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Reviewed by John Hennessy
By David Detzer
New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2004

Whether you refer to it as Manassas or Bull Run, you’ll want this book on the war’s first major battle.

The First Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas, holds an odd place in the nation’s historical mind. It grabs our attention because it was the first major battle of the Civil War, but we shun it for precisely the same reason. Full of the mayhem, confusion, illogic and public fascination that characterizes a generation’s first foray into battle, Bull Run was a curious spectacle that defies the geometric, clinical analysis that so many students of the Civil War adore. Subsequent events rendered the military significance of the battle minimal; without military significance, generations of historians and students of the war have concluded it had little significance at all (the Civil War is one era in which, in the popular mind, military significance is often the only benchmark of an event’s worthiness for study). But in Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2004, $28), author David Detzer elegantly embraces First Bull Run for what it was: a chaotic drama and a labo-ratory for war with immense social and political trappings. This is a good book.

With this work, Detzer establishes himself as the premier historian of the war’s first months, as Donnybrook follows his thoughtful and much acclaimed Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War. Detzer’s extensive knowledge of the early war period helps him illuminate the conflict’s first major battle in a way never before matched.

What makes this book work is not its battle narrative — though that narrative is thorough and by a wide margin the most thoughtful done on First Bull Run. Rather, Detzer seamlessly moves between the general and the specific, presenting details not for their own sake, but always to illustrate a larger point. He assiduously avoids the often pointless recounting of detail endemic to so many battle studies. In Donnybrook, context brings details into relief, details that illuminate the larger points Detzer seeks to make.

Detzer breaks new ground by daring to defend perennial whipping boy Union Maj. Gen. Robert Patterson, whom historians have universally held responsible for allowing Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to move his 11,000-man army to P.G.T. Beauregard’s aid at Manassas. In historians’ circles, dissing Patterson is akin to praising “Stonewall” Jackson — virtually inevitable. That’s largely because historians have uncritically accepted the conventional wisdom on Patterson. Detzer does not. The result is a provocative (though not unarguable) rehabilitation of the maligned Robert Patterson.

Detzer also sheds new light on overlooked aspects of the First Bull Run adventure. He offers a scathing assessment of the work of the Union army’s chief engineer, John G. Barnard, who bungled the effort to find a secure route for the Union flank march on July 21, 1861. Likewise, he provides an excellent critical analysis of the use of spies and intelligence on both sides, citing the almost comical lack of security and discretion. He concludes, rightly and contrary to popular belief, that Confederate authorities did not rely much on “pie peddlers or Rose Greenhow,” who according to legend passed critical information to the Confederates by bundling messages in her hair bun. Instead, Detzer offers, clever devices like embedded hair buns were far less useful than the mundane act of reading Northern newspapers.

If nothing else, First Bull Run was the stuff of legends: civilian observers, Stonewall Jackson, the charge of J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry on Henry Hill. Detzer takes on virtually every legend associated with the battle — not with mindless attempts at myth-busting, but with careful parsing of source material (in itself interesting) and measured description that once and for all sets the record straight on many fronts. Civilians did not swarm the battlefield, intermixing with warriors; Jackson earned his nickname later in the day and under much different circumstances than is usually presumed; Stuart’s charge had “little or no effect” on the flow of battle. Detzer makes no pretense of resolving every controversy, myth or mystery (the ebb and flow of fighting on Henry Hill remains something of a muddle, even after Detzer’s work), but skillfully presents what the source material suggests after careful consideration.

A few things elevate this book above others of its genre. Detzer’s characterizations of major players in the battle is outstanding. He presents the experience at Bull Run not just in the context of the war, but also in the context of key participants’ lives and personalities. Irvin McDowell, Patterson, Barnard Bee, Beauregard, Jackson, Johnston and a dozen others emerge as real and flawed people struggling with an event beyond their ability to control.

Just as the event was a generation’s introduction to war, Detzer uses the battle to give us a primer on war and soldiering. Useful and interesting interludes vividly describe the fundamentals of being a soldier: training, food, recruiting, organization, medicine and the noise, confusion and heartache of being in battle. As the soldiers learned, so too do readers — even those who fancy themselves already informed.

This thoughtful, innovative and accessible approach to history is supported by excellent research (much new or rarely used material appears in the footnotes), thoughtful and provocative analysis, and — most pleasing — outstanding prose. Uncommon is the book that succeeds on all three levels, and this one does. Unlike most writers of this genre, Detzer pays much attention to the rhythm of words and the use of language. The result: an elegantly written book that engages from first word to last.

The final word on First Bull Run may yet be written or, more likely, may never be, but in the interim David Detzer’s Donnybrook is first-rate history presented with great literary merit.