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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Jefferson Davis arrived at Manassas after the contest was decided and set off celebrations in Richmond with a message saying, “We have won a glorious though dear-bought victory. Night closed on the enemy in full flight and closely pursued.” His speeches en route back, plus rumors from the front, made it sound as if he had gotten there just in time to turn the tide of battle. “We have broken the back bone of invasion and utterly broken the spirit of the North,” the Richmond Examiner exulted. “Henceforward we will have hectoring, bluster and threat; but we shall never get such a chance at them again on the field.” Some of Beauregard’s soldiers, feeling the same way, headed home.

A more realistic South Carolina official said the triumph was exciting “a fool’s paradise of conceit” about how one Rebel could lick any number of Yankees. Among Union troops, he told diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, the rout would “wake every inch of their manhood. It was the very fillip they needed.”

Most of the North woke up Monday morning to read that the Union had won: news dispatches filed when McDowell’s troops were driving the Confederates back had gone out from Washington, and War Department censors temporarily blocked later accounts. Lincoln, first buoyed and then struck hard by reports from the front, had stayed awake all Sunday night. When the truth came, his cabinet met in emergency session. Secretary of War Simon Cameron put Baltimore on alert and ordered all organized militia regiments to Washington. Generals and politicians competed in finger-pointing. Although McDowell with his green troops had very nearly won at Bull Run, after such a disaster he clearly had to go. To replace him, Lincoln summoned a 34-year-old Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who had won a series of minor clashes in western Virginia.

After days of alarm among citizens and public drunkenness among many of the Union’s disheartened soldiers, calm returned and the North looked ahead. Few there could agree at first with the anonymous Atlantic Monthly correspondent who wrote that “Bull Run was in no sense a disaster...we not only deserved it, but needed it....Far from being disheartened by it, it should give us new confidence in our cause.” But no one could doubt the gravity of the situation, that “God has given us work to do not only for ourselves, but for coming generations of men.” Thus all the North could join in vowing that “to gain that end, no sacrifice can be too precious or too costly.” Not until the following spring would McClellan take the rebuilt Army of the Potomac again into Virginia, and not for another three springs would the immensity of that sacrifice be realized.

Ernest B. Furgurson has written four books on the Civil War, most recently Freedom Rising. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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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