An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)

Jul 21, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico
Portales, New Mexico

1. Professor Elder, we are approaching July 21st- a very historical date- since it was the First Battle of Bull Run or Manassas about 150 years ago. Can you clear up the confusion about the city?

When a battle starts in any war, no one knows what the battle will be called. It is only after the fact that a name is assigned. During the Civil War, Union commanders would usually refer to the closest river or stream in naming the battle, while Confederate leaders would name the battle after the closest community or building. Thus, the meandering stream known as Bull Run was the reference point for the Union regarding the battle in July of 1861, while the Confederates used the community of Manassas.

2. Why was this an important battle?

It guaranteed that the war would not be ended quickly. If the Union had won, they conceivably could have marched straight to Richmond and ended the rebellion. On the other hand, if the Confederates had been able to follow up their victory with a march on Washington, they conceivably could have won their independence then and there. The fact that neither of these possible outcomes happened meant that it would be a long war.

3. While the Bombing of Fort Sumner started the shooting, this battle, started the fighting, if you will….am I off on this?

There had been some small scale engagements prior to Bull Run, but this was indeed the first large scale battle of the Civil War.

4. Apparently, a number of charismatic individuals emanated from this battle- Stonewall Jackson for one- Can you give us the details? Were there any others?

Many individuals who would loom large in the Civil War played a part in the battle. On the Union side, the most prominent participant was William Tecumseh Sherman. For the Confederates, Joseph Johnston, Pierre Beauregard, and Jeb Stuart all had major roles, but Thomas Jackson became an overnight hero because of the battle. At one point in the fight the Confederates were retreating, but a Confederate officer saw Jackson keeping his men in position and said something to the effect of “there stands Jackson like a stone wall. Let us rally behind the Virginians.”

5. How long did the battle last and was there a true victor if you will- who won?

The battle began around 5:30 am, and concluded around 4:30 pm. The Confederates definitely won the battle, because they held the field of battle at the end of the day and suffered fewer casualties.

6. What were the casaulties like in this battle?

The Confederate losses (killed, wounded, and captured) numbered 1,982, while Union losses amounted to 2,896.

7. Why do historians study this battle? Why is it important?

The battle represents a great opportunity for counter-factual (sometimes known as what if?) history. If the Union had defeated the Confederates that day and gone on to capture Richmond, that could have ended the Civil War. If it had ended in July of 1861, the nation would have been reunited with slavery intact. Would it have been ended eventually anyway, or would we still have it today? On the other hand, if the Confederates had won and had taken Washington, we would have become a divided nation. How would that have affected subsequent world history? Clearly, it was a potential game changer either way.

8. Following the battle, what was the thinking of both the North and the South?

I think the battle helped both sides. It showed the Union that it would (to borrow a sports phrase) have to step up its game to suppress the rebellion, and so Lincoln began to recruit a larger army for a longer duration conflict. But it was also beneficial to the Confederates, representing a huge moral boost.

9.What have I neglected to ask about this event?

I think this is good!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.