Nineteenth-century Centreville, Virginia, was hardly a place to inspire awe. One man wrote of it in July 1861, ‘It looks for all the world as though it had done its business, whatever it was, fully eighty years ago, and since then had bolted its doors, put out its fires, and gone to sleep. Yet on the night of July 20, 1861, the eyes of the world fixed on this bedraggled place some two dozen miles west of Washington, D.C. The valleys, woods, and fields around Centreville teamed with the largest assemblage of military might ever seen in the Americas. More than 30,000 Union soldiers shuffled nervously, sleepily in their camps, on the eve of the first major battle of the Civil War.

Among the military throng that night was John Taylor, an aspiring politician from New Jersey, who, like a few other civilians, had come out early from Washington to witness history. The future state senator watched the Union army assemble about 2:00 a.m. It was, he wrote, one of the most inspiring and impressive sights of my life time. From the fields on either side of Braddock Road and the Warrenton Turnpike, which ran east to west through Centreville, hundreds of soldiers tumbled from their camps and into column. Writing of the scene 32 years later, Taylor wistfully remembered that the cadence of the troops seemed to be measured by the unison of those hearts beating stoutly for their country’s salvation.

Taylor would soon have plenty of civilian company. As the Union army around Centreville stirred that July morning, Washington rumbled with an excitement rarely matched in the capital’s history. For months, the 19th-century equivalent of CNN had churned out news and speculation at a feverish pitch. Now, the day of the big battle had finally arrived. It was Sunday–the week’s only leisure day–and throughout the city, newspapermen, politicians, and common folk hunted up carriages for a trip to the front. Talk of the battle was everywhere, and many of the curious meant to see of it what they could. The sun rose over clots of civilian wagons heading westward out of the city, taking their passengers to witness what would surely be an unsparing, unequivocal Union victory.

Intending only to watch from the sidelines as history was made, these noncombatants were about to become part of the history and lore of the First Battle of Bull Run–part of an enduring legend that puts civilians at the center of some of the most chaotic moments in that first major battle of the war, regardless of what actually happened.

Only a handful of civilians were in Centreville early enough to watch the army march. Their numbers would swell by the hour to perhaps several hundred, and would include some of America’s luminaries: Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois, later Ulysses S. Grant’s sponsor; Senator Jim Lane of Kansas; future Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax of Indiana; Radical Republican Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts; Senator Benjamin F. Bluff Ben Wade, who would be the spiritual leader of the radical Committee on the Conduct of the War; and a handful more. Despite their lofty positions, few of them had any concept of the day’s battle plan as laid out by the Union army commander, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell. Once the army started to march, the civilian dignitaries, like the Confederates, would have to guess what would happen next.

There was, however, one civilian with special access to the army and its plans that day: Rhode Island’s 31-year old governor, William Sprague. Sprague was rich, cultured, ambitious, and eligible (he would later marry Washington’s foremost belle, Kate Chase, daughter of the treasury secretary). The governor took seriously his titular post as commander of the Rhode Island State Militia; he would attach himself this day to the brigade commanded by Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside.

The two Rhode Island regiments in Burnside’s brigade would lead the day’s featured Yankee movement: an arching march north and west to cross Bull Run creek above the Confederate left flank and the Stone Bridge, where the Warrenton Turnpike crossed the creek, almost five miles west of Centreville. Sprague had no intention of merely looking over his favorite general’s shoulder. Instead, he rode at the head of the column with Burnside, spurring forward occasionally to reconnoiter, and ultimately directing his constituents into tumultuous musketry fire on Matthew’s Hill, just north of the turnpike. Governor Sprague was foremost in the fight and inspired the men with coolness and courage, wrote one Rhode Islander. The governor had two horses shot from under him–probably the only sitting governor in American history to suffer that distinction.

