The Running of the Bulls in Manassas

Today, the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War actually begins — not that you’d know it from the coverage.

It was hotter than hell today at Manassas National Battlefield Park, in Prince William County in Northern Virginia. According to the (Manassas) News & Messenger: Manassas, Virginia 99° Feels Like: 105°.

The Civil War started in earnest one hundred fifty years ago, today, with the First Battle of Bull Run. But you wouldn’t know it from Google News (which is, when you think about it, a kind of people’s poll, no less manipulated than most). These were their top stories at this hour [3:55 PM PDT]:

Captain America
Debt ceiling
Lucian Freud
Tiger Woods
Scarlett Johansson
Morgan Stanley
Lindsay Lohan
Lawrence Frank
Rudolf Hess

And, let’s face it: it’s appropriate. We slipped into the Civil War by not taking the mounting crises seriously, by not really comprehending the smallest sliver of the true devastation, horror and lingering grief that were to come. We didn’t so much walk into the Civil War as we sleepwalked into it.

Nothing on Memeorandum, the “front page” of the blogosphere. (Not much on the space shuttle, either — a topic for another day.)

NPR’s mighty “All Things Considered” didn’t consider it worth mentioning, with their “Remembrances” section focusing, instead on the much more culturally important:

Remembering The Man Who Revolutionized Album Covers

Robert Siegel talks with Steven Heller, the co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department at the School of Visual Arts. They discuss the life and the legacy of Alex Steinweiss, who revolutionized album cover art.

In case you don’t know what kind of “album covers” he’s talking about, well,  it turns out that it’s RECORD album covers, and they have to explain at the beginning of the story what “albums” are, and why they’re called “albums” (a media legacy term going back to 78 RPM records).

No Civil War, however. But NPR DID open with the national heat wave.

The publicists at Marvel Studios must be happy that “Captain America” has generated enough phony media manipulation … er, media buzz, to be the number one story.

Three stories are “personality” driven, and Lucian Freud died, a “towering figure in the art world” who I’ve never heard of, and I know a little something about art. But, alas, I do not live in Manhattan, and was not privy to Freud’s fame.

Rudolph Hess used to work for Hitler, and Morgan Stanley and Debt Ceiling have to do with all that money that hardly anybody has anymore.

No Civil War, though.

And you have to be struck by the parallel. W.T. Sherman, when he was the first administrator of what is now Louisiana State University had commented presciently about the utter lack of a Reality Mechanism in the hopeful thinking of a gaggle of political fanatics, on December 24, 1860 [emphasis added]:

You people of the South don’t know what you are doing. This country will be drenched in blood, and God only knows how it will end. It is all folly, madness, a crime against civilization! You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it… Besides, where are your men and appliances of war to contend against them? The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth—right at your doors. You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.

We a kind of effect of that sort of thinking, as, yesterday, the Wisconsin legislature passed a measure to appropriate $31.5 million for rail maintenance between Milwaukee and Chicago … which will have to be tripled or quadrupled eventually, as Tea Party Governor Scott Walker had earlier rejected $810 million in federal funds for railroads, which would have paid for the project.

It was an act of personal political “secession” that walked up to the line: TAKE YOUR FILTHY LUCRE, FEDERAL GUM’MINT!

An act we’ve seen repeated all over the country in a thousand legislative and administrative acts, seemingly in the cause of “states rights.”

They might have heeded private citizen Sherman’s analysis and thought the thing through. Now, rather than revolutionary, the act appears ridiculous — although THANK YOU, Governor Walker. As an Oregonian, I benefit directly from your purblind nitwittedness, since many of those federal dollars were retasked to Oregon’s rail system.

As an Oregonian, I say: Keep Up The Good Work.

As an American, I say: Nitwit.

Then, as now, the question of priorities seems beyond the ken of large portions of the populace. Robert E. Lee resigned his American citizenship to bear allegiance to his Virginian citizenship. Now, most of us say “First, I am an American.” (Or, more precisely, “a United Stateser.” Technically, Guatemalan nature guides are Americans too, as are street urchins of Rio de Janiero.)

The first Battle of Bull Run was a disaster. And Colonel W. T. Sherman was in charge of a battalion of 90-day volunteers at Bull Run.

OK: I refuse to say “the First Battle of Manassas.” For some reason, Confederate historians referred to battles according to the nearest town, while Union historians referred to battles according to the nearest body of water. Thus, the Confederate battle of Sharpsburg was the Union battle of Antietam — so named for Antietam Creek, which ran through the battlefield and infamously stumped General Ambrose Burnside for three hours until A.P. Hill could save the Confederate Army from disaster.

(Thank Providence, I might note, that there was no rivulet running through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania called Dildo Creek or Douche River.)

Since the North won, and the victor gets to write the history, it seems strangely odd that the First Battle of Bull Run is mentioned nowhere on the U.S. Park Service website, but only as the First Battle of Manassas.

T’would seem that a Southern Senator or three was influential on the Committee that named the new national Battlefield.

But that brings us to a possible answer. From the “local” story on today’s festivities at Bull Run in the News & Messenger:

In a news conference after the opening ceremony, Jonathan B. Jarvis, director, National Park Service, said he believed those coming to the event were given an “accurate and informative presentation of what part both the Union and Confederacy played in the war.

It’s an old saying that the Union won the war but the Confederacy won the public relations battle. People came here today with all kinds of ideas, but we hope they left with a better understanding of why the war was fought.”

Events at the park will continue through Sunday.

And that’s not to say that the local tourism boards haven’t been flogging it. They have.

