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Just as we would not send any of our soldiers to march in other states, and tyrannize other people… so will we never allow the armies of others to march into our states and tyrannize our people… Thomas Jefferson “Stonewall” Jackson, CSA

There is a school of historians that proclaim that Custer was an idiot and was defeated by the combined genius of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse without ever seeing the irony that you really can’t credit someone with being a genius for defeating an idiot.

So it is also with the Battle of Bull Run. In this case Johnston argues from hindsight that if the United States had had a standing army able to put 50,000 men in the field the north would have been triumphant at Bull Run and the next four years of war avoided. This is typical of a foreign historian who is not bothered by the facts.

Prior to the civil war – and even after it – the army was composed of a small corps of federal troops and the militias of the states, whom the president had to get released by their respective governors before they could be called to federal duty. As late as the First World War, for example, the Texas Coastal Artillery was not “federalized” until after the congressional declaration of war.

Even if there had been a “federal” army of 50,000 men how many would have elected to go south with their commanders? The war might have indeed ended after the first battle with a Confederate victory in the entire conflict rather than the opening battle.

What is not addressed in this, or in most works about the battle, is that it was a political decision rather than a military one that limited the Confederate victory. The north was fighting a war of territorial aggression – they desired to and eventually occupied the South inflicting terrible casualties and destruction on their path to supremacy. The South was fighting a War for Independence. They made no territorial claims on the north. They stopped short of the federal city not because they had to but because they wanted to. It was a strategic blunder that probably sealed their fate but that is the price of interjecting political considerations into military conflicts.

Robert Matteson Johnston was a yankee sympathizer by inclination and a dilettante by profession. That does not mean he was wrong about the failure of preparedness – only that he misunderstands the true nature of it – or that he was wrong about the inadequacies of the union command, problems that would plague it until it replaced generals with butchers. If you read this as a propaganda piece encouraging armament before the First World War – it was published in 1913 – you will understand it. If you read it as history of the American Civil War you will be misled and confused when you are finished.

Bull Run ; its strategy and tactics    Carlilse, PA, Kallmann, 1996   Robert Matteson Johnston Bull Run, 1st Battle of, Va., 1861 Hardcover. xiv p., 1 l., 293, [1] p. fold. maps. 23 cm. Reprint of Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin company, 1913 edition. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG  

A critical probe of the opening land battle of the U.S. Civil War. the author delivers an unvarnished view, wastes no time with sentimentality, and places blame where he sees it. R.M. Johnston concludes. “The gravest anxiety prevailed [after Bull Run], and a change of commanders was decided on that brought McClellan to Washington. Whether McClellan was any better than McDowell may be doubted…”

The Federal defeat at Bull Run, according to R.M. Johnston, was. “a lamentable illustration of the awful calamities invariably attending nations neglect an army.” With a standing army of only 17,000 men and 600 officers at the beginning of the war, the early success of the Confederate army was no surprise: Had the country possessed even 50,000 men, a regular army would have been in the field at Bull Run, and few who read this account will doubt that the result of that battle would have been reversed, and the whole course of the war thereby altered.

Further on the rout at Bull Run. R.M. Johnston writes, “the military problem was one for the experts, and not to be solved by a handful of improperly organized three months’ volunteers.” The problem of effective Federal leadership would continue to haunt the administration in Washington and bring hope to Richmond for several years until the struggle at Gettysburg and the surrender at Vicksburg.

Robert Matteson Johnston. 1867-1920, was born in Paris where his parents resided. The son of William Edward, a physician, and Bertha (nee Matteson) Johnston, the father was formerly a New York Times correspondent in the Crimean War. The father’s interest in military affairs was to have a formative effect on the son’s later academic and writing career. Educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge. Johnston received an A.B. degree in 1889. Later, he received a law degree but never practiced, he engaged in private study in Cambridge and then published the first of many historical books, The Roman Theocracy and the Republic in 1901. After a brief stay in Naples, the author came to the United States where he taught at Harvard. Mount Holyoke and Bryn Mawr. A distinguished lecturer and prolific author, R.M. Johnston was particularly well-known as a proponent of military preparedness as a key to a nation’s survival and strength.


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