Sprague and his Rhode Islanders prevailed that morning on Matthew’s Hill, driving the Confederates away in haste just as McDowell had envisioned. Of all this, however, the distant and growing pods of civilians near Centreville knew little.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon, steady streams of would-be spectators found their way to the heights at Centreville, fully five miles from the battlefield. They came in all manner of ways, wrote a Union officer, some in stylish carriages, others in city hacks, and still others in buggies, on horseback, or even on foot. Apparently everything in the shape of vehicles in and around Washington had been pressed into service for the occasion.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m., the most famous news correspondent on the field, William H. Russell of the London Times, crested the Centreville ridge. Russell recalled the slopes were covered with men, carts, and horses while spectators crowned the summit. To the west, a vast panorama lay before the audience: forest and field against the backdrop of the Bull Run Mountains, 15 miles distant. The civilian horde looked intently into the scene, but could divine little. Congressman Alfred Ely of New York, who had also just arrived, noted that the thick woods hid from our view all the troops, although the smoke of the battle was plainly seen, and the deep-throated roar of the artillery distinctly heard. Russell scanned the supposed battlefield intently with his glass, but, as he wrote in what would be the most famous recounting of the Bull Run disaster, I failed to discover any traces of close encounter or very severe fighting.

For most civilians present that day, the experience was less a visual feast than a forum for wanton speculation. Russell noted that they were all excited, especially one woman with an opera glass. She was quite beside herself when a louder-than-usual volley echoed from the distant battlefield. That is splendid, she exclaimed. Oh my! Is that not first-rate? I guess we will be in Richmond this time tomorrow.

A handful of soldiers made their way among the spectators, offering commentary and interpretation of the unseen battle beyond Bull Run. At one point, the crowd stood rapt when an officer galloped up the Warrenton Turnpike from the direction of the battlefield (credentials enough, apparently, for the spectators to assume his word reliable). He waved his cap and conveyed stunning news: We’ve whipped them at all points. We have taken their batteries. They are retreating as fast as they can, and we are after them.

The crowd atop the hill loosed a cheer that rent the welkin, said Russell. Congressmen shook hands. Bully for us! Bravo! Didn’t I tell you so? they exclaimed. To those perched safely on the heights of Centreville, it seemed the battle could not be going better.

For curious reporters and congressmen–many determined to record rather than speculate on the proceedings–the view from Centreville was simply not enough, so several ventured closer to get a better look. Without much idea of how the battle would unfold, many headed south toward Blackburn’s Ford, along Centreville-Manassas Road, where a preliminary fight had raged on July 18. On a ridge about a mile southeast of Centreville, Captain John Tidball had positioned his battery that morning–part of the force calculated to keep the Confederates’ attention away from the Union flanking column to the north. Tidball watched with some amusement as civilians thronged to his position, hoping to see or learn something momentous.

All manner of people were represented in this crowd, from [the] most grave and noble senators to hotel waiters, wrote Tidball. (Tidball noted tellingly, however, that he saw none of the other sex there, except a few huxter women who had driven out in carts loaded with pies and other edibles.) They pulled up with their carriages much as we do to a Saturday morning soccer game–strewing their vehicles along the roadsides. Once the shoulders of the road filled, the drivers pulled into the fields behind the battery, hitching their horses to bushes. All of them made a beeline to Tidball’s battery. I was plied with questions innumerably, sighed the captain.

Tidball spent as much time providing commentary as he did commanding his battery that day. Situated as he was on a secondary front far from the fighting, however, he could do nothing to satisfy his visitors. Most of the sightseers were evidently disappointed at what they saw, or rather did not see, recorded Tidball. They no doubt expected to see a battle as represented in the pictures.

The most distinguished of Tidball’s visitors was the troika of Senators Wilson, Wade, and Lane. Tidball recorded that all three were full of the ‘on to Richmond’ fever–impatient to see more of the battle than Tidball’s overlook offered. Lane, a Mexican War veteran, was particularly intent, declaring that he must have a hand in it [the battle] himself. When someone pointed out that he lacked a gun, he retorted, I can easily find a musket on the field. Lane led the trio on foot across the fields toward the Warrenton Turnpike, where a close encounter with battle (a victorious one, of course) seemed more likely.

