This Week in the Civil War

July 15, 2011 - 8:14 AM

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, July 17: First Battle of Bull Run.

The Confederate shelling of federal-held Fort Sumter in April 1861 launched the start of the Civil War. The First Battle of Bull Run — also known as the First Battle of Manassas — marked the start of the conflict in earnest. Under pressure to crush the secessionists, Union forces on July 21 initially attacked a mass of Confederate troops arrayed amid woods and farmfields of Bull Run, in northern Virginia. The battle raged for hours. Union forces briefly drove Confederate foes back, but the Confederates got reinforcements. A contingent led by Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson stood its ground at a farmhouse hilltop, earning him his nickname. The Confederates counterattacked with cavalry charging, starting a headlong federal retreat. Amid gunfire and chaos, panicked Union soldiers retreated in disarray to Washington. The Confederacy had scored its first major victory. The Charleston (S.C.) Mercury's correspondent reported of Confederate forces: "Men never fought more desperately than did ours to-day." He added: "A great battle has been fought to-day at the Stone Bridge, on Bull Run ... The Southern troops are again victorious. The slaughter on both sides was terrific." The correspondent described "raking fire" and an enemy that gave way toward sundown, adding: "At dark they were still flying, closely pursued by our troops." The Boston Herald reported July 24 that Union forces would now reorganize: "Dispatches of this morning to the Associated Press tell us that the services of 60,000 soldiers, previous offered the government but refused, have now been accepted, and that a complete reorganization of the army is to be made."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, July 24: First Bull Run's fallout.

The Confederate victory in northern Virginia triggered a somber realization on both sides that war could possibly drag on far longer and be far more brutal than imagined. Shock fell on the North at the federal defeat. At the time, it was the largest and bloodiest battle of the young conflict. An Associated Press account from Washington said the rout of federal forces "excited the deepest melancholy through Washington. The carnage was tremendously heavy on both sides." The AP's correspondent wrote of the battle that Union troops were driving toward Manassas Junction, Va., when a Confederate countercharge commenced, driving federal forces back in full-scale retreat to Washington. "The panic was so fearful that the whole Army became demoralized," it added. The AP also reported "the most intense excitement" in Washington followed combat as the wounded and dead streamed back aboard wagons and some even briefly feared that the Confederates might even attack Washington. "The greatest alarm exists throughout the city, especially among the female portion of the population," the AP dispatch said. Immediately there came a shakeup of the Union military command. In late July, President Abraham Lincoln appoints Gen. George B. McClellan to become head of the Army of the Potomac after the prior commander, Gen. Irvin McDowell, is largely blamed for the Union defeat at Bull Run.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, July 31: Spying by Balloon.

Military preparations deepen as the nation girds at the first hints of a long, brutal conflict. Washington is abuzz with troop movements while the Confederate states also are organizing and calling up more forces for the inevitable fighting to follow. In Tennessee, Gov. Isham G. Harris advises the Confederate War Department in an Aug. 1 missive that he has formally transferred Tennessee forces over to the Confederacy. "The transfer is now being made as rapidly as Confederate officers can verify our rolls by the inspection of our regiments, and I hope will be completed within a few days," Harris advises Richmond, seat of the Confederacy. He proposes Nashville for a major Confederate army supply depot. Meanwhile, each side is eyeing each others' military strengths warily. New technologies emerge in the first summer of wartime as federal forces make several initial attempts in July, including at First Bull Run, to send up manned observation balloons to spy out rebel troop movements. For decades, balloons had been used generally for sport but are now seen by the commanders as a way to glean valuable intelligence about one's foe. Reports indicate a balloonist on the Union side completed the first successful ascent in late July in Arlington, Va., just outside the nation's capital, and spied out Confederate artillery emplacements and rebel scouting parties in northern Virginia beyond Washington's Union defenses. Despite some spectacular crashes, more reconnaissance balloons would be sent aloft in the first weeks of August and the technology would be deployed particularly in the first two years of war.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Aug. 7: First combat west of the Mississippi.

The village of Hampton, Va., is burned by Confederate troops Aug. 7, 1861 to impede its seizure by federal forces from Fort Monroe, the Union-held fortress used to blockade Virginia's lower Chesapeake Bay. Confederate Col. John Bankhead Magruder ordered the burning after months of wrestling with Union foes for control of Virginia's southeastern coastal approaches to Richmond, capital of the Confederacy. Accounts state Magruder came to believe the Union planned to quarter troops and escaped slaves in Hampton and quickly ordered fires lit. The Philadelphia Inquirer later described "a forest of bleak-sided chimneys and brick houses tottering and cooling in the wind, scorched trees and heaps of smoldering ruins." Days later on Aug. 10, 1861, Union forces met with their second major defeat after First Bull Run — at Wilson's Creek in Missouri. The first major battle west of the Mississippi River also killed the first Union general in combat, Nathaniel Lyon. Though Missouri had voted to stay in the Union, Gov. Claiborne Jackson continued to advocate secession. He refused a federal call to supply regiments for the Union and plotted to seize the federal arsenal at St. Louis. Learning of the plan, Lyon had most of the weapons secretly moved, futilely sought to resolve differences with Jackson and later pursued rebel forces into southwestern Missouri. Lyon's surprise attack on Confederates at Wilson's Creek began strongly but lost momentum amid bloody charges and countercharges as his forces finally withdrew, outnumbered. One Confederate general, N.B. Pearce, later wrote his troops under gunfire showed "no signs of wavering or retreat." The state — prized by both sides for abundant resources and proximity to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, saw much fighting in years to come.