It was a time before newsreels. It was a time before the 24-hour news cycle. There were no battlefield photos from previous wars to be seen. It was a time before the photographs of World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam had seared images of war’s cruelty on the public mind.
The great mass of people didn’t know the reality of war. Everyone knew someone who had died violently because work was dangerous. People died of disease and epidemics because medicine was inadequate. Women often died in childbirth. But no one had ever seen death on the scale that the big battles of the Civil War were about to reveal. No one. Not ever.
So, when word spread in July of 1861 that there was to be a big battle near Washington, a battle everyone thought was going to be the only big battle of what they thought was going to be a short war, war became a spectator sport and scores of citizens went to watch . . . and to picnic . . . and to buy and sell pies and snacks . . . and in the case of some Congressmen to arm themselves and fight with the units from their home states. What the onlookers imagined they were going see watching a violent battle unfold, we don’t know. But what they did experience, left them shaken and demoralized, because after Bull Run they knew the war would not be over quickly.
More than 60,000 troops (28,000 Union, 32,000 Confederate) gathered in the gentle fields near Manassas in Virginia and went to war. The clash of armies raged throughout the day and when the battle was over there were nearly 5,000 casualties, small in comparison to later battles, but without parallel until then.
The 1st Minnesota, one of the last regiments to leave the field, suffered the highest unit casualties for the North that day with 48 killed, 83 wounded, and 30 missing. On a day that saw the Union Army retreat in chaos, the 1st Minnesota protected the Union left flank and retired from the field in good order. They were singled out for their cool performance in the midst of chaos.
To find out more, I strongly recommend Michael Ruane’s article on the Battle of Bull run.