July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run

Thursday, July 21, AD 2011

History is unkind to defeated generals.  All most of us recall about Irvin McDowell is that he commanded the Union army at First Bull Run, First Manassas south of the Mason-Dixon line, and was beaten by the Confederates.  He had a long and illustrious career in the Army both before and after Bull Run, but none of that matters.  He is the defeated general at Bull Run, and after History places that stamp on him, nothing else really matters.  In John Brown’s Body, his epic poem on the Civil War, Stephen Vincent Benet has a few words on McDowell that I believe should be remembered.

Continue reading...

3 Responses to July 21, 1861: First Battle of Bull Run

  • An ancestor, an Irish immigrant, gave his life on that field with the 69th New York Militia. His daughter was my great, grandmother’s mother. My sister has a tin-type (or whatever) picture.

    The war was one long and bloody meat grinder. Tactics were outdated compared with the weapons: rifled muskets, and improvements in artillery and logistics. Both sides were in it for the long haul.

    Then, it devolved (if that were possible) into trench warfare: Petersburg.

    Seems no one (except Lee at Fredericksburg, then he did the opposite at Gettysburg) was able to marry the strategic offensive with tactical defensive. The attacker always had the disadvantage in casualties. Years ago (our office was across from the NY Public Library) I read a scholarly book detailing the disadvantages of the CW attacker.

    The Unon cavalry was ineffective until Gettysburg.

    The Union had the advantage in men, industrial capacity, and it was executing the Anaconda Plan.

    The Union could have lost, or lost the will to contuinue. The South was at a significant disadvantage with slight chance of success.

  • McDowell’s plan was a good one, but it was too complex for green troops. He should have tried something simpler.

    “I read a scholarly book detailing the disadvantages of the CW attacker.”

    Yes, the tacticians of the war never quite understood the effect of the rifled bullet. With one often unremembered exception: Col. Emery Upton of the Union. His approach was to launch a massed column against a short part of the front, which charged the position without bothering to trade fire with the defenders. It worked reasonably well against improvised defenses, twice at Spotsylvania.

  • Another problem with McDowell’s plan was that it relied on Patterson to hold Johnston in the valley. Patterson was completely out of his depth and did nothing. He deserves an honored place in the pantheon of Union incompetent generals.

    If McDowell had won the battle, I doubt if it would have made much difference. His army in victory would have been too disorganized to engage in pursuit, and the Union lacked the advantage in manpower that it had later in the war. McDowell would have confronted a Confederate force with enough men sufficient to stimie any advance south from Manassas. The truth was that the Union needed time to build up a huge force in the east and train it. That is what McClellan accomplished. The tragedy for the Union was that after this superb job of building an army, McClellan proved to be a useless battlefield commander, unable to effectively utilize the army he had created.