“The day long remembered:” Remembering Bull Run

ECW welcomes guest author Anthony Trusso

Image of the 1865 dedication of the Patriot’s Monument, positioned on Henry Hill and one of the oldest extant Civil War monuments. Library of Congress.

On July 21, 1861, the two largest armies ever fielded on the North American continent to that point engaged in the Battle of First Bull Run. By the end of the day, nearly 900 soldiers were dead and an additional 4,000 wounded, captured, and missing.  All notions of a one-battle war to decide the fate of the Union were obliterated and the soldiers who were involved in the battle would never forget their experiences.  As the demoralized Federal ranks trickled back to the capital following the engagement, news of the first bloody Sunday of the war spread across both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.

For the purposes of this article, memory deals with how participants in the immediate aftermath of the engagement attempted to grapple with the shocking event they collectively experienced, setting expectations for how the remainder of the conflict was to be remembered.

Participants realized that it was impossible to relay the entirety of the event to their families at home through words or photographs.  They grasped that they were living through a very important time not only in their lives but also in the life of the young nation. A civilian traveling with the United States Army understood the impossibility of relaying the entirety of the battle, but that it was possible to “get a little glimpse of some corner somewhere that will be worthwhile.”  He also understood that they were in the process of making history and that all memory of it would be valuable.[1]

The written word served as the best means for the participants to share with their family and friends their personal experience of the battle. A member of the 4th South Carolina Infantry provided his family with a description of his first brutal experience in combat, relaying that “for ten long hours it literally rained balls, shells and other missiles of destruction. The firing did not cease for a moment…It was truly terrific.”  After the battle, the soldier was met with the realities for the first time of the cost of a battle. “The sight of the dead, the cries of the wounded, the thundering noise of battle can never be put on paper.”[2]

One of the most well-known episodes of the engagement was the creation of the legend of Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Eyewitness accounts from soldiers in the 4th Alabama Infantry provide the best lens for Jackson receiving the moniker.  During the afternoon fight on Henry Hill, General Barnard Bee rode to the members of the 4th Alabama and, pointing toward the front, stated “Yonder stands Jackson like a stonewall; Let us go to his assistance.”[3]

Jackson and his brigade formed at the core of the Confederate line of battle on Henry Hill, seeing some of the hardest fighting of the Battle.  Samuel Carson of the 5th Virginia, much like his South Carolina pard, was struck by the view of the field after the engagement ended.  “But Oh; what a spectacle presented itself then, to see the killed and wounded laying on the field by hundreds and thousands was a horrid sight.” These were not all strangers to Carson, for he remembered the feeling of seeing those that “I had long been acquainted, laying crying for help &for some one to take them away when it was impossible for me to do anything for them.”

The shock of the battle was felt on other parts of the battlefield. Private Elijah Brown of the 2nd Vermont Infantry explained his baptism of fire in the fighting on Chinn Ridge. Having a short list of battles to compare the experience with, Brown described the events on Chinn Ridge as “the hardest battle ever known…the canon and baum [sic] shells flew like hale [sic] stones & there was an immense shour [sic] of rifle balls & some of them took effect”[4]  While other battles were soon to prove worse than July 21, having had no other previous experiences ensured that the time at Bull Run would be forever etched into the memory of the participants.

Faced with the realities of battle and the shock of seeing the elephant, the participants show that it is impossible to capture the fullest extent of combat on paper.

Despite the power of the written word to share the experiences of the place, there was not much of a tangible connection to the battlefield. While historians have paid much attention to photography later in the war, such as the gruesome scenes of the Antietam landscape, the public had already learned about the horrors of war through photography many months earlier at Manassas.  George Barnard and his team captured the first photographs of the Manassas battlefield when they visited in March 1862. These images brought the battlefield to the home front and gave those hundreds of miles away a chance to visualize the horrors of war.

George Barnard’s photo of burials in the area. Library of Congress.

One of the photos taken by Barnard and his team hints at the devastation and loss of life which the US and Confederate armies experienced.  In a simple setting around a small pond at least six headstones are visible marking the crude final resting place of the fallen at First Manassas.  While largely unidentifiable, a zoomed in view of the temporary headboards reveals the name of JTM LEXINGTON” etched into one.  This identification likely matches that of 27-year-old Lexington, VA native James T. McCorckle who served in Co. H, 4th Virginia Infantry, who was likely killed nearby during the furious fighting on Henry Hill.[5]    Photography of the site brought the horrors experienced at Bull Run into homes across the country.

The written word and photographs provide the contemporary readers with a tangible connection to the events of July 21, 1861. Soldiers on both sides erected monuments on the battlefield to attach a symbolic meaning to the place.   Erecting monuments on the battlefield allowed soldiers to reflect on the broader stakes of their service.

The first permanent memorial on the Manassas battlefield was erected in September 1861, a mere six weeks after the battle.[6]  Colonel Francis Bartow of the 8th Georgia Infantry was killed on Henry Hill on July 21.  To honor the memory of their late colonel, members of his regiment erected a simple 5-foot-tall marble shaft on the field.  The monument was inscribed with Bartow’s final words: “Boys, they have killed me, but never give up the field.”

