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Civilian onlookers during battles

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by Bobbie, May 30, 2008.

  1. Bobbie

    Bobbie Cadet

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    It seems that one of possible pastimes for civilians during the Civil War was to take a trip to a battlefield to watch the fight. I'm curious if such observers (politicians, ladies, kids, etc.) were present at battles throughout the whole conflict, or only at the beginnings (First Manassas)?

    Here's a splendid piece of poetry about this custom :smile: taken from Boston Herald (1861)

    The Civilians at Bull's Run.

    Have you heard of the story so lacking in glory,
    About the Civilians who went to the fight,
    With everything handy, from sandwich to brandy,
    To fill their broad stomachs and make them all tight.

    There were bulls from our State street, and cattle from Wall street,
    And members of Congress, to see the great fun;
    Newspaper reporters (some regular shorters)
    On a beautiful Sunday went out to Bull Run.

    Provided with passes as far as Manassas,
    The portly Civilians rode jolly along,
    Till the sound of the battle, the roar and the rattle
    Of cannon and musketry, drowned laughter and song.

    Their hearts were all willing to witness the killing,
    When the jolly Civilians had chosen their ground;
    They drank and they nibbled—reporters they scribbled,
    While the shot from the cannon were flying around.

    But nearer the rattle and storm of the battle
    Approached the Civilians, who came to a show;
    The terrible thunder filled them with a wonder
    And trembling, and quaking with fear of the foe.

    The hell's egg shells flying, the groans of the dying,
    Soon banished their pleasure and ruined their fun.
    There was terrible slaughter—blood ran like water—
    When Civilians were pic-nicking down at Bull Run.

    Their forms aldermanic were shaken with panic,
    When the Black Horse sweep down like a cloud on the plain;
    They ran helter skelter, their fat bodies swelter—
    They fly from the field thickly strewn with the slain.

    Oh, save me from their rage! oh, give me my carriage!
    The Civilians cry out at the sound of each gun;
    No longer they're frisky, with brandy and whisky,
    No longer they seek for a fight at Bull Run!

    Did they come down there balmy, to stampede the army?
    It would seem so, for how like a Jehu they drive!
    O'er the dead and the wounded their vehicles bounded,
    They caring for naught but to get home alive.

    For the sharp desolation that struck thro' the nation,
    We hold to account of Civilians and—Rum!
    When our soldiers next go to battle the foe,
    May our portly Civilians be kept here at home.
     

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  3. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Colonel Retired Moderator

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    Dear Bobbie,

    I am of the belief that in 1861's battle at Manassas/Bull Run was the only instance of 'civilian onlookers en masse'; to which did not help the Union in their retreat back to Washington, as it was clogged with civilians.

    I believe that battle put to the civilian populations on both sides; this wasn't entertainment -- this was bloody war.

    That said, I am of the belief that civilians did look on at battle scenes, as some had no choice as their city/town was in the middle of battles, actions and skirmishes. The evacuation of their town, e.g. Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, etc; would have forced civilians to watch from a distance anxiously as to see if their home would remain standing or not. Which is much different from the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas --where it was more 'curious or entertainment' and not the necessity of evacuation.

    Just some thoughts.

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,
    M. E. Wolf
     
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  4. rivrrat

    rivrrat Cadet

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    I agree. The idea of war as a spectator sport was pretty short lived.
     
  5. ole

    ole Brev. Brig. Gen'l Retired Moderator

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    Amen. What happened to the civilians in the area soon became apparent to civilians all over the map. It was no longer something to be viewed as entertainment.

    It is amusing to consider the naivete of those who initially considered a battle as a spectator sport. First Manassas is a classic example of an awakening.

    ole
     
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  6. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Colonel Retired Moderator

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    Dear List Members,

    I do understand the excitement for civilians that hear about war across the sea in Europe and the stories from Mexico and the West; it is only natural for those who have read about war, to which the reporters and papers put a romantic spin on 'gastly horrors of war,' downplay the blood and sights of horror--to lift the virtues of heroic soldiers--

    The Civil War in the vicinity of the Washington City was too tempting.

    Before the Civil War, only etchings and artist's mental picture would be offered--The Civil War was the first time the actual photograph of war would be presented in its true light--where death and war would not be painted in romance. Although these photographs were taken afterward; it still was the first time for citizens to see what price was paid.

    Just some thoughts.

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,
    M. E. Wolf
     
  7. Bobbie

    Bobbie Cadet

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    Thank you for sharing your opinions. Indeed, I have heard about such civilian "entertainment" only in the context of the First Manassas. It's difficult to imagine what such people expected to see during the battle- something romantic or rather macabre? Probably many of them previously read about wars in Walter Scott's novels or similar prose, where descriptions of fighting men are deprived of disturbing bloody images. And then they saw the real fighting, not so heroic and not so pure, where people were dying and moaning in pain. I can guess that they had enough of it very soon.
     
