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.

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    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.

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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There were no stories about how the vast majority of people who died in the Mexican War, the previous war that they were familiar with it, died of various diseases without any glory or romance at all.

And two-thirds of the people who died in the Civil War – 400,000 out of 600,000 – would die of disease. They died, but they weren't killed.

When you begin to realize the realities from an up-close perspective, you become awed by how awful and ungenteel war is. None of the things that were written in that era gave that fact justice.

Q: What about US President Abraham Lincoln?

A: He hadn’t read very much about war, and he refused to listen to by far the most knowledgeable person in the country, a general named Winfield Scott. He wasn't seen exactly as a doddering old fool, but he was puffed up with his political connections and fairly smooth with reporters, and Lincoln did not like that. He wanted Scott to mind his own little bailiwick.

Q: As you write, Lincoln would only later understand the value of the general's Anaconda Plan, to control the Mississippi and the Atlantic Ocean and crush the south in a vise. How did Lincoln evolve as a commander in chief?

You could say "Lincoln was a civilian." But I'm a civilian, and I know a heck of a lot more than he did (at the beginning of the war).

But Lincoln would grow. By 1863, he knew a heck of a lot more than I do, because he'd walked battlefields and smelled them, and that’s when you begin to understand them.

Q: Could this have been the first and last battle of the Civil War, the one that decided things once and for all and prevented the rest of the bloodshed?

A: For the war to end, that means that one side has to give up. Neither side was going to give up, no matter what had happened. The losses, no matter how horrible, would have merely made people enraged.

Q: What do you think soldiers learned from this battle?

A: They wrote home that the food stinks, many of their leaders were incompetent and politicians are often dopes with their own agendas. "But I really like Bob, and Bob and I make a good team."

Depending on how they sensitive they were, war was shocking as it always is. It wasn't sufficient to wake people up to how really bad it is, but it made them a lot less romantic.

They thought it was going to be easy and fun. The fun was taken out of it. I don't hear much fun after [the Battle of Bull Run].

Q: What's your next book about?

A: It's the follow-up to the battle and focuses on the prisoners of both sides. No one had expected that: what do we do with these people?

Their very presence is a reality. They come looking bedraggled, with ripped clothes, maybe bloody clothes. You're suddenly standing among a bunch of people who seem to have been homeless for a long, long time.

The prisoners were taken down to Richmond, and some were sent to New Orleans or Charleston. Or they were sent to Washington or New York and a small island off Boston.

Q: As the anniversary of the battle nears this month, how should Americans look at the Battle of Bull Run?

A: What they should get from it is not what they'll get. They always want to see romance, just as much as they did in 1861. So they romanticize it, as much as they romanticize D-day, for example. They refuse to see what it is from a human point of view, and I wish they would.

I wish they would see this battle as the end of the first big chapter of the war.

The people of America on both sides – and even those who hadn't yet chosen sides – now have some notion of what war will be like. But they haven't yet seen the price of bread skyrocket or be denied their cup of coffee in the morning. They haven't yet seen the prisoners who are about to troop down Main Street and ask, "What will we do with these people?" They haven't yet totally come to grips with it.

Not enough people will learn enough from it to call it to a halt, to work really hard to stop it. On both sides, they will become more determined to fight.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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