- Reviewed by
After Gettysburg, Manassas/Bull Run is perhaps the most widely recognized [End Page 962] battle of the American Civil War. Yet its historical significance as the first major engagement of the conflict has not translated into much scholarly attention. The last study of the entire campaign was William C. Davis's popular treatment, Battle at Bull Run (1977), and in the decades since only two monographs—each focused only upon the single day's combat of 21 July 1861—have appeared. Now Ethan S. Rafuse, assistant professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, attempts to meld the familiar tactical report of the war's initial "On to Richmond" drive with the current trend in Civil War scholarship towards asking broader cultural and political questions. The result is a traditional military history preceded by a lucid rendering of its context. Rafuse dedicates the opening section of his text to supporting the proposition that for participants on both sides of the conflict, "their respective cultures had socialized them to believe that wars were usually decided by a single major engagement, that the outcome of battles was determined by the character of the armies and the righteousness of one's cause, and that the enemy, both in cause and character, was inferior" (p. xiv).
From that examination, which effectively synthesizes much of the recent historiography regarding antebellum mentalities, the author segues into a chronological retelling of the birth pangs and initial encounters of the raw Federal and Confederate assemblages that would come to be known, respectively, as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. Here the book offers far less to recommend itself to scholars, for while Rafuse has crafted an intelligible overview of the movements and collisions of the opposing forces, neither his presentations nor his conclusions add much to the existing literature. The decision to forsake contemporary manuscript or newspaper accounts in favor of a thinly sourced narrative constructed entirely from published books not only results in a predictable, commander's-eye view of much of the action (in contrast to the author's emphasis on "New Military History" at the outset), but also yields no discoveries of primary material. Further, a number of the brief biographical introductions of leading Southern officers sprinkled throughout the work contain errors of fact readily apparent to anyone familiar with the lives of the personalities involved. Although these are in every instance tangential to the story that Rafuse is attempting to tell, such avoidable mistakes will no doubt serve to weaken the author's overall credibility in the eyes of some readers.
A definitive tactical history of the engagement still begs to be written; at present, military historians will find John Hennessey's The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence (1989) superior to this account. However, those with an interest in understanding the reasons why most Americans in early 1861 expected the momentous questions of the day to be resolved in "a single grand victory" will be rewarded by a perusal of Rafuse's contribution.