Special Report

The Battle of Bull Run: The End of Illusions

Both North and South expected victory to be glorious and quick, but the first major battle signaled the long and deadly war to come

Scores of high-spirited civilians carried picnic baskets and champagne to the battlefield to watch what would turn out to be the first major land engagement of the Civil War. Shown here is the battlefield as it appears today. (Elan Fleisher / www.agefotostock.com)
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Cannon boomed, brass bands serenaded and ladies tossed bouquets as Jefferson Davis arrived in Richmond on May 29, 1861, to make it the capital of the Confederate States of America. He had set out from the original capital at Montgomery, Alabama, soon after Virginia seceded from the Union six days earlier. Along the way, jubilant well-wishers slowed his train and he crossed the James River into Richmond far behind schedule. It was a scene wholly unlike President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s arrival in Washington the previous February, when he sneaked into the city at dawn in a curtained sleeping car because of threats of assassination as he passed through Baltimore. Richmond welcomed Davis as if he personally were going to smite the Yankees and drive them from Virginia soil.

To a cheering crowd, he said, “I know that there beats in the breasts of Southern sons a determination never to surrender, a determination never to go home but to tell a tale of honor....Give us a fair field and a free fight, and the Southern banner will float in triumph everywhere.”

Unlike Davis’ Mississippi and the other cotton states of the Deep South, Virginia, the most populous state below the Mason-Dixon line, had been reluctant to leave the Union of its fathers. The Richmond convention that debated secession leaned strongly against it; a country lawyer and West Point graduate named Jubal Early spoke for the majority when he warned that the convention could decide “the existence and the preservation of the fairest fabric of government that was ever erected....We ought not to act in hot haste, but coolly deliberate in view of the grave consequences.”

But after the first guns at Fort Sumter, when Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion, the convention reversed itself. Opinion swung so sharply that the result of the May 23 referendum confirming the convention’s decision was a foregone conclusion. More than five months after South Carolina became the first state to depart the Union, Virginia followed. As a result, the proud, conservative Old Dominion would be the bloodiest battleground of the Civil War—and the first and final objective of all that slaughter was the capital, the very symbol of Southern resistance, the city of Richmond.

At first, there had been brave talk in Dixie of making Washington the capital of the Confederacy, surrounded as it was by the slave states of Maryland and Virginia. Federal troops had been attacked by a mob in Baltimore, and Marylanders had cut rail and telegraph lines to the North, forcing regiments headed for Washington to detour by steaming down the Chesapeake Bay. Washington was in a state of nerves; officials fortified the Capitol and the Treasury against feared invasion. Richmond was alarmed by rumors that the Union gunboat Pawnee was on its way up the James River to shell the city into flames. Some families panicked, believing an Indian tribe was on the warpath. Militiamen rushed to riverside and aimed cannon downstream. But the Pawnee never came.

North and South, such rumors pursued rumors, but soon the preliminaries, real and imagined, were either resolved or laughed away. The stage was set for war, and both sides were eager for a quick and glorious victory.

The society widow Rose O’Neal Greenhow was well known for her Southern sentiments, but in her home just across Lafayette Square from the White House she entertained Army officers and congressmen regardless of their politics. Indeed, one of her favorites was Henry Wilson, a dedicated abolitionist and future vice president from Massachusetts who had replaced Jefferson Davis as chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. Greenhow, sophisticated and seductive, listened carefully to everything her admirers said. Soon she would be sending notes across the Potomac encoded in a cipher left with her by Thomas Jordan, who had resigned his Army commission and gone south.

As summer began, Jordan was adjutant of the Confederate Army under Brig. Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a dashing Louisianan. Beauregard, who had become the Confederacy’s premier hero by commanding the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April, was now gathering brigades to protect the vital rail junction at Manassas, little more than 25 miles west-southwest of Washington.

On July 4, Lincoln asked a special session of Congress for 400,000 troops and $400 million, with legal authority “for making this contest a short, and a decisive one.” He expressed not only the hope, but also the expectation of most officials in Washington. Many of the militia outfits rolling in from the North had signed on in April for just 90 days, assuming they could deal with the uppity Rebels in short order. Day after day, a headline in the New York Tribune blared, “Forward to Richmond! Forward to Richmond!” a cry that echoed in all corners of the North.

The most notable voice urging restraint came from the most experienced soldier in the nation, Winfield Scott, general in chief of the U.S. Army, who had served in uniform since the War of 1812. But at 74, Scott was too decrepit to take the field and too weary to resist the eager amateurs of war as they insisted that the public would not tolerate delay. Scott turned over field command to Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who was headquartered at Robert E. Lee’s abandoned Arlington mansion. On July 16, the reluctant McDowell left Arlington and started the Union Army of the Potomac westward.

About Ernest B. Furgurson
Ernest B. Furgurson

Ernest B. Furgurson is the author of Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War and Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War, plus other books about war and politics.

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