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The Battle of Bull Run: The Civil War's first taste of horror

An interview with historian David Detzer sheds light on the Battle of Bull Run, the first battle of the US Civil War, fought on July 21, 1861.

By Randy Dotinga, Monitor contributor / July 21, 2011

The Battle of Bull Run would be the first battle of an incredibly bloody war, a conflict that hardly anyone imagined would last very long or leave so many bereaved.

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Visitors will flock to Manassas Battlefield National Park near Washington D.C. this month and contemplate the 150th anniversary of the first battle of the Civil War. Amid grassy fields and old houses, they'll stare up at memorial statues, peer at cannons, and hear from guides about military strategy.

I made my own visit to the battlefield last month with a friend whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy and who remembered her Southern grandmother insisting on referring to the war as "The Recent Unpleasantness." We stood and tried to imagine the First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas.

But we couldn't smell or see or hear the chaos: The smoke, the screams of horses and men, the booms of cannons, the crackle of trees on fire. Our imaginations only went so far.

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But now I've gained a more detailed portrait thanks to a fine 2004 book about the first major skirmish of a war that would turn so many places – Antietam, Gettysburg, Vicksburg – into emblems of death.

"Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861" by David Detzer, translates the bewildering intricacies of warfare while exploring the lives of those who fought, those who sent them there and those left back at home. (The book is part of Detzer's trilogy about the early days of the war.)

In an interview, I asked the Connecticut-based historian to talk about the nation's lessons from the first battle of an incredibly bloody war, a conflict that hardly anyone thought would last very long or leave so many bereaved.

Q: What did the North and South misunderstand about warfare as this battle began?

A: Both sides were innocent, and both sides were clueless about war would be like.

Q: That seems so remarkable. How did they manage to be so out of touch?

A: I've read the kinds of things they’d read about war. The books romanticized things, No book or magazine told of reality at its rawest. They only told of war from the point of view of officers and, occasionally, heroic soldiers.

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