A Poet’s Perspective: March into Virginia

By July 1861, the tension described in “Misgivings” and “The Conflict of Convictions” had been realized. The United States was at war with itself. In his poem “March Into Virginia,” Melville describes the first battle fought between the North and the South:

Did all the lets and bars appear–

To every just and larger end,

Whence should come the trust and cheer?

Youth must it’s ignorant impulse lend–

Age finds its place in the rear.

All wars are boyish, and are fought but boys,

The champions and enthusiast of the state:

Turbid ardors and vain joys

Not barrenly abate–

Stimulants to the power mature,

Preparatives of fate.

At this point in time, many Americans still believed the Civil war would be a short

Brigadier General Irvin McDowell

conflict. With this in mind, President Lincoln sent Brigadier General Irvin McDowell and his contingent from Washington, D.C. south to attack the enemy forces positioned near Manassas Junction in Northern Virginia.

Who here forecasteth the event?

What heart but spurns at precedent

And warnings of the wise,

Contemned foreclosures of surprise?

The North, encouraged by earlier victories in Western Virginia, was eager to make an advance towards the enemy. Lincoln believed that the element of surprise was on his side, and that victory was all but certain. McDowell was more hesitant, requesting that he have more time to prepare his young and inexperienced troops. Lincoln denied this request based on the

General P.G.T. Beauregard

assumption that the South was also struggling with green troops.

What the North didn’t know was that southern spies among their ranks had notified Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard about the advance on Manassas Junction. This information, plus the slow pace of McDowell’s advance, gave the Confederates sufficient time to call in reinforcements and to prepare for the upcoming battle. Beauregard called General Joseph Johnston to move from his position in the Shenandoah Valley towards Manassas Junction, which was situated along the banks of a small river called Bull Run.

The banners play, the bugles call,

The air is blue and prodigal.

     No berrying party, pleasure-wooed,

No picnic party in the May,

Ever went less loth than they

     Into that leafy neighborhood.

In Bacchic glee they file toward Fate,

Moloch’s uninitiate;

Expectancy, and glad surmise

Of battle’s unknown mysteries.

All they feel is this: ’tis glory,

A rapture sharp, though transitory,

Yet lasting in belaureled story.

So they gayly go to fight,

Chatting left and laughing right.

The two armies clashed on July 21st, 1861. The first hours of the battle saw the outnumbered southern troops pushed back across Bull Run. That changed later in the day, when more Confederate soldiers were brought onto the field.

Painting depicting the First Battle of Bull Run

By mid-afternoon, both sides boasted a force of roughly 18,000 troops. General Beauregard gave the order to attack, and the Confederates charged forwards with a powerful battle cry that would go down in history as the “rebel yell.” Beauregard’s troops broke through the northern line, and McDowell’s men began a chaotic retreat, crashing into the hundreds of spectators that had traveled from Washington, D.C. to watch the fight.

The First Battle of Manassas (AKA “Bull Run”) was a victory for the South, but the Confederate Generals received a serious reprimanding from Confederate President Jefferson Davis for failing to pursue the fleeing yankees. Bull Run was a Confederate victory nonetheless, and it would hold a lasting impact in the war. At was at this moment when many saw a glimpse of what the Civil War would really be like.

 But some who this blithe mood present,

     As on in lightsome files they fare,

Shall die experienced ere three days be spent—

     Perish, enlightened by the vollied glare;

Or shame survive, and, like to adamant,

The throe of Second Manassas share.

The outcome of Bull Run was a surprise for the North, which had expected an easy victory. For the South, it gave hope that they had a chance of winning the war. Soon, both sides would face the inevitable fact that the Civil War would be neither short nor easy. It would take a serious toll on the nation and its people, for many generations to come.

1 Response to A Poet’s Perspective: March into Virginia

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!