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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum

Aug 8th, 2011

How important do you think the battle ultimately was to the war’s outcome?

ER: The North won the war because the Civil War was ultimately a conventional war of exhaustion, it had greater resources and the will and judgment to apply them with sufficient effectiveness to eventually convince the South that submission to the Union was preferable to military struggle.  It is hard to see how what happened at Bull Run materially affected either the North’s will or ability to continue the conventional contest.  Still, the battle did have an effect on the course of the war, which invariably influenced its outcome.  This comes out especially clear if one contemplates the consequences of a Union victory in July 1861. Much of course would depend on the scale of the victory.  Would the first major battle between the Federals and Confederates end with Southern forces merely falling back from Henry Hill to Manassas Junction, giving up the Bull Run line altogether, or with their army completely annihilated?  (This by no means exhausts the list of possible contingencies.) But, presuming it had been a truly decisive one, would a Federal victory at Manassas have been sufficient to induce the South to give up its bid for independence?  There was, after all, still a considerable distance for Federal troops to cover before they reached Richmond and the peculiarities of Virginia’s geography and transportation network would have given the Confederates plenty of opportunities to rally and put up renewed resistance. Moreover, presuming Confederate morale remained strong enough to continue the fight, would it have been conventional resistance?  In his recent book on guerrillas in the Civil War, Daniel Sutherland has found considerable evidence of enthusiasm in the Confederacy for conducting irregular resistance.  Would defeat at First Manassas, coming on the heels of defeats in Missouri and western Virginia, have discredited the advocates of conventional resistance, strengthened those calling for a more irregular contest, and produced a far different conflict after July 1861?  As history has shown repeatedly, the aftermath of wars that are quickly decided conventionally can be exceedingly troublesome.  A different war would have invariably produced a different outcome.  What that would have been and how it would have been different from what it was are, of course, questions that are impossible to answer with any degree of certitude.  But it can make for an interesting intellectual exercise that encourages consideration of the context in which the campaign took place and broader questions about the Confederacy and its war for independence.

HS: The importance of Bull Run lies more in how its outcome affected the conduct of the war from that point onward.  Had McDowell’s army delivered a decisive victory and established Federal presence in Northern Virginia on a line encompassing Manassas or even further south and west, how would that have impacted Confederate strategy?  What personnel decisions would have resulted?  Would Beauregard or Johnston or both have been sacked?  Would Robert E. Lee have been given an army command earlier, or would A. S. Johnston have come east?  Would the focus in the east have still been Virginia?  Would the Confederacy have still participated in a war of armies and set-piece battles or adopted a more partisan approach? By the same token, what would the implications have been for the Union’s war effort?  Would the victory have strengthened the resolve of southern Unionists as Lincoln had hoped?  It seems likely that McDowell’s star would have continued on its upward path and George McClellan would not have been summoned to Washington, at least not that summer (insert snide McClellan reference here).  With an early, major victory at Bull Run in its pocket, would the North have ultimately pursued a more consistent, conciliatory strategy, and would it have resulted in a quicker, cleaner victory?  Would compulsory emancipation have ever entered the picture?  Would the Radicals have continued to hold sway in Congress without a war-hardened and angry electorate? These are questions for which there are no right answers.  The Union with its advantages in manpower and materiel would have most likely still emerged victorious.  How that victory would have been achieved, and what the country might have looked like afterwards, is impossible to know – but fun to think about.

