From The New York Times Disunion, "The Meaning of Bull Run," by Edward L. Ayers, on 24 July 2011 -- On a hot July morning, exactly 150 years ago, the armies of the barely born Confederacy and the badly shaken United States surrounded the town of Manassas, not far from a creek called Bull Run, for miles around, in every direction. It was a Sunday. Some people thought one major battle would be the very war itself, the beginning and the end, the resolution of decades of arguing over the place of slavery in the future of the United States.
Surely, Confederates thought, their new enemies would see the impossibility of defeating a people so committed to their independence; the United States would be forced to acknowledge the Confederacy’s claims to nationhood. Surely, the Northerners thought, their new enemies would realize they could not overcome so vast and wealthy a nation as the United States and would rejoin the union they had helped create. A decisive battle would kill the rebellion in its infancy.
We know now, of course, how wrong both sides were. After all, how could they have imagined what lay before them, the four years and 620,000 American lives, the equivalent of six million lives today? How, too, could they have imagined that the war they began in earnest that day would become a war that would end perpetual bondage for four million people?
Such a profound consequence was far from the minds of people on either side that day, for such a consequence seemed impossible. But had the Civil War turned out differently, American slavery, never stronger than it was in 1861, might have lived on for generations, its survival changing the paths of world history. The significance of this battle, in other words, radiates far beyond the boundaries of the battlefield and far beyond the limits of the single day.
The land itself seemed destined for conflict. Part of it was a farm owned by a free black man, James Robinson. Susan Gaskins, with whom he raised a family even though she was enslaved, bore eight children with James and, as Virginia law dictated, the children took the mother’s status as slaves. Susan and her daughters were freed at the death of her owner, and James was able to earn enough money to buy two of their sons, but two other sons were sold to the Lower South by Susan’s owner.
Another part of this land was owned by a widow, Judith Carter Henry, who had left much of the farm fallow after her husband’s death a few years earlier; it had grown up in cedar and pine. She was 85 years old, an invalid tended by her son, daughter and a young enslaved woman, Lucy Griffith, whom Mrs. Henry hired from a neighboring minister.
Those two families embodied some of the vast and tangled history of slavery in Virginia. Even in Manassas, located in Prince William County and only a few dozen miles to the Mason-Dixon Line, slavery showed no sign of fading away in July 1861. Virginia, despite the sale and exportation of so many thousands of enslaved people to the other Southern states over the preceding generations, remained the largest slave state in the United States, and thus the Confederacy. Prince William County held over a quarter of its population in slavery. In the nearby farms, growing wheat and corn, over 2,000 people lived in slavery, along with about 500 free black men and women. While most of those enslaved people were scattered in ones and twos among the farms here, 68 slaveholders owned more than 10 people each.
But Manassas was more than just a symbol of national strife; Manassas mattered because it was Manassas Junction, where crucial railroads met, connecting northern Virginia with the Shenandoah Valley, the rich Piedmont and the new Confederate capital in Richmond. Railroads, a recent arrival on the American landscape, would become the very sinews of the Civil War. Time and again, battles would rage to seize or protect or destroy a railroad. Trains brought the vast supplies that tens of thousands of men needed to live in the field for months at a time. And trains could bring the reinforcements that could turn a battle when it seemed lost.
The First Battle of Bull Run would also see the first use of a system of semaphore flags to send the equivalent of a Morse code, to transmit complex information across miles; one such message played a critical role in the battle, alerting the Confederates to a surprise Union maneuver. News of the battle — much of it incorrect or wildly exaggerated in one dimension or another — would flash across the continent almost immediately, carried over the new telegraph lines that wove places together just in time to carry news of the country’s crisis and bloodshed. In this place, too, the United States would make the first use of balloon reconnaissance, providing a glimpse of the breadth and complexity of the scenes playing out below.
It was a place for other, non-technological firsts as well. Soldiers first heard the rebel yell. The most famous nickname in all American military history would emerge: “Stonewall.” And on this battlefield the Confederates would realize they must have a distinctive battle flag, for the first flag of the Confederacy bore too strong a resemblance to the American flag in the confusion of the fighting.
Here, too, people would first see the devastating effects of war on civilians. The Henry house proved to be no shelter at all for the ailing widow Judith Henry, unable to be moved, killed by a shell in her bed, her daughter hiding in the chimney and her hired slave beneath her. That house would be one of countless places destroyed by war. Women would be critical participants in the war, becoming nurses, community leaders, spies and even soldiers as the war consumed one community after another.
