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Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews

Reviewed by Dan Monroe
By David Detzer

In Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861, retired history professor David Detzer returns to the battle that made plain the bloody intensity that was to characterize the Civil War in the Eastern theater. Caught up in a surging tide of Northern public opinion favoring aggressive action, typified by The New York Tribune‘s masthead slogan “Forward to Richmond,” Abraham Lincoln ordered Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell to take the offensive. Although inexperienced at handling large troop formations and worried by his men’s lack of training, McDowell complied. The result was a pitched battle near the rail junction at Manassas, Va., a bloodletting that Detzer reminds us cost more killed in action than the U.S. Army suffered landing at Omaha Beach in 1944.

Detzer challenges accepted interpretations of the battle and the events preceding it. For example, Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson, commander of Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley facing a Confederate army under General Joseph E. Johnston, is typically criticized for failing to prevent the transfer of Johnston and crucial reinforcements to Confederate forces at Manassas under General P.G.T. Beauregard. Other historians have characterized Patterson as superannuated, an elderly has-been incapable of offensive action. To the contrary, argues Detzer, Patterson was an offensive-minded officer and a vigorous, healthy man. The problem lay in confusing and contradictory orders that General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, the real superannuated warrior, sent to Patterson. Scott’s equivocal commands, cautioning Patterson against forward movement unless success was assured, curbed Patterson’s natural aggressiveness and allowed Johnston to slip to the east.

Detzer also dismisses the widespread belief that Washington politicians and dandies came to witness the battle and what they believed would be the certain defeat of the Southern army, feasting on picnic lunches and sipping champagne amid the carnage. Detzer argues that while it is true that a small number of congressmen and other civilians witnessed the battle, they did so because regiments composed of their constituents were on the march.

Amid Detzer’s narrative of the battle’s progress are pithy essays on the experience of soldiers in the war. He describes the awkward transformation of civilians into warriors, including their reaction to camp and army life. We learn the steps needed to load and fire a musket, and the horrors a wounded soldier might experience in a field hospital. Detzer offers plenty of battlefield excitement and gore while skillfully drawing on manuscript sources to create word portraits of officers and men.

He has an excellent command of the topography surrounding the stream called Bull Run, and conveys the confusion that enveloped the Virginia countryside as inexperienced troops on both sides grappled with each other. Similarities in the uniforms and flags of the opposing armies added to the chaos.

It is clear that much of the fault for the Union defeat must lie with McDowell, who experienced physical symptoms that suggest he buckled under pressure. Sleep-deprived and suffering from vomiting and diarrhea, probably brought on by stress, McDowell bungled his handling of the army, most notably in ordering a disastrous night retreat that turned a setback into a chaotic rout. President Abraham Lincoln also comes in for a measure of criticism from Detzer for yielding to howls from the press for a prompt drive on Richmond and for ordering McDowell forward with a still-green army.

Detzer’s indictment of Scott is convincing, but his defense of Patterson is less so. As Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan would do later, Patterson greatly overestimated the size of Johnston’s army. He misinterpreted the signs of Johnston’s moving his army east to assist Beauregard as reinforcements arriving to Johnston. If he was truly an aggressive commander, he ought to have kept Johnston pinned in the valley, orders or not.

Strangely, in a book that faults Lincoln, Detzer relies on aged biographies — Hay, Sandburg and Oates — rather than David Donald’s more recent Lincoln biography or Phillip Paludan’s history of the Lincoln presidency. Those quibbles aside, Detzer has written a fine book that engages the historiographer while giving the reader a heart-pounding account of the battle.

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