“By the summer of 1861, Wilmer McLean had had enough. Two great armies were converging on his farm. What would be the first major battle of the Civil War, Bull Run – or Manassas as the confederates called it – would soon rage across the aging Virginian’s farm, a Union shell going so far as to explode in the summer kitchen. Now McLean moved his family away from Manassas, far south and west of Richmond, out of harm’s way, he prayed, to a dusty little crossroads called Appomattox Court House. And it was there in his living room three and a half years later that Lee surrendered to Grant. And Wilmer McLean could rightfully say that ‘the war began in my front yard and ended in my front parlor.’”
-Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Episode 1
Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the First Battle of Manassas. I am not a Confederate but somehow I find the name more poetic and so I use it, also it’s easier to find on a map. While the start of the war could be traced to the April 12 shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, or even earlier to the state secessions, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry or the Bleeding Kansas border war, it was this Virginia battle 30 miles from Washington, D.C. that brought the war home for both Americas.
Following the Union’s routed retreat to Washington from the bloodiest day yet on American soil, the situation turned from a hotheaded rebellion into an honest-to-God war – a joined effort that anyone watching would have to conclude wasn’t going to end anytime soon, despite the wishes and best efforts of either side. (That is a lesson which would be soberly and tragically re-taught fifty years later, in the farmlands of France in the opening phases of World War I.)
To the North, it was clear they had a lot of work to do. To the South, it was a revelation that they were not in for a quick series of spirited engagements; rather, many, many Southern sons would die in pursuit of their own country.
Bull Run is also famous for granting the nickname to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the most colorful characters in a war with no shortage of them.
As the only war on American territory since the Revolution, the war affected everybody in an unimaginably immediate way. Three percent of the population became casualties. Death rates among uniformed men were in the vicinity of 20%. Both sides were taxed and issued fiat dollars to finance the enterprise. Both sides’ sons were conscripted into arms and marched probably thousands of miles, and both sides’ resources looted and foraged for at will. That is to say nothing of those civilians caught in the crossfire of the war’s historic skirmishes, and of course of the slaves, whose fates were a motivating cause for the war to begin with.
The war came home most bitterly to those in the Deep South as victims of William Tecumseh Sherman’s slash-and-burn March to the Sea. Eschewing the military objectives of incapacitating armies and taking key cities, Sherman sought to destroy the South’s material ability and psychological will to wage war entirely, burning the city of Atlanta and ransacking the Georgia plantation countryside for his own army’s resources. In a final ignominy, Sherman turned north and struck at South Carolina, the vanguard of secession. To this day his name profanes public speech in the South.
Burns opened his film with searing testimony from a war veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, the Yankee from Olympus, Oliver Wendell Holmes:
“We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We felt – we still feel – the passion of life to its top. In our youths our hearts were touched with fire.”
The war affected everybody, and given the prominence of the United States since 1865, it has affected us all today, American and non alike.