"Here's Your Mule," Part Five - Bull Run Goes South
By early afternoon on July 21st, 1861, the thrill of battle was wearing thin. Although troops on both sides had fought surprisingly well (given their ‘green’ status), few involved had really fathomed this ‘war’ thing prior to engagement. It was turning out to be far less entertaining than advertised.
After a long morning of roughly equal give and take, Union troops were beginning to push back the Confederates. Several critical lines were weakening. The handful of Northern generals with actual experience could feel the momentum shifting, and urged their boys on with renewed vigor.
And then it all turned. Dammit.
First, Confederate reinforcements arrived by train.
Through the smoke and haze of battle, the boys who would later be in blue could tell fresh troops were falling into place across the way. Those looking behind for their own reinforcements were… disappointed.
Sorry boys – we’re already all in. You’re it.
And… BY TRAIN?! It’s one thing to be whipped by Secesh, but having your butt kicked by irony is just cruel. Clearly the folks running this thing weren’t reading the same history books as my 9th graders, or they’d know the NORTH had the supposed advantage when it came to technology and transportation.
Follow the rules, people.
Second, Thomas Jackson was weird.
OK, he was already weird before the battle. A brilliant strategist, Jackson was nonetheless an unlikely leader of men. He was socially awkward, and his classes at Virginia Military Institute were notorious for their tedium.
He memorized each 90 minute lecture, and delivered it straight, without interruption. Students foolish enough to ask questions provoked only a pause before he’d begin again at the beginning – sometimes repeating the entire session the next class period if necessary. It wasn’t any more exciting the second time.
On the plus side, he received very few questions after those first few weeks. He must have been REALLY good.
Jackson was a Calvinist, and as such was no fun at all. Still suffering from the recent death of his daughter, he believed that overt mourning – like smiling – was a sign both of one’s own lack of self-control and an insult to an omnipotent God.
He knew in the core of his being that his fate had been written millennia before his birth. Nothing he or anyone else did could shake this. In battle, this meant that he moved without fear among his troops, even in the hottest melees. If this were his day to die, he would die – horseback or not, hidden or no. If it were not, nothing the enemy could do would hurt him. So… he did his duty, and thanked his god while so doing.
Jackson often held his left arm up, palm to the sky. Whether this was a spiritual gesture or an effort to balance his body’s fluids or magnetism (both common medical concerns of the day), it must have been quite a sight. Add to this his penchant for sucking on lemons (um… they’re GOOD for you) and the picture is complete – austere Thomas Jackson, riding into the storm, left arm raised and bright yellow rind showing just behind his pursed lips as he speaks voicelessly to himself or the Almighty.
It was THIS figure who confronted the men who’d begun to fall back in the face of superior firepower. Jackson didn’t yell, so his voice would have been raised only in order to be heard above the din. He told them to form a line and hold it.
This was not a revolutionary strategy. I don’t wish to get all technical, but “don’t run away” is often key to winning these sorts of things. Then again, so is “don’t get killed” – which is probably the one more on the minds of the men he’d encountered.
I don’t know if he dropped the lemon. History leaves us with so many unanswerables.
But Jackson – loveable or not – had presence. Gravitas. And the power of that confidence, that conviction, stirred up all that was noble and testosterony in men. They formed a line, and held it.
General Bee, who was not particularly weird OR inspiring, saw this from across the way and recognized its power. Knowing he couldn’t pull it off personally, he instead pointed it out to his men: “Look! There’s Jackson, standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”
And a great nickname was born. SO much better than ‘Lemon Face’ Jackson.
It’s possible, of course, that Bee was cursing Jackson. At least one account suggests something closer to “Holy $%#& - there’s Jackson just… STANDING there like a stone wall! *sigh* Alright boys, go rally behind the Virginians.”
Either way, we’ll never know, as dear General Bee was shot in the head moments later. Like I said, unanswerables.
Third, the rebel yell and misplaced balls.
First Bull Run was the first time Union troops would experience one of the more bone-chilling elements of the Civil War. This was possibly Jackson’s doing as well. (Hey, once you’ve got a cool nickname, anything is possible.)
As Sherlock Holmes famously intoned, when all other options have been eliminated, whatever’s left – however unlikely – must be the answer. In wartime this means when you can’t hold and you can’t retreat, you take the only choice left – full speed ahead.
Imagine you can’t see the enemy through the smoke drifting across the battlefield. Their fire has slowed, then sputtered out. At first you wonder if they’ve finally pulled back, but no - you hear distant voices, orders relayed up and down the line. Is that clanking? They wouldn’t be – surely not…
Then you hear it. A thousand angry banshees, crying out for your - OMGWHATTHEF%$#@?!?
Bursting through the smoke comes an onrushing wave of madmen, bayonets forward, screaming and charging and HOLY MOTHER OF – RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN!!!
It was apparently quite effective. People ran away from them lots when they did this.
The Union lines broke, and they began to retreat – not quite in panic, but certainly not in ideal military order. As they began to reach the main road back to Washington, they ran into civilians, with their carriages, picnic baskets, servants, and other folderol. They’d come to watch the festivities, along with reporters and others curious about the event.
Now they were all converging on the same road at the same time with the same confused urgency. It had the makings of a bad situation.
And yet, things remained relatively calm. Disorderly, to be sure – frustrating, and volatile. But there was no panic – at first.
Then a stray cannonball, fired from god-knows-where, somehow cleared the hill shielding them from the main part of the battlefield. It made no sense that it would be there, just then, but – well, that’s how things were going, weren’t they?
The ball struck a wagon or carriage of some sort and the pieces flew. Aaaannnnnnd… that did it. NOW there was panic.
All the way to Washington, where scattered troops and civilians hours later began dragging in exhausted, delusional, and terrified, proclaiming the end of civilization as the Rebel Menace was certainly hot on their heels, eagerly devouring the handful of survivors.
Your standard American History textbook will tell you the Union realized the War was going to be a bit trickier than they’d thought, and begin preparing more substantially. The South, on the other hand, felt validated in their assessment of the Yanks and suffered from overconfidence.
These are both partly true, which is the curse of simplifying history for curricular consumption – a necessary and pragmatic evil. I’d like to supplement this interpretation next time with two clips I use in class to complicate matters.
One even has a bunny.
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part One - North vs. South
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Two - Slavery & Sinners
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Three - That Sure Was Sumter
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Four - On To Richmond!
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Six - Soiled Armor
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Seven - Grant Me This