No Picnic

This Day in History

The first major battle of The Civil War or “The War of Northern Aggression” as some southerners have called it, began on this day, July 21st 1861. It is known as The Battle of First Manassas in the south or First Bull Run in the north.

Whatever the name, the battle painfully revealed how utterly unprepared both the soldiers and the public-at-large were for what was to soon rent the the nation in two.

Congressmen from nearby D.C. brought their wives and friends to the spectacle, each carrying baskets brimming with wine and cheese and all the accoutrements of a Sunday picnic.

The soldiers, fresh from streets lined with fawning well-wishers and adorned with crisp and new martial apparel, came upon the scene thinking glory was to be bought cheaply and in the span of their 90 day enlistments.

Each side was green and green alike, as President Lincoln would say. This would be grotesquely apparent by days’ end.


Grave of Judith Henry, an 85 year old invalid killed by Union artillery as she lay in her bed.

The armies arrayed against each other were massive, each with over 32,000 soldiers. Both sides, Confederate and Union, could manage to only bring roughly half that number to the battle. Things such as planning, chains of command and logistics were not yet in their otherwise formidable arsenals.

The battle began with a Union advantage but changed when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston brought in timely reinforcements by rail. The Union retreat to Washington was orderly at first but quickly turn into chaos as the frightened soldiers ran into the carriages of the congressmen and their picnickers jamming the lone road to refuge.

The Confederates, though buoyed by the late-arrival of their President, Jefferson Davis, bungled the victory as badly as the Union had their retreat. Instead of pressing their advantage, they retired from the battlefield, allowing the Union time to regroup. The battle was over but the war stilled loomed. One of what would become thousands of civilian tragedies would rip at the nation when an 85 year-old widow and invalid, all alone in her bed, was killed by Union artillery as it obliterated her home.

Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson

A legend was born that day as well in the person of Thomas Jackson, a professor at the Virginia Military Institute. Early in the battle, Confederate General Banard Bee, trying to hold back a Union advance on Henry Hill and seeking a rallying place, pointed to Jackson as he stood stoically with his men and shouted, “There stands Jackson like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

The moniker stuck and ever since he has be known to the world as Stonewall Jackson. He would die later in the war, ironically by friendly fire, if it can be called such a thing. He was as good at war as any who ever wore a uniform. He did not romanticize war as many have who have not been in it.

He would have certainly said that war is no picnic – war is hell.

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2 Responses
  1. Barbara Garrison

    Awesome article of a beginning of a war that seems to linger today in the hearts and minds of some. A sad sad period of our nation’s history.

  2. Thank you, Barbara. I think it is important that we remember history, even when it reveals the uncomfortable aspects of our being. The living cannot truly live without the dead.

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