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Civil War History: Historians' Forum

Historians’ Forum

Aug 8th, 2011

Then let’s talk about the battle’s broader legacy and its potential for future research: How would you compare 1st Bull Run’s legacy to that of other Civil War battles (Antietam, Shiloh, Gettysburg, etc)?

ER: First Bull Run was a fairly self-contained event.  Once it was over, the North to a certain extent simply hit the reset button and proceeded forward from there.  Moreover, it was a relatively small battle and saw little—other than the use of railroads to transport troops, something that had already been done in Europe during the 1848 Revolutions and Franco-Austrian War of 1859 —that pointed toward the future of war doctrinally, organizationally, tactically, or technologically.  Still, it has had a legacy in that it served as a frame of reference for the rest of the war.  The battle became shorthand for military disaster, with fears of “another Bull Run” being expressed when Federal forces faced the prospect of a battlefield reverse—or relief being expressed that “at least it was not another Bull Run” when reverses did occur.  It also became shorthand for Civil War commanders when they endeavored to impress on superiors and each other the need for more preparation before undertaking operations.  Moreover, that Bull Run was perhaps the most spectacular instance in American military history of unprepared American forces struggling in the first battle of a major war has naturally made it a poster child for Uptonian arguments ever since for maintaining an effective army in peacetime and a professional officer corps.  Indeed, the motto of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College—an institution founded while Bull Run veteran William T. Sherman was commanding general of the U.S. Army—is Ad Bellum Pace Parati—prepared in peace for war. Next to Gettysburg, First Bull Run may be the best known battle to the general public—both because it was the first battle of the war and the aforementioned comic aspects.  This makes it somewhat surprising that Bull Run has not received the amount of attention from scholars that Gettysburg, the Overland Campaign, Chickamauga, or Shiloh have.  There has been no volume of essays on First Bull Run in Gary Gallagher’s Military Campaigns of the Civil War series, and while there have been a number of pretty good studies, there is no grand history of the campaign and battle that would merit a place on the bookshelf alongside Earl Hess and William Shea’s on Pea Ridge or John Hennessy’s on Second Manassas.

JH: An enduring and significant legacy of First Manassas emerged in the longstanding contentious relationship between the Union army in Virginia and the government it served.  The defeat at First Manassas demanded explanation to the Union body politic, and Congress assumed the role of seeking and providing those explanations.  The Committee on the Conduct of the War emerged from the defeat and instantly created an inquisitory environment that would hang over the Army of the Potomac for the next four years.  The implications of this were far-reaching, profoundly affecting the management culture of the army. We are fond of ascribing the conservatism of the Army of the Potomac to McClellan, but in fact, it’s hard to imagine a circumstance more calculated to inspire conservatism than the promise of a Congressional hearing in the wake of every error.  And so, unlike Lee’s army, the Union army possessed a culture that discouraged initiative and creativity. Indeed, you can probably count on one hand the number of times that subordinate commanders in the Army of the Potomac materially and positively affected the outcome of a battle by their own initiative—and probably three of those instances belonged to Winfield Scott Hancock.

HS: When I think of 1st Bull Run’s legacy versus other campaigns of the war, I think in terms of how it has been studied and how it is thought of by historians, students, “buffs”, and those whose experience with the war is casual.  It seems to me that the general impression of the campaign is that there is little “there” there.  The tactics were not refined, the commanders and troops were inexperienced, and the battle itself was little more than an uncoordinated street rumble between two mobs. Needless to say I find the events more complicated than that. For the most part it seems that folks accept 1st Bull Run as a given: it happened, we got it out of our system, let’s move on.  To quote Robert E. Lee, “Let’s bury these poor men and say nothing more about it.”  It’s thought of mostly in terms of how the Union dealt with the defeat and learned – or did not learn – from it.  And that’s an important aspect, perhaps the most important.  The battle had long tendrils that affected decision making from the top down and from the bottom up on both sides. A look at those changes specifically in the wake of 1st Bull Run – strategic, tactical, logistical/operational, even issues like the perceived value of professional military education – would be of great value, but would also require a detailed tactical study of the action.  I think good histories of all the pieces are out there, but they’re scattered about.  It’s starting to sound like I’m advocating a big campaign study featuring coordinated coverage of the social, political, and military aspects of the campaign in context and detail, with an emphasis on how they all impacted what was to follow, and I guess I am.  I think it would make for a fascinating read.

ER: In terms of scholarship on the war, I think it would be good to see more microhistories—of particular units or of particular phases of the campaign and engagement—along the lines of what William Piston did in an article about a decade ago on the 1st Iowa and has been done with Gettysburg.  More unit histories would be especially useful, especially if written by authors who are not content just to tell interesting stories.  While doing so might yield valuable information and insights on the course and conduct of the battle and campaign, the best unit histories can do more if their author endeavors to explain what the experiences of a particular unit and its members tell us about larger themes in Civil War and military history, such as combat motivation, links between the home front, and what John Lynn a few years back labeled “the discourse of war” of particular times and places in the past and how that interacted with the realities of war.  Such works, in their sections on First Bull Run, could be used to engage broader questions about the early war’s intertwined, military, social, and political dynamics and our views of them, thus engaging in the  “reintegration of American history” that William Freehling made a compelling call for a decade or so ago.


Works Cited:

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

York: Doubleday and Co., 1956.

Freehling, William, W. The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War.  New

York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Grimsley, Mark.  The Hard Hand of War: Union Military Policy Toward Southern Civilians,

1861-1865.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hennessy, John. Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. Norman,

OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Hess Earl J., and William Shea.  Pea Ridge: Civil War Campaign in the West. Chapel Hill:            University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Lynn, John. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture from Ancient Greece to Modern America.

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, , 2003.

Piston, William.  “The First Iowa Volunteers: Honor and Community in a Ninety-Day

Regiment.” Civil War History 44  (December 1998): 3-23.

Rafuse, Ethan S. A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas.

Westport, CT: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Sutherland, Daniel.  A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerillas in the American Civil

War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


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