Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Hennessy: "THE FIRST BATTLE OF MANASSAS: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition"

[The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition by John J. Hennessy (Stackpole, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, orders of battle, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:171/215. ISBN:978-0-8117-1591-1 $19.95]

The Battle of First Bull Run (or Manassas) has attracted the interest of a good number of scholars and writers over the years. In addition to a small handful of useful atlases and guidebooks, major campaign and battle works have been published on a fairly regular basis over the past 150-plus years. Robert M. Johnston's still interesting Bull Run: It's Strategy and Tactics (1913) had the limelight for decades until William C. Davis's classic Battle at Bull Run (1977) assumed the mantle of the new standard treatment. Succeeding campaign histories — Ethan Rafuse's A Single Grand Victory (2002), David Detzer's Donnybrook (2004) and Edward Longacre's The Early Morning of War (2014) — all have heightened our understanding of the momentous event's many leadership, military, political and social dimensions. But for a pure tactical treatment John Hennessy's 1989 book The First Battle of Manassas has always stood apart. Expanded, improved and essentially rewritten, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861 Revised Edition only enhances its already widely appreciated status.

Among the works mentioned above, Hennessy's is the one most closely focused on the battle itself, which began with a reconnaissance-in-force at Blackburn's Ford on July 18 and ended with the climactic struggle atop Henry Hill on July 21. Other books go into far more depth on army organization, the backgrounds of key leaders, the role of General Winfield Scott in the planning and conduct of the campaign, the Shenandoah wing of the northern Virginia operation under Robert Patterson, and the approach march to Bull Run. The jewel of Hennessy's book is its description and analysis of the fighting on Henry Hill and it really is unmatched. The Union commander, General Irvin McDowell, had 15 fresh regiments available to crush Henry Hill's Confederate defenders yet never more than two attacked at the same time. The ubiquity of friendly fire incidents and general inability to differentiate friend from foe affected seemingly every tactical exchange. The piecemeal attacks quickly exhausted the fighting power of the raw Union regiments, leaving McDowell with no reserve to confront the steady stream of Confederate reinforcements that eventually forced the federal army to exit the field (initially in reasonable order but later in a panic). In Hennessy's narrative there are no sea changes to existing interpretation but the clarity in the telling is exceptional. No reader will be left confused about the sequence of events and where they occurred. The new edition's fresh set of battlefield and troop movement maps certainly helps in that regard.

Much has been made of the infamous midday lull after Union success at Matthews Hill being the critical turning point in the July 21 battle. The shift in tempo allowed Confederate reinforcements to arrive in time to turn the tide but Hennessy's account clearly demonstrates that, even after the two hour delay, McDowell still had plenty of good opportunities to achieve victory. The great length of the pause remains largely inexplicable, but Hennessy views the situation in the context of inexperienced professional officers and amateur armies not grasping what "victory" meant in the immediate aftermath of the disorderly Confederate withdrawal from Matthews Hill.  The Confederate left had been bruised and turned, would they then fly? Was a face to face slugging match even part of McDowell's plan? Would it be best for the green Federals to arrange a strong defensive line and invite a Confederate counterattack. All of these were questions that needed to be answered. What seems unconscionable was McDowell's failure to come up with any kind of coordinated plan once it became clear that further fighting was necessary (but is that a fair criticism at this earliest of stages in the conflict?).

Hennessy does not address Edward Longacre's recent questioning of the truth behind the famous verbal sparring between Union battery commander Charles Griffin and his superior Major Barry that led to the loss of Union guns on Henry Hill. He does, however, share with Longacre a high regard for the battlefield accomplishments of the Hampton Legion, its brilliant performance against long odds unfairly overshadowed by the stand of Jackson's brigade. Speaking of Thomas Jackson, some Bull Run authors remain oddly open to the idea that Barnard Bee's immortalization of Jackson with the "Stonewall" sobriquet was not at all intended to be complimentary. By tracing the timing of the event and examining the existing primary sources, Hennessy can find no justification for any level of equivocation on the matter. Author David Detzer's attempt to sharply minimize the impact of Jackson's brigade at Bull Run is similarly misguided. While Hennessy makes it clear that Jackson's rock solid defense of Henry Hill did not win the battle for the Confederates, it clearly made later victory possible.

In addition to the fighting at Blackburn's Ford, Matthews Hill and Henry Hill, the book's account of the Confederate pursuit is quite good, in the same class as Longacre's. Citing the best evidence that the great majority of politicians and civilian onlookers had already left the field before general panic ensued, the author puts to bed enduring popular notions that an obstructive crush of spectators was a leading factor in causing the rout.

Hennessy's revisions encompass more discussion of the civilian experience as well as the medical crisis that arose in the aftermath of the battle, how the inexperienced medical corps of each side handled the shock of being confronted with larger than expected numbers of killed and wounded. One of Hennessy's most intriguing thoughts regarding the political aftermath of the battle surrounds the origins of the over-politicization of the Union's premier army. Three key Radical Republican leaders and future members of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War — Senators Benjamin Wade, Zachariah Chandler and Henry Wilson — were present at Bull Run and their anger and embarrassment over the defeat and retreat poisoned their trust in the eastern army and its leadership over the next two years.

When it comes to study of the First Bull Run battle, Hennessy remains king. Owners of the original should not hesitate to add the revised edition to their bookshelves and new readers will find equal delight in this repolished classic. Very highly recommended!

• For further discussion and more information about The First Battle of Manassas see my 12/9 interview with the author [here].

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent review.

    Wonderful book! I've loved his 'Return to Bull Run' ever since I read it back when the world was new but never could get my hands on a copy of his First Bull Run book. Received the revised book for Christmas and find it just as good as his other one. The story of First Bull Run told in such a clear, level headed, and moving manner. First rate really!

    Too bad the Fletcher Pratt Award doesn't include reprints because 'An End to Innocence' sure would have had to be considered



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