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Bull Run and Its Consequences

The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1103, pp. 151-152.

August 17, 1861

The Americans of the North have taken their utter rout in very good part. The panic which struck the "army of the Potomac" has been met by a corresponding display of fortitude on the part of the community at large. Congress and the Administration have acted in a truly Roman spirit. The Cannae of Virginia has not caused them to despair of the Republic. Renewed vigour has been the only order of the day at Washington. Northern journalists, to their credit be it said, have not sought to extenuate nor disguise the disgraceful facts which accompanied the flight of the army in which they took so much pride. Exposures worse than those of Mr. Russell are freely published in the journals of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The first thought has been, not "What will England and France say?" but "What are the causes of this great disaster, and how shall we act so as to do better next time?" Consciously or unconsciously, they have emulated the spirit of English journalists during the disasters of the first Crimean winter. National vanity has given way before loftier considerations, and, just as the unsparing confessions and criticisms of our newspapers paved the way for reform and reorganisation in every branch of the service, so the application of the same remedial agency in the United States, when backed up by the unsubdued confidence of the people, augurs well for the recovery of their military prestige. Sooth to say, we like the Northerners better under this aspect than in that late hectoring mood when they boasted that the Southern armies would all be driven into Texas by January next, after which Mr. Davis and all his Cabinet, and Beauregard and his Generals, were to be hanged; while we English were specially selected as the objects of the undying vengeance of the victors, because, in common with the rest of Europe, we recognised the Confederates as a belligerent power, and because, in common also with the general current of European public opinion, and in perfect good faith and the most friendly spirit, we ventured to argue that peaceable separation was a better solution of the problem for all parties than a civil war on the largest scale, of the fiercest character and the most doubtful results. The first frost of adversity has withered this vainglorious spirit. The North recognises in the South a foe formidable on her own soil; and
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The Civil War in America: Confederate Prisoners Captured by United States' Pickets Between Fairfax and Manassas Junction, Virginia. From a Sketch by Our Special Artist.

Page 152

the anti-British rabies is so extinct among them that the tender of a regiment of British volunteers which was made to the authorities of the State of New York in April, and superciliously rejected, has been graciously accepted by the Federal Government in July. The spoiled children of fortune need a little adversity to bring out the finer points of their character. The dazzling sun of a marvellous prosperity had shed its influences upon them so long that they scarce knew themselves, and dreamt the world was at their feet. Now that that era has passed away, and a destructive tornado is scattering to the four quarters of heaven the accumulated fruits of a long peace, the men seem more heroic than before. The Southerners share equally with the Northerners in this apparent increase of stature. Sacrificing without a sigh every luxury and many of the necessaries of life—as poorly equipped and cared for in many respects as the French patriot armies of 1792—they rob us of our sympathies much more now when fighting on the heights of Manassas for their national independence, as the French fought in the same cause on the heights of Valmy, than when their chiefs were dominant at Washington, brow-beating and challenging every anti-slavery representative, when enthusiastic mass meetings were presenting gold-headed canes to the ruffian assailants of Charles Sumner, Horace Greeley, John Hickman, and other non-duelling, anti-slavery champions, and when Palmetto volunteers rushed to the field, not, as now, against foemen worthy of their steel, but to burn down the towns, villages, and homesteads of the peaceful Free-State settlers in Kansas. The Southern chivalry have nobler game before them now than the tarring and feathering of defenceless individual Northerners in their midst; and the fiery ordeal they have chosen for themselves cannot fail to give a grandeur to their attitude which will command more respect from the onlooking world than was ceded to them when they occupied the pride of place in the Government of that Great Republic which need not be less truly great because they have left it.

