The first modern war correspondent won a nickname, much Northern ill will, and a lasting reputation out of his account of a famous battle
Shortly after dawn on a pleasant midsummer morning just a century ago, a two-horse gig drew up in front of private lodgings on Pennsylvania Avenue, in Washington. Inside the house a stout, middle-aged gentleman finished his cup of tea, put more tea in a container, picked up a paper of sandwiches and a bottle of light Bordeaux, and then thoughtfully stopped to fill his brandy Mask. A moment later, clad in a khaki “Himalayan” suit, a brown felt hat, and an old pair of boots, the man appeared on the street to inspect the vehicle. The date was July 21, 1861; and The Times of London, in the person of William Howard Russell, was out to cover what turned out to be the First Battle of Bull Run.
Russell was easily the most celebrated newspaper correspondent of his day. Irish-born, he had joined The Times in 1842 as a press gallery reporter in the House of Commons. Subsequently, he had covered the potato famine and the O’Connell sedition trial in Ireland, the Schleswig-Holstein rebellion on the Continent, and the Sepoy Mutiny in India. He had won a world-wide reputation by his reports from the front during the Crimean War in 1851–55. His revelations of military incompetence at the highest level had toppled a British government; his descriptions of inadequate hospital facilities in the field had been indirectly responsible for Florence Nightingale’s famous mission of mercy; and his stirring account of the Battle of Balaclava may well have inspired a stay-at-home, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to compose “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Yet, in February, 1861, Russell had been reluctant to go to America to cover the impending hostilities for The Times . “I felt I had few qualifications for the post,” he later admitted. “I was almost entirely ignorant of the nature of the crisis or the issue at stake, though I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin . …” Urged by his friend William Makepeace Thackeray, he nonetheless accepted.
At the outset, Russell found it difficult to suppress a certain sympathy for the Union cause. “Nothing could grieve my heart … more than to admit the fact that the great experiment of self-government had readied its end in dissolution, smoke and ashes,” he stated in an address at a New York St. Patrick’s Day dinner. “I cannot and will not believe that the people of the United States are about to whistle down, a prey to fortune, the greatest legacy a nation ever received…” These sentiments brought a stiff reprimand from his superiors in London, for in its editorial policy The Times was espousing the Southern cause. Warned by the home office, Russell quickly trimmed his sails and thereafter maintained a detached and lofty objectivity.
He reached Washington on March ay and the following day was presented to Lincoln, who remarked: “The London Times is one of the greatest powers in the world—in fact, I don’t know anything which has much more power—except the Mississippi. I am glad to know you as its minister.” The next day Russell dined at the White House, and two days after that he received a bouquet of flowers from Mary Todd Lincoln. He was received by Winfield Scott, the dropsical septuagenarian who headed the Union Army, interviewed Senator Stephen A. Douglas, and played whist with Secretary of State William H. Seward. Despite this congenial atmosphere, Russell did not linger in Washington but determined, rather, to journey south so as to familiarize himself with both sides of the great political controversy.
He was in Charleston two days after the formal surrender of Fort Sumter on April 14. In Montgomery, he interviewed the new Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, and members of his Cabinet. He observed much and noted well everything he saw. For William Howard Russell this was an all-important period of self-education. Apart from the usual mild British disdain for American institutions and mores, his reports to The Times were reasoned, objective, and amazingly perceptive. A swing through the Cotton South and a journey up the Mississippi brought him back to Union territory at Cairo, Illinois, by late June. Hearing that a major offensive was to be launched against the secessionists in Virginia, Russell hastened back to Washington.
On the evening of July 16, the British journalist reached Washington, where he met Brigadier General Irvin McDowell at the railway station. McDowell, a studious forty-three-year-old staff officer who had never led men in the field, had been promoted from major in May and put in command of Union forces concentrating on Washington. Lincoln had called 75,000 state militia into service for ninety days. It was McDowell’s thankless task to mold them into an army. As he worked, pressure built up in the North for a decisive advance into Virginia. Horace Greeley’s influential New York Tribune led the press in a shrill cry of “Forward to Richmond!” By the end of July, the term of service of most of the Union’s three-month soldiers would expire, and immediate action was imperative if this force was to be utilized.
