Both sides learn the horror of war at the First Battle of Bull Run.
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Both sides learn the horror of war at the First Battle of Bull Run.

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2 November 1993 (USA)  »

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The Ball Opens.
13 November 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

The first battle of Bull Run (or Mannassas) was the first sizable engagement of the Civil War, still small by later standards. Nobody was ready for it. The troops on both sides were green and expected a quick victory. The union soldiers were let by a reluctant General MacDowell who had been desk bound during his Army career. There was a clear winner (the Confederates) and a clear lose (the North, which was routed).

This was the battle in which Confederate General Thomas Jackson gained the nickname "Stonewall." At one point, with the Confederates fleeing in confusion, Jackson managed to rally his troops and stop the Union advance. Someone shouted, "There stands Jackson like a stone wall!" But this battle, relatively minor as it was, was entirely different from any that came later.

With the firing on Fort Sumter, many of the young men excitedly enlisted so that they could take part in the Civil War before it ended. The prevailing atmosphere wasn't one of sadness. It was relief and exaltation on both sides. Both sides -- men and women -- were ANXIOUS to fight. Each side thought it would be short and glorious. Their uniforms hadn't yet been standardized and men were dressed in various designer colors. The Union zouaves wore red pantaloons. Some of the Southern troops wore dark blue jackets.

In some ways, the most remarkable feature of the battle was not the combat itself, which was short and chaotic, but the attendance of the Washington elite. Families traveled by horse and carriage bringing children and picnic baskets and settled on a hill top overlooking the battlefield. It was to be a grand show, with parades, military bands, flags flying, and a rapidly defeated enemy. When the frenzied Union troops skedaddled, the picnickers and their wagons blocked some of the route and added to the mess.

Wars are always studied thoroughly -- the politics behind them, the weapons, the strategy and tactics. But these civilians onlookers deserve to be studied too because they are part of the collectivity, as much as the spectators in the Colosseum were part of the battle between gladiators, or the cadets are part of the event at an Army/Navy football game. The American philosopher William James proposed sports as "the moral equivalent of war." You get to let off steam. But it doesn't work that way at all. If anything, sports seem to have the opposite effect.

In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras suffered a dispute over the outcome of a soccer game, that brought long-simmering animosities to the surface. The two rag tag armies fought one another in what came to be called La guerra del fútbol. The war only lasted about 100 hours but 3,000 individuals lost their lives and the enmity lingers today. Spectator sports, especially soccer, it seems, can precipitate violence. I believe England's ban on soccer games is still in effect. Boy, was William James wrong.


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