With the sweltering July heat we’ve endured lately, I’ve often tried to imagine how it must have been for the soldiers during the Civil War, who marched and fought without water, wearing wool coats and caps, in the mid-day sun.
July 21st marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas or Bull Run. This was the first blood of the war, the first time ordinary farmhands, store clerks, bookkeepers and teamsters were forced to stand in the face of close arms fire while men fell dead and wounded around them.
Manassas, was actually a small railroad station about 25 miles southeast of Washington, at the junction of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and the Manassas Gap Railroad. It was a simple one-story warehouse and several cottages surrounded by open farm country.
The strategic position of this railroad junction was immediately recognized by both the North and the South because of the access it provided to the interior of Virginia. As the Confederate Army converged on Manassas, McDowell marched his army from Washington. Not used to long marches, it took these new recruits two and a half days to make the journey.
The battle field centered around the intersection of Warrentown Turnpike and Sudley Road, where Bull Run Creek wandered through the east end of the battlefield.
Hoping to see a real battle hundreds of civilian sight-seers, politicians and their wives, rode out from Washington in carriages and barouches to join the army. They brought binoculars, picnic baskets and bottles of champagne. Many soldiers thought it was a good idea to have the members of the Senate and Congress, “come out to see us thrash the Rebs.” As one Connecticut boy said.
The Battle of Bull Run began at 5:15am on Sunday July 21, 1861 when a thirty-pounder Parrot gun, the biggest weapon in the Federal artillery, sent a shell across Bull Run toward the Confederate lines near Stone Bridge. A little past 9am, McDowell sent his men across the creek. On a hillside three miles away civilians waved their hats and handkerchiefs.
Federal troops quickly sent the Confederates running. Some of the men stopped to collect souvenirs from the Rebels who had fallen.
But in the center of the retreating Confederates was the brigade of General Thomas J. Jackson. General Bernard Bee, who was trying hold on to his frightened men, shouted out, “Look there is Jackson with his Virginians, standing like a stone wall!” The Confederate lines held and the name Stonewall Jackson stuck.
Union cavalry, wearing their brand new uniforms waiting to be ordered to the front were horrified as the first bloody wounded were carried to the rear. Some vomited from their saddles.
Fighting see-sawed back and forth across the hillside from 2-4pm. After marching and fighting in brutal heat without food or water for fourteen hours, the Federal troops were shocked when Confederate Reserves poured onto the field. Jackson told his men to “yell like furies!” For the first time Federal troops heard the sound that would echo across a thousand battlefields. Half shout, half foxhound yelp, veterans remembered the sound years after the war.
The Federal line broke and men retreated across Bull Run in every direction crossing at bridges, fords or any place a man could cross. Officers threatened to shoot them, but they didn’t care. Panicked civilians pushed and shoved to get away from the battlefield. Shawls and parasols were lost, some people were drowned
The situation in the Confederate ranks was not much better. By the end of the afternoon the brigades were so confused the officers could not get them lined up to pursue the disorganized Yankees caught up in the clogged roads.
Some 4,500 men were killed, wounded or captured in the battle the North called Bull Run and the south called Manasses.
In my Civil War short story, Redemption of a Cavalier, my hero, Wesley Cole had faced his first battle as naïve and inexperienced to the horrors of war as the men who fought that sweltering hot July day. That trauma shaped the man he’d become as the story opens.
“Stop right there.” Though she tried to sound tough her southern drawl softened the hard edge of her command. “Put your gun down and leave this house.”
“Ma’am, I mean you no harm. I don’t know why you’re here but it isn’t safe.”
There was a long pause then from behind the door came an incredulous question. “Wes?”
Nonplused he stared. “Who are you?”
Slowly the barrel lowered, and the door swung inward. A young woman stepped out from behind it.
His mouth dropped open in shock. “Abby?”
She wore her wheat blonde hair pulled back into a simple long braid. Her dress was faded and patched, and hung loose on her too thin body. Her eyes were the same soft brown, but a few tiny lines around the corners lent her an aura of maturity he found more appealing than the bright-eyed innocence she’d had at sixteen.
He almost reached out to embrace her, but checked the impulse. Instead he latched onto the memory of Manassas, flogging himself with haunting images of the battle, grinding them like salt into his wounded soul, making certain he would never forget that what he’d done that day had torn their love apart forever.
She took a hesitant step forward, her brown eyes searching his face. “You’ve been well?”
She gasped and stepped back as though he’d struck her. “Oh, Wes, can you ever forgive me for writin’ that hateful letter? We were all so young. We didn’t understand what war was. It was all supposed to be so glorious. Our boys were goin’ to fire their guns and send the Yankees runnin’ back north. No one was supposed to die. It wasn’t your fault. Matthew would have died even if you had been standin’ right beside him.”
“But I wasn’t was I?” Self-loathing laced his words with bitterness. “No, I ran to the rear and hid behind a tree snivelin’ like a Goddamn baby.”
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