fail so to speak—is to identify the flaws as commanders and human beings that led to failure.  Thus, it is not surprising that the disaster at First Bull Run Campaign has fostered a general perception that it was campaign inevitably condemned to failure by foolish men doing foolish things.  Add in the well-known curiosities of the campaign—the civilians who came out from Washington as spectators, a congressman handing out sandwiches to soldiers as they went into battle, mix-ups in uniforms, etc.—that cast a buffoonish pall over the entire episode and it is no wonder that the Federal high command rarely receives much respect.

JH: What is remarkable about First Manassas, however, is that so many did so well.  Though the combat ultimately spun out of their control, both Beauregard and Johnston put a powerful imprint on the battle by their actions. In the end, these two generals—who would each spend as much of the war sparring over reputations as fighting battles—worked out a system that served the Confederacy perfectly: Johnston providing general direction as troops arrived on the battlefield and Beauregard directing them into place on the ground, and doing so efficiently and, ultimately, successfully. Jackson and Elzey (the “Blücher of the Day”) showed the sort of personal initiative that would become the hallmark of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Even McDowell (who later emerged as one of the least-successful corps commanders the Union army would ever know) conceived a plan of battle that, though flawed in execution, was imaginative and very nearly successful. The battle is one end of the measuring stick of war. Only by understanding First Manassas can you really comprehend how far the armies evolved over the next 45 months.

6) The battle awakened the nation to the fact that this would be a long war.

JH: This is the standard tag line on First Manassas—the idea has appeared in various forms in dozens of publication (in fact, I think I wrote this idea into a slide program that was shown at the Battlefield park for the better part of two decades).  But is it true? I’d suggest that of all aspects of First Manassas ripe for revision, this probably tops the list—a worthy topic for further research and consideration. There’s no doubting that First Manassas demonstrated that battles of this war would be bigger, more destructive, and more deadly than anything Americans had ever experienced. That revelation carried with it a shock that reverberated across the land, North and South. But I’d offer that the anticipation on both sides that the first battle of the war would be the last battle of the war was not much different than the hope expressed by soldiers before every major battle prior to 1864, at least in the Eastern Theater. The record for all of them is replete with exclamations that surely, this time, a victory will bring the contest to an end.  First Manassas was no different. For the Northern populace, it wasn’t the Union defeat at Manassas that made it apparent that the war would be a long one. Rather, it was Union victories—in the west: victories on the Mississippi, at Shiloh, at Corinth (one gained in tiny increments).  When these failed to bring the war to a close, the conclusion was inevitable: the war would grind along by increments, broadening as it went to include slavery, the Southern economy, and (to a degree) the Southern populace as legitimate targets.  No battle of the war in the East had a decisive effect on anything (except, perhaps, Five Forks), but it would take the first two years of war to recognize that hard reality.   From the Southern perspective, anyone who expected the war to end in the dust of the retreating Union army that Sunday evening quickly had his or her thinking revised. If such a decisive victory did not compel the Yankees to quit, what would?  While we are fond of quoting those who expected the victory at Manassas to bring an end to the conflict (though those quotes are in fact few), more realistic—and more common—are the words of Major Samuel Melton of Milledge Bonham’s staff.  “Five [Yankees] will rise up where one has been killed,” he predicted days after the battle, “and in my opinion the war will have to be continued to the bloody end.” It would not be long before politicians in Richmond recognized this too, and commenced strident measures to put the Confederacy on a footing for a long war—a war effort that would ultimately touch every aspect of Southern life and virtually every family too.

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