Sunday, November 16, 2014

Longacre: "THE EARLY MORNING OF WAR: Bull Run, 1861"

[The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861 by Edward G. Longacre (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) Hardcover, 12 maps, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:520/680. ISBN:978-0-8061-4498-6 $29.95]

First Bull Run isn't exactly a neglected topic. In addition to a pair of recent atlases by Bradley Gottfried and Blaikie Hines, quite a number of narrative histories have been published over the years, among them books by Robert M. Johnston (1913), Russel Beatie (1961 and 2002), William C. Davis (1977), John Hennessy (1989), JoAnna McDonald (1998), Ethan Rafuse (2002), and David Detzer (2004). However, the preceding are all small to mid-sized overviews, with Edward Longacre's The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861 truly the first attempt at the type of exhaustive modern treatment accorded so many Civil War campaigns and battles.

In keeping with a practice that's become de rigueur for books of this type, Longacre devotes a great deal of space (though quite a bit more than normal) to the biographical backgrounds and antebellum careers of the four army commanders involved in the campaign — Irvin McDowell and Robert Patterson for the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia and Army of Pennsylvania, respectively, and Confederate generals P.G.T. Beauregard (Army of the Potomac) and Joseph E. Johnston (Army of the Shenandoah). While so much ink spilled on the Old Army experiences of these men doesn't exactly pay off in terms of insights into how they would perform at Bull Run, it is important to understand how each found their way to high command (especially for McDowell, who was a junior officer and unexpected choice to lead the nation's premier army in the field). That Patterson is presented at length, and as a fully fleshed out historical figure rather than caricature and object of ridicule, is one among many of the book's more refreshing aspects.

With the Bull Run battle not commencing until the book's midpoint, the Shenandoah confrontation between Patterson and Johnston gets coverage roughly equal to that of Union campaign preparations in Washington and the Confederate military buildup at Manassas. The book perceptively treats its subject as a two-pronged Northern Virginia Campaign rather than a Bull Run primary operation with a supporting action in the Shenandoah. General in Chief Winfield Scott deemed it so, at least initially before his overall direction became entirely muddled. The only treatment of Patterson that rivals Longacre's in detail and analysis is the one by Russel Beatie contained in The Army of the Potomac: Birth of Command, November 1860-September 1861 (2002). Like Beatie and David Detzer before him, Longacre feels that Scott deserves more of the blame for Patterson's failure to hold Johnston in place. Patterson's timid performance cannot be dismissed (and it isn't) but Scott's unclear orders, including his constant admonitions to move with extreme caution and threats to take away Patterson's best troops, might erode the confidence of any early war army general inexperienced in independent command.

For Bull Run, fine accounts of the major fighting at Blackburn's Ford, Matthew's Hill, and Henry Hill already exist, and how much Longacre's own meticulous rendering of events enhances our deeper understanding of the battle is largely a matter of degree, alterations in detail here and there but no major rearrangement of the character of each engagement. That said, the quantity and variety of first hand perspectives populating Longacre's narrative exceeds that of any prior work by a wide margin. The amount of research material amassed by the author during his decades long search is astonishing. The bibliography alone is 70 tightly packed pages in length, with the number of unpublished document collections consulted approaching 500.

Tactical discussion is generally conducted at the appropriate regimental and battery scales, with frequent diversions describing action at the lower battalion, company, and section levels. In common with other Bull Run studies, Longacre's narrative emphasizes the piecemeal nature of the fighting (especially for McDowell, who carried the operational and tactical burden of attack) as well as the extreme difficulty both sides experienced in determining friend from foe on the battlefield. Longacre's account of the decisive Henry Hill phase of the battle certainly deserves consideration as the finest yet written.

Throughout The Early Morning of War, Longacre dutifully addresses the many myths and misconceptions surrounding the battle. The author disputes the conventional view that the railroad necessarily comprised a key component in Confederate victory, citing the inadequate equipment, poor track beds, and general mismanagement of the Manassas Gap Railroad as well as the fact that Johnston's entire command could conceivably have marched the full distance to Manassas in the same or shorter period of time that the portion that participated in the July 21 fight did (though he perhaps underestimates the fighting condition the men might have been in upon arrival). Every Bull Run study is obliged to offer an opinion on the famous "Stonewall" incident and Longacre does not come down firmly on whether Bee intended his now immortal words as positive or negative toward Jackson, though he is more amenable than most to the negative connotation. Regardless of Bee's opinion, it would be difficult to make a case against the the Virginian's defensive arrangements (though Detzer was game to try in Donnybrook), which anchored the Confederate left throughout the afternoon and made victory possible. The popular myth that a huge crowd of politicians and other civilian onlookers picnicked near the battlefield and disrupted the retreat has already been dispelled and the author briefly offers his own conclusion that only around 80 gawkers were present and they were largely gone (Congressman Ely a major exception, of course) by the time panic ensued. On the matter of the disastrous squandering of Griffin's and Ricketts's batteries atop Henry Hill, recent reinterpretation of these events has cast doubt on Charles Griffin's self serving testimony that his superior, Major Barry, ordered him not to fire on advancing Confederates, mistaking them for supports. According to Longacre, no evidence of this conversation exists beyond Griffin's claim. Every Bull Run history includes the tragic exchange and it may very well  rank high among the many examples of Civil War storytelling gold passed on uncritically by succeeding generations of scholars.

Longacre's coverage of the immediate aftermath of the battle is also strong. His account of the Confederate pursuit is the best one this reviewer has encountered in the Bull Run literature. From the high level of unit and command disorganization present in the winners, as well as the lack of logistical support necessary for continued operations, it becomes pretty clear that Confederate fantasies of following up their victory with the capture of a large proportion of McDowell's fleeing army or Washington itself were just that. The interpretation that the Union defeat at Bull Run was less of a disaster and more of a much needed wake up call to the enormity of the task at hand has gathered momentum in recent times and Longacre expresses support for this idea. In terms of omissions, post battle allegations that Union dead were mutilated by vengeful Confederates is a point of contention not addressed in the book.

Depicting the action at regimental level, the battle maps support the text's similar scale well, though a few more detailing the fighting around Henry Hill were needed. In terms of a wish list, the orders of battle might have been fleshed out more given existing resources.  Also, in terms of expansive source discussion, the endnotes are a bit spare.  Contrasting views on familiar topics are certainly noted in the main text and notes, but one cannot help but think that more could have been done to appease the more obsessive student of the campaign. Undoubtedly, creeping page length for a study already pushing 700 pages had a hand in limiting the explanatory nature of the notes.

But really, the above wishes and complaints are only nitpicks in the overall scheme of things. With its exhaustive research and fullest single volume rendering yet of the military and political dimensions of the 1861 campaign in Northern Virginia, The Early Morning of War is clearly the new standard bearer of Bull Run studies.

More CWBA reviews of OU Press titles:
* Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. Thanks for such a excellent review. It really hits all the highpoints.

    I'm still picking my way through the book. It really is quite tremendous.


    1. Hi Chris,
      If I had to pick which campaigns hold the most interest for me, it would be Shiloh for the West and FBR for the East. Hard to believe we are getting major studies for both at around the same time!

    2. Thanks for the reply.

      I find it wonderful that some of my favorite campaigns to study are getting this major attention.

      I can't wait to read Smith on Shiloh and Powell on Chickamauga.

      I also meant to add in my original post that if they are giving out Fletcher Pratt Awards for best Civil War Book of the year Longacre's First Bull Run should be at the top of the list.


  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Harry! I am looking forward to reading your commentary about it on your site.


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