Archived Reading Room

Remembering the Civil War

This year marks 140 years since the end of the American Civil War. In that time a gigantic library of books regarding the conflict between the Gray and the Blue has come into being with scores of books published annually on what Shelby Foote once called “the American Iliad.” Sometimes other events will cause this steady flow of literature to rise to flood-tide; the centennial anniversary of the war sparked everything from a Civil War comic strip in the papers to Civil War song albums, while Ken Burns’ television series on the war and the internationally bestselling novel Cold Mountain both sparked a renewed interest in the conflict, again accompanied by a burst of publications.

Though it may seem at times that any project bearing a relation to the Civil War may be published — we have yet to see a book on Civil War outhouses, though William Faulkner did write a Civil War short story in which an outhouse and a man named Backhouse figured prominently — these books keep coming into print because historians and readers alike find the war a subject of deep, perennial satisfaction. We turn to the War Between the States as a man will turn to an old scar. The pain has departed, but the memory of the wound and what produced it remains. It is the interest in this national scar that continues to replenish the ranks of Civil War buffs, thereby insuring the continuing production of books on nearly all conceivable aspects of the war.

One title that may stand with pride on the shelf of any enthusiast is David Detzer’s Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861 (0-15-603143-4, $16). Detzer has a clear, clean style that makes reading Donnybrook a treat rather than a chore. He lays out the battle so that the reader may easily follow its development and denouement. Finally, his publishers claim that Detzer is the first historian to detail the entire battle from its origins through its aftermath, adding yet another reason for exploring this book.

Surely lucidity is one of the major requirements for writing good popular history. A man or woman who wants to explain to us the maneuverings of armies or the machinations of politicians while at the same time engaging our complete attention is a little like a man walking on a tight rope while cogently explaining the theory and practice of balance: the performance so engrosses us that we forget that the man is both entertaining and edifying us at the same time. Detzer possesses this ability. Here, for example, he reminds us of certain traits of war which many historians and readers overlook:

“Burnside’s men were becoming desperately thirsty. Those who analyze war without taking account of the soldier as a human being cannot understand battle...When Burnside’s men reached Sudley Ford, the flowing water of Bull Run felt enticingly cool. For a few minutes the Second Rhode Island lost all organization. The horses stooped their heads into the stream to drink; men rushed forward to plunge in their canteens and burning feet ... These men were about to open the Battle of Bull Run.”

In addition to vivid and telling battle descriptions, Detzer also effectively presents the ideas and plans that led to Bull Run and its consequent effect on both sides. He notes, for instance, that after the battle both sides had more difficulty attracting recruits that summer. He shows us in detail how the leaders on both sides reluctantly concluded that the war would be long and perhaps desperately fought. He also demonstrates, through the use of personal stories, the suffering of individuals and families caused by this battle. In the entire Mexican War, Detzer tells us 1,733 Americans were killed in combat. At Bull Run, nearly a thousand Americans died.

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Donnybrook does contain small flaws. In describing the familiarity of soldiers with the use of guns, rifled or smoothbore, before the war, Detzer writes “only a minority of soldiers had much acquaintance with either kind. Even farm boys who had hunted — North or South — usually had used only the family’s rusty fowling piece.” Does he mean trusty? If not, how does Detzer know that such firearms were usually rusty?

In another passage in which he describes Centreville, Va., before the battle, Detzer writes that “Confederate impressments gangs had swept up many of the white males,” but were there impressments gangs at work to that extent in Virginia this early in the war? Detzer provides no evidence of such gangs. If so, however, why did they pick only on Centreville?

In addition to several books of mid-20th Century history, Detzer is also the author of Allegiance: Fort Sumter, Charleston, and the Beginning of the Civil War. He is professor emeritus at Connecticut State University.

Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run by David Detzer. 
Harcourt, 2004. 512 pages.

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