First Battle of Manassas: Unwarranted Deaths of Savable Men
Originally published in 2020 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 25, No.1
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Introduction This study examines the unnecessary deaths at the First Battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861, initiated by unprepared armies and hordes of spectators congesting the fields and roadways. Manassas was the first major battle on American soil since the War of 1812. The Union Army had 35,000 soldiers: 1,011 wounded, 481 killed, and 1,216 missing; while the Confederates had 29,188 soldiers with 1,582 wounded, 387 killed, and 13 missing. The intent of this paper is to demonstrate how after forty-nine years of relative peace, both armies misunderstood the realities of a major battle, thus resulting in a lax view of Army Regulations, especially in staffing and supplying the medical corps and providing the necessary tools to save lives. Along with both governments’ misconception of actual war, many soldiers and members of the general public followed suit, having romantic notions of battle and glory. These circumstances combined to cause the unnecessary death of soldiers at Manassas.
Army Regulations According to the 1861 Army regulations, under the heading of Sieges, section 778 states, “The Quartermaster-General establishes the hospitals, and organizes the means for transporting the wounded to them;” and under the heading of Battles, section 716 states, “Before the action, the Quartermaster of the division makes all the necessary arrangements for the transportation of the wounded. He establishes the ambulance depots in the rear…” At First Manassas, the data indicates these rules were not implemented, and civilian battle spectators hampered ambulance aid to the wounded. Furthermore, the Union Surgeon General’s office, directed by Colonel Thomas Lawson, a veteran of the War of 1812, remarked that during the first year of the war the medical care was, “insufficient and defective.” Jonathan Letterman, Medical Director of the Army of the Potomac in1862, stated, when discussing ambulance care at First Manassas, “Neither the proper kind nor the number of ambulances was [sufficient] in the army at that time.”
Medical Care Prior to secession, the Regular Army of the United States had 1,117 commissioned officers, 11,907 enlisted, and the medical department was composed of “one Surgeon General, thirty Surgeons and eighty-four Assistant Surgeons.” At the beginning of the war, neither the Union nor Confederate armies had an official military hospital, nor did they have an evacuation plan for the wounded. For the Union, the standard practice was that each regiment was issued a small hospital tent but no assigned hospital corps, nor ambulance corps. Not until the Ambulance Corps Act of 1864 did an official Ambulance Corps exist. Each regiment had one surgeon, two assistant surgeons, medical supplies, and one ambulance. Typically, each regiment would care only for their own soldiers, and it was reported during the battle some regimental hospitals refused to receive wounded men from other regiments.
On February 26, 1861, the Confederate States of America Provisional Congress authorized the medical department of the Confederate army to provide for one Surgeon General, four surgeons, and six assistant surgeons; and by May, Congress assigned six additional surgeons and fourteen assistant surgeons to the regular army. The Confederate medical regulations suggest a regiment should be supplied with two four-wheeled ambulances, ten two-wheeled ambulances, and four two-wheeled transport carts. Ambulances should service 40 men per 1000, with 20 lying extended and 20 sitting. Yet, as Glenna R. Schroeder-Lien reports, these vehicles were often lacking in sufficient quantities and were usually found broken before, during, and after battles. In actuality, the Confederates dispensed two ambulances to a regiment, but usually relied on ordinary wagons, or “those captured from the Union.” In July of 1861, the Confederates medical ability “was anything but encouraging.”
Originally, both sides planned to use only authorized ambulances to transport the wounded from the battle to hospital depots, to steamer landings and then to primary hospitals. Yet, during the First Battle of Manassas, both sides quickly realized that the number of ambulances allocated was not enough; moreover, animals needed to pull ambulances and commandeered wagons were in short order. At Manassas, General Irvin McDowell and his command of 35,000 had only fifty ambulances, and according to Major William. S. King, Medical Director of the Union Army of the Potomac, each regiment (600 to 800 men) were issued one ambulance. The 27th New York Infantry went into battle with two ambulances but did not have an ambulance staff, and the 14th New York Infantry went into battle without ambulances or an ambulance corps.
In 1860, the Union Army’s regulations provided three hospital tents for each regiment (each tent could hold eight men), along with one Sibley tent (which could house twelve), and one common wedge style tent (which held six men). The numbers indicate each regiment could handle 78 wounded soldiers. This limited amount of space indicates static thought regarding how many men are wounded during a major battle. According to John S. Haller, in his book Battlefield Medicine, traditional army medical planning focused on “the needs of the regiment, without a strategy for evacuation beyond their own unit.” Even without combat wounded, the tents would be filled to capacity with the sick from other war-related diseases, “diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, measles, smallpox, fever, and other diseases aggravated by inadequate clothing, bad water, and poor food.”
When the rebellion commenced in 1861, each Northern state provided and supplied its own army regiments, each of which included one surgeon and an assistant surgeon. At Manassas, the Union had seven brigades with five batteries engaged in the battle—Porter, Burnside, Franklin, Willcox, Howard, Sherman, and Keyes–with an average of four regiments in each. According to Captain Louis C. Duncan of the Union Medical Corps, there should have been eight field hospitals and eight ambulance companies prior to the battle of First Manassas, with six of these hospitals placed near or at the town of Centreville. Yet, the only Union field hospital on July 21 was Sudley Church, located two-tenths of a mile from the battlefield. The church-hospital received some 300 wounded that day. This temporary hospital quickly became overwhelmed by the battle. Furthermore, the unexpected rout of the Union forces caused a chaotic retreat, which further complicated the ability of the overtaxed medical facility to care for their wounded. Panicked soldiers and fleeing spectators blocked attempts to aid the wounded, sometimes leaving them where they fell. Pre-War Atmosphere In Washington, Richmond, and many smaller towns and hamlets like Centerville, VA, there were several days of pre-war gaiety, with a carnival or festival-like atmosphere. Both sides felt they would quickly conquer the other, making the battle swift and decisive. The Union believed they would be in Richmond soon after the encounter, while the Confederates were ready to march onto Washington in their victory parade. Some excited Union supporters printed tickets to a grand victory ball in Richmond, while politicians and the general public on both sides loaded into carriages, rode horses, or walked to the battlefield. It was reported some spectators had field glasses, sandwiches and champagne and “thousands” were in attendance. Whereas, observer Edward Pollard, explained, “a stream of visitors …set out from Washington, thronged with gay women and strumpets going to attend ‘the Manassas Races.’” William H. Russell reported that at the beginning of the battle he and his friends, while resting in the shade of their buggy, “made a feast on … sandwiches.” Furthermore, it was reported, some “civilian onlookers would wave their hats and fluttered their handkerchiefs” as if at a sporting event, vying for their favorite team.