Wilson, Wade, and Lane would indeed find a better vantage point–the best available to any of the Manassas spectators, and one available to only a select few. The senators’ cross-country trek would bring them to the Warrenton Turnpike at a spot about a mile east of the more-famous-by-the-minute Stone Bridge over Bull Run. There, a ridge overlooking the bridge and stream afforded the best view to be had of the battlefield, short of being in the midst of it. Beyond the bridge, variable crescendos of musketry and artillery fire rolled across the landscape; white smoke rose over the distant battlefield; and occasionally, a skittering line of battle was seen between the white billows.

During the battle’s early hours, only a small knot of civilians had managed to get to this place–a half-dozen reporters, the aspiring politico Taylor, the prominent Ohio judge Daniel McCook, and one of his sons. (McCook was scion of perhaps the Civil War’s most militaristic family; 16 of his kin would serve.) As word of the Union’s morning successes filtered back to Centreville, however, more civilians, like the senatorial triumvirate of Lane, Wade, and Wilson, trickled onto the ridge. Those who got to the overlook (which is today a huge quarry, hundreds of feet deep) were generally the well-connected and the literate: a half-dozen senators, a dozen representatives, and sundry other scribes and voyeurs, probably not more than 50 in all. Although these lucky few were but a fraction of the probably 500 civilians who ventured forth that Sunday to watch the battle, these were the men who would write of their experiences and thereby convey as typical an experience that properly belonged to only a few.

Most of these civilians arrived at the overlook fired by good news and optimism. Judge McCook had been there all day with his son Edwin, his carriage parked only a few hundred yards behind the battle line of the 2d Ohio, in which another of his sons, Charles, toiled as an officer. While the intensity of events beyond the stream rose during the day, the mood at McCook’s outpost was relaxed–so much so that he invited his officer–son Charles to leave his regiment and lunch with him.

By 4:00 p.m. the politicians had lost most of their inhibitions about involving themselves with military affairs. Congressman Washburne, who was present on the ridge, even took it upon himself to reconnoiter for Colonel Robert C. Schenck’s Ohio brigade at the bridge. Washburne spotted the enemy, then beseeched Schenck to take a look himself.

At the Stone Bridge–now in Union hands–New York Herald correspondent Henry Villard frantically asked directions to McDowell’s headquarters. No one could tell him, and the journalist watched in some puzzlement as the tide of blue-clad refugees along the Warrenton Turnpike grew. After 20 minutes, Villard spotted a familiar staff officer, and repeated his query for McDowell. You won’t find him, came the shocking response. All is chaos in front. The battle is lost. Our troops are giving way and falling back without orders. Get back to Centreville.

Not far from Villard and Washburne, Congressman Ely had likewise strolled down the road for a better look. When he had gone about 100 yards, a bullet struck the ground near him. The congressman dodged out of the road and found refuge with some others behind a tree, frozen, as he admitted, from fear of being shot if I moved. How long he remained there, he was unable to say. But it must have been nearly an hour–long enough for the situation around him to change dramatically.

About 5:30 p.m., Ely spotted a line of Confederate infantry emerging from a nearby wood. Two officers approached Ely and asked who he was.

Alfred Ely.

What state are you from? asked the officers.

From the state of New York, replied Ely.

Are you connected in any way with the Government? prodded the soldiers.

A Representative in Congress, answered Ely.

One of the officers grabbed Ely by the arm, stripped him of a pistol, and proclaimed him a prisoner. The two officers hustled Ely to their commander, Colonel E.B. Cash of the 8th South Carolina. When they announced the identity of their prisoner, Cash–a cantankerous old farmer who would fight one of the last lawful duels in America after the war–pointed his pistol at Ely’s head.

God damn your white-livered soul! screeched Cash. I’ll blow your brains out on the spot!

