Northern and Southern Reaction to Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas)
The Civil War began auspiciously for the Confederate States of America, as the South won the war’s opening contest (the Battle of Fort Sumter), the war’s first major land battle (the First Battle of Bull Run, or Manassas), and the first major battle in the West (the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, or Oak Hills), all in 1861. However, in the next year the South’s fortunes changed for the worse. As 1862 began President Abraham Lincoln and the Northern public were desperate for an aggressive general and a significant Union victory. Then in the Western Theater of the war a young, relatively unknown General Ulysses S. Grant answered the North’s wishes with two important victories in Tennessee during February: the Battle of Fort Henry followed by the Battle of Fort Donelson, which opened up the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers to invasion. These two Union triumphs severely weakened the Confederate defenses in the West, and the Federals now had the advantage.
Next, Nashville, Tennessee, was occupied, the first Confederate state capital to fall into Union hands. The Confederacy’s last best chance to gain Missouri was lost when it suffered defeat at the Battle of Pea Ridge, in northern Arkansas, on March 7-8. Another Union victory came in the Battle of Shiloh, a pivotal two-day battle in Tennessee that ended on April 7, costing the South a bloody defeat and the loss of General Albert Sidney Johnston. The next day, April 8, the important Confederate fortress on the Mississippi River, Island No. 10 near New Madrid, Missouri, surrendered. In the last week of April New Orleans was captured.
As the spring of 1862 turned into summer, Confederate fortunes in the West continued to go badly. With a vital railroad link cut, the South decided to evacuate the strategic Mississippi River stronghold of Fort Pillow on June 4, leaving Memphis vulnerable to attack. Union forces pounced quickly. After a lopsided naval engagement on June 6 Memphis fell. Only the fortified town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, prevented complete Union control of the Mississippi River.
Meanwhile, in the Eastern Theater of the war during the spring and summer of 1862, a huge 90,000-man Union army led by General George B. McClellan was undertaking the “Peninsula Campaign” to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. Southern prospects looked bleak. Suddenly, things changed: Confederate General Robert E. Lee was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
He promptly stopped McClellan’s advance on Richmond, forcing the Union army to retreat during the Seven Days Battles the last week of June. Then, showing bold initiative, he employed a stunning strategy by splitting his smaller army in two and defeating the larger Union Army of Virginia, aided by the inept leadership of Union General John Pope, during the Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
What a stunning reversal of fortune! Seemingly against all odds, the Confederacy had regained momentum in the war. The following two newspaper articles, one from a Southern paper and one from a Northern, show contrasting reactions to the Confederate victory.
This Southern article proudly proclaims “Another Brilliant Victory” and contains a message from General Lee to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, in which the habitually understated and circumspect Lee shows some ebullience, emphatically declaring he had won a “signal victory” over the Federal army. This article was printed by the Daily Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, Virginia) on Sept. 1, 1862:
From the Plains of Manassas
Another Brilliant Victory
The Combined Armies of Pope and McClellan Routed
We learn that on Saturday night the President received a dispatch from General Lee, commanding the Army of the Potomac [i.e., Army of Northern Virginia], dated on Thursday night previous, stating that the enemy had been repulsed in three [separate] attacks upon our forces. Generals Ewell and Trimble were seriously, but not mortally, wounded. Brig. Gen. Taliaferro was slightly wounded. Everything looked favorable.
The following dispatch was received by the President last evening about 6 o’clock:
Headquarters Army Northern Virginia,
Groveton, 30th Aug., 10 P.M.,
To President Davis:
This army achieved today, on the Plains of Manassas, a signal victory over the combined forces of Generals McClellan and Pope. On the 28th and 29th each wing under Generals Longstreet and Jackson, repulsed with valor, attacks made on them separately. We mourn the loss of our gallant dead in every conflict, yet our gratitude to Almighty God for his mercies rises higher each day. To Him, and to the valor of our troops a nation’s gratitude is due.
R. E. Lee
By contrast, this northern newspaper editorial seeks to learn an important lesson from the Confederate victory and the remarkable perseverance shown by the South. This editorial was printed by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on the front page of its Sept. 1, 1862, issue:
A Lesson from the Enemy
We have no patience with men who abandon themselves to despondency. We would not deserve success did we lose heart now. Shall we confess that we have not one-half the fortitude of the Rebels? For five months they had nothing but disaster. Defeat followed defeat with unerring sequence, from the rout and death of Zollicoffer [Confederate general killed at the Battle of Mill Springs on Jan. 19, 1862—ed.] to the capture of Memphis. They were defeated at Mill Springs; they were compelled to evacuate Bowling Green, Columbus and Manassas within the compass of a fortnight; they were driven like dogs before our victorious armies from January until June. They were driven out of Fort Henry; they were bagged to the number of fifteen thousand at Fort Donelson; they were overwhelmed at Island No. 10; they lost New Orleans and Norfolk and Memphis; they were virtually driven out of the Mississippi.
Yet they did not despair. They recovered from their wounds; they set to work to regain their lost ground; they have succeeded in virtually throwing us on the defensive. What a lesson of perseverance—of constancy under defeat—they have taught us!
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