Driving south from Washington, D.C. on U.S. I-95 nowadays it takes just over an hour to reach the city of Richmond, Virginia, passing by places on the map with names like Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania. It stretches the mind of any first-time traveler to realize that for nearly four years mighty armies fought over and for this narrow strip of Virginia countryside dividing the two countries whose respective capitols were separated by those few miles. Ultimately that clash of arms and aims would involve most of the eastern part of the continent, touching the lives of virtually every American family with 3.5 million men wearing one uniform or another.
On a warm July day in 1861, no one could have foreseen such a future, even though the shots fired on Ft. Sumter had indeed lit the fuse. A newly-formed Confederate Army commanded by General P.G.T. Beauregard had encamped near the crossroads town of Manassas Junction, posing an obvious threat to the Oval Office itself, and rousing a response from Union General Ervin McDowell charged with responsibility for the defense of the Union Capitol.
On July 21st, 47-year-oldWilmer McLean, a local wholesale grocer and retired Major in the Virginia Militia, was sitting down to dinner with his family and their guest – Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard in their comfortable Manassas residence, when gunfire broke out in the front yard, a Union cannon ball actually falling through the roof and into the cooking fire. The occasion was the opening battle of the American Civil War, an engagement ever after known as “First Bull Run” to northerners, or “First Manassas” to Confederates. The prefix “First” became necessary, because just one year later, a “Second” battle would take place nearby (another win for the South, by the way).
Wilmer McLean, too old to return to active military duty and concerned for the safety of his family decided to move to a safer location, and so it was that four years later, they were relocated at Appomattox Courthouse – approximately 120 miles south of their former residence – when the war came to an end with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. Once again, an oddity of which that war had more than its share took place when the two sides sat down and signed the famous surrender documents there in the McLean home. Thus, on April 9th, 1865 Wilmer McLean could say the war which began in his front yard had ended in his living room.
Bull Run/Manassas exemplifies one of the challenges facing any study of the geography of that vast struggle. Union chroniclers usually named battles for some feature of the battle field while those from the Confederate side usually referred to the name of a place on the map: Manassas was a crossroads town while “Bull Run” was the name of a creek which ran through the area. The North’s “Battle of Antietam” for Maryland’s Antietam Creek was the “Battle of Sharpsburg” to men of the Gray; “Shiloh” referred to a small church building, while the fight which took place there was “The Battle of Pittsburg Landing” in newspapers of the Confederacy.
There were literally hundreds of battles fought for control of transportation hubs, river crossings, railroad junctions, sea ports or simply for commanding and strategic points of high ground. Other costly engagements took place where no one had planned them, but because two great armies happened to meet, such as Gettysburg. Sometimes some tiny and seemingly unimportant piece of geography became associated with a denomination those who fought there would never forget, like Malvern Hill, Savage’s Station, Gaines’s Mill, Stones’ River, Yellow Tavern or Five Forks. (When I visit such out-of-the-way places even today, the shiver that runs up and down my spine reminds me that I am walking on hallowed ground.)
Because the media of the day devoted so much space to the relatively nearby drama being played out in that 100-mile stretch between Washington and Richmond (where the men in Gray dominated victory for much of the first two years), the public of neither side realized that the larger war was being won by the men in Blue out west. The little-known “Anaconda Plan”, advanced by the venerable General-In-Chief Winfield Scott at the outset of hostilities and quietly accepted by Abraham Lincoln was being played out. Fort by fort, mile by mile, Confederate supply lines were being rolled up as Union forces – on land and water – were taking control of the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Cumberland and the Tennessee, while the ocean Navy was making ever-more impregnable a blockade of Atlantic ports. Overseeing this western campaign was an unlikely candidate for any kind of fame; a failed Ohio shop-keeper and small-town businessman named Ulysses (Sam) Grant, about whom much more would be heard in the future.
Always an aristocratic gentleman, Robert E. Lee presents himself in full dress uniform with his sword for the surrender signing on April 9th, 1865 in Wilmer McLean’s parlor at Appomattox Courthouse. Ulysses Grant, dressed in rough and informal “field wear” is generous in his terms as men such as Gen. George A. Custer, and Capt. Robert Todd Lincoln (representing his father, the President) look on. As this tableau unfolded, Lincoln in Washington had only five days to live.
Much of the original McLean house disappeared into the pockets of souvenir hunters long ago. The historic landmark and its parlor have been reconstructed in detail, and appear today as seen here.
Winfield Scott understood that the Confederacy could be defeated only by total economic collapse when he shared with Lincoln a plan for the eventual encirclement of the South’s supply lines. The press of the day made fun of what they called the “Anaconda Plan” as in this cartoon. Events proved Scott to have been right.