The junior officers quickly interceded: Colonel, Colonel, you must not shoot that pistol, he is our prisoner. Still enraged, Cash grudgingly stashed his pistol, and the South Carolinians hustled Ely to the rear. He would spend the next six months in a Richmond prison, a political prize tormented all the while by his captors. (Once released, Ely would do the thoroughly American thing and write a best-selling book about his ordeal.)

Atop the ridge, the remaining civilians sensed that the predicted triumph across Bull Run had unraveled. Soon, Confederate cavalry charged up the hill, cutting off Charles McCook–visiting his father yet again–from his regiment. The elder McCook watched in horror as his son fled along a fence line with a Confederate officer on horseback chasing him. Charles kept him most manfully at bay with his bayonet, wrote Judge McCook a few days later. The Confederate demanded the young McCook’s surrender. No, never; no, never to a rebel, Charles declared. The horseman circled around McCook and shot him in the back, and someone in turn shot the Confederate officer. Judge McCook gathered up the mangled body of his wounded son, placed him on a makeshift bed in his carriage, and started a mournful ride back toward Centreville. Charles McCook would die within hours.

The knot of dignitaries and reporters on the ridge overlooking Bull Run soon found themselves caught in the swirl of retreat. Washburne started rearward in his carriage, only to come across a wounded soldier. The congressman nobly gave up his seat to the man and started walking. Just moments later, he turned to witness an unnerving sight. I beheld a perfect avalanche pouring down the road immediately behind me, he wrote. It was the retreat of the army…. A perfect panic had seized every body. The soldiers threw away their guns and their blankets…. Officers, I blush to say, were running with their men.

London Times correspondent Russell arrived at Cub Run, an offshoot of Bull Run that intersects Warrenton Turnpike a few miles closer to Centreville, just in time to see the disaster unfold. His account would do more to shape the public–and historical–perception of the Union defeat than anyone else’s, and it was not a flattering narrative: The scene on the [Warrenton] road had now assumed an aspect which has not a parallel in any description I have ever read. Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses…. Negro servants on their masters’ wagons; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room, grinding through a shouting, screaming mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage…. There was nothing left… but to go with the current one could not stem.

John Taylor stood agape at the spectacle–dazed and confounded, he admitted. On either side of the road crowds of soldiers surged toward Centreville. So much had the men discarded that Taylor was certain he could almost have walked from the field to Centreville on bags of oats, bales of hay, and boxes of ammunition. But, Taylor wrote, the most startling aspect of the retreat was its hurry: Every one seemed after the honor of being the first man to enter Washington. Soldiers dashed at wagons to cut loose the horses, and with two on a horse, gallop off toward home. Lamented Taylor, Every sentiment of shame, and all sense of manhood was absent for the moment.

Intense urgency yielded to outright panic when the Confederates managed to get some artillery in range of the bridge over Cub Run. Amidst the gauntlet of shells, a Union wagon swerved and overturned on the bridge, forcing all who wished to cross into the water on either side. Ambulances, horses, cannon, and men were piled in one confused mass, remembered a Rhode Island artilleryman. Shells burst overhead as the Yankees rushed on, and soon the Rhode Islander shuddered at the sight of the upper half of a soldier’s body flying up the hill. With this, he admitted, A cry of mortal terror arose among the flying soldiers.

The scene at the Cub Run bridge was the defining event of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was into this scene (commonly mislocated to the Stone Bridge) that newspapermen, moviemakers, historians, and novelists injected civilians as central characters–frightened souls tossing aside picnics and parasols to infect the retreating army with panic. Yet, dozens of contemporary accounts make it clear that the panic was a military, not a civilian, event. No civilians were killed or wounded (as the moviemakers love to portray), and so few of them were present east of Cub Run that their presence was rarely if ever mentioned by the soldiers who did participate in the panic. That handful of civilians who had reached the ridge overlooking the Stone Bridge managed to recross the Cub Run bridge before the span was blocked and the true panic began. As Taylor asserted after the war, There is no truth whatever in the claim that civilians contributed to the panic.