But all of that lay ahead on the morning of July 21, 1861. That morning, some of the soldiers were praying, some were boasting. Some were hoping for a fight, some dreading the idea of either shooting or being shot. We need to imagine, if we can, a vast array of men, gathered from all over the country, in the army for only weeks, wearing uniforms that were anything but uniform, enlisting for months rather than years, stretched out for miles, with no way to communicate quickly or effectively. We need to imagine the soldiers as young, their average age 21. We need to imagine a place of unbelievable noise, with the cannon roaring and biting and killing for hour upon hour, with men and horses screaming, with smoke obscuring every line of vision, with the relentless musket fire making it sound as if the woods were burning all around them. “The bursting of shells, the shrieking of cannon balls, the crashing as they splintered the trees . . . would have filled the soul of a warrior with ecstasy,” remembered one Virginian. “Not being a warrior but a plain citizen, I saw nothing especially entertaining in such a hubbub. We lay as flat as flounders.”
We need to imagine immense confusion, with mistakes and failures and brilliance and bravery all swirled together. On this apparently gentle landscape, small creeks with slippery banks, and rutted roads with narrow bridges presented vast obstacles when thousands of men had to drag wagons and cannon and horses and mules and supplies across them.
In its most general outlines, a sketch of the fighting here is relatively simple. The United States army tried to slide around the Confederate forces to the west, to the ridge right behind us, and then move south to take this flank. Although the United States had greater numbers, they were not coordinated effectively and the Confederates were able to push them back away from Henry Hill. In the afternoon, the final reinforcements arrived, via railroad, from the Shenandoah Valley to your right, and overran the Union forces near here. The first guns fired around dawn and by 4 o’clock in the afternoon had fallen silent as the Union army retreated to Washington. The retreat began in an orderly way, but broke down into chaos as the soldiers struggled to cross Cub Run with massive guns to move and Confederate artillery shells bursting above them. About 50 civilian spectators, members of the Washington elite, male and female, were engulfed by the retreat and the pursuing Confederates. One Congressman from New York was captured and sent to a Richmond prison.
At the time, this battle was understood north and south as a United States defeat, though the two sides lost roughly equal numbers of men — about 5,000 total killed, wounded or missing. The United States was humiliated by the loss and the ragged retreat, but Abraham Lincoln, in office for only a few months, issued calls within the next week for a million men to join the Union cause, this time for three years rather than merely 90 days. Rallied by this defeat, Union men flooded the enlistment offices.
While people far from the battlefield might romanticize the fighting to come, those who were here saw what this war would be. The farms were covered with dead and dying. The stench of fallen horses and men filled the air. Houses and churches and schools for many miles around were turned into desperate hospitals where doctors had few ways to relieve pain or save lives.
A letter from Cpl. Sam Payne of Danville, Va., to his cousin Mollie Woodson, preserved at the Museum of the Confederacy, tells a story that could have been repeated in many variations:
I can assure you we had a right scarry time of it, the ball[s] whistling around our heads just like a swarm of bees. I expected every minute for one to hit me, but as God would have it not one touched me at all, but several were right at me, my nearest man was shot. . . .
I went over the field the next day and it was the most horifying sight I ever beheld, numbers were lying wounded on the field some with arms legs & hands shot off all beging for help. I gave several of them some water and laid them in the shade. They at first thought that I was going to kill them, but when they found out that I intended to do them no harm, they seemed very much relieved.
One Union soldier had joined to help support his wife and two children, but, Payne wrote, “poor fellow he will never be able to do much now. He had both of his hands shot entirely off by a cannon ball oh the sight was sickening. I hope I shall never again see such a sight.”
But Sam Payne would see such sights again, for this battle, the largest the continent had ever witnessed, was soon engulfed by others even more horrible. The young corporal himself would be killed less than a year later as the United States army tried to take Richmond in the Peninsula Campaign. The war brought the armies back to this very place only 13 months after they fought here. The year of 1862 would also witness Shiloh and Antietam, the bloodiest days in a war of many blood-soaked days.
During the year after this battle, Lincoln and some members of his party came to realize that destroying slavery would be essential to defeating the Confederacy. The determined efforts by enslaved people to flee to Union lines — efforts at escape that began even before this battle, in May at Fort Monroe, Va. — revealed their desperate longing for freedom. Slowly, some came to realize that uprooting slavery might help redeem the slaughter of the war and the history of a nation that had so long been built on slavery. Eventually, as black men fought and died for the Union, some would even come to believe in something like equality for African Americans.
But that was many battles, many lives, many defeats, many victories, in the future. Bull Run. The brief Civil War imagined in 1861 would stretch on longer than people thought they could bear, bringing consequences greater than they could have imagined on that hot July morning a 150 years ago. We have inherited the national unity and the end of slavery that war eventually brought. We are all fortunate that the battle fought there did not, as so many hoped and expected, begin and end the American Civil War.
This article has been excerpted and adapted from a keynote address given by Edward Ayers on July 21, 2011, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, at the Manassas Battlefield Park in Virginia. (source: The New York Times)