A Civil War Battle--First Manasses
Bill Long 12/1/06
The Confederate Interpretation of the 7/21/1861 Battle
I have not been as dedicated as some of my peers in my study of the details of the American Civil War but, in a pinch, I can tell you a lot of things about it. Usually when the War is considered, we look at it from the perspective of the North (the victors) and read accounts written by people in the 20th/21st centuries. But in the past few days I ran across a July 24, 1861 story from the Richmond Inquirer, a leading Southern newspaper, which described the scene in the Confederate capital after the arrival of the first trainloads of prisoners and some Southern dead and wounded from the July 21 battle at Manasses/Bull Run, about 50 miles to the North. The purpose of this essay is to bring you into the spirit of that article by quoting and commenting on it.
First Manasses/Bull Run
As many know, this was the first battle of the Civil War, undertaken with trepidation by General Irwin McDowell of the North because of the "greeness" of his troops. Nevertheless, three months had passed since the firing on Fort Sumter, and the Union had to respond fairly soon or else the impression might be given that it was not up for the fight. McDowell assembled a fighting force of more than 28,000 men, the largest ever assembled in North America, while the Confederates had about 21,000 men. Everything seemed to go wrong for the Union, and by the afternoon of the 21st, they were forced into an ignominious retreat. Countless Internet sites give you the details.
Early on the evening of the 23rd the rail cars began arriving back in Richmond. As the story from the Richmond Inquirer of the next day has it:
"A vast concouse assembled early yesterday evening at the Central Railroad Depot, to await the arrival of the train from Manasses."
The crowd was large and unruly; a guard had to be set to "prevent the pressure of the people around the train when it should arrive." Finally, at 7:15 p.m the first train arrived, bringing 20 wounded soldiers (the Confederacy had sustained 387 deaths and 1,582 injuries, while the Union suffered 460 killed, 1,124 wounded and 1,312 missing or captured. Apparently there were no Confederate prisoners taken) and four of the dead. The highest ranking Confederate killed was "Gen. Bartow," as the story says, though in fact Bartow was only a Colonel at the time.
The Real Excitement Develops
Whispers then began to spread through the crowd. President Davis, it was said, was on the train. "A thousand shouts rent the air with wild huzzas as his well-known face and figure were discovered" (the OED says that the definition of "discover" as "reveal, disclose" is "archaic." Not in 1861! I actually like that use of "discover," similar to "uncover" in our 21st century way of speaking). Of course, once the great man was seen by the crowd, he was forced to speak. So the story proceeds:
"In a strain of fervid eloquence he eulogized the courage, the endurance and patriotism of our victorious troops, and to the memory of our honored dead, who shed their life's blood on the battle-field. In the glorious cause of their country, he paid a glowing tribute, which could not fail to dim with tears the eyes of the least feeling among his hearers."
Then the President recounted the supplies captured:
"..sixty piece of splendid cannon, of the best and most improved models, vast quantities of ammunition, arms enough of various descriptions to equip a large army, hundreds of wagons and amulances, of the most luxurious make and finish, and provisions enough to feed an army of fifty thousand men for twelve months."
And then we see the way that 19th century rhetoric took over.
"The headlong retreat of the enemy he compared to the wild and hurried flight of a scared convey of partridges. He said that so great was the terror with which the repeated onslaughts of our men inspired them, that, taking wildly to their heels, they threw from them their guns, swords, knapsacks, and everything that could in any way retard their escape."
Despite the hugely appreciative crowd, President Jefferson Davis's arrival took the citizens by surprise. Had they known of it ahead of time, "such an ovation would have greeted hs return as never before was witnessed in the Old Dominion."
Other trains then arrived later in the evening. The second one carried prisoners, 585 of them. They were called "Hessian prisoners," twenty-five of whom were commissioned officers, as well as "thirty of Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves." More prisoners were to come. The story closes with a note that these 585 were to be marched off to Harwood's factory, the first prison set up in the Confederate States.
The tide had definitely turned. Instead of an undermanned force of retreating people, the South was now confident, strong and determined. Davis knew how to play the crowd, and the crowd, including the press, was quite willing to be played. Both sides were in for a very long fight.
Thanks for helping me reimagine a hot summer night night long, long ago--July 23, 1861. When reading the news story, I could almost feel the excitement in the crowd.