Once across Cub Run, the panicked mob transformed into a discouraged flood, protected by a strong line of infantry and artillery just west of Centreville. Captain Tidball had by now moved his battery to the Warrenton Turnpike and watched as the bedraggled crowd flowed by. Tidball recognized his inquisitors of the morning, Senators Lane, Wilson, and Wade. Lane came by first, now mounted on a flea-bitten gray horse with a rusty harness on and wielding, sure enough, the musket he had promised to find. Not far behind Lane trundled Senator Wilson, hot and red in the face from exertion…in his shirtsleeves, carrying his coat on his arm. When he reached Tidball, Wilson (who would later briefly command the 22d Massachusetts Infantry, Henry Wilson’s Regiment) swabbed the sweat from his brow and growled, Cowards! Why don’t they turn and beat back the scoundrels?

And finally up the hill toiled Wade, without the strength to do anything but drag his coat on the ground behind him. Wrote Tidball, As he approached me I thought I had never beheld so sorrowful a countenance. Wade’s normally long face seemed still more lengthened by the weight of his heavy under-jaws…so heavy it seemed to overtax his exhausted strength to keep his mouth shut.

Such was the condition of most of the Yankees who had found their way to Bull Run that day. But the vast majority of civilians had not gotten near Bull Run, had not caught even a glimpse of a Confederate soldier, and were not panicked by a stumbling mob of frightened Union soldiers. When word of the disaster filtered back to the large gaggle of spectators at Centreville, most of them simply mounted their buggies or horses and headed back toward Washington, albeit with some urgency. One brief spasm of panic infected part of the fleeing horde, but generally the civilian departure was orderly. (Russell noted this sliver of panic, and therefore it became famous.) Some arrived back in the capital during the night, hundreds more the next morning–all of them with tales of woe and fright. The spectacle of these woebegone civilians became an instant target for newspapermen and editorialists–most of whom had been hundreds of miles away during the battle.

As time passed and pens spun ever more colorful explanations for Union defeat, inevitably some pundits began fingering the civilians as not just witnesses to the debacle, but as the disaster’s cause. One Syracuse paper asserted, editors, reporters, congressmen, and others…were the first to fly…. [They] filled with consternation many a man who would have remained firm as granite but for that society.

The Syracuse editorialist was wrong. But such an explanation–now accepted as rote history–proved useful for the army and the government. It deflected responsibility from the officers and soldiers, who were the overwhelmingly dominant actors in the drama, and it appealed to cynical descendants–us–who revel in the follies of our ancestors. Today, few images in American history are so indelibly linked as the First Battle of Bull Run and civilian spectators. We have contorted the image into a carnival: civilians sprawled about on blankets on the edge of the battlefield, nibbling on picnic lunches while watching death and carnage, cheering as though at a football game. Shocking, sudden Union defeat engulfed these misbegotten ones–so the lore goes–and they fled hell-bent with their military protectors, dodging shells, scrambling through streams, often falling to exhaustion or shrapnel.

Modern Americans giggle and gawk at such manufactured images. But the license to giggle and gawk requires us to overlook how we gathered around our televisions by the millions on January 17, 1991, to watch the war with Iraq unfold. It requires us to forget that we swarm by the thousands on hot summer afternoons–hotter by far than July 21, 1861–to watch men pretend to kill each other in reenactments (and we cheer!). It demands that we discount the certainty that if today’s civilians could be assured of getting within a few miles of a battlefield without getting hurt, we would not only flock by the thousands, but some of us would be hawking T-shirts, too: I survived the Battle of Bull Run.

To sustain our cliched vision of civilian spectators at the First Battle of Bull Run, we must overlook that the historical image conjured by movie-makers and historians is grossly overstated. The civilians in fact affected (or were affected by) events that day very little indeed. Rather, the spectators at Bull Run thoroughly symbolized a nation’s naive view of the coming war–and commenced a tradition of war-watching that has since been elevated to a virtual (and dominantly American) industry.

This article was written by John J. Hennessy originally published in the August 2001 issue of Civil War Times Magazine.

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