"Here's Your Mule," Part Four - On To Richmond!
Firing on Ft. Sumter officially started the Civil War, but Bull Run was the first time two armies clashed on purpose, each side with a (sort-of) plan. If Sumter was a preview of the unpredictability of this burgeoning kerfuffle, First Bull Run set the tone and attitude of the war – at least for a while.
It seemed simple enough, except to the people actually expected to make it happen.
After Sumter, the Union called for soldiers from the loyal states, some of whom actually sent them. Generals were often elected by their men or appointed for their political connections, so knowing what you were doing wasn’t really top priority at this stage. Men signed up eagerly for the good times to come – war was a mostly theoretical adventure, and defeating the silly South would be good times.
Plus, chicks dig soldiers. It may sound shallow – even sexist – but I know women 150 years later who still order stuff they don’t want from TV just so some buck in brown shorts will come to their door and ring their little bell.
Boys signed up because they believed women loved a man in uniform.
Different war, same hormones.
The uniforms in question weren’t standardized at this point – the war had barely started, and whatever militias existed were still local and small. Ladies’ auxiliaries would sew outfits for their fine lads, or existing stocks were raided for garb. When the noble volunteers had input, a surprising number demonstrated an affinity for flash and bling. Unlike today, city boys used to be shallow and prone to peacocking a bit.
The motley crew gathered in Washington, D.C., looked like a circus drug trip gone wrong – some were in red coats, some were in blue, others in whatever they had at home. A few regiments with pride in their Scottish heritage wore kilts and poofy hats, and at least one - the Zouaves - wore bright red M.C. Hammer pants. Can you imagine their marching song?
The plan was simple – march down to Richmond and stop the bad guys. Capture the capital of the so-called ‘Confederacy’, and we win! It's like chess, or capture the flag. Maybe even laser tag.
President Lincoln appointed Irvin McDowell to make this happen, but McDowell was skeptical about the supposed ease of such a mission. He’d done real war before, and was concerned about trying to send men into battle based on the harassment of impatient politicians and newspapers. He was famously reassured by President Lincoln, "You are green, it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike."
‘Green’, in this case, meant ‘inexperienced’ – new, not yet ripe. Like a banana.
Lincoln was technically correct, although his reasoning was questionable ("maybe if EVERYONE is confused the SAME, it will go really well"). He probably knew this, and made the decision pragmatically rather than idealistically. McDowell was under no obligation to join him in that mindset.
But when the President tells you to go have a war, you go have a war.
So, in mid-July 1861, some 35,000 men gathered outside the White House ready to go. They had weapons, a few rations, and in some cases even a little bit of training. Forward….!
Finally! Here we - wait, hang on. Why are we stopped? Excuse me, sir – why are we-
Wow, that fella on the horse yells loud! And if my momma heard that language... Hey, I’m thirsty, do you have any…? Yeah, me too. I wonder if there’s a –
Oh! Here we go! March! March! March! Mar- STOP! What now?
I’m sorry, does ANYONE know why we keep – hey, berries! You ever seen berries like this, Bo? Let’s eat ‘em; we aint’ getting’ nowhere anyhow. The we gotta find some water – I’m parched.
Bo, my stomach - oh Bo I gotta go, something about them berries...
Any teacher who’s ever attempted to lead a class from their room to the school Media Center only a few turns and one staircase away knows the chaos of such travel. It takes forever, it’s loud and disorganized, and you inexplicably lose people along the way.
Imagine marching them a hundred miles, fully equipped and armed, outside on a hot day – when they’ve never been asked to do anything like this before and aren’t particularly adept at taking orders.
What a mess.
The South had spies in Washington and probably in the military as well, but they were hardly necessary for this one. Between the sound, the dust, the chaos, and the media, Barnum & Bailey would have had better luck sneaking up on Richmond.
McDowell, having set aside his concerns, had a plan. He was going to fake to the right, attack hard on the left, flank the enemy, take Richmond, war over – here come the ladies and the glory.
Unfortunately P.G.T. Beauregard, our friend from the attack on Ft. Sumter, was waiting for him just outside of Richmond. He had a plan as well, once the Yankee oppressors arrived – fake to the right, attack hard on the left, flank the enemy. Once between the army and the capital, they’d have no choice but to surrender. War over – here comes the honor and the glory (and let’s use some discretion regarding the ladies).
That ‘green’ issue prevented such complex execution, otherwise the first major battle of the Civil War might have ended up going in circles, like a giant revolving door as each side rotated around the other indefinitely.
As it turned out, the men on both sides did well, all things considered. They mostly followed orders, mostly stayed and fought, mostly fired their guns before reloading them, etc. After two days of marching – or, in the South’s case, waiting – the battle so long-anticipated was an extended hell few had conceived.
Good thing they had 'grit'.
People were getting SHOT! IN THE BODY! Cannonballs were tearing off limbs, and bullets were splattering the brains of friends. Many bowels and bladders were emptied in those opening hours, and shame quickly gave way to survival instinct for some as this glorious adventure turned out to suck majorly. This was NOT GLORIOUS AND WHAT THE HELL THEY’RE TRYING TO KILL US ALL!
But most fought anyway. That's the glorious part, or the unforgiveable part - depending on your perspective.
I’ve never been in real battle, but surviving accounts suggest time can work at all different speeds during such conflagrations. It will race by blurrily while events within remain crisp, in fully textured slow motion. Hours pass in seconds, seconds take hours – you get the idea.
By early afternoon of that eternal flash of a day, both sides were exhausted, running out of everything, and confusion was beginning to give way to the sudden irrational concern this might go on forever, locked in eternal half-hell.
What no one could have anticipated was that very shortly, three things were going to happen to tilt this battle in favor of the Confederate Secesh. Two of them were completely unexpected, and none of the three were particularly 'normal' by any common definition.
But then, that’s how this war was going so far.
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 Five - Bull Run Goes South
RELATED POST: "Here's Your Mule," Part Six - Soiled Armor
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