Gilbert: Bull Run

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(HOST) One hundred and fifty years ago next week, the first major land battle of the Civil War was fought just short distance from Washington, DC. According to commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert, it was a rude awakening for the North, and only the beginning of a national waking nightmare that would last four years.

(GILBERT) In the early summer of 1861, two months after Fort Sumter surrendered, many people in the North and South believed that the war would be brief.

President Lincoln was understandably eager to prosecute the war, in part because he didn’t want Northerners’ commitment to the war to diminish through the passage of time and inaction. Moreover, the volunteers who had rushed to defend the Union after Ft. Sumter had signed on for only ninety days.

Lincoln determined that the Union army should attack a crucial railroad junction just twenty miles southwest of Washington, at Manassas, in northern Virginia. There Confederate forces commanded by General P. T. Beauregard blocked the Union’s approach to the Confederate capital of Richmond. Lincoln’s generals were strongly opposed, arguing that the Union army was not yet ready and that their soldiers were still "green." The President replied, "You are green, it is true, but they are green too; you are green alike."

On July 21 , Union forces implemented Lincoln’s plan to attack at Bull Run, a stream near Manassas. It was a Sunday morning, and people rode out from Washington in carriages with wine and picnic lunches to watch the battle. In Washington, Lincoln followed developments throughout the day from the telegraph office at the War Department; and the early news was good – Union forces were pushing the Confederates back. But Confederate General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade, "standing like a stone wall," famously held fast. Confederate reinforcements arrived, the Union troops eventually pulled back, and as they did, they were shattered by an attack by "Stonewall" Jackson’s troops and a cavalry charge led by a man who would become another Confederate hero – Colonel J.E.B. – or Jeb – Stuart.

At first, the Union’s withdrawal was orderly, but soon most of the Union forces were in chaotic retreat. The civilian spectators had expected to witness chivalry; what they saw was carnage – and a Union defeat. They and Union soldiers jammed the roads headed back towards Washington. Fortunately for the Union, the Confederate forces were too disorganized to follow up on their victory.

Bull Run was the first major land battle of the war. Casualty estimates vary – but totaled about 850 dead, more than 2,500 wounded, and many more missing.

The Confederate victory at Bull Run meant that an attack on Washington was a real possibility. Union forces moved quickly to strengthen the capital’s defenses. Most importantly, the North now realized that it was engaged in a real war – and that the ninety-day volunteers, whose terms of service were about to expire, would clearly be inadequate. A real army – large, trained, disciplined, well-supplied and well-armed – would be required. The very next day Congress authorized an army of a half-million men, enlisting for up to three years.

Ironically, some Southerners drew the opposite conclusion: that the war would soon be over.

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