On June 24, McDowell had presented a plan of attack. In it he proposed moving a force of some 30,000 men from Washington to Manassas Junction, Virginia, twenty-five miles away, where General P. G. T. Beauregard had encamped his Rebel army, 25,000 strong. Beauregard, a Louisiana Creole, was just then the South’s most popular hero—perhaps as much for his dark handsomeness as for the part he had played in the capture of Fort Sumter. He and McDowell had been classmates at West Point, Beauregard finishing second of forty-five in the class of 1838; McDowell, twenty-third. Success of the Union movement against Beauregard would hinge, McDowell foresaw, on the ability of a Union army at Harpers Ferry, some fifty miles up the Potomac River from Washington, to prevent General Joe Johnston’s 12,000 Confederates in the Shenandoah Valley from reinforcing Beauregard.
Lincoln’s Cabinet approved the plan on June 29, and the advance was scheduled for July 8. One frustrating delay after another, however, forced McDowell to postpone the movement. Now, on the evening of July 16—the day the advance actually got under way—McDowell himself was reduced to inquiring at the railway station for two missing batteries of artillery. His staff, he ruefully explained to Russell, was too busy to attend to such details. Russell accepted from McDowell a lift to his lodgings, and on the way the harried general told him that he had made plans for correspondents to accompany the Union Army to Manassas. But, he suggested, all newspapermen should wear white uniforms “to indicate the purity of their character.”
On the afternoon of July 16, the Union Army had marched out of its camps near Alexandria—bands blaring martial music, unsullied banners fluttering gaily in the breeze. Standardization of uniforms had yet to be applied; and the uniforms of different outfits, reflecting individual taste and local pride rather than national identification, provided brilliant blocks of color. The men knew little enough about marching. Their officers, almost to a man, knew nothing about moving such a large body of troops from one place to another. Lines stretched out and closed up in convulsive, accordion-like twitches. Often men in the front were halted endlessly in the sun, while those in the rear jogged up at double-time to close lengthening gaps.
The exuberant spirits of these farmers and mechanics of the North—citizens all, sovereigns in uniform—simply could not be curbed. They broke ranks on the slightest pretext, stopping to drink from an inviting brook, pick blackberries along the roadside, or merely lounge in the shade. Impromptu foraging parties were launched against nearby chicken coops; and any Virginia farmer wavering between union and secession must have found the decision made easier by the unbridled antics of these invaders from the North. One captain in kilts was wildly hailed by his men for leading a squad in a breathless chase after a pig that left him hung up and somewhat exposed on a fence.
Two and one-half days after starting, the Union Army reached Centreville. Jt had covered a little more than twenty miles.
Bisecting the six-mile distance between Centreville and Manassas Junction was Bull Run, a small, sluggish stream with steep and rocky banks, easily fordable at several points. The broken, thickly wooded terrain rose on either side of the stream into open, gently rolling countryside. Beauregard had deployed his forces on the southern bank, along some ten miles of Bull Run’s serpentine loops—from Union Mills on the right, past Blackburn’s and Mitchell’s fords at the center, to the stone bridge—where the Warrenton Turnpike from Centreville crossed the stream—on the left. The Confederate commander was about to sit down to dinner on July 18 when a stray Federal shell dropped unceremoniously into the fireplace of his headquarters farmhouse near Blackburn’s Ford to announce the arrival on his front of his West Point classmate.∗
∗The owner of the house, Wilmer McLean, subsequently sold his property to move to a safer locality, some seventy miles southwest of Richmond. Nearly four years later the war would once more surge up to his doorstep. It was in the parlor of McLean’s second house, at Appomattox Court House, that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant.
McDowell quickly broke oft the initial demonstration at Blackburn’s Ford and concentrated his entire force at Centreville. The Confederates dignified this indecisive skirmish on July 18 by calling it the Battle of Bull Run. The principal clash, three days later, was always to be known in the South as the Battle of Manassas, and only in the North as Bull Run.
Beauregard had already asked Richmond tor reinforcements, and his plea had been relayed to Joe Johnston in the Shenandoah Valley on July 18. Leaving 1,700 invalids at Winchester, Virginia, Johnston got 9,000 of his men through Ashby’s Gap and onto trains for Manassas. It was the first demonstration, in this or any war, of the importance of a troop movement by rail. Effectively screening Johnston’s movement from the Union commander who was supposed to detain him in the Valley was the cavalry of Colonel J. E. B. Stuart. In the vanguard of Johnston’s force was a Virginia brigade commanded by a stern, God-fearing former instructor at the Virginia Military Institute—Thomas J. Jackson.