JH: Like Pearl Harbor, First Manassas was a harsh awakening that set both sides on a hurried effort to build and sustain war machines. Beyond the obvious tactical lessons learned by commanders on both sides, the battle commenced an evolutionary process that would find expression in the practice of logistics, strategy, medical care, the organization of armies, the conduct of battles, the human experience of combat, and the relationship of military commands to the governments they served. I’m not entirely sure it’s worthwhile to try to connect the first major battle of the Civil War, at Manassas, with the outcome of the war four years later.  It’s a bit like trying to suggest a relationship between Lexington Green and the outcome at Yorktown. But what is important for people to understand is this:  The Civil War began as one thing—a fairly straightforward military exercise intended to restore the Union—and ended as something very different: a nationwide conflagration intent on restoring the Union by transforming it socially, politically, and economically. In my view, this is the single most important idea we can teach Americans when they visit NPS Civil War sites (which is my professional bailiwick). While each battle of the war has intrinsic importance and interest, their real significance lies in how they affected and were affected by this momentous transformation of the nature and reach of the American Civil War.  First Manassas is what we were; Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Atlanta, Georgia, the Valley, and Petersburg are what we became. The story of that world-changing evolution started at Manassas on July 21, 1861. The immensity of this war of ours cannot be fully understood without understanding too how narrow and limited it was once conceived to be.  First Manassas produced leaders that had a significant impact on the ebb and flow of war, and even its outcome. Both Beauregard and Johnston cemented positions of influence by their performance at First Manassas, though some would argue their impact on the Confederate war effort was anything but positive. Jackson emerged, by far the greatest star, and with arguably the greatest, most enduring impact on the war.  Early and Ewell likewise found notice at First Manassas, and from there built important reputations as solid commanders.  On the Union side, no stars were born at First Bull Run, save, perhaps, Franklin and Burnside, though theirs were dim stars indeed.

ER: John Hennessy’s comments prompted a number of other observations and thoughts.  He takes aim at those then and since who have suggested that a single battle “might resolve more than eighty years of political and social discord that permeated virtually every aspect of American society.”  First, this raises the question of what the term “resolve” meant.  Much, of course, it can be argued has not been resolved—and some issues, like the tension between state and federal government, probably cannot be definitively.  Perhaps, at least, a different outcome at First Manassas might have resolved one narrow point quicker—namely that resort to secession and large-scale organized violence was not a feasible course of action for the South.  This point raises questions of how we think about First Manassas in relation to the sectional conflict and how perceptions of both have evolved.  Specifically, the question of what could have been accomplished at Manassas is intertwined with how profound and deep one believes the conflict between the sections was.  It seems safe to say that most recent scholarship has tended to consider the conflicts between the two sections culturally, politically, socially, and economically incredibly deep, reflecting deeper research and thought into the social and cultural worlds of the North and South and perhaps the polarization of our own society over the last generation.  Earlier generations of historians, however, have disputed the notion that the North and South were really different; in turn reflecting what may have been a greater degree of consensus in society at various times and particular intellectual currents of the time.  The Nationalist school that was ascendant in early 20th century scholarship on the war saw a deep “irrepressible conflict”, while the “revisionists” of the period after the First World War saw the war as simply the product of a “blundering generation” of politicians, implying that the differences between the sections really were not that profound.  Then there are the post-World War II scholars who revived U.S. Grant’s reputation (to the detriment, of course, of those generals who went before him) and the rethinking of matters prompted by the civil rights movement.   Moreover, it is not unreasonable to see in the skepticism (proper, in my view) expressed in this discussion so far regarding the ability of a Union victory to truly settle the conflict a reflection of contemporary concerns.  In particular, I am thinking of the fact that quick, decisive conventional victories by American arms seem to have created more problems recently than they have solved.  This greater appreciation of the challenges of post-conflict environments is also no doubt intertwined with a greater appreciation of the complexity of the challenges Reconstruction posted, which is rooted in the eschewing of earlier simplistic notions of carpetbaggers oppressing the postwar South.  How are these currents evident in the evolution of thinking about First Manassas and what are their connections to the particular social contexts and reflect concerns of their times?  In sum, it seems we have yet another subject rich for reexamination through the lens of memory, how thinking about First Manassas and the sectional conflict as a whole has evolved over the past 150 years, and how that evolution has reflected the concerns of particular historians and the particular contexts in which they operated.

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