A "Picnic" Spoiled
Students of history have been amazed and appalled at the reports of Washington socialites who rode in carriages dressed in their Sunday finery and carrying picnic baskets to catch a glimpse of the fighting at the first major battle of the Civil War. But it is these smartly-dressed civilians who so perfectly symbolized the nation’s naïve view of the war in July 1861.
Historical writers who had not personally witnessed the event, as well as some who had, were prone to sensationalize the circumstances surrounding the civilian spectators. Judith McGuire of Virginia derisively described the group as having a “right royal picnic on the field of blood” even though she was not there to witness it. A war correspondent for the London Times, William Howard Russell, was present and wrote perhaps the most famous account of the scene, that included the suggestion that “a few of the fairer, if not gentler sex” were not only present but thrilling to the sounds and sights of battle. Historian John Hennessy has concluded that by “revel(ing) in the follies of our ancestors. . .We have contorted the image into a carnival: civilians sprawled about on blankets on the edge of the battlefield, nibbling on picnic lunches while watching death and carnage. . .”
Why did an estimated 500 civilians set out on that Sunday morning to ride several hours through deeply rutted and difficult roads on horseback or in horse-drawn carriages to witness a battle that would claim the lives of 847 men with more than three times that many soldiers wounded? Politicians and newspapers foretold of a war, if there was to be war, that would be of very short duration and with few casualties. Most Americans in 1861 had only read about wars and those wars had been portrayed as noble and glorious. As Hennessy explains, “most were spurred forth by a sense that they were going to witness something spectacular, something momentous.”
And what did these spectators see? From the vantage point depicted here – the heights just west of Centreville, Virginia, nearly five miles from the battle site – not much more than occasional clouds of smoke and glints of steel. Most if not all of the female spectators returned to Washington long before the battle ended, as did many of the news reporters present, leaving them with very little hard battle news to report. A few of the male civilians, frustrated with the limited view from this location, moved to a second location on the heights just east of the stone bridge and within a mile of the field of battle; some of them would eventually find themselves caught up in the Union retreat.
But regardless of how little or how much they would actually see at that moment, there is no doubt that for these spectators and for all Americans, this day would mark a transformation in their attitudes. As historian David Detzer writes, “After that terrible day it would be impossible for thinking people – on either side – to feel so casual about war. Bloodier battles would be fought in the next few years. . .but none would be quite so educational.” The "picnic" of American life had been rudely interrupted.
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August 20, 2009