A Hot Time on Anniversary Weekend, July 20-21, 2019

17 08 2019

This past anniversary of the First Battle of Bull Run was spent by me, for the first time, in Manassas. I was booked for two talks on Saturday and a bus tour on Sunday, the actual anniversary of the battle which, as you know, was fought on a Sunday. I’ve never really felt the attraction of anniversaries like some, maybe most, of you do – the earth just happens to be in a very similar position to one star in a vast, endless sea of stars as on the day of the actual event. I know, I have no soul. But the fact that this anniversary fell on a Sunday seemed to be a big deal, and lots of activities were planned by the NPS for the day. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans.

Saturday started off hot and sultry, and the weekend kept that up through the end. My morning talk, for the Prince William County Historic Preservation Division (PWC), was scheduled for a tent outside historic Ben Lomond south of the battlefield, along the trace of the historic farm road that led from Manassas Junction to Liberia, past Ben Lomond, past Portici, to the Henry House and the Warrenton Turnpike. I’ll have more on Ben Lomond in a future post. Luckily for me and the 25 or so folks who attended, my talk on McDowell’s plan for the battle was moved indoors (it was 102 degrees Fahrenheit outside). The talk went well though I had to rush through the conclusion due to time constraints. Nobody threw anything at me. It was great to see some old friends and folks who have attended some of the Bull Runnings Battlefield Tours. I appreciate your continued support. Thanks to Rob Orrison and Kevin Pawlak for the invite. I completely forgot to take my usual pre-talk selfie, but here’s one courtesy of Rob.

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Me talking about Johnny Caspar from Miller’s Crossing, who plays an integral role in explaining McDowell’s Plan.

After my talk, I was taken to lunch by Kim Brace of the Manassas Battlefield Trust (MBT), which was hosting my talk at the Manassas National Battlefield Park (MNBP) visitor’s center later that evening. After a change of clothes, I repaired to The Winery at Bull Run for a pleasant, if muggy, sit-down on the patio with Kim and my good friends Dan and Kathy Carson.

After yet another change of clothing, it was off to the visitor’s center, where the MBT had invited me to talk about Peter Conover Hains and his 1911 account of his experiences at First Bull Run. I saw a few familiar faces in the crowd, including former U. S. Army historian Kim Holien and MNBP museum specialist (and long-time Friend of Bull Runnings) Jim Burgess, who joined me for dinner afterwards. Again there were about 25 people in attendance. Not too many glitches, and I think everyone enjoyed the presentation and learned something (I know I did). Thanks to MBT and Christy Forman for the invite.

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Pre-talk selfie. Sorry to those folks blocked by my big giant head.

Bright and early Sunday morning it was back to Ben Lomond for a bus tour of sites on and off the battlefield. This was a fundraiser for PWC and was led by Kevin Pawlak of that group and myself. We had ten people, including Civil War TImes Magazine’s editor Dana Shoaf and his media guru Melissa Wynn, and old friend and Licensed Antietam Battlefield Guide Jim Rosebrock (look, if you’re gonna hire someone to guide you about Antietam, hire an ALBG – it just makes sense). Yes, it was hot on Saturday, but it was hotter on Sunday, as my dusty dashboard attests.

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One Hundred and Three Degrees!!!

It was in fact so hot that the NPS cancelled most of the events they had scheduled for the day. But we few, we happy but sweaty few, vowed to endeavor to persevere.

Kevin and I conducted the tour kind of like a sporting event broadcast – at each stop, Kevin laid out the action, rather, the play-by-play, and I provided the color. We had to cut out a couple of stops due to time. I’ll lay out the route of the tour in photos:

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First Stop: Old Stone Church in Centreville, where we talked about the Confederate dispositions, the Federal approach, and some after-battle incidents. Kevin Pawlak in dark blue.

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Quick stop in Centreville McDonalds to pay respects to the Centreville Six. Someone will do an Abbey Road take on this. But not us.

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Blackburn’s Ford

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Blackburn’s Ford – View south

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Panoramic view south at Blackburn’s Ford

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Signal Hill monument

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Kim Brace (white beard, red shirt) provided a little more info on E. Porter Alexander

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Kevin saying something worthwhile at the Stone Bridge.

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Me – in white hat – trying to think of something worthwhile to say at the Stone Bridge. Photo by Rob Orrison.