During the dedication ceremony on September 6, 1861, the keynote speaker, Louisiana Attorney General Thomas J. Semmes, connected the Confederate nation with the revolutionary spirit.  There was no better location for this than at the dedication of a monument to one of the young nation’s first martyrs.  “It is sweet indeed to die for such a country,” Semmes stated, “and it is honorable indeed to die for a cause upheld by the stalwart arms of such compatriots…emulate the devotion and courage of your noble Bartow…never give up the holy cause of Southern independence.”[7]  Semmes spun the purpose of the young Confederacy to give it meaning and legitimacy.  The Confederate nation, through this memorial, created themselves as a respectable cause and that dying for it, as Bartow did, is right and just.  The purpose of this monument was to provide a tangible link between the military service of the rebels and their revolutionary forefathers.  This dedication ceremony allowed the citizen-soldiers of the South to place one of their fallen on the pedestal of martyrdom and bring new life to their cause for independence.

This monument, however, does not stand on the battlefield today.  Indeed, it has not been present on the site for over 159 years.  Whether due to local souvenir hunters chipping away at the monument, Confederate soldiers hauling the shaft away during their retreat to Richmond in March 1862, or New York soldiers destroying the monument, the original monument to Francis Bartow no longer exists. By mid-1862, the monument was gone.

Federal soldiers also memorialized the battlefield.  Following the United States victory at Appomattox Court House in April 1865 and the May Grand Review in Washington DC, soldiers from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania erected two monuments on the Old Bull Run Battlefield.

One monument honored the loss of life in the first battle, known as the Patriot’s Monument, positioned on Henry Hill, and a second honored those killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run, known as the Groveton Monument.

The Patriot’s Monument is simple in design: an obelisk built of locally quarried stone; four artillery projectiles surround it at its base with one at its peak. The plaque on its western façade reads: “In Memory of the Patriots Who Fell at Bull Run, July 21, 1861.”  Unlike monuments at later battlefields, which were erected by veterans of specific units during reunions to honor their service and included informational text about what their unit did in that fight, this monument honors those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in the first major battle of the Civil War. Furthermore, it was dedicated by soldiers still in their country’s service to honor their brothers in arms who never had a funeral and whose families never said good-bye.

In the June 11, 1865 dedication ceremony, many of the speakers addressed those in attendance as well as the people who would visit years later.  One speaker noted, “many unborn generations will make pious pilgrimages to the site of the graves of their forefathers.” Another speaker in the ceremony, continuing the theme of memory of those who fell, spoke of the monument being “a correct exemplification of the American character” and that the site would “often be visited and the day long remembered.”[8] The ceremony was not an exciting affair, but rather a funeral for those who did not get one.

The men who built the monument and those that dedicated it speak to us today—us, the unborn generations.  Millions of people that have walked the battlefield since the monument’s dedication have had the opportunity to reflect on the events of July 21, 1861.   The monument stands as a reminder that the peaceful setting in which it sits today was not always quiet and bucolic.  People will continue to visit the site without ever personally knowing the participants.  There may be as many individual reasons for visiting the site as there were soldiers in both armies.  No two reasons for coming to the battlefield are the same, much like how no two descriptions of the experiences of the soldiers are the same.  As foretold by the speakers in the dedication ceremony of the Patriot’s Monument, many more will continue to come to share in a small part of the memory of the site.  This ensures that Bull Run and the thousands of lives entwined on July 21, 1861 will never be forgotten.

Anthony is a public historian with an interest in the soldier’s experience. He has an interest in following the 61st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment and its second commander Francis Barlow. He holds a BA in history from Fairleigh Dickinson University. He loves to road trip to find unique and off the beaten path historic sites and the best barbecue. 


[1] J. Cutler Andrews, The North Reports the Civil War (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985), 88.

[2] Reid, J. W. History of the Fourth Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers: From the Commencement of the War until Lee’s Surrender … (Greenville, SC: Shannon & Co., 1892), 25.

[3] Hennessy, John. “Stonewall Jackson’s Nickname.” Civil War: The Magazine of the Civil War Society VIII, 1990. Found at https://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/2009/04/16/hennessy-on-the-naming-of-stonewall/

[4] Jeffrey D. Marshall, A War of the People: Vermont Civil War Letters (Hanover, NH etc.: University Press of New England, 1999), 38-39

[5] Adelman, Garry E. Manassas Battlefields Then & Now: Historic Photography at Bull Run. (Center for Civil War Photography, 2011), 46.

[6] Adding to the complexity of the memory of the two battles in the area, the actions bore two names during the war and still do. Federal sources often refer to the two battles as Bull Run while Confederates preferred Manassas. This article uses the two monikers interchangeably.

[7] The daily dispatch. [volume] (Richmond [Va.]), 10 Sept. 1861. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024738/1861-09-10/ed-1/seq-1/>

[8] “Dedication of Monuments on the Bull Run Battlefields,” Daily National Intelligencer, Monday June 12, 1865. Manassas National Battlefield Park Archive.

4 Responses to “The day long remembered:” Remembering Bull Run

  1. If my memory is correct, several years after the dedication of the Henry Hill monument they discovered that the artillery shells at the 4 corners were actually live shells! Of course, they were replaced. What a tragedy that could have been.

  2. Anthony, this is an excellent essay, particularly sensitive to the way that memory is affected by prior experience. Some years ago, I attended a week-long seminar with Gary Gallagher of UVA on the Civil War. He has written on the issue of memory and history regarding the war and it’s aftermath.

  3. Thank you for sharing this research! I find this early memory preservation and memorialization interesting and how quickly the soldiers recognized they had survived a historic event that would have meaning – even before they knew what the war’s outcomes would be.

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