Don"t get me wrong. I love Civil Warre-enactments. A few thousand guys -- fellow history fanatics-- camping out on a summer weekend, with horses, explosions, cool uniforms and antique gear, marching and charging, noise,gunpowder, celebrating the minutiaeand deeper meanings of iconicevents -- all the good things about a war, and nobody gets hurt (except the occasional horse bite, twisted ankle,bad food reaction,or heat stress).Can you imagine a better sign that two once-enemy peoples have buried the hatchet than being able to re-enact an old battle for the sheer fascination with history, legacy, and friendships?Imagine a world, for instance, where some dayIsraelis and Egyptians might stage annual re-eactments of theSuez Canal crossings of the 1973 Yom Kippur War(Imagine the great gear for that!), then trade memorabilia anddrinkbeers together over a campfire. Then you"d know that true peace had really come to the Middle East.
Stonewall Jackson and his Virginians turningthe tideFirst Manassa, (Bull Run), July 21, 1861.
The American Civil War is re-enactment heaven. We stage hundreds each year, especially here in Virginia, so rich insites. And this past weekend, the 150th anniversary of the first great Civil War battle -- what Virginians call Manassas (for the town) and people up north call Bull Run (for the stream) -- saw some of the best.But even I had a swallow hard at seeing the strangest proposed event so far, what sponsors are callingThe Great Skedaddle. Scheduled for September 3, here"s how they describe it on their web site: Really? A celebration of a disorganized retreat? For the sake of a bicycle ride? At $20 per ticket?Some quick history:Here"s the problem. The battle of First Manassas (I"ll stick with the Virginia name) was the first large engagement of the Civil War,some 30,000 Union troops under recently-promoted Brigadier General Irvin McDowell facing some 30,000 Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard (McDowell"s West Point classmate)and Joe Johnston.The war had barely just started, being just three months since South Carolinians had shelledFort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.McDowell personally felt his ownquickly-assembled army not ready yet for a major fight, but political pressurefora quick Union victorypushed him into the field. "You are green, it is true, but they are green also," President Abe Lincoln assured him before the battle.Washington socialites and politicians gleefully joined theexcitement.When McDowell and his army took the field in July 1861,manylocal big-shotsfollowed in carriages, along with wives, girls friends, and gourmet picnic baskets. They allexpected a rousing good time,the exciting spectacle of avictory against disorganized rebels.
Union soldiers and supplies fleeing the Manassas battlefieldonJuly 21, 1861. Painting by William T. Trego.
The two armies met on July 21 near what is now theWashington, D.C. suburb of Manassas, Virginia, a short drive out today"s traffic-clogged Route 66.McDowell struck first, sending hissoldiers, full of fight and idealism, across Bull Run creek to attackthe confederate camp. Despitemany missteps and miscommunications,McDowell"s troops took an early advantage.But after hours of hard fighting,the tide began to turn. Union soldiers, trying to press an advantage at one key point, came up againstConfederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, a little-known formerprofessor from VMI (Virginia Militray Institute), who lined up his Virginia troopsand ordered them to hold."There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,"Confederate Bernard Bee famously shouted."Rally behind the Virginias." And so they did. Whether Bee meant it as insult or compliment is unclear -- he died in the battle -- but the "Stonewall" nicknamed stuck and Jackson emerged hero of the day.