The second book in the Time–Life Civil War series, First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull takes the war from eager anticipation to the reality of “seeing the elephant.”
Seeing the elephant was a common term in the early days of circuses—it was one thing to read about elephants, see pictures of elephants; it was quite another to actually see a real elephant. And so it was with this war. It was one thing to talk about; to be braggadocios, to don colorful uniforms, to parade in hometowns—it was quite another to face the enemy’s artillery and infantry fire on hot July days on a Virginia battlefield.
Federal (Union) General Irwin McDowell has been the scapegoat of the battle of First Bull Run for years and years. In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around. “Years later even the critical (William Tecumseh) Sherman, by then the United States commanding general, would credit (Irwin) McDowell with ‘one of the best–planned battles of the War.’ The Federal forces lost, said Sherman, because it was also ‘one of the worst–fought.’” 1
This is also a book about command. At the outset of the war, the pool of capable commanders was shallow. No one, not even the hero of the Mexican War, Winfield Scott, had commanded troops in the numbers that would soon need to be lead. The Federal situation was particularly dire, as the majority of the most capable leaders joined the Confederacy. Urgency prevailed over preparation and so the war began before anyone was ready. When McDowell protested that his troops were too green, President Abraham Lincoln replied, “You are green it is true, but they are green also; you are all green alike.” 2
After the debacle of First Bull Run, it was clear that General Irwin McDowell would not be that leader. Lincoln and Scott looked west to General George McClellan, who had some early successes in what would become West Virginia. McClellan did have success and his opponent for part of the campaign was none other than famed Robert E. Lee—but the hesitancy that would later plague McClellan was there.
Overall, this continues the fine writing and expertise of this series. Three down, twenty-five to go.
1 First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run, p. 155
2 the authors mistakenly attribute this quote to Winfield Scott, but T. Harry Williams, author of Lincoln and His Generals and other historians rightly attribute it to Lincoln.