A Review of “We Shall Meet Again: The First Battle of Manassas”

Posted on September 15, 2011. Filed under: American History, Book Reviews, The American Civil War |

By JoAnna M. McDonald

Reviewed by Bryan E. Walker

If you are a serious student of the Civil War and want a detailed analysis of the first Battle of Bull Run, We Shall Meet Again by JoAnna M. McDonald (Oxford University Press: 1999) is the book for you. If, however, you simply like to read a good military history book about some of the battles in the Civil War, stick to William C. Davis’ Battle At Bull Run. McDonald’s book is good, it is unique, and it is really for the specialist amongst the Civil War enthusiasts. I wish there were more books like We Shall Meet Again! Ideally, the serious Civil War enthusiast should read Davis and McDonald together, side by side.

McDonald gives a bare bones written account of each part of the battle. Her own material is not the major part of the book. While about one quarter of the written material seems to be quotes from participants, the majority of the pages are maps and photographs arranged in a fascinating, though repetitive, manner. Let me take chapter 2 as an example, “The Battle At Blackburn’s Ford” with a subtitle giving the date and the hours followed by a quote from that engagement by a participant. This is followed by four photos of the Opposing Commanders: Confederates Longstreet and Jubal Early and Union Tyler and Richardson. The only comment on the first page of this chapter (p.25) from McDonald is, “Only approximately 1,500 union troops actually fought in this battle.” The second page of chapter 2 has about three quarters of a page of her analysis and about one quarter of the page is quotes. Page three is map 4 ofBlackburn’s Ford on Thursday, July 18. Every other page is a detailed map of the progress of the battle and the chapter ends with what she calls a Vignette, a brief biographical sketch of one of the participants, for chapter two it is Mr. Wilmer McLean, a civilian landowner at the battle site.

Chapter six “Matthew’s Hill” is 26 pages long and is divided into the five stages of the battle with pictures of the commanders and participants, and pictures of the houses and terrain involved. And the maps. This book could be called a Battle Atlas of First Manassas. McDonald keeps her comments brief and to the point and illuminates what we see on the maps.

The only fair criticism I could offer is that many of the photos are repetitious, as she gives the same photos of the participants at every phase of the battle. Psychologically, however, this repetition helps the reader to consider these men as being real people, not simply objects from “back then”. Similarly with her vignettes.

One striking difference about McDonald’s work compared withDavis’ which I read just prior to this book, is that she does not seem to be overtly critical of either side.Davisclearly despises Beauregard but McDonald is quite even handed. She writes to give the details of the battle, not to evaluate the commanders.

Where McDonald does some serious evaluation is in her Chapter 14 “Summary”. Her quote underneath the chapter title is from Lincoln, “It’s damned bad!” Then she gives eight reasons why the Confederates won the battle in a stunning, brief summary. First on her list is the failure of the Union General Patterson “to detainJohnston’s force in theShenandoah Valley,” (p.176). Second was McDowell’s “two days waiting for supplies around Centreville”. Third, McDowell’s failure to properly use all the forces at his disposal. McDonald says (p.177) “In all, more than 23,000 Union soldiers played little or no part in the day’s fighting.” Fourth, “Poor logistics, and the sloppy execution of those plans”. Fifth, Burnside’s piecemeal attacks. Six, McDowell failed to attack when the Confederates retreated to Henry Hill. Seven, the ill placement of the two artillery batteries that ended up getting captured due to their close proximity to the Confederate infantry. Eight, McDowell failed to attack with more than two regiments at a time. McDonald summarizes, p.178, “Due to poorUniongeneralship, undisciplined soldiers, and the quick reaction of many Confederate officers, the Confederacy won its first major battle atManassas.”

McDonald includes several fine Appendices at the end of her book, and perhaps the most significant is Appendix III- Order of Battles. Here she lists every unit is both armies, the commanders and how many were killed, wounded and missing in that unit. This dramatically shows the difference between theUnionwhich was attacking and the Confederates who were in good defensive positions.

In conclusion, this book is definitely not for the general reader, but is a tremendous asset for the Civil War enthusiast or scholar. I wish that more military history authors would do the kind of map work that McDonald has done here. This book is a new genre for Military History, the single battle atlas.

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