CHAPTER ONE: “Confidence Renewed: Surviving Bull Run
and the Birth of the Army of the Potomac”
by Robert Orrison
Commentary · Images · Additional Resources · Suggested Reading · About the Author
By Brian Matthew Jordan, co-editor, “Engaging the Civil War” Series
On April 1, 1862, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner offered a resolution on the floor of the United States Senate, directing the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War “to collect the evidence with regard to the barbarous treatment by the rebels, at Manassas, of the remains of officers and soldiers of the United States killed in battle there.” Over the next month, as the armies clashed at a far away place called Shiloh and Farragut captured New Orleans, the committee gathered some grisly testimony. Eyewitnesses affirmed that “a good many of the [dead Union] bodies had been stripped naked on the field before they were buried,” and that “some were buried naked.” According to another witness, “The rebels had had rings made of the bones of our dead, and that they had them for sale in their camps.”
Committee members peppered James Brewerton Ricketts, whose artillery battery unlimbered on Henry Hill, with questions about the treatment of prisoners and the wounded. “A party of rebels passed by where I was lying [on the field],” Ricketts remembered, “and called out, ‘Knock out his brains, the damned Yankee,’ referring to me.” The panel examined William Sprague, the thirty-two year old Rhode Island governor and veteran of the Manassas battle, who marveled at the “sheer brutality” with which the rebels buried the Union dead. And they entered into the record testimony from Lewis Francis, who had been wounded in the engagement. “As I lay on the ground,” the Fourteenth Brooklyn private declared, “they kept bayonetting me until I received fourteen wounds.”
In penning the committee’s report, Benjamin Franklin Wade, the Radical Republican senator from Ohio, reached a predictable conclusion: the rebels, he professed, “have now crowed the rebellion by the perpetration of deeds scarcely known even to savage warfare.” “All the courtesies of professional and civil life seem to have been discarded.” While it was effortless for the senator to deem the rebels as inhumane, one can nonetheless detect considerable disquiet in Wade’s report. Beneath the boilerplate was a real anxiety about what the war was becoming. Bull Run provoked many questions, but perhaps none so important as the true “character” of the war that now descended on America.
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By Christopher Kolakowski, chief historian, Emerging Civil War
To truly understand the feelings of 1861 and why the defeat at Bull Run was so cataclysmic to the North, it is important to read history forward. Readers in 2017 view the events of 1861 knowing the conclusions of McClellan’s career and the war as a whole. We also know that United States forces later fought all over the world in larger numbers, and are still an important global presence. On the evening of July 21, 1861, none of that was yet known.
The First Battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, was the largest battle by the largest army the United States had yet fielded. Previous to July 1861, the most troops a U.S. officer had ever commanded in battle was the 17,000 men of George Washington’s Franco-American army at Yorktown in 1781. Winfield Scott had taken 15,000 men to Mexico City in 1847, and examples of how he structured his force were copied by Irvin McDowell in 1861. Just by marching out to Manassas, McDowell became the most experienced officer in American military history.
Before the war, most U.S. Army units were deployed in penny packets either on the frontier or in various places along the U.S. coastline. The opportunities for commanding more than a few companies at one time were few, and for mass maneuver practically nonexistent. Both armies in the summer of 1861 were learning by experience, which puts the campaigns of that time in unique perspective. It says much for both sides’ ingenuity that they were able to conduct the operations they did.
What of the expectations for a short war? Popularly, most nations seem to believe that wars will be fast, and that the men will be home by Christmas or sooner. Military leaders often share these beliefs, although they have less excuse to do so. In 1861 most professional soldiers had studied the campaigns of Napoleon, several of which (1805, 1806, 1809, 1815) ended in a period of months after one or two major battles. However, many military thinkers tended to forget that Napoleon also fought long campaigns in Spain (1808-1814) and in Central Europe (1812-1814). The Crimean War also lasted three years from 1854 to 1856, although it was fairly localized in Russia. Most American conflicts prior to the Civil War (including those prior to independence) also lasted for years—indeed, the sheer size of North America as a theater of war tended to absorb men, ships, and resources in ways Europe did not. Nonetheless, most U.S. soldiers had little idea of what it would take to defeat the Confederacy.
