Friday, July 22, 2011

Sesquicentennial, Part XVI: First Clash


There is a misconception common to all belligerent parties in virtually ever war that has occurred in human history. It is a misconception so common that the catchphrases associated with it are almost impossible to link to a particular conflict. "Our boys will be home before the leaves fall." "They'll be home before Christmas." While the second can at least be placed confidently after the reign of Constantine the Great, the former has probably been said in every human language that has ever existed.

For one, while it's true that at a war's outset both sides believe that they will win, one side must be wrong. For another, at a war's outset, each side usually believes -- mistakenly -- that the other side is made up of ineffectual pushovers that can't stand the heat. For recent examples, you need only look to the phrases "Mother of all battles" and "Shock and Awe" for prominent cases on both sides. The same was true a century and a half ago. The same was true throughout recorded history. Truly, some things never change.

The fever produced by the simultaneous forces of a fervent belief in victory coupled with a fixed belief in the other side's inherent cowardice caused the major papers of the North to temporarily push Lincoln away from the plan drafted by his army commander, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott. Scott, you remember, had proposed to first surround the Confederacy, then cut it in half. This would take years, but would be the surest way to bring the Confederacy to defeat. No one was balking at the "sure defeat" part, it was the "it would take years" clause that had them dismayed. With such a fine army encamped, and with such a pusillanimous foe, how could our fine boys but win glorious, prompt victory?

In such passions are horrifying disasters born.

The Army of Northeastern Virginia had come into being out of the various companies, brigades, and divisions that had been assembled from the troops gathered to defend Washington, immediately after the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April, 1861. President Lincoln appointed Brigadier General Irvin McDowell as its commander. General McDowell was under immense pressure from the Northern press to go out and do something. President Lincoln was, as well. McDowell initially resisted such pressure, sure that his men weren't yet ready for such action. McDowell was well-suited to make such a judgement, having been an instructor of tactics at West Point. It was an objection swept aside by Lincoln: "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike." So, on July 16, General McDowell left Washington with the largest army that had yet been assembled on the North American continent, with the assignment to go out, find the enemy, and engage him closely. Their initial objective was a rail junction at Manassas, Virginia.

The rail junction was held by a much smaller Confederate force under Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, of whom we've heard already. In a coincidence that would become commonplace in the years to follow, Beauregard and McDowell had been classmates at West Point. Beauregard, initially, only commanded 20,000 men against McDowell's 30,000. But one of the advantages of sitting on a rail junction? Reinforcements can ride in as soon as you know you need them. Beauregard held all the crossings of the Bull Run, so while McDowell searched for ways to outflank his old classmate, Beauregard sent dispatches by telegraph calling for extra men.

They almost didn't arrive in time. McDowell held Beauregard's attention with part of his force, while he sent 20,000 men in a flanking move to threaten Beauregard's left flank. They forced a crossing at Stone House, and all that stood between them and Beauregard's rear was a single reduced brigade of Confederate infantry. If the orders had been given and received properly, this might well have been the end of it. But they weren't: the Union brigade that had been intended to lead the attack held up to wait for further orders, and the brigade that had been intended to feint in support found itself out in front all alone. Meanwhile, fresh reinforcements arrived, and Beauregard was able to plug the hole, and the battle was properly joined.

In their defense, flanking maneuvers are very complex, and require very close coordination and communication to pull off, even today. In an era when orders had to be delivered by hand, it required well-trained officers and well-drilled troops to have a realistic chance of doing it at all. At this point, the Union had few of either. For while Lincoln was right, and the Confederacy had this problem also, the Confederate President had guessed right, and had put his best men and best troops on the line between Washington and Richmond, expecting that is where the heaviest blow would fall, first.

I've mentioned this hidden advantage before. It's not so much that the Confederacy had better officers, or better soldiers. It's that, having no previously-existing officer corps to placate, Davis could put his most able men in the most crucial commands. It's no mere coincidence that Beauregard was present at both Fort Sumter and at Bull Run.

The Confederates had another crucial advantage in this battle: interior lines of communication. The battle lines between two armies usually curve, the commander who sits on the inside of the curve has a shorter distance through which he has to move men and orders, which makes controlling the battle much easier.

The sum total of all of this is that, while McDowell initially enjoyed significant advantages in manpower and position, his inexperienced subordinates could not make enough use of those advantages to penetrate the Confederate lines. They certainly tried hard enough. And it was a near-run thing even so. During the battle, the Union artillery commander moved two of his guns to the far end of his line, hoping to fire from enfilade into the Confederate army. At about three in the afternoon, these two guns were overrun by the 33rd Virginia. The 33rd Virginia wore blue uniforms, and the Confederate Stars-and-Bars banner had horizontal stripes that, from a distance, looked almost like the Stars-and-Stripes used by the Union. Orders to fire on the captured guns were countermanded by an officer who mistook the Virginians for Union forces. The Virginians turned the guns on the Federals, marking the turn of the tide. McDowell had lost the initiative, and with the arrival of Confederate reinforcements he had lost the manpower advantage as well. He was forced to order a retreat.

The retreat began well enough, but the order of march was bungled by inexperienced officers. An overturned artillery wagon caught fire, sparking a retreat into a rout. Men who had been marching in good order suddenly turned and ran headlong towards their rear. They were joined by the wealthy citizens of Washington, who had turned out with picnic baskets to watch the glorious display. Retreating troops found the roads jammed with carriages.

One Union officer managed to distinguish himself in the humiliating rout: William Tecumseh Sherman was grazed in the knee and shoulder while leading his men against the enemy, and managed to keep his men in better order during the retreat than most. His superiors would remember this, later.

When he saw the enemy in headlong retreat, President Davis urged his commanders to pursue the enemy closely. But, now that the were on the offensive rather than the defensive, Beauregard discovered to his dismay that inexperience is a knife that cuts both ways. The day's fighting had left his men very disorganized, and it took quite some time to get them sorted back into their proper units again. Beauregard elected not to pursue. McDowell was initially afraid of a Confederate counterattack on Washington, but was able to employ aerial reconnaissance (Professor Lowe's balloon Enterprise) to verify that no such concentration of Confederate forces was happening. Both armies withdrew from the field.

The reaction on both sides could be fairly characterized as shock. The Northerners were shocked when their much-anticipated glorious victory had turned into an ignominious rout. The Southerners were shocked to discover that the Yankees would put up a vigorous fight, after all. Both sides came to the sudden realization that this would be a long war, far longer than many had anticipated. It was now clear that victory would come with a staggeringly high price tag. And it was equally clear that defeat would carry a price still higher. And, above all, one thing was now known with crystal clarity:

The only men who'd be home before the leaves fell would be the maimed and the dead.

1 comment:

John Myste said...

I need to go back and read parts I - XV.

This was an excellent piece. If not for the statements of falling leaves, I probably would have skimmed over it. Nothing like a few lines of quirky commentary to spice up an article.