By Peter Royston
(Souvenir Brochure for The Civil War)

The Civil War started with a combination of confidence, passion, and naive innocence. Newspapers from North and South ran banner headlines, urging the armies on to Washington or Richmond. Wives threatened to withhold kisses to men out of uniform; parades and cheering crowds sent the soldiers off. Imagine the beginning of a football or basketball game. Both teams are confident of their own strength and their opponent's weakness. Both jeer the other side. Both are sure the game will be over quickly. War is no game, but you couldn't have told that by the attitudes of both the North and the South as the war began. A Union soldier wrote, "this war will be closed in less than six months." A Confederate recruiting poster made the campaign sound like a romp: "Come on, boys, if you want a heap of fun and to kill some Yankees."

A few experienced warriors knew better but few listened to them; most young volunteers were anxious to join up before the fighting was over. William Tecumseh Sherman said, "This war will take four years and an army of two million before the rebellion can be crushed." Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the Union army when the war began suggested a naval blockade of the Confederacy, slowly choking off their life lines. While this blockade was implemented, and in many ways was successful, it was initially laughed at and seen as too slow. Blockade? Both sides were impatient for action. When Sherman brought word to the President that the South was preparing for war, Lincoln reportedly told him, "Oh, well. I guess we'll manage to keep house." No one knew what a bloody housekeeping it would be.

The first major battle of the war, at Manassas (or Bull Run), gave an idea of the hardships to come. Although concerned about his raw, green troops, General Irvin McDowell marched 37,000 men out of Washington to meet 23,000 Confederate soldiers at Manassas Junction, Virginia, some 35 miles south of the capitol. On the Southern side was General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who knew of McDowell's advance from Confederate spies in Washington. The Union troops were unprepared and delayed. By the time they arrived in the Manassas region, General Joseph E. Johnston had arrived by train with the first of his Confederate reinforcements. McDowell finally attacked on July 21, 1861.

Watching the battle from nearby hillsides were Congressmen and dignitaries who had made the trip from Washington. Attired in their Sunday best, they ate picnic lunches and watched the troop movements through spyglasses. They were eager to see the rebels crushed in what would surely be the first and last battle of the war.

At first, it looked like they might be right. McDowell's initial strike of 10,000 men pushed the Confederates back and up the slopes of nearby Henry House Hill. The Southern line began to break. Then, in the middle of the hot afternoon, Johnston's remaining reinforcements arrived by train. Letting loose with a keening preternatural wail, the fresh Confederate troops took the field and the exhausted Union soldiers fell back in fear. In their panicked retreat, the soldiers ran into the Washington picnickers, who themselves took the road back to the capitol at high speed. The Boston Journal wrote, "It is a strange, unanticipated experience to the soldiers of both armies, far different from what they thought it would be."

On July 14, 1861, Major Sullivan Ballou of Rhode Island wrote to his wife Sarah, "The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most grateful to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long...But, O Sarah! if the dead can come back to earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights...always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your back, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by..." One week later, he was dead at Manassas. The South lost 1,982 men in this first battle, the North, 2,896; small numbers compared to the devastation to come. The country was no longer innocent; all thoughts of a quick end to the war escaped down that dusty road to Washington.

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