The Union attack, scheduled for Sunday morning, July 21, called for an initial feint at Blackburn’s Ford, toward Beauregard’s right, followed immediately by a second diversionary effort at the stone bridge by 8,000 men of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler’s First Division. While the enemy’s attention was riveted on these actions, McDowell proposed to take the 12,000 men of the Second and Third Divisions, led by Colonels David Hunter and Samuel P. Heintzelman, on a circuitous route to Sudley Springs Ford, about three miles above the bridge. This force was to cross Bull Run and fall upon the unprotected Confederate left flank. As the attack swept down the Southern-held bank of Bull Run, the enemy was expected to roll back, opening the way for Tyler’s men to cross all along the line. More than 10,000 troops, almost a third of McDowell’s army, were to be kept in reserve in and around Centreville.
McDowell’s plan was, essentially, a good one. But for an amateur army, led by inexperienced officers, it was plainly too elaborate and involved too many risks. It called for clock-like co-ordination of widely separated units, and McDowell’s staff organization was virtually nonexistent. Also, it did not take into account the possible reinforcement of Beauregard on the eve of the battle.
Joe Johnston and the first contingent of his men from the Shenandoah Valley reached Beauregard at Manassas about noon on Saturday, July 20. Growing restless over McDowell’s failure to attack, Beauregard formulated an offensive plan of his own—and this he presented to Johnston, who quickly approved it. Though senior in rank, Johnston agreed to give field command to Beauregard because of the latter’s familiarity with the terrain, but he retained over-all command of the army for himself. The Confederate battle plan was curiously similar to McDowell’s in that it hinged on a thrust against the enemy’s left. Had both plans been put into operation successfully, the armies might well have swung completely around in the manner of a revolving door. As it came about, success was to fall to the commander who failed to execute his plan. Back in Washington, excitement over the impend- ing clash was mounting. Russell, determined not to miss the fight, was combing Washington livery stables for horses and a rig to take him to Virginia, but prices rose with each new report from the front. The reporter was outraged when one man asked $1,000 for a spavined bay. “Take it or leave it,” the man told Russell. “If you want to see this fight a thousand dollars is cheap. I guess there were chaps paid more than that to see Jenny Lind on her first night, and this battle is not going to be repeated, I can tell you.” Reluctantly, Russell paid an exorbitant price for a two-horse gig and prepared to set out at dawn for Bull Run.
Shortly after two o’clock on that Sunday morning, July 21, McDowell had his sleepy men roused and formed for the movement into battle. Once again this force demonstrated its seemingly limitless incapacity for organized movement. Colonel Heintzelman never found the road he was to take and was forced to follow blindly in Hunter’s path. Not until after 9 A.M. did the first Union brigade, commanded by Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside, reach Sudley Springs Ford.
At that hour William Howard Russell had just crossed the Potomac and was beginning to enjoy this early morning spin through the pleasant Virginia countryside. “The promise of a lovely day, given by the dawn, was likely to be realised to the fullest,” he later recalled of that moment, “and the placid beauty of the scenery … breathed of peace.” His reverie, however, was shortly interrupted by the sound of firing. “They are at it,” he shouted to his driver. “We shall be late! Drive on as fast as you can.”
Soon after, Russell stopped at a farmhouse to gather information and inquire for directions. His attention was suddenly directed to a cloud of dust on the road in front of him. Out of it slowly materialized a large body of laughing, chattering men, moving in twos and threes down the road away from the sound of firing. It was the 4th Pennsylvania Regiment. The correspondent stopped one of its officers. “May I beg to know, sir, where your regiment is going to? … I should think there is severe fighting going on behind you, judging from the firing. …”
“Well, I reckon there is,” the officer replied. Then, after a long pause, he added by way of explanation: “We are going home because, as you see, the men’s time’s up, sir. We have had three months of this sort of work, and that’s quite enough of it.” McDowell himself had pleaded with this regiment to stay on for the battle, but, its ninety-day term of service expiring on July 20, the 4th Pennsylvania had simply walked away. This was Russell’s first experience with the volunteer soldier on the field, and he was frankly horrified.
