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“Bull Run” Russell
The first modern war correspondent won a nickname, much Northern ill will, and a lasting reputation out of his account of a famous battle
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
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.