Bull Run Tourists: Then and Now

From I-66 heading west, you see the fields that became the first major battle conflict of the Civil War--the Battle of Bull Run (Union name) or Manassas (Confederate) on July 21, 1861. Roughly in the same area, the two sides fought a second battle (not surprisingly, Second Bull Run or Manassas), this one August 28-30, 1862.

We visited this past weekend. 

1861: The First Battle

Why there? And why is this battle etched in history?

At the visitors' center, we learned about Manassas' importance as a railway junction for the South. The Confederates wanted to defend it. But, according to the introductory film, the enlistments of three-month Union volunteers, who signed up in the excitement of the spring of 1861, were about to expire. Lincoln wanted a victory before that happened. Recruits, never tested in battle, marched the 26 miles out from Washington.

Both sides expected victory. Only one side achieved it. "The most profound consequences of the battle were psychological," writes historian James McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom.

Yet, he goes on, these impacts went beyond the immediate shock of the result, as deep as they were. The South developed an overly positive perception of its invincibility; the North, he said, deepened its determination.

The experience of Julia Wilbur's brother-in-law Joseph Van Buskirk reflected that of many, in battle for the first time of their lives. As she recorded in her diary:

...He says it was a terrible fight. Many were killed on both sides. He was in the left wing of the 3 divisions of the forces & not in the fore front of the battle. His regiment was one of Col. Richardson’s brigade which covered the retreat & was the last to leave the field. They might & should have made a stand at Centerville but were ordered back to Alexandria & Washington. All they had to eat on that day was 2 or 3 crackers. After the fight they marched 35 miles in 12 hrs. in the rain without blankets, & then slept in a barn on the hay without supper....

1862: The Second Battle

The first battle has passed down through the years as the more iconic, but the second battle resulted in many more casualties. Without going into the details of the battle here (read about them on the National Park Service site), the Union again retreated. Lee's army continued north, its first battle on Union territory, to Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Meanwhile, at Manassas, again according to McPherson, "behind Union lines all was confusion." Not really the way one would like a behind-the-lines situation to be. 

1863: Julia Wilbur Visits

In May 1863, Julia traveled to the area with four women from Michigan, including the wife and daughters of a chaplain and Julia Wheelock, an agent with the Michigan Relief Association whose brother was fatally wounded during the first battle. (Wheelock wrote a memoir after the war that includes a description of the trip.) 

They spent several nights in camp around Centreville, guests of the 1st Michigan Cavalry. 

On May 21, Julia wrote:

24 men were detailed to accompany us, 3 Lieutenants, a Surgeon & 2 other gentlemen making in all 30 mounted men. We must have made a dashing appearance as we left camp, all were in high spirits, the escort was bound to enjoy themselves as well as we citizens. They were glad to have a chance to go.—A pleasant breeze took the dust away from us, & it was very pleasant riding. We went out on the Chantilly road 3 or 4 miles & then turned off to the battlefield, a mi. from the pike....
Where the battle took place are several fields. woods on every side, one inhabited house in sight on the edge of a cornfield.... The family were here during the battle & the house was full of wounded, a shell fell through the roof of the stoop.
Miss W.’s brother was fatally wounded in this battle, was carried into a barn near & his leg was amputated, afterwards taken to Alex. & died there. In one place bodies had been so slightly covered that bones were protruding, & the blue pants were still to be seen. Mrs. May covered them. In the edge of the woods were entrenchments & near this spot we all halted & picked up a great many bullets....

2016: The Whitacre Debrief


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