The firing had been going on since early morning. Tyler opened his showy feint at the stone bridge at 5:15 A.M. , but the Confederates across the bridge, under the calm and efficient command of Colonel Nathan G. Evans, correctly interpreted this for the diversionary effort it was. Meanwhile, Evans was watching the suspicious clouds of dust rising far to his left. About 8 A.M. he realized that a major effort would shortly be made to turn his left flank. Precisely according to the regulations of the book, he notified the commander to his immediate right that he was abandoning his position and within an hour had about half his men concealed in the woods facing Sudley Springs Ford.
The first Union troops across Bull Run, Burnside’s Rhode Islanders, debouched out into the open, where they were easy targets for Evans’ waiting Rebels. The division commander, David Hunter, was almost immediately felled by a sharpshooter’s bullet. McDowell was present, but he was being forced to spend more time than he should have in attending to petty details. In addition, a digestive complaint this morning made it impossible for him to mount a horse. And so he careened about the battlefield executing the functions of an aide-de-camp from the seat of a carriage. It was a distinctly uninspiring sight to his men.
The Confederate commanders, Johnston and Beauregard, had more correctly selected an observation post, one overlooking Mitchell’s Ford, where they hopefully expected the development of the battle they had planned. Not until nearly 11 A.M. did they realize that the battle on their right was never going to proceed according to plan. Johnston quickly made some final disposition for reinforcements and set off for the scene of developing action beyond the Warrenton Turnpike. Mounting the first of four horses he was to exhaust that day, Beauregard joined him without a word. After they had surveyed the situation, Johnston agreed to return to the rear to send reinforcements, and Beauregard took up front-line command.
McDowell, his flanking movement no longer a surprise, had wisely doubled up his troops to get Heintzelman’s division on the field alongside that of the fallen Hunter and thus overlap the Southern defensive line. It was one of the last clear command decisions of the day. Henceforth the men would be fighting almost as individuals. The battle drill by which a regiment of ten companies moved from column to line was complicated enough when practiced on the drill field in camp. On the field, with woods and gullies separating these units, with shouted orders lost in the din of gunfire, such intricate movements were all but impossible for poorly trained men. The commander of a Vermont regiment saw his force disintegrate when he attempted to move them from one place to another. To get them off the field, he ordered a right-face past enemy artillery and another right-face to go to the rear. Apparently, the command of about-face had slipped his mind.
Two competent U.S. Regulars, Captains Charles Griffin and J. B. Ricketts, whipped their batteries of artillery onto the scene and, supported by a regiment of zouaves, took up an advanced position near the Warrenton Turnpike. Their advance was largely responsible for the initial success of McDowell’s flanking movement. The Confederates reeled back across the Turnpike to take up an uneasy defensive position on Henry House Hill.
Evans’ makeshift defense against McDowell’s attack had been strengthened by the Confederate brigades of Bernard Bee, F. S. Bartow, T. J. Jackson, and the 600 men of Hampton’s Legion, privately recruited and outfitted by South Carolina’s immensely wealthy Wade Hampton. Pushed back across the Turnpike, these intermingled units had hastily formed an uneven defensive line about the Henry house. Bee, realizing that his men were on the verge of retreat, pointed to the hill where Jackson’s brigade was stoutly resisting the Federal sweep. “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall,” he was later reported as crying. “Rally on the Virginians.” And a name and a tradition were born. Yet it seemed at that hour that the Southern cause was irretrievably lost.
Russell had reached Fairfax Court House by 11 A.M. En route to Centreville, six miles further on toward the front, he experienced a little of the frustration that had earlier plagued McDowell in finding his way about this section of tangled Virginia countryside. The fields and forests of the region were interlaced with a network of narrow country lanes, all appearing identical to the British journalist. But somehow, by 1 P.M. , he managed to reach his destination. The Russell carriage pulled up alongside a crowd of eager spectators on a hill near Centreville overlooking the valley of Bull Run. This was a holiday outing for senators, congressmen, and their ladies, who had brought picnic lunches.
Below the hill stretched a densely wooded vista of some five or six miles. The woods echoed with cannon fire, and tatters of blue smoke drifted lazily over the trees. Through them, Russell detected the twinkle of sun striking bayonets. He joined the group of spectators. A lady with opera glasses shouted loudly at each discharge of cannon: “That is splendid. Oh, my! Is not that first rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow.” Another bystander asked Russell’s professional opinion: “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.” A soldier borrowed Russell’s flask and took “a startling pull, which left little between the bottom and utter vacuity.” The Times of London was not amused.
