Friday, July 15, 2011

The Union Army Retreats

William Howard Russell (1820–1907)
From The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It

July 21 marks the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas), the first major battle of the Civil War. The commander of the Union troops, General Irvin McDowell, had no experience in field command and “did not lack intelligence or energy—but he turned out to be a hard-luck general for whom nothing went right,” writes James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. McDowell’s plan to capture the railroad junction at Manassas might have worked if he had had experienced troops and officers, but most of the troops were green and the ninety-day terms of many Union recruits were about to expire. He was reluctant to advance into Virginia without more time to train his troops, but his plea for a postponement was overruled by Lincoln himself.

In spite of the shortcomings, McPherson notes, “McDowell’s attack came within an ace of success.” During the early hours of the battle, Confederate forces were giving ground and “McDowell appeared to be on the verge of a smashing success.” But Confederate reinforcements arrived, and everything began to go horribly wrong. Into the thick of the resulting chaos, oblivious of the change in events, rode William Howard Russell, whose vivid and colorful account appeared in
The Times of London. (Russell’s earlier account from Charleston, describing the events immediately after the Battle of Fort Sumter, appeared previously on Story of the Week.)

Notes: Russell’s friend, Mr. Warre, is Frederick Warre, an attaché at the British legation in Washington. Viaticum (page 464) are provisions for a journey. Mr. Raymond (481) refers to Henry J. Raymond, cofounder and editor of The New York Times. Mr. Brady (483) is the photographer Matthew Brady. A chausée (488) is a causeway or highway. Alexis Benoit Soyer and Marie-Antoine Careme (489) were noted French chefs and authors. Lord Lyons (490) refers to Richard Lyons, 1st Viscount Lyons, British envoy in Washington during the Civil War.

Punctual to time, our carriage appeared at the door, with a spare horse, followed by the black quadruped on which the negro boy sat with difficulty, in consequence of its high spirits and excessively hard mouth. I swallowed a cup of tea and a morsel of bread, put the remainder of the tea into a bottle, got a flask of light Bordeaux, a bottle of water, a paper of sandwiches, and having replenished my small flask with brandy, stowed them all away in the bottom of the gig; . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

1 comment:

Sean Pickett said...

I bought “The Civil War: The First Year Told by Those Who Lived It” in April and read an entry a day until I caught up last month. Now I’m reading the entries on the same (or near when not dated) day they were written 150 years ago. I am hoping that this gives me the same feel of the war over the next four years as everyone experienced during the war (I’m also reading several other books that use letters and diary entries the same way). Sometimes there will be lulls in events and then there will be many entries at the same time, like the some in the book for the Battle of Bull Run.

Today I just read this story from the book and having never read it before I was very moved by it. Although William Howard Russell didn’t actually witness the battle, his account of being close behind the lines, being enveloped by the routed and fleeing the Federal troops and his return to Washington made it more alive and vivid for me then the other accounts of the battle I have read. I was especially captivated by his conviction that the Federals would stop and regroup at Centreville and attack again. Even when he was told by the retreating soldiers that they had been routed he was not able to believe it since it didn’t look so bad to him. That someone so close was not able to see the overall battle and understand what had happened makes me better understand how difficult it was for the leaders of both sides to know what was happening at the time.