As I began studying the Civil War, I often wondered why President Abraham Lincoln ordered Union troops to fight the disastrous first Battle of Bull Run although he knew they weren’t ready.
In June of 1861, Lincoln wanted an immediate attack on the Confederates in northern Virginia. But the commander of the Army of Potomac, Brigadier General Irvin McDowell, strenuously protested that his forces weren’t yet prepared for combat. Although McDowell pleaded for more time to train his raw recruits, Lincoln insisted, saying, “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are green alike.”
The result was a fiasco for the Union and for Lincoln. In that first major battle of the war, McDowell’s army was routed by the Confederates, and sent literally running back to Washington in disorganized and humiliating retreat.
What caused Lincoln to make the seemingly rash and certainly catastrophic decision to send his main army into battle when even their general said they weren’t ready?
I began to see the answer to that question when I read an article published in Harper’s Weekly for May 4, 1861.
Harper’s would prove to be a staunch supporter of the Lincoln administration throughout the war. But in the beginning, that influential periodical reflected the impatience of a Northern public that demanded that the President get on with the job of bringing the rebels to heel.
Noting that even friends of the administration were accusing the President of “want of energy” in prosecuting the war, Harper’s went on to say:
“[I]f Abraham Lincoln is equal to the position he fills, this war will be over by January, 1862 … With such support, and such resources, if this war be not brought to a speedy close, and the supremacy of the Government forcibly asserted throughout the country, it will be the fault of Abraham Lincoln.”
When Lincoln ordered an attack on the Confederates before his army was adequately trained, he did so because of the kind of public pressure exemplified in the Harper’s article. The newly inaugurated President understood that unless he was aggressive in putting down the rebellion, the country might lose confidence in his ability to restore the Union. And without that confidence and the political support that came with it, the war would be lost before it began.
That Abraham Lincoln was able to survive the disaster at Bull Run, and lead the nation to a hard fought victory that took far longer than anyone anticipated at the beginning is, I believe, a testament to the extraordinary political and leadership skills that mark him as the greatest of American presidents.