After lunch an officer rode up to tell them that the Federals were sweeping the field. This brought a series of cheers; and the politicians shook hands around, exclaiming, “Bully for us. Bravo, didn’t I tell you so.” Russell’s practiced eye was not satisfied with the distant view from the hilltop, however, and secondhand reports were of little value to him. Mounting the saddle horse he had brought for this occasion, he jogged down the hill for a closer look.
Russell, of course, was still far to the rear, completely ignorant of the action raging in the early afternoon around Henry House Hill. Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman, commanding a brigade of Tyler’s division, had been posted above the stone bridge since early in the morning and had finally got his men across a previously undetected ford to add new muscle to the Federal attack on the hill. Here the Union batteries of Griffin and Ricketts seemed to have command of the situation. The Rebel defenders hung on desperately; but McDowell’s army was on the brink of success. Then, in a moment of confusion, the Union’s hope of ending the rebellion with one quick stroke was shattered forever.
Out of the woods in front of the Union artillery appeared a blue-clad regiment, its battle flag hanging limply in the still air of this oppressively hot day. There was no clear battle line in this fight, and the Federals held their fire for fear of killing their own men.
The unit—it was the 33rd Virginia Regiment of Jackson’s brigade—advanced to within seventy yards and then calmly let loose a deadly volley that destroyed the Union position. Ricketts was wounded and captured; Griffin was forced to abandon his guns and retreat. The ground he left behind, a Confederate artillery officer noted after the battle, “looked as though it had been rooted up by hogs.”
This was not the only case of mistaken identity on the field that day. At about this hour, Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was coming to the aid of the nearly overwhelmed Confederate defenders of Henry House Hill. Seeing a dispersed group of men, he called out: “Don’t run, boys; we are here.” A vagrant wind stirred their lifeless banner; it was the United States flag, and Stuart hastily ordered a charge that sent these men flying and checked the Union advance on Jackson’s hard-pressed men. (Earlier in the day, Sherman had sent forward the and Wisconsin, proudly outfitted in natty gray uniforms. The men soon came scurrying back: they were being fired on by other Union troops.)
The overthrow of their batteries on Henry House Hill was the beginning of the end for the Union that day. Fresh Confederate soldiers under Jubal Early and Kirby Smith—the latter being the final detachment of Johnston’s men from the Shenandoah Valley—reached the field about 3:30 P.M. to pound in the sagging Union right. Burnside’s Rhode Islanders, having engaged in the initial skirmish at Sudley Springs that morning, had been out of action for six hours, lounging in the shade and waiting for orders that would send them back into the fight. When the order came, about 4 P.M. , the Union line had disintegrated. There was no battle to which they could return.
This was no rout. Men on both sides, exhausted by the long and arduous struggle, were simply leaving the field by twos and threes, discussing among themselves the fortunes of the day. Jefferson Davis, arriving very late in the afternoon, was appalled at the number of Southern stragglers coming to the rear. But the men paid no attention whatsoever to the tall civilian on horseback who attempted to rally them. There was little chance of pursuing the Federal army. His Confederate force, Joe Johnston would one day sadly recall, “was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat.”
McDowell’s order to withdraw, when it came, was utterly superfluous. The decision, he noted in his official report of the battle, “had been anticipated by the troops.” Back they came, splashing across the now uncontested fords of Bull Run and crowding onto the Warrenton Turnpike that led to Centreville. In the process, unit organization broke down completely; and McDowell’s army became just so many individuals scrambling to save themselves. A New York boy complained of the sporadic Southern artillery that harassed the retrograde movement: “Captain,” he asked, “why do the rebels keep shelling us when we’re doing our best to leave them alone?”
The correspondent of the London Times had meanwhile traveled on horseback some distance beyond the hill at Centreville and toward the fighting at Bull Run. Suddenly he perceived several wagons coming toward him at a reckless speed. At first he thought they must be returning from the field for fresh supplies of ammunition. But, as the traffic grew thicker, he began to realize that something was wrong.
“What is all this about?” Russell politely inquired of an officer. “Why it means we are pretty badly whipped, that’s the truth,” the man gasped before rushing off. Displaying righteous indignation, Russell attempted to interfere with a driver going so fast that he was losing all his baggage. A loaded musket was pointed at his head, and the Britisher gracefully withdrew his protest. “My attempts to save Uncle Sam’s property were then and there discontinued,” he later wrote.