Yes. The “Main” reenactment event has been moved to the weekend, because we Americans only celebrate holidays on weekends with our “Anti-Blue Laws.” Here’s your free digital commemorative copy of the Summer 2011 Park Newsletter:

(pdf will open in a new window)

Wikipedia tells us:

The First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the First Battle of Manassas (the name used by Confederate forces), was fought on July 21, 1861, in Prince William County, Virginia, near the City of Manassas. It was the first major land battle of the American Civil War

Really, it was the wakeup call from the Grim Reaper that he was coming to visit for three or four astonishingly bloody years (more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other U.S. wars … put together.) And one can certainly understand WHY so many don’t want to remember. It is the opening, tragic act in a four-years quest by the Army of the Potomac (that river thing again) to move 70 miles to Richmond, Virginia. It is probably telling that Robert E. Lee commanded the Army of Northern Virginia for most of that time — although Lee wasn’t in command at First Bull Run. P.G.T. Beauregard (perhaps the archetypal Southern name) was:

P.G.T. Beauregard

Just months after the start of the war at Fort Sumter, the Northern public clamored for a march against the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, which could bring an early end to the war. Yielding to this political pressure, unseasoned Union Army troops under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell advanced across Bull Run against the equally unseasoned Confederate Army under Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard near Manassas Junction. McDowell’s ambitious plan for a surprise flank attack against the Confederate left was not well executed by his inexperienced officers and men, but the Confederates, who had been planning to attack the Union left flank, found themselves at an initial disadvantage. [Wikipedia]

The day had started with all the feeling of a festival in Washington, D.C.:

The wealthy elite of nearby Washington, including congressmen and their families, expecting an easy Union victory, had come to picnic and watch the battle. When the Union army was driven back in a running disorder, the roads back to Washington were blocked by panicked civilians attempting to flee in their carriages…

The battle itself was a disaster of two green armies that degenerated into chaos for the North and a rallying point for the South. Seeing their first action in that battle were both Colonel Sherman (who had never fired a shot in the Mexican War of 1846) and a fellow named Thomas J. Jackson, a professer at the Virginia Military Institute, who won his nickname “Stonewall” that day. Many other names that would become famous to history took place in the battle that day, including O.O. Howard (for whom Howard University is named) , Joseph E. Johnston, who would later surrender to Sherman a few weeks after Lee’s surrender; Ambrose Burnside, who also gives “sideburns” their name; J.E.B. Stuart, Jubal Early, James Longstreet and others.

U.S. Balloon Corps

In one of the weirdest parts of the battle,  Professor Thaddeus C. Lowe’s balloon Enterprise was used by the Union Command for aerial reconnaissance, but in attempting to land, Union soldiers refused aid, thinking it a UFO or Confederate weapon, and the Enterprise crashed behind Southern lines. The professor was rescued, but while the balloon was seen to be a promising reconnaissance device, and Congress appropriated money for the Professor to build another, better balloon, there was no useful reconnaissance delivered in what was, in essence, the cascading clusterf*** of two inexperienced armies degenerating into mobs with guns.

The road back to Washington, D.C. was a nightmare, and the 90-day volunteers switched entirely into “every man for himself” mode. Sherman was disgusted. Later, he’d have a nervous breakdown before redeeming himself at Shiloh. But at Bull Run, Sherman did not embarrass himself. The opposite in fact.

Some Washington Elite distinguished themselves, loading wounded soldiers into their carriages, but many more did not. And reporters, then as now, found that their lack of martial accouterments greatly improved their running prowess.

According to some reports,  it was a scene right out of “Carrie” had anybody at the prom managed to escape.

Not much of a picnic

Pretty summer dresses, bonnets and parasols spattered with blood. The complete disintegration of an army’s cohesion and morale.

But the picnic was over. There would be a lot more blood.

It was a wakeup call in the same way that Pearl Harbor or September 11 were. Suddenly, Americans, north and south, began to dimly perceive that this wasn’t going to be the cakewalk that partisans on both sides were certain that it would be.

And today?

For some reason, our media, our congress and our sages seem as gay and carefree as those picnicking Washingtonians of the morning of July 21, 1861.

Here is what Lincoln wrote after the battle. (From The Writings of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, which you can read online):

Lincoln, as seen in Southern Papers

Memoranda of Military Policy Suggested by the Bull Run Defeat.

JULY 23, 1861

1. Let the plan for making the blockade effective be pushed forward with all possible despatch.

2. Let the volunteer forces at Fort Monroe and vicinity under General Butler be constantly drilled, disciplined, and instructed without more for the present.

3. Let Baltimore be held as now, with a gentle but firm and certain hand.

4. Let the force now under Patterson or Banks be strengthened and made secure in its position.

5. Let the forces in Western Virginia act till further orders according to instructions or orders from General McClellan.

6. [Let] General Fremont push forward his organization and operations in the West as rapidly as possible, giving rather special attention to Missouri.

7. Let the forces late before Manassas, except the three-months men, be reorganized as rapidly as possible in their camps here and about Arlington.

8. Let the three-months forces who decline to enter the longer service be discharged as rapidly as circumstances will permit.

9. Let the new volunteer forces be brought forward as fast as possible, and especially into the camps on the two sides of the river here.

When the foregoing shall be substantially attended to:

1. Let Manassas Junction (or some point on one or other of the railroads near it) and Strasburg be seized, and permanently held, with an open line from Washington to Manassas, and an open line from Harper’s Ferry to Strasburg the military men to find the way of doing these.

2. This done, a joint movement from Cairo on Memphis; and from Cincinnati on East Tennessee.

A bad day for the Union and the Confederacy, ultimately. But when compromise failed, and “my way or the highway” finally ruled, the highway ended up paved in blood and skulls.

Thank goodness we don’t learn anything from our national history.

Just think how dull we’d be.

[Insert obligatory cliché George Santayana quote here.]

It was hotter than hell in Manassas on the Bull Run battlefield today.



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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