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Group shot at Reynolds’s guns on Matthews Hill. A couple folks did not make the trek from the bus at this stop.

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View south from Matthews Hill

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Reynolds’s guns (James rifles). There were only six Federal smoothbores, all howitzers, that crossed Bull Run that day. The other 20 were rifles.

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Me, on Matthews Hill, pointing. Others, looking. Photo by Rob Orrison.

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Dana Shoaf and me, trying to figure out what direction we’re facing, on Chinn Ridge, our final stop.

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Kevin Pawlak wrapping things up on Chinn Ridge.

Afterwards, upstairs at air-conditioned Ben Lomond, Dana and Melissa introduced me to Facebook Live. Enjoy Dana, Rob, Kevin, and me in all our technicolor glory.

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Behind the scenes: Videographer Melissa Winn, Dana Shoaf, and Kevin Pawlak

Afterwards, Rob, Kevin, and I enjoyed a couple of cold ones at the 2 Silos Brewing Co. in Manassas. A cool place, check it out.

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Rob Orrison and Kevin Pawlak show the way to the 2 Silos complex.





Projecting

5 12 2016

I’m getting around to outlining my thoughts on Irvin McDowell’s plan for the campaign on Manassas. If you’ve been following along, you know that I am firmly of the opinion that McDowell’s intentions and expectations for the campaign have been grossly misrepresented over the years, with resulting, understandable effects on the analysis of the failure of his plans (keeping in mind that reasons for the failure of plans and reasons for defeat are two very, very different things). While I think I’m no longer completely alone in that opinion, and may never have been, I’m still pretty sure I’m in a very small minority.

anteffcoverIn the meantime, I’m reading a very interesting book by Bradley Graham, The Antietam Effect. I’ve heard rumblings about this book over the past few years (self published in 2012), but never saw it until stumbling over it in the Fredericksburg Battlefield visitor’s center. This is a collection of essays dealing with various topics of the campaign. It’s wide-ranging, even eclectic. The titles listed in the footnotes may leave you scratching your head at first glance but, trust me, there’s a point to everything (and yes, you have to read the notes). I don’t necessarily agree with all the author’s conclusions, but I love his approach and find it very similar to my own, on a basic level.

One passage I found particularly intriguing, and applicable with some bending to my own experience with the historiography of First Bull Run, can be found on page 175:

To make their views more compelling, some authors enlist the unspoken opinions of key players…They engage in a species of psychological projection – projecting their own internalized impressions onto important historical characters. This cognitive bias tends to shape analysis, and good scholarship devolves into advocacy for the favored view, and the ascription of the author’s opinions onto those who did not espouse them.

It seems to me that, when it comes to McDowell’s intentions and expectations, authors have developed impressions of what they must have been or should have been, and in the absence of confirming evidence projected those impressions as being those of the man himself. The strange thing to me is how consistently this has been done over the years, so that those impressions have become generally accepted. When the legend becomes fact…





California University of PA CWRT Recap

17 07 2016
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Photo courtesy of Mike Pellegrini

Last Thursday evening, July 14, I gave a presentation on Irvin McDowell’s plan(s) for the campaign on Manassas to the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable in California, PA. This built on the presentation I gave to the Central Ohio CWRT back in 2014 (see recap here). The evening before, I sat down and wrote a few things out – I don’t usually like to read prepared statements, but I was glad I did as it cut down on annoying umms and ahhs on my part and helped keep me on track. It also added to the length of the program, which I think clocked in at something like 1:30 to 1:45. But I didn’t see too many of the 55-60 in attendance nod off, and didn’t notice any getting up and bugging out before the meeting was over. This program continues to develop and change as my thoughts on McD’s plans evolve, but in essence it’s pretty much nailed down.

There were some good questions afterward, but not too many as we did run long and my programs typically have give and take while in process. The room in the Kara Alumni house was very nice and worked well. It was also very cool meeting Roland Maust, author of one of my top ten favorite books on Gettysburg“Grappling with Death”: The Union Second Corps Hospital at Gettysburg, who was in attendance.

Thanks to president Walter Klorczyk who heads up a very fine group. They meet on the 2nd Thursday each month on campus.

My next speaking engagement will be October 18, 2016, when I’ll present Kilpatrick’s Family Ties for the Lunch With Books series at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, West Virginia. Stop by if you’re in the area – it’s a fun program.