The North has at length got over one absurd and dangerous illusion to which she had hitherto clung with a strange obstinacy—that is, that "in every State, except, perhaps, South Carolina," there was a majority in favour of the Union, and that all the Secessionist movements were the result of a plot on the part of a few disappointed politicians and intriguing theorists, in which the mass of the people took no part. The truth is, that except in Western Virginia and in Eastern Tennessee, where the Stars and Stripes are still flying, the Unionist party has no existence whatever in the seceded States. No one in Europe has ever shared in this illusion. It has been evident to us all along that the South was, with the above-named exceptions, terribly unanimous and terribly in earnest. But the North have fallen into that common human failing of believing things to be as they would desire to have them, and the consequence has been that they have had to suffer a rude awakening. The battle of Bull Run enabled them to gauge the depth of Southern fanaticism in behalf of independence by the side of their own love of empire. The Northern troops found themselves opposed to a regiment of coloured men who fought with no want of zeal against them. Louisiana has called her free negroes to arms, and North Carolina has not disdained to enroll among her contingent her stalwart Cherokees. But the North, partly through prejudice of colour, and partly through a fraternal feeling towards the Southerners, will allow no coloured men to serve under the Stars and Stripes. The North stupidly prefers to enlist Caucasian three-months' men, who coolly walk off the field of battle on the day of the engagement because their time was up that day! Now, when one side conquers its prejudices and employs all possible weapons, while the other hampers itself with restrictions, and fights with a sort of reluctance and a fear of injuring the adversary too much, it is easy to see that the latter fights under great disadvantages. And this conclusion, too, the North is beginning to take to heart.

The task which the North has undertaken now for the first time appears to her in all its magnitude. It is nothing less than to conquer first, and afterwards hold in subjection a country as large as Western and Central Europe, inhabited by six millions of freemen and three and a half millions of slaves. In addition to this the border Slave States which still remain in the Union must be overawed and held to their allegiance. Never has a Democratic Republican nation, such as the North now is, imposed upon itself such herculean labour. It is no disgrace but rather the glory of the North that the instruments fit for carrying out such a policy are not readily obtainable. Certainly they are not to be found in Washington at present. The grand army of the North is pleasantly described by the New York Tribune as "a huge picnic party," and again as a "considerable mass meeting." The regulars shower contempt upon the volunteers; the volunteer privates have a profound distrust of their officers; the Commander-in-Chief blurts out his animosity towards the Secretary of War to every chance Congressman or editor he meets. It is everywhere admitted that the advance to Richmond was the idea of "General" Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, which his journal was powerful enough to force on the Cabinet, while the Cabinet forced it upon General Scott. Mr. Moses Grinnell, a leading member of the Union Defence Committee, and a man who has no personal ends to gain, publicly denounces the Secretary of War, and he is followed by another gentleman of equal social standing, who calls for the removal of the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary of the Treasury, who retains more of the public confidence than any other member of Mr. Lincoln's Cabinet, has been unable to borrow a paltry million sterling in New York for pressing exigencies, and has been compelled to resort to the limited money markets of Boston and Philadelphia, which have responded without enthusiasm to his proposals. And, in the rear of all, that portion of the unemployed working classes in the large cities which has not enlisted is beginning to assemble in mass meetings, and declare their adhesion to the socialist idea that every man has an abstract right for himself and family to be fed at the public crib of the city or State. The Southerners have always said that to this complexion the starving working classes of the North must come at last in the event of the prolongation of the war. This evil has not reached any magnitude as yet, but it is an ugly sign at the very beginning of a war, and lends a sinister meaning to the expostulations of the most earnest organs of the war party that the war must be short and decisive, as the industrial classes will not, and cannot, bear the stress of a long period of public commotion.