The road now was choked with carts, wagons, straggling foot soldiers, and mounted officers. Those returning from the field had pushed up against those still en route to the battle, and there was a hopeless, inextricable snarl. A stray burst of Rebel artillery upset a wagon on the Cub Run bridge between Bull Run and Centreville, and the traffic jam became complete.
To men who repeatedly asked him where the army would halt, Russell calmly replied “Centreville”—it seemed a logical rallying point to this veteran observer, as long as anyone was interested in his opinion. Although his personal sympathies were undoubtedly with the Union, the correspondent was here motivated by a dislike of military incompetence and a very strong conviction that the mounting panic was completely uncalled for. His military judgment was quite correct, at Centreville; it would have been possible for him to at Centreville; it would have been possible for him to hold this place and regroup his forces but for the senseless panic that swept through his retreating army.
Contributing greatly to this panic was the fear among the Union stragglers that they were about to be charged by the enemy’s Black Horse Cavalry, a Rebel bogeyman that had received a good deal of publicity. Russell pooh-poohed the notion of cavalry operating in this broken and crowded terrain. “There’s no enemy to pursue you,” he told a frightened group. “All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But there was little room for logic in this confusing situation. Seeing that he could accomplish nothing, Russell finally joined the irresistible tide flowing back to Centreville.
As yet, the epic proportions of the retreat were not apparent to him, and, beyond Centreville, he was thoroughly surprised to see the movement continuing unabated. Again assuming a knowledgeable air, he approached an officer. “I venture to suggest that these men should be stopped, sir,” he said. “If not, they will alarm the whole of the post and pickets on to Washington. They will fly next, and the consequences will be most disastrous.” The officer dashed forward to act on Russell’s proposal. Satisfied that a rout had been avoided, the reporter continued on to Washington. To a road companion ready to acknowledge defeat, he sharply retorted: “Oh, don’t say that … it’s not quite so bad, it’s only a drawn battle and the troops will occupy Centreville.”
Still exuding confidence, Russell passed over the Long Bridge and entered Washington by moonlight at 11 P.M.
Toward evening Lincoln had returned from his carriage ride to learn the bad news. At the War Department telegraph office he read the latest dispatch: “The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army. The routed troops will not re-form.” The President spent a sleepless night on a sofa in the White House Cabinet room. “If there were nothing else of Abraham Lincoln for history to stamp him with,” Walt Whitman later wrote, “it is enough … that he endured that hour, that day, bitterer than gall—indeed a crucifixion day—that it did not conquer him—that he unflinchingly stemm’d it, and resolv’d to lift himself and the Union out of it.”
Russell, that night, attempted to record his impressions of the day’s events. But his head drooped, and at last he fell sound asleep at his desk. At six the following morning he was awakened by the steady tattoo of rain on his window. A different sound, that of tramping feet, brought him out to the street. To his immense surprise, he saw a steady stream of mudspattered men, many without weapons, coats, or knapsacks, pouring up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. He asked a passing officer where these men were coming from and what was their destination.
“Well, sir,” the man replied, “I guess we’re all coming out of Verginny as far as we can and pretty well whipped too.” “What! the whole army, sir?” inquired the incredulous reporter. “That’s more than I know,” came the answer. “They may stay like that. I know I’m going home. I’ve had enough of fighting to last my lifetime.”
Stunned, Russell returned to his room. He had two alternatives: spend the day gathering more detailed information on the magnitude of the disaster, or immediately record his impressions of the previous day while they were still fresh in his memory. He chose the latter course and remained closeted the entire day, only occasionally glancing up from his desk to watch the dismal procession outside his window.
A great many preposterous claims would be made about this battle. Johnston, for instance, reported that 8,000 Rebels had defeated 35,000 Federals; Beauregard hinted that the Union force numbered 55,000. McDowell contented himself with saying that the enemy “brought up all he could …” Actually, the forces had been amazingly well matched. Each side managed to engage about 18,000 of its 30,000 available men. The official casualty lists also reflected a strange similarity. The Union lost 470 men killed to the Confederacy’s 387; 1,124 Northern soldiers were wounded to the 1,582 for the South. But 1,312 Federals were reported missing and presumed captured to the Rebels’ 13. More importantly, the Southerners picked up 28 fieldpieces, including eight badly needed rifled guns; 500 muskets with 500,000 rounds of ammunition; and scores of horses, wagons, and caissons abandoned by the fleeing Northerners. The casualty figures were modest in comparison with the bloody toll of later Civil War battles, but at the time they were sobering enough.