Given these experiences, it was natural for the nation to be shocked by Bull Run and turn to McClellan. But this period was also important from a larger sense, that the U.S. Army entered a new stage of development. The United States Army has always been an organization that learned and adapted from early reverses—as it did in the War for Independence and the War of 1812, and would again in 1942-43, 1950, and 2005-07. The reaction to Bull Run showed the beginning of a maturation process that led to an army capable of saving the Union—which it did in 1865.
As the creator of the “Anaconda Plan,” designed to choke off the Confederacy, Winfield Scott was the architect of the eventually victorious Union war effort, even though the plan outlasted him by years. (credit: Library of Congress)
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A Currier & Ives print shows Winfield Scott, seated as though on a toilet, waiting for a “movement.” According to the Library of Congress: “Confident Union propaganda from the summer of 1861, claiming dominance over Confederate troops led by generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Gideon Pillow. Union commander Winfield Scott sits on a mound in the center, holding a noose and awaiting the emergence of president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis from his ‘Richmond’ burrow. With his feet Scott pins the tails of two foxes, Beauregard (on the left), near Mannassas Junction, and Pillow, near Memphis. The print was probably issued before the Battle of Bull Run, while Beauregard’s troops were stationed at Manassas Junction, protecting the Confederate capitol at Richmond. Memphis was not won by the Union, however, until June 1862.” (credit: Library of Congress)
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The difference could not have been more stark between Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott and his hand-picked protégé, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan. Scott, old and tired, was near the end of a career that had spanned the 19th century; young and dashing McClellan was a star on the rise. (credit both: Library of Congress)
McClellan’s image on this package of smoking tobacco, circa. 1861, illustrates his popularity not just among soldiers but with the general public. (credit: Library of Congress)
You can visit Manasass National Battlefield online here.
For more ECW posts on First Manassas, visit here.
For more ECW posts on George B. McClellan, visit here.
For more on Winfield Scott, read “Winfield Scott Reconsidered” by ECW’s Chris Kolakowski. The Civil War Trust’s “In4” video series features a segment about Winfield Scott, hosted by historian Gary Gallagher, that you can watch here. For more on Scott’s exploits in Mexico, you can read the Mexican-American War series Ryan Quint edited for ECW.
· Beatie, Russel H. Army of the Potomac: The Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861 (vol 1) and The Army of the Potomac: McClellan Takes Command, September 1861-February 1862 (vol 2) (DaCapo, 2002 & 2004)
· Longacre, Edward G. The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014)
· Rafuse, Ethan. McClellan’s War: The Failure of Moderation in the Struggle for the Union. (Indiana University Press, 2013)
· Sears, Stephen. George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon (Ticknor & Fields, 1988)
About the Author
Rob Orrison has been working in the history field for more than 20 years. Born and raised in Loudoun County, Virginia, Rob received his Bachelor’s Degree in Historic Preservation at Longwood College (now University) and received his Master’s Degree in Public History from George Mason University. Currently Rob oversees day to day operations of a large municipal historic site program in Northern Virginia. Outside of work Rob is a contributor to Emerging Civil War; treasurer of the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, D.C.; member of the Board of Directors of the Mosby Heritage Area Association; member of the Board of Directors of Virginia Civil War Trails; and serves as the Vice President of the Virginia Association of Museums. His published works include: A Want of Vigilance: The Bristoe Station Campaign; The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign 1863; and In A Single Blow: The Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Beginning of the American Revolution, April 19, 1775. With Phill Greenwalt, he is co-founder of Emerging Civil War’s sister site, Emerging Revolutionary War.