Military Life in Its Most Depressing Form

Rain began pouring on the Bull Run battlefield on the night of July 21, as exhausted Confederates collected their wounded and buried their dead. The chaotic Federal retreat had compelled President Jefferson Davis to order an immediate pursuit all the way to Washington, arguing that such panicked troops could not defend the capital. But the rain prompted Davis to modify his order to begin the pursuit the next morning.

Late that night, Davis consulted with Major General Joseph E. Johnston and Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the victorious Armies of the Shenandoah and the Potomac respectively. Both commanders disagreed with Davis and argued against any pursuit at all. Johnston explained that the troops were “more disorganized by victory than that of the United States in defeat.” They were exhausted after seven hours of heavy combat in scorching heat, and they could not be expected to make a forced march through heavy rain and mud. And even if they did manage to reach Washington, they did not have enough food or ammunition to fight another battle, and they lacked the equipment needed for what could be a long campaign against such a heavily fortified city. Moreover, the Davis administration had maintained that the Confederacy would fight only to secure independence, not to conquer the U.S.

The generals presented intelligence showing that Washington’s defenses were too strong to penetrate. Davis, not wanting to override the commanders who knew the situation best, relented. Meanwhile, Confederates continued gathering their wounded, burying their dead, and rounding up prisoners. The captured Federals and civilians would be sent to Richmond and confined as prisoners of war; they would also be used as leverage against threats by the Lincoln administration to execute Confederate captives as traitors or pirates.

In Washington, President Abraham Lincoln continued listening to eyewitness accounts of the Federal disaster. Emma S. Edmonds, a Federal field nurse at Georgetown Hospital, described the post-battle chaos:

“Washington at that time presented a picture striking illustrative of military life in its most depressing form… Every bar-room and groggery seemed filled to overflowing with officers and men, and military discipline was nearly, or quite, forgotten for a time… The hospitals in Washington, Alexandria and Georgetown were crowded with wounded, sick, discouraged soldiers. That extraordinary march from Bull Run, through rain, mud, chagrin, did more towards filling the hospitals than did the battle itself… Measels, dysentery and typhoid fever were the prevailing diseases after the retreat…”

Federal troops continued straggling into Washington the following day. Walt Whitman, poet and correspondent for the Brooklyn Standard, wrote:

“The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22nd–day drizzling all through with rain… The sun rises, but shines not. The men appear, at first sparsely and shame-faced enough, then thicker, in the streets of Washington–appear in Pennsylvania Avenue, and on the steps and basement entrances… Amid the deep excitement, crowds and motion, and desperate eagerness, it seems strange to see many, very many, of the soldiers sleeping–in the midst of all sleeping sound…”

Panicked soldiers hurried to the railroad station and tried to take trains back home, but Federal officials put the railroads under heavy guard. Some troops nearly swamped a boat coming from Alexandria by rushing onto its decks. Northerners learned of the Federal fiasco in the newspapers, and gloom pervaded the northern states. A New Yorker wrote, “Today will be known as BLACK MONDAY. We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped.”

William H. Russell, a correspondent for the London Times, published a scathing article about the Federal retreat, calling it “scandalous behavior by men calling themselves soldiers,” with “officers conducting themselves as though they were camp followers.” Many northerners denounced Russell’s assessment, with some even calling him a Confederate spy. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune declared: “Russell has described what he dares to call a rout; actually, he was never anywhere near Bull Run Creek during three days of action.” Whether true or not, the fact was that Russell did not reach the Bull Run battlefield until after the retreat had begun, so he had not witnessed any of the brave fighting that had preceded it.

Wild rumors began circulating, including one that the Confederates had taken Arlington and would soon invade Washington. This message was brought to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott during a meeting with Lincoln. Scott fumed: “It is impossible, sir! We are now tasting the first fruits of a war and learning what a panic is. We must be prepared for all kinds of rumors. Why, sir, we shall soon hear that Jefferson Davis has crossed the Long Bridge at the head of a brigade of elephants and is trampling our citizens under foot! He has no brigade of elephants: he cannot by any possibility get a brigade of elephants!”

Major General Irvin McDowell, commanding the Federals at Bull Run, rode into Arlington and issued orders posting troops to defend Washington, just across the Potomac. General-in-Chief Scott also ordered Federals to garrison the forts surrounding the capital and assigned 15,000 men for McDowell to post on the Virginia side of the river in defense. The rest of McDowell’s army now fell under Major General Joseph Mansfield, who commanded all troops in the capital.