The South, of course, was exultant over its victory and confident that independence had been won. Johnston and Beauregard issued a high-blown congratulatory proclamation: “You have created an epoch in the history of liberty,” their men were told, “and unborn nations will call you blessed.”
The Northern press was forced to admit a defeat. But out of the ignominy of Bull Run came a new resolve to preserve the Union and a gradual realization that the struggle would be a long one. On July 23, Lincoln outlined a new program: The blockade of the Confederacy would be tightened; Maryland would be kept in the Union at all costs so as to prevent the isolation of Washington; and three-month militia would be replaced with long-term volunteers.
The excitement generated by Bull Run was slow in dying. Once the initial shock was over, press and public became anxious for the views of The Times ’ famous correspondent. “We scarcely exaggerate the fact,” commented the New York Times , “when we say the first and foremost thought in the minds of a very large portion of our people after the repulse of Bull Run was, What will Russell say?” They had a month to wait; for Russell’s story, published in London on August 6, did not reach America until August 20.
The report began with the frank admission that it was not an account of the action itself but merely the story of the retreat as Russell had observed it. This did not lessen the impact of one of the opening paragraphs, which read: … the repulse of the Federalists, decided as it was, might have had no serious effects whatsoever beyond mere failure … but for the disgraceful conduct of the troops. The retreat on their lines at Centreville seems to have ended in a cowardly route [ sic ]—a miserable, causeless panic. Such scandalous behaviour on the part of soldiers I should not have considered possible, as with some experience of camps and armies I have never even in alarms among camp followers seen the like of it.
In six and one-half columns Russell went on to tell of men “whom it were a disgrace to the profession of arms to call soldiers” running wild-eyed and frightened from battle. He criticized the baggage-wagon drivers as ignorant, declared inadequate the system of guards and pickets, and took a passing pot shot or two at the never-ending political interference in military affairs.
The reaction in the North to this frank dispatch was immediate and stormy. Friends warned Russell not to stray outside unarmed; one said he would not take a million dollars to be in his place. His mail was flooded with anonymous letters threatening him with tarring and feathering or death by revolver or bowie knife.
William Tecumseh Sherman, however, endorsed Russell’s report; the photographer Mathew Brady told him that his description of the retreat fell far short of the actual disgrace. And Irvin McDowell confided that “Bull Run was an unfortunate affair for both of us, for had I won it you would have had to describe the pursuit of the flying enemy and then you would have been the most popular writer in America and I should have been lauded as the greatest of generals.”
The press, on the other hand, was relentless in its condemnation of Russell. The Chicago Tribune flatly stated that he had not even seen the rout he described. The New York Herald accused him of being a Confederate agent who led the retreat. He became the subject of many spiteful cartoons that caricatured his tendency to plumpness and hinted that the entire story had been conjured up out of a bottle of London stout (see page 80).
But crudest of all was the epithet of “Bull Run” Russell which someone, he never knew who, pinned on him. This crude attempt to equate the unfortunate name of the battlefield with Russell’s imaginary flight from the scene of the action puzzled him as much as it hurt him. “The Americans,” he wrote, “seem to think that a disgrace to their arms becomes diminished by fixing the name of the scene as a sobriquet on me who described it.”
Russell’s position in Washington became increasingly untenable. He thought he detected a snub on the part of Lincoln early in September. The Times continued its strongly pro-Southern editorial policy. Russell’s frankness in reporting Bull Run cast doubt on his objectivity as a reporter. That fall the Trent affair, growing out of the seizure by a Federal officer of Southern emissaries to Europe aboard a British mail steamer, raised the threat of war between the North and Great Britain.
The following spring, at the invitation of Major General George B. McClellan, Russell applied for permission to accompany the Army of the Potomac down to Fortress Monroe at the outset of the Peninsular Campaign. At the last minute Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had him pulled off the steamer. It was the last straw. Two days later, on April 4, 1862, Russell engaged a berth on the very next ship leaving New York for England.
A year later, in 1863, Russell published his intimate reminiscences of what he had seen of the Civil War in a two-volume book called My Diary, North and South . It went virtually unnoticed in America, where once everything Russell wrote had been a national topic of conversation. This was a crucial year in the war—and people just then were talking about the Vicksburg campaign of Major General Ulysses S. Grant and the bitter three-day clash of arms at a Pennsylvania crossroads village named Gettysburg.