Battle At Bull Run by William C. Davis

Posted on September 13, 2011. Filed under: Book Reviews, The American Civil War |

A Book Review by Bryan E. Walker

If you want a well-written, fast paced, comprehensive yet concise, enjoyable book about the first major battle of the American Civil War, I highly recommend Battle At Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War by William C. Davis (Doubleday & Company: Garden City, NY 1977, 298pp.) The only criticism I can offer of this fine book is that more maps with more detail would have been helpful. But this is a thoroughly researched and documented book that is written like a popular history, but with backbone. The bibliography is extensive and includes a large section of manuscripts and personal papers, another large section on regimental histories and another large section on “Letters, Diaries, and Memoirs”. This is military history as it should be written.

Davis opens his book with a powerful summary of America’s sickness: “America, it seemed, had gone mad and gone to war with itself. Four decades of compromise between the sections of the country had come to naught, largely because the lawmakers of Washington repeatedly chose to treat the symptom rather than the illness. …It was a sickness that tore at the Republic’s very being and one that could only be dealt with in violence and in pain,” (p.1). The first chapter, “An Army in the Making” briefly summarizes the political developments around secession and then quickly gets into the creation of the Army and the opening moves. A reasonably good description of Generals Scott and McDowell is given and the plans for the opening of the war are touched on.Davis repeatedly makes mention of McDowell’s eating habits and stomach disorders and mentions that McDowell used Robert E. Lee’s Alexandria home as his Army HQ- something I had not been aware of prior to reading this book.

In chapter 2, “The Southrons Gather”,Davis describes the confederacy’s preparations and generals. Particularly enjoyable and noteworthy is his description of camp life amongst the confederates, their training and suffering from various diseases. Davis presents the case for Col. Philip Cocke being “perhaps the first to put into words the strategy that would be used to meet the inevitable invasion whenever it came” in regards to the strategic value of Manassas Junction. Another tidbit of trivia thatDavisincludes that was new to me was in his discussion of Robert E. Lee he tells us that it was Lee’s troops who had caught John Brown several years earlier. Little things like including that bit of background make for a good history book!

“Three Years Or The War” is the title of chapter 3 which discusses the Northern troops and generals as they prepared for war in the Washington D.C. area. It is particularly noteworthy to compare the preparations on page 42 of the Union army with what we read in chapter 2 about the training regimen of Jackson’s brigade. It seemed to me that the union troops did not drill quite as vigorously as their southern counterparts. This chapter also discusses the disaster that was General Patterson in the Shenandoah facing off with Johnston, or not. Davis places a lot of the blame for what happened in the west squarely on Scotts shoulders, “Scott handed Patterson a perfect excuse for sloth. Upon hearing that Harpers’ Ferry was taken, he asked if the general expected to pursue the withdrawing Confederates. Scott recommended no pursuit for the time being, and ordered that, instead, the regular Army infantry and cavalry with Patterson…be sent at once to Washington,” (p.47).

Davis next turns to discussing General Pierre G.T. Beauregard and his defensive preparations for the Confederates in chapter 4 “The Young Napoleon.”Davis tells of one particular aspect of the Confederate preparations that was very revealing: “When some of the men objected to the strenuous work, and that they, as gentlemen, had not enlisted to work like Negroes, Beauregard got Negroes. He persuaded local planters to lend him their slaves for much of the work,” (p.61.) Another detail thatDavisincludes is the use of signal towers and the ‘wig-wag’ flag system of communications developed for the US Army by one of his staff officers, Captain E. Porter Alexander.

Under political pressure, President Lincoln was the one who forced General Scott to get McDowell to go on the offense. It seems that nobody in this war wanted to go on offense except Beauregard; McDowell didn’t want to, but as he set out his plan, it ended up being a decent offensive plan. Chapter 5, “McDowell Plans A Campaign”  takes us through the hesitation and planning by Scott and McDowell to an enlightening discussion of the Confederate General Johnston and his revealing bird hunting expedition (p.82), yet another of the “little” details that Davis includes that makes this book a treasure.

Chapter 6, “The March To Bull Run”, Davis gives a sober evaluation of the beginning of this campaign: “’On toRichmond!’ was the rallying call of the war that would be ended before the summer….In their buoyant expectations, their boundless confidence, and their naivete`, these men seemed to be engaged in a children’s crusade rather than in a nineteenth-century war. Irvin McDowell was the exception. Seemingly alone of the Union high command, he knew what to expect despite his own lack of combat experience,” (p.90.) Davis gives details of the march fromWashingtonabout the lack of discipline amongst the soldiers who would not respect their officers as they dashed off at every stream to fill canteens or pick blackberries (p.97, 100.) and to loot property from rebel homes, looking for food and souvenirs.Davis, no fan of Beauregard’s, repeatedly mentions his convictions that McDowell would attack where He expected: “Like all of Beauregard’s plans, it was a hastily concocted and ill-conceived notion that depended entirely upon McDowell doing exactly as the Confederate expected him to do,” (p.103).

In “The Battle Of Blackburn’s Ford”, ch.7, Davis brings out one of the controversies as he relates the two different accounts of Gen. Tyler about what he see at Blackburns Ford, (p.114). Davis recounts how the 12th New York broke in panic under this relatively minor skirmish…foreshadowing of a disaster to come later. His respect for Sherman, one of the few Union heroes of the battle, shows on an account of Sherman’s coolness under fire on p.123. In yet another detail, Davis tells of how the next morning the confederates under Longstreet ate crackers and raw bacon for breakfast because no fires were allowed. Raw bacon?

