Jonathan Salem Baskin

Rude Shock

Today, the cost of debate became clear.

The American Civil War started with lots of speeches and rituals. Secessionist legislators gave principled speeches about states’ rights before abandoning the U.S. Congress. Southern cadets marched stoically off the fields of West Point, and professional soldiers respectfully segregated themselves before parting ways. Friends and families debated the issues over dinners and cocktails. Then, the speeches got hotter, as the sometimes convoluted eloquence of the age proved unable to mollify the anger of the Union’s abolitionists in Washington, or the indignant pride of the Confederacy’s founders in Richmond. Serious principles were at stake, after all. When the South Carolinian harbor forces fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender with a mostly symbolic bombardment, nobody on either side was killed (though two Union soldiers died when ammo for the surrender ceremony blew up).

About three months later, however, former West Point classmates with little real combat experience proudly marched their newly-uniformed armies near the Virginian city of Manassas and, early on this day in 1861, fought the First Battle of Bull Run. Nearly a thousand soldiers were killed, and 4,000 more were wounded or missing before the sun set. It was by far the bloodiest battle in American history. Both sides were shocked by the ferocity and damage wrecked by guns, bayonets, and cannonballs; what had seemed sensible on paper or in rehearsal had been revealed to be deadly on the battlefield. Two senior Confederate officers were killed, revealing how vulnerable everyone was to the advanced armaments that the war would test. Generals on both sides would be promoted or demoted based on their performance in the fight. The Confederates also learned that their chosen flag (the Stars and Bars) looked too much like Old Glory when flown in the obscuring haze of battle and not parade fields, so they came up with a crossed-X battle flag that we remember today.

How was it that after the battle everyone involved could see clearly what was to come – over half a million would die before the war ended four years later — but nobody chose to change the nature of the debate?