The Great Panic During the battle, this celebration turned into misery and fear, as McDowell’s 35,000 men were unexpectedly pushed back and routed by the arrival of Joseph E. Johnston’s men, who reinforced and rallied General Pierre G. T. Beauregard’s outnumbered rebels. Together, they pushed the Union forces back with such intensity that many soldiers panicked and fled in an unorganized retreat, running into the multitude of spectators; which in turn, caused thousands of observers to panic and flee alongside the Union soldiers. This action jammed the main road and created a bottleneck at Cub Run bridge on the way towards Centerville and Washington.  Additionally, this surprise Union retreat also caused the flight of some civilian ambulance drivers, who feared for their lives and disappeared with their ambulances. Furthermore, the Union army did not have any realistic type of emergency evacuation plan of the wounded in case of mass retreat.
According to Duncan, “The rout was a medley of troops, citizens, guns, wagons, ambulances, and carriages on a single road.” Edmund C. Stedman, who witnessed the retreat, states, “Army wagons, sutlers’ teams, and private carriages, choked the passage, tumbling against each other.” The St. Paul Daily Press, July 30, 1861, states, “Spectators running—many in carriages, ambulances, wagons, politicians, and soldier… all packed the road towards Centerville.” Duncan reported that during the panicked flight the bridge at Cub Run was completely blocked when the Confederate army fired cannons at the fleeing Union soldiers, hitting a string of wagons that waited to cross, “all vehicles not past that point were lost.” “Not only were pieces of artillery lost, but so were many of the ambulances carrying the wounded.”
Later, on July 21, Jefferson Davis writes, “the enemy was routed, and fled…the ground was strewn for miles with those killed, and the farm-houses and the ground around were filled with his (Union) wounded.” Conclusion This preliminary investigation into possible unnecessary deaths at the First Battle of Manassas reveals on July 21, 1861, both sides when combined had 64,188 men, of which, 2,593 were wounded, 868 killed, and 1,229 were missing. If we consider the Confederate’s textbook ratio of wounded per ambulance 40/1000, then for 64,000 men, they would have required approximately 1,600 ambulances plus crew, yet we know from the evidence presented, the ambulances at Manassas had great difficulty in assisting the 2,593 wounded and the 868 killed. To aid this many men, 86 ambulances and enough crew were needed. (Note: it is not known at this time if the 868 killed included men who were medically aided and died later, died instantly, or died waiting on ambulances, therefore they are included in the total of men who could have needed an ambulance.)
At Manassas, we do not have an account of how many ambulances were there, but we know based on the evidence presented, it was not enough. Moreover, most of the ambulances were driven by civilians who fled during the stampede, driving away in an empty wagon. Furthermore, one account has an undetermined number of ambulances destroyed waiting to cross Cub Run, thus reducing the ambulatory relief even more. The Armies at Manassas were vastly ill-prepared to deal with the sudden onslaught of wounded, as both armies followed outdated army medical thought on field hospitals and ambulance service. Forty-nine years had passed since the War of 1812, the last major battle that took place in America. This time span created a knowledge vacuum regarding the carnage war brings. Moreover, this void of information created a narrow lens in which the army and public viewed war. This void of critical information resulted in the army reducing the recommended medical supplies and equipment, thus jeopardizing the well-being of their wounded.
Furthermore, this ignorance of not fearing war induced soldiers and the public to romanticize the upcoming battle. For many, the pre-war days were full of merrymaking, each would boast about conquering the other, while some civilians planned victory balls. The vast multitude believed the battle itself would provide first-rate entertainment, as hundreds, possibly thousands, journeyed to the battlefield. This illusion of a “fun” war ceased for the Union and its cheering section when the Union was unexpectedly routed and retreated in a panic, causing fright and flight in the multitudes of onlookers.
The misunderstanding of war paved the way for poor war planning and unbridled pre-war optimism. The combination of these two factors taxed the medical care and turnpike infrastructure. This, in turn, caused many injured men to be left behind, “lying on the ground where they fell, for days, in the rain, without attention, or even water and food.” Three days later, Medical Director King and thirty-nine ambulances finally rescued the wounded. Many good men died unnecessarily waiting for medical care at The First Battle of Manassas.
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About the Author
Kevin Bair is a Ph.D. History student at Liberty University. He has his MA in Liberal Arts from Johns Hopkins University and his BA in Sociology/Anthropology from Florida International University. He is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Phi Kappa Phi, as well as Golden Key International Honor Society. He is also a member of Organization of American Historians, The American Historical Association, The Southern Historical Association, The Florida Historical Society, The Society of Civil War Historians and The Apalachicola Area Historical Society. He is a Navy veteran and member of Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and Paralyzed Veterans of America. His website and blog can be found at historywithkev.com. Kevin lives with his wife in the Florida Big Bend Area.
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