Davis completes the horrible story of Patterson vs. Johnston in chapter 8, “Shadows In The Shenandoah”, but he begins the chapter with the dramatic and heroic ride of Colonel Alexander R. Chisolm who was carrying orders for General Joseph E. Johnston to head east and link up with Beauregard. His recounting of Johnston’s forced march away from the Union General Patterson and his fording of the Shenandoah Riverand the subsequent wild train ride is good reading and history at its finest. Davisappropriately places this rail movement byJohnston’s army as historic: “Already the Confederate high command had achieved a significant feat of arms. Making strategic use of railroads for the first time in the annals of warfare, Beauregard and Johnston, each outnumbered by the enemy forces in their respective fronts, had managed to make a concentration to face one of their opponents. Now the combined armies of the two Confederates numbered roughly 35,000 to McDowell’s 37,000. Essentially the odds were even….It was a new chapter in the rules of grand strategy, and one which almost everyone but the original authors-Lee and Cocke- would claim to have written,” (p.143.)

Davis criticizes Beauregard’s troop placement along Bull Runwith his heavy emphasis along his right flank, while leaving the best fording place at the StoneBridgealmost undefended. Repeatedly, Davis emphasizes that Beauregard expected McDowell to attack where he wanted him to, on Beauregard’s right flank. “Beauregard would not be swayed from his conviction that he knew as much about McDowell’s intentions as McDowell. The enemy would attack Mitchell’s Ford, and that was that,” (p.146).  But why does Davis criticize Beauregard for this placement when he has already told us on pp.73-74 that McDowell’s plan was to attack on that side of Beauregard? McDowell’s plan had to be changed because of Tyler’s disobeying orders at Blackburn’s Ford on July 18th; he now was going to attack from the north, going around the Confederate’s left flank. Perhaps Davis’ criticism of Beauregard is in light of what McDowell eventually did. It seems to me that Beauregard had some proper intelligence about McDowell’s plans and acted properly initially.

The opening paragraph of ch.9 “McDowell’s Victory” will sound familiar to all the veterans out there who have conducted a night movement. “It was dark though moonlit, and confusion was easily begun and just as readily spread. Men could not find their places in the line, and the line could not find the road.” (p.159).Davis gives a rich, detailed view of moving a clumsy, untrained army through the woods at night. Then Davis gives the view from across Bull Runof the “canny Confederate” Col. Nathan Evans who had skirmishers out and his main body of troops well concealed from the oncoming Federals.

Davis’ criticism of Beauregard is unrelenting in ch.9: “This was not exactly where Beauregard had planned to be fighting his battle. Indeed, almost nothing had gone as the young Napoleon anticipated…” (p.168). “Ever the grand strategist, he [Beauregard] decided that he still might take the offensive…Beauregard was apparently  confused,” (p.169). “Imperceptibly, Beauregard was losing control of the battle…” (p.170). The rest of ch.9 is devoted to an excellent account of the main battles around Matthew’s Hill which led McDowell to think the day was his.

Chapter 10, “Trust To The Bayonet” tells the story of the Confederate counterattack that stopped the advancing Federals, but it also continues the theme of criticizing Beauregard. “Beauregard was almost distraught. Everything had crumbled. His anticipated attack was not materializing. His left flank was crumbling,” (p.191). It was Johnston who finally intervened and told Beauregard that the battle was to be fought on the left and that he must reinforce the left. The Battle of Henry Hill would prove decisive and give the Confederates the day. Here we read of Hampton’s Legion and Jackson’s counterattack and steady defense, earning him the nickname Stonewall (p.197). But Davisis not afraid to offer the counter view that the moniker “Stonewall” was at first used in a derogatory manner by General Bee because Jackson’s Brigade was standing fast instead of moving to relieve the 4thAlabama.

Chapter 10 gives us the incident which in all likelihood lost the battle for McDowell. On p.203 Davis tells us that McDowell “directed his chief of artillery, William F. Barry, to order the two batteries forward, across Young’s Branch, and up the slope of Henry Hill almost to the crest…The battery would be far in advance of the infantry.” These batteries of Griffin and Ricketts would be destroyed and captured by the Confederates which turned the tide of battle which story is told in ch. 11, “A Tale of Defeat”.

Chapter 12, “Rout and Resolution” finishes the story with the disgraceful run back to the alleged safety of Washington DC. Davis tells us (p.252-253) that “McDowell blamed Patterson and, indirectly, Scott for allowing Johnston to make his junction with Beauregard…No one substantially faulted McDowell’s generalship in the battle. Sherman claimed that Bull Run ‘was one of the best-planned battles of the war,’ and McDowell planned it entirely on his own…McDowell’s fault, of course, lay in overestimating the ability of his raw troops to move quickly …” Davis admits that few, if any, of the generals knew how to fight this kind of modern war.

Davis discusses some of the fallout from this battle and what happened to the various leaders. McDowell became the undeserving scapegoat for the loss and McClellen was unfortunately brought in. Of McDowell,Davis writes, “He finished the war in command of the Pacific coast, where he stayed after the war to become a park commissioner in San Francisco. Few more tragic figures would emerge from the war,” (p.259). Davis relates the story of how Johnston eventually surrendered to Sherman in 1865 and the two became friends; Johnstoneven attended Sherman’s funeral as a pallbearer inNew York on Feb.14, 1891.

In conclusion, Battle At Bull Run by William C. Davis is an outstanding military history that should absolutely be in every Civil War student’s library. This is military history written as it should be. If you want to understand the first campaign of the Civil War, read this book!


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