McDowell’s Plan – Again

11 07 2016

This coming Thursday evening, July 14, 2016 (Bastille Day), join me at the California University of Pennsylvania’s Civil War Roundtable for a discussion of Irvin McDowell’s plan for the campaign on Manassas – what it was, what it wasn’t, how it succeeded, why it failed.

The meeting will be held in the KARA-BOOKER GREAT ROOM in the Kara Alumni House. Doors will open at 6:30 pm and the meeting will start at 7:00 pm.

Anyone interested in Civil War History is welcome to attend.

For further information, email stonewall1863@comcast.net, call 724-258-3406, or text 724-787-2340.





Theory and War’s Friction

31 03 2016

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In reading Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle, I came across a passage from the official British military history of the allied operation at Salerno, Italy, in 1943 [emphasis mine]:

In the land of theory…there is none of war’s friction. The troops are, as in fact they were not, perfect Tactical Men, uncannily skillful, impervious to fear, bewilderment, boredom, hunger, thirst, or tiredness. Commanders know what in fact they did not know…Lorries never collide, there is always a by-pass at the mined road-block, and the bridges are always wider than the flood. Shells fall always where they should fall.

It seems to me, when analyzing a commander’s performance, or divining his intent based on subsequent events, too many American Civil War writers live too much in the land of theory.





Victory at Bull Run – What Was McDowell’s Game Plan?

24 05 2015

51PK6Qew8sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Hennessy is working on a new edition of his seminal tactical study, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861. I’ve corresponded with the author enough to learn that this will be one of the rare updated editions that owners of the original will consider a “must have.” Mr. Hennessy discussed the new book somewhat in a recent interview with Civil War Talk Radio, which you can listen to here.

During this interview, you’ll hear the author discuss one of the great mysteries of the campaign – what exactly was Irvin McDowell’s vision of victory for his army (which ex post facto became known as The Army of Northeastern Virginia)? Many authors/historians have made the assumption – and it can only be an assumption – that McDowell envisioned a swift flank attack which would overwhelm his opponent and result in a set-piece victory, rolling up and decisively defeating Beauregard in a classic clash of arms.

The definition of victory here is not just semantics. It is critical in assessing McDowell’s plans and actions, and in determining why they failed.

I believe victory in McDowell’s mind was something other than what almost all chroniclers and critics of the campaign have assumed. I won’t tell you what to think, but will make a suggestion that may help you think for yourself: the answer can perhaps be found in what McDowell wrote before the battle and in what he did during it. In order to discern that, I think you must cast aside assumptions of what he must have intended and take him at his word – and actions. If you do that, then the inexplicables of the campaign may become more explicable. What appears to be a complex plan (given the traditional assumption of intent) may become less so.

Read McDowell’s plans. Look at what he did. Does that jive with your assumptions regarding his intent? To use a sports analogy, would you as a reporter rely on a head football coach’s post-defeat comments about his game plan when you have the actual game plan and video to look at? Especially when the game plan and video don’t support those comments?

Post-defeat comments: “We really wanted to establish the running game, but that didn’t work out.” Game plan: we must exploit the opponent’s secondary. Game film: first three possessions each consisted of three incomplete down-field passes and a punt.

Get it?





McDowell’s Plan, You Ask?

11 02 2015

Today I received an email, from which I’ve clipped the below:

I know somewhere on your site you have posted your view on what McDowell was trying to accomplish at the battle. Could you point me to that article or posting.

For anyone else who may be looking for that magic bullet summary, here is the response I sent:

Nowhere on the site have I yet summarized my views on McDowell’s plan. I have left bits and pieces of it here and there, and you can find them by searching “McDowell” on the site.

But as far as a complete summary with documentation of sources and my line of reasoning, you really won’t find it (although I have presented much of it to a group in Ohio.)

Yet.

I will be revealing it as I review Longacre’s book, which I will do in a series of posts just as soon as I find the freaking time!!! Please be patient.

For now, I’ll say that McDowell’s plan was not to overwhelm, it was not to move swiftly, and it was not necessarily to deal the enemy a crushing defeat in a set-piece battle.

It was, in fact, exactly what he said it was. And you can find that right here (though alterations were made on the fly, which you can also find here.)