Confederate women played surprisingly crucial roles both in the run-up to the first major battle of the Civil War and in its aftermath. In Battle Cry of Freedom James McPherson relates how the Confederate commander Pierre G. T. Beauregard was prepared for Union general Irvin McDowell’s advance into northern Virginia in part because of information supplied by an espionage network of southern women in Washington: “coded messages carried by southern belles riding fast steeds brought word of Union plans.”
No such coding occurs of course in their plantation diaries. These invaluable documents capture in nuanced prose the wide range of reactions felt by those at home to the ebb and flow of events on the battlefield. And public opinion matters. Morale at home is as important as morale in camp; the interplay of home front and battle front often determines whether wars are won or lost.
On July 21, 1861, Union and Confederate forces clashed near Bull Run, a few miles northwest of Manassas Junction. Although Union forces enjoyed initial success, the Confederates rallied, held, and eventually counterattacked, driving the foe from the field. As disorganized by their victory as the Union forces were by defeat, the Confederates failed to follow up on their triumph and advance on Washington. In later years this would be judged by some to be a missed opportunity; at the time, Confederate women shared conflicting reports, debated what victory meant, and wondered whether it was worth the cost.
In Charleston, South Carolina, Emma Holmes, daughter of a plantation owner, was ecstatic. Although the enemy had outnumbered the gallant Confederates by a margin of more than 2:1, she recorded in her diary, none other than President Jefferson Davis had helped lead his men to victory. Several Union regiments were cut to shreds, including the renowned 11th New York Zouaves, while the “celebrated” battery of T. W. Sherman had been captured. Among the South Carolinians who had fallen was General Barnard Bee; Holmes made no mention of the service of Virginia’s Thomas J. Jackson, whose command, according to Bee’s oft-quoted observation, had stood there like a stone wall astride Henry House Hill. Even as Holmes devoured reports of the disastrous fate that had befallen Union forces, she steeled herself in preparation for the arrival of Confederate dead at Charleston.
Another South Carolinian, Mary Chesnut, reflected on what had happened. She now lived in Richmond: her husband James, a member of the Confederate Congress, had seen action as a volunteer aide to Beauregard and had delivered orders to none other than Jackson himself. Mary Chesnut wrote that she listened in disgust as President Davis took credit for the victory: she knew that, contrary to earlier reports, Davis had not been on the field during the battle itself. When she asked why the Confederates had not followed up on their triumph by advancing on Washington, one politician told her to be quiet; another politely advised her, “Don’t ask awkward questions.” She also recorded the skeptical assessment of another politico, who averred, “This victory will be our ruin. It lulls us into a fool’s paradise of conceit at our superior valor.”
In both cases celebration was tempered by a feeling that more could have been achieved. At the same time, the cost of battle proved sobering. Holmes noted the wives who had lost husbands and the children who had lost fathers; Chesnut wrote, “Now this horrible vision of the dead on the battlefield haunts me.” Her husband told her of how he had cared for several badly wounded men on the field, including a Union soldier “who begged for water”: further inspection revealed that his legs were “smashed” and that the best Chesnut could do was to administer some morphine to relieve the pain and ease the suffering. “This is my first battle,” James Chesnut remarked. “I hope my heart will not grow harder.”
A week after the battle Mary Stark of Columbia, South Carolina, wrote Mary Chesnut of her reaction to the news of the victory at Manassas, as southerners would soon term the battle. “I think every man on that battlefield on our side was a hero,” she enthused, later adding: “That was a dear-bought, but such a grand, victory. It seems incredible.” And it was only the beginning.
Also of interest:
- “The Union Army Retreats,” William Howard Russell classic eyewitness account of the First Battle of Bull Run, this week’s Story of the Week
- At Bull Runnings Harry Smeltzer hosts digitized material related to the First Battle of Bull Run including links to the orders of battle, correspondence, and biographical sketches, as well as his own blog
- At Crossroads Brooks D. Simpson blogs about history, historians, and the academic life, much of it related to the Civil War