Friday, July 22, 2011

The Day After Bull Run: A Dewey Defeats Truman Moment for Washington Newspapers

150 years ago today, Washingtonians woke up to a dismal scene of a battered Union army straggling back into town after suffering a rout near Manassas Junction the previous day.  A rule of thumb when it comes to reporting during wartime is that first reports are generally flawed.  This certainly was the case with morning coverage in Washington newspapers.  Undoubtedly, when the type had been set for the July 22, 1861 edition of Washington's The National Republican newspaper, first reports (and the actual tactical situation on the battlefield) from Bull Run had in fact been promising.  A 5:20 PM telegraphic dispatch from the 21rst was amongst the latest reports included in the paper:  "Another dispatch says the Federals have won the day.  The loss on both sides is heavy.  But the rout of the rebels is complete."   It was noted that from Georgetown, artillery fire from the battlefield, some 30 miles away, could be heard.

Headlines from the July 22, 1861 edition of The Washington National Republican, a day after the Union Army had suffered a rout at Manassas.(Library of Congress)

The reporting indicated that "for a time a perfect panic prevailed... and for a time it seemed as if our whole army was in retreat....", but minimized the extent of this panic and certainly gave no hint of a full-scale rout. The paper's accounts also grossly outnumbered Beauregard's strength claiming that he had 30,000-40,000 men engaged on the battlefield and 75,000 men in reserve at Manassas Junction.  McClellan and Allen Pinkerton would have been proud of such inflated numbers.  Beauregard, even after being reinforced by Joseph Johnson's army from the Shenandoah,had well under 35,000 men.

Even the afternoon edition of Washington newspapers on the 22nd reported that only one Union division had retreated.  The Washington National Republican did advise its readers that "it is impossible to obtain strictly accurate accounts of the events transpring around us, but we have used every endeavour to be as precise as possible."  Of course, Washingtonians reading the accounts of the battle knew that this information was overcome by events.  The magnitude of the Union defeat had already been flung on their doorsteps through the wee hours.

Newspapers published throughout the North on the 22nd reported a Union victory based on promising reports from Manassas earlier the previous day.  The New York Herald admitted that "very few reliable details have yet reached us," while concluding that there is no doubt that " a most brilliant victory has been achieved by our gallant troops."

The New York Herald, July 22, 1861

By the close of the 22nd, the scale of the Union defeat was crystal-clear to Washingtonians.  In his diary, Washington resident Horatio Nelson Taft reported being able to hear the firing of guns all day from the raging battle, but noted that in an entry on the 22nd that "yesterday proved a disastrous day to our troops" and that "remnants of Regts and squads of soldiers have been pouring into the City all day." 

However, on the morning of the 23rd Washington National Republican, the pro-Administration's paper tried to reassure its readers that there was no need to panic and all would be well:

"The excitement in our city yesterday, however natural, in view of the events which had just transpired, was not warranted-- as will be perceived by a careful perusal of our news columns- when viewed as based upon apprehensions for the safety of our army, or of the city itself.  What has been suffered by a number of our gallant regiments cannot be retrieved; but it will soon be found that the might of the nation will immediately be exerted in a manner not hitherto dreamed of; and that the security of the Republic and the restoration of peace will be accelerated by the act of the deadliest enemies of both."

Although northern newspapers are often blamed for providing sensitive military details to Robert E. Lee, they invariably also produced a lot of unintended disinformation.  For example, the Washington National Republican reported that Union engineers were using pontoon bridges to get soldiers across Bull Run.  I have never seen any historic references to employment of pontoon bridges at First Manassas. 
The National Republican also reported that a captured Mississippi soldier had confirmed the "previous reports of a regiment of negro troops in the rebel forces."  However, based on the other faulty information contained in the newspaper's battlefield reports on Manassas and historical scholarship that has found no substantiation to such claims, we can reasonably conclude that there was no such regiment present or that the Mississippi soldier may have been referring to enslaved African Americans being used for manual labor by the Confederates in the vicinity of Manassas Junction. 

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