July 21, 1861
…Clouds of dust shifted and moved through the forest; and through the wavering mists of light blue smoke, and the thicker masses which rose commingling from the feet of men and the mouths of cannon, I could see the gleam of arms and the twinkling of bayonets.
On the hill beside me there was a crowd of civilians on horseback, and in all sorts of vehicles, with a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex. A few officers and some soldiers, who had straggled from the regiments in reserve moved about among the spectators, and pretended to explain the movements of the troops below, of which they were profoundly ignorant.
The cannonade and musketry had been exaggerated by the distance and by the rolling echoes of the hills; and sweeping the position narrowly with my glass from point to point, I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting. The spectators were all excited, and a lady with an opera-glass who was near me was quite beside herself… “That is splendid. Oh, my! Is not that first-rate. I guess we will be Richmond this time to tomorrow.” These, mingled with coarser exclamations, burst from the politicians who had come out to the see the triumph of the Union arms…
…Notwitstanding all the exultation and boastings of the people at Centreville, I was well convinced no advance of any importance or any great success had been achieved, because the ammunition and baggage waggons [sp.] had never moved, nor had the reserves received any orders to follow in the line of the army.
The clouds of dust on the right were quite inexplicable. As we were looking, my philosophic companion asked me in perfect seriousness, “Are we really seeing a battle now? Are they supposed to be fighting where all that smoke is going on? This is rather interesting, you know.”
William Howard Russell’s report for The Times in London on the First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861
Yes, civilians really did go out and try to watch the battle. It was supposed to be a grand spectacle – watching the Rebels get crushed. The civilians included a number of politicians and their families and wealthy citizens of Washington City. They even brought their picnic baskets.
It is important to note that First Bull Run is one of the few battles where this happened. Often some civilian men would keep watch on the battle, but rarely did anyone think a battle scene would make a lovely setting for a picnic after awakening to war.
Thus, the civilian extravagance at First Bull is a unique situation, emphasizing the naivety and patriotic fever. The thoughts and feelings of Americans had yet to meet war’s reality. But, those folks with their picnic baskets quickly learned a lesson about war.
In the late afternoon – after the first shots of battle and the stand on Henry House Hill – General Jackson ordered a bayonet charge and the Confederate lines moved forward. Tired and panicky Union regiments scampered away while other units in blue made desperate defenses and yearned powerful and positive reputations. The Confederate cavalry joined the scene, added to the confusion and terror.
On the nearby hillsides, the civilians started to realize something was wrong. Eventually, they got the news. Their army was retreating and the Rebels were coming. Springing into their carriages, the citizens joined the mass of soldiers, wagons, and horses running for the capital. It was a mess. (And that’s an understatement.)
Fortunately for the frightened civilians and disheartened soldiers, the entire Confederate army didn’t launch after them. The cavalry followed for a little while, but the infantry remained around Manassas Junction. The Confederates won the battle, but did not press on for a more complete victory. Both sides were in a shock over what had happened; about 3,700 soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing.
Both Union and Confederate governments “courted” the governments of Europe, seeking help or at least guaranteed neutrality. European rulers and citizens were watching the American conflict, wondering if the experiment of self-government could continue.
It’s significant to note this report of the first battle that would appear in a London newspaper. What did the British think when they read the account?
P.S. I’ve had people tell me how ridiculous it was that people actually went out and watched this battle like a sporting event. It was awful, and I’d like to hope that if I’d lived back then I would’ve stayed home. So let’s start a debate…do modern day video games and that glorification of war have any similar comparisons to the infamous civilian actions on July 21?