As 2021 continues as the 160th Anniversary of the first year of the American Civil War, Emerging Civil War is launching a new blog series to examine a theme subject. “First Experiences Under Fire” will be taking a closer look at the primary sources and other accounts related to leaders, units, and individuals’ first experiences on a battlefield.
While many accounts will highlight the first year of the war, it is not exclusively focused on 1861 or early 1862. Regiments were recruited through the war years and soldiers had their first shot experiences at different times throughout the conflict. Their written or preserved oral history about those first moments when the bullets were flying and the dangers and death of war became reality reveal intense experiences and sometimes life-altering turning points. Most stayed on the battle line. Some ran. Others reacted in ways that surprised themselves and their comrades.
In the summer of 1861 while trying to encourage General Irvin McDowell to take his inexperienced volunteer Union troops to battle, President Lincoln infamously said: “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.” Green troops on both sides who survived their baptism of fire became the dedicated or famed regiments of the war. Their first experiences on the battlefield built their confidence or created a burning desire to avenge a defeat next time.
Four years later Confederate soldiers in the fragmented regiments that arrived at Appomattox Court House may have heard or read these words in the address issued by General Robert E. Lee after the surrender: “I need not tell the brave survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to this result from no distrust of them.” Brave survivors, steadfast, and no distrust now characterized men who—at least a few—had fired (or dodged) their first shots at Manassas/Bull Run.
We hope you’ll find this new blog series relevant to the 160th Anniversary and filled with unique accounts and observations about the first moments when soldiers heard the sound of shells or bullets on a battlefield, beginning their transformation from recruit to battle veteran.