Northern pundits and officials offered many reasons for the defeat. Some blamed Major General Robert Patterson for failing to stop Johnston from reinforcing Beauregard; this had been remedied just before the battle when Scott removed Patterson from command. Others blamed Scott for going through with the battle even though the green Federals troops were not prepared; few acknowledged that Scott had not wanted to fight in the first place but only succumbed to pressure by the northern public and the Lincoln administration.

Others blamed McDowell and his officers for a lack of leadership. McDowell had actually performed well during the battle, but his strategy had been too complicated for such inexperienced soldiers to carry out. In addition, many of his subordinates did not serve him well. Colonel Dixon S. Miles, commanding the 5th Division in reserve, was visibly drunk during the battle, and Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, commanding the 1st Division, was very slow in starting his feint at the Stone Bridge, which turned out to be so feeble that it fooled nobody.

Lincoln finally concluded that the Federals had fought bravely and would have won the battle had Johnston not arrived with reinforcements. The Federals may have been routed, but they could be reorganized and trained to fight again. A correspondent for the London Times reflected most northerners’ sentiment by predicting: “This prick in the great Northern balloon will let out a quantity of poisonous gas, and rouse the people to a sense of the nature of the conflict on which they have entered.” Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay wrote, “The fat is all in the fire now and we shall have to crow small until we can retrieve the disgrace somehow. The preparations for the war will be continued with increased vigor by the Government.”

In the Confederacy, southerners celebrated the dramatic victory on the 22nd, but they tempered their enthusiasm with the knowledge that the war was far from over. Confederates at Manassas collected the vast quantity of arms, supplies, and equipment that the retreating Federals had left behind. Many soldiers expressed astonishment at the extravagant stores they found, which were especially welcome since they were almost out of food.

Davis met with Johnston and Beauregard once more on the night of the 22nd, where the question of whether to pursue the Federals came up again. Johnston again opposed a pursuit, citing the following:

“The unfitness of our raw troops for marching, or assailing intrenchments. The want of the necessary supplies of food and ammunition, and means of transporting them… The fortifications upon which skillful engineers, commanding the resources of the United States, had been engaged since April, manned by at least fifty thousand troops, half of whom had not suffered defeat. The Potomac, a mile wide, bearing United States vessels-of-war, the heavy guns of which commanded the wooden bridges and southern shore. The Confederate army would have been two days in marching from Bull Run to the Federal intrenchments, with less than two days’ rations, or not more. It is asserted that the country, teeming with grain and cattle, could have furnished food and forage in abundance. Those who make the assertion forget that a large Federal army had passed twice over the route in question.”

Unaware of the chaos and panic sweeping the capital at that time, the men resolved once and for all not to pursue.

Davis awarded Beauregard a promotion from brigadier to full general for his battle performance: “Sir: Appreciating your services in the battle of Manassas, and on several other occasions during the existing war, as affording the highest evidence of your skill as a commander, your gallantry as a soldier, and your zeal as a patriot, you are promoted to be a general in the army of the Confederate States of America, and, with the consent of Congress, will be duly commissioned accordingly.”

In Richmond, the Provisional Confederate Congress received Davis’s dispatches from the battlefield. Based on these, members approved resolutions giving thanks to God and calling on citizens to offer thanksgiving and praise to God for the victory at Manassas. The resolutions also condemned the bloodshed caused by the Federal invasion and offered to the families of those who died in battle assurance that “the names of the gallant dead as the champions of free and constitutional liberty” would be remembered in the people’s hearts.

In the North, the mood was balanced between grim determination to continue the struggle and hopeless despair. Horace Greeley, influential editor of the New York Daily Tribune, exemplified the latter. Greeley had been one of the most vocal supporters of destroying the Confederacy before the battle; his newspaper had published the war cry, “On to Richmond!” But on July 29, Greeley wrote to Lincoln stating that he now had a change of heart after “my seventh sleepless night–yours, too, doubtless.”

Horace Greeley | Image Credit:

He wrote, “You are not considered a great man, and I am a hopelessly broken one… Can the rebels be beaten after all that has occurred, and in view of the actual state of feeling caused by our late awful disaster?” If the Confederacy could not be defeated, Greeley advised, “do not fear to sacrifice yourself to your country… every drop of blood henceforth shed in this quarrel will be wantonly, wickedly shed, and the guilt will rest heavily on the soul of every promoter of the crime.”

Greeley recommended negotiating an armistice “with a view to a peaceful adjustment.” He then asserted that in New York City, “the gloom… is funereal–for our dead at Bull Run were many, and they lie unburied yet. On every brow sits sullen, scorching, black despair. If it is best for the country and for mankind that we make peace with the rebels at once and on their own terms, do not shrink even from that.” But Lincoln concluded, “There is nothing in this except the lives lost, and the lives which must be lost to make it good.”


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