Very much, then, has to be done, and we are told in the same breath that very little time will be allowed for doing it. It would be well if the weak points (for aggressive purposes) of the volunteer army were confined to incompetent officers. We need not dwell on those droll pictures of "Colonels" painted with such admirable candour by the American journals for the use of some future epic poet or as matter for some sequel to the witty "Biglow Papers"—how one Colonel, riding well up in the van to Washington, confessed his entire ignorance of the whereabouts and fate of his regiment; how another, sent with despatches from General Scott to General M'Dowell, then in the thick of the fight, refused to deliver them, pleading that, if General Scott wanted his head shot off, he might go and deliver them himself; of a third who relieved himself of his overwhelming doubts and difficulties on the morning of the battle by the happy expedient of getting dead drunk. All this is about to be remedied by the establishment of a Board of Examiners; but there are other things not so easily mended. What are we to think of fifteen out of seventeen Pennsylvania three months' regiments refusing to stay with General Patterson one hour beyond their stipulated time when he was in dangerous proximity to General Johnston's army? What of the two Pennsylvania regiments, one of which Mr. Russell met retiring from the field because their time was up and the other of which marched, indeed, to the field of battle, but refused to participate in a charge after twelve o'clock for a similar reason? Can anything great be achieved with such material? While the old militia regiments of New York city highly distinguished themselves there were others of the recently enlisted in that city which evidently had no heart in the work before them. The New York 12th ran away twice in the slight skirmish of Thursday which preceded the grand attack of Sunday; another New York regiment so much exaggerated the practice of falling flat on their faces before a discharge of artillery that it was found impossible to keep them on their legs, their propensity to fall on their knees when a musket was discharged being irresistible. It is not difficult to account for this. Many of the recruits from New York city care not a jot for the integrity of the Union, but have enlisted to escape from starvation. The Pennsylvania regiments, too, have many of them a strong pro-slavery bias, and would probably prefer defending the line of the Potomac to advancing upon Richmond on political as well as military considerations. It is otherwise with the New England troops. These men fight for an "idea;" they have a profound dislike both of slavery and slaveowners, and would gladly see this war made one of liberation to the slaves. No wonder that they fought with spirit. The 69th (Irish), the 79th (Highlanders), and the three German regiments including the Garibaldi Guard (who covered the retreat and did not flee), doubtless deserve the praise they have received. But the true metal is sadly alloyed by the dross which is intermingled with it, and which must immensely detract from the value of the whole.

What, then, are the prospects of the war being "short and decisive" in favour of the North? A number of new and raw regiments are only now pouring into Washington. These and others must be hardened into an army. General Scott loudly declares that they must be practised in tactical movements, in large "camps of instruction," before they will be fit for the arduous duty of crushing out the revolution. But this long course of professional training is just that against which the American naturally recalcitrates. This is why he has swept away the system of apprenticeship in all departments of industry. If the American volunteer overcomes his objection to regular training in this instance, it will be a grand proof of his devotion to the cause for which he is fighting.

The logic of this exposé leads whither, if not to the conclusion that the chances are greatly against the North achieving a permanent success in her present line of policy? Now that she is no longer self-blinded by illusions, she is beginning to perceive this, and her awakened intellect is thrown back on this dilemma—emancipation of the slaves or recognition of the Secession. The mind of New England is ripe for the reception of the former idea, but the people and politicians of the Middle and Western States are not yet prepared to follow the leadership of Messrs. Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. If anything could sting the men of New York to stifle their scruples on this matter it would be the stories which, whether true or false, are firmly believed at the North, of the bayoneting and mutilating the wounded, firing the hospitals, and shelling the ambulances by the Confederates. Messrs. Davis and Beauregard cannot fail to know that these cruelties are as impolitic as inhuman. Half the people and more than half the army of the North are as little infected with what the Southerns call the damnable heresy of "negro-worship" as they are themselves, and regard the arming of the slaves with positive aversion and as not consistent with the honourable warfare. This sentiment is a great protection to the South, and nothing will so soon dispel it as a disregard of the laws of civilised warfare by the South herself. By pursuing a strictly defensive strategy, and by twice abstaining from an attack on Washington when he had power to make it with a good prospect of success, Mr. Davis is disposing Northern Conservatives to give him credit for moderation, and to believe in the sincerity of his oft-professed desire for peace. All that is gained by this prudent policy will be lost in the storm of revengeful passions aroused by the atrocities of the Confederate soldiery. From the number of well-cared-for wounded prisoners at Richmond it is evident that the barbarities (so circumstantially narrated in Northern journals and authenticated by the testimony of well-known army surgeons) were, happily, only partial; but the Southern leaders may rest assured that the public opinion of the civilised world only waits fuller confirmation to visit the excesses of a portion of their victorious army with the same stern and one-voiced reprobation which it meted out to the Russians after Inkerman. In the meantime, if it should turn out that the political institutions and social and economic conditions of Northern civilisation present almost insuperable difficulties to the prosecution of a great aggressive war, this fact will not tell against them among their admirers in Europe. If there is anything which makes the democracy of the North a less kindly soil than the democracy of France for the development of a Napoleon I, and the establishment of a Napoleonic system, so much the better for their own domestic liberties, for the cause of peace on the Western Continent, and of Republicanism throughout the world.

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