CIVIL WAR: The “Great Skedaddle” — Union disaster, modern fitness event, or dumbing down history?

Re-enacters at Manassas, Virginia, for the 150 anniversary this past weekend.  The way a re-enactament should be.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love Civil War re-enactments.  A few thousand guys — fellow history fanatics — camping out on a summer weekend, with horses, explosions, cool uniforms and antique gear,  marching and charging, noise, gunpowder, celebrating the minutiae and deeper meanings of iconic events — all the good things about a war, and nobody gets hurt (except the occasional horse bite, twisted ankle, bad food reaction, or heat stress).

Can you imagine a better sign that two once-enemy peoples have buried the hatchet than being able to re-enact an old battle for the sheer fascination with history, legacy, and friendships?  Imagine a world, for instance, where some day Israelis and Egyptians might stage annual re-eactments of the Suez Canal crossings of the 1973 Yom Kippur War (Imagine the great gear for that!), then trade memorabilia and drink beers together over a campfire.  Then you’d know that true peace had really come to the Middle East. 

Stonewall Jackson and his Virginians turning the tide 
First Manassa, (Bull Run), July 21, 1861.  

The American Civil War is re-enactment heaven. We stage hundreds each year, especially here in Virginia, so rich in sites.  And this past weekend, the 150th anniversary of the first great Civil War battle — what Virginians call Manassas (for the town) and people up north call Bull Run (for the stream) — saw some of the best.

But even I had a swallow hard at seeing the strangest proposed event so far, what sponsors are calling The Great Skedaddle.  Scheduled for September 3, here’s how they describe it on their web site:  

 “The Great Skedaddle is a term used to describe the disorganized retreat of Union troops back to Washington after their unexpected defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. We will commemorate this historic retreat along the Washington and Old Dominion Trail with a running, walking and biking event along the paved W&OD Trail.”  

Really?  A celebration of a disorganized retreat?  For the sake of a bicycle ride?  At $20 per ticket?

Some quick history:

Here’s the problem.  The battle of First Manassas (I’ll stick with the Virginia name) was the first large engagement of the Civil War, some 30,000 Union troops under recently-promoted Brigadier General Irvin McDowell facing some 30,000 Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard  (McDowell’s West Point classmate) and Joe Johnston.  The war had barely just started, being just three months since South Carolinians had shelled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.  McDowell personally felt his own quickly-assembled army not ready yet for a major fight, but political pressure for a quick Union victory pushed him into the field.  “You are green, it is true, but they are green also,” President Abe Lincoln assured him before the battle.

Washington socialites and politicians gleefully joined the excitement.  When McDowell and his army took the field in July 1861, many local big-shots followed in carriages, along with wives, girls friends, and gourmet picnic baskets.  They all expected a rousing good time, the exciting spectacle of a victory against disorganized rebels.  

Union soldiers and supplies fleeing the Manassas battlefield on 
July 21, 1861.  Painting by  William T. Trego. 

The two armies met on July 21 near what is now the Washington, D.C. suburb of Manassas, Virginia, a short drive out today’s traffic-clogged Route 66.   McDowell struck first, sending his soldiers, full of fight and idealism, across Bull Run creek to attack the confederate camp. 

Despite many missteps and miscommunications, McDowell’s troops took an early advantage.  But after hours of hard fighting, the tide began to turn.  Union soldiers, trying to press an advantage at one key point, came up against Confederate Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, a little-known former professor from VMI (Virginia Militray Institute), who lined up his Virginia troops and ordered them to hold.  “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall,” Confederate Bernard Bee famously shouted.   “Rally behind the Virginias.” 

And so they did.  Whether Bee meant it as insult or compliment is unclear — he died in the battle — but the “Stonewall” nicknamed stuck and Jackson emerged hero of the day.

The Union soldiers began an orderly retreat.  But when traffic clogged a stone bridge back across Bull Run Creek, fear turned to panic.  Many of the exhausted soldiers, having just faced combat for the first time in their lives, dropped their weapons and ran as bullets flew overahead and cannon continued to bellow.  Supply wagons clogged the roads, along with the civilian tourists and picnickers joining the retreat — which heightened the panic and disorder.  They all raced back in the direction of the Capitol, and had covered ten to fifteen miles before order could be restored.  

The name people attached to the spectacle — the Great Skedaddle — was no compliment.   

Dumbing it Down:

What the picnickling spectators expected to see at Bull Run that day in 1861 was something much like the re-enactors of 2011: a fine visual spectacle,full of pomp and glory.  Instead, the came face to face with war: terror, death, and live ammunition.   In the end, the two sides at First Manassas suffered over 5,000 casualties, including over 800 Union and Confederates soldiers killed in battle.   McDowell would be replaced as Union commander. 

The W&OD trail today.  Things are much calmer.

 The Great Skedaddle, that panicked retreat,  was a sober growing-up moment for North and South alike. It ended any hope on either side for a quick war, and any pretense that war might mean glory and spectacle rather than pain, fear, and death.   The enormous courage and commitment of soldiers north and south who pressed on over the next four years was made all the more eloquent after they had faced the reallity of terror on the road home from Manassas in July 1861.  

So what does it say about out modern understanding of the Civil War that this same Great Skedaddle would become a moment to emulate?  Not a exactly a re-enactment, rather an excuse for theme-based outdoor exercise?    Yes, today’s W&OD bicycle trail — built on the old Washington & Old Dominion railroad track bed — approximately was the scene of much of the retreat, but that’s not exactly the point.

On one level, I suppose some of the soldiers from 1861 might be touched to know they risked their lives so that some couch potato 150 years in the future might stand up and turn off the TV for a few hours and get some exercise.  On balance, though, the Great Skedaddle gets my award for most dumbed-down history of summer 2011.
Again, don’t get me wrong.  Let’s have bike rides galore on Virginia’s beautiful trails.  But please, a different name.  Or, if you must (I admit, the name is kind of cute), then maybe another story?