  8. Hanny

    Hanny Banned

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    The surrender was signed in house, owned by a man who left Bull Run when a battle was fought on his land, sold his land and proprty after what he saw, so he went further south to avoid the war, only to have it end in his new parlour.

    Not quite what you on about, but always intrests me.
     
  9. Bobbie

    Bobbie Cadet

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    Yes, what a strange coincidnece. If the fellow had betted a dollar on that, bookmakers would have gone bankrupt :smile:
    His name was Wilmer McLean, I believe.
    Thanks for the post, Hanny.
     
  10. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Colonel Retired Moderator

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    Dear Hanny and Bobby;

    I believe you mean Wilmer McLean --

    1865 McLean House View


    Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met at the home of village resident Wilmer McLean where the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia was agreed to on April 9, 1865. In the late summer of 1865, Timothy O’Sullivan made this picture of McLean and his family gathered on the front-porch. It is one of at least three photos taken of the house by O’Sullivan. McLean is the gentleman closest to the front door wearing the light colored jacket. He is surrounded by his family; his wife, Virginia “Jennie,” sits to his left. Also in the photo are Maria (21), Osceola “Ocie” (20), Lucretia “Lula” (8), and Nannie (2). Wilmer Jr. (11) does not appear in the photo. The Raine family built the house in 1848. McLean bought the house in the spring of 1863.



    Contrary to some accounts, Wilmer McLean was never a farmer, nor did he ever serve in the Confederate army. Rather, he was a merchant who sold goods to the Confederate government during the war. Before the conflict, he was in the wholesale and retail grocery business. McLean’s limited farming experience came from managing the Yorkshire Plantation owned by his wife near Manassas, Virginia. Though McLean liked to tell people that he moved his family from Manassas to Appomattox to escape the war, the move was primarily based on economic factors. No doubt, he did have concerns for the protection of his family after two battles were fought near his property outside of Manassas. However, the main reason was that, during the war, he worked as a sugar broker. Dealing in this commodity required McLean to spend considerable time in south side Virginia, and when his northern Virginia property came under Federal control, it became unfeasible and unprofitable for him to remain in Manassas. Thus, he moved to Appomattox Court House out of necessity.



    The McLeans resided in Appomattox Court House until 1867. Wilmer McLean did his part in seeing that the Confederate Cemetery was successfully established. Not only did he entertain the guest speaker, Colonel Farrar, who helped raise money for the project, he also assisted in digging the new graves and disinterring the bodies from their scattered burials. Unable to make the payments on their Appomattox home, the McLean family moved back to their Manassas home in the fall of 1867. The surrender house was sold at public auction. More financial difficulties ensued for McLean, and he later moved his family to Alexandria, Virginia. There he worked for the Internal Revenue Service from 1873-1876. In 1876, he transferred to the U. S. Bureau of Customs and remained employed until 1880. Wilmer McLean died on June 5, 1882, and his wife died on August 26, 1893. Mr. And Mrs. McLean and many family members are buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria.



    Mrs. Ragland sold the former McLean house to Myron Dunlap of Niagara Falls, New York, in 1891. In 1893, Dunlap had the building dismantled. He arranged to move and reassemble the house in Washington, DC, where it would be on permanent display as a Civil War museum. Dunlap failed to secure funds to complete the project and the materials remained rotting on the site until the National Park Service undertook the reconstruction of the house. Some of the original materials were used in the project (including over 5,000 original bricks). R. E. Lee, IV and U. S. Grant, III dedicated it on April 16, 1950.



    The surrender meeting between Lee and Grant occurred on April 9, 1865, in the parlor of the McLean house. Lee’s military secretary, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Marshall, chose the meeting site. The conference between Lee and Grant lasted about an hour and a half. Altogether, Lee spent about two hours at the McLean House and Grant remained there for about three hours. Union General John Gibbon, commander of the 24th Corps, Army of the James, used the house as his headquarters from April 10-17, 1865.

    www.civilwar-books.com/McLeanHouseEnlarged

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,
    M. E. Wolf
     
  11. Bobbie

    Bobbie Cadet

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    M E Wolf,
    very informative and interesting post. Thank you for sharing.
    Only the link you gave doesn't work on my computer (possibly there's something wrong with my wrecked computer, not with the link).
     
  12. Hanny

    Hanny Banned

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    M E Wolf, thank you for that info, some i had forgotten and some i dont think i ever knew in the first place.
     
  13. Hanny

    Hanny Banned

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    Your welcome, US History is replet with odditys like that, from Adams and Jefferson both dying on the same 4 July, to a Union regiment haveing 2 future presidents in it at the same time, one unlucky shell and who knows the effect it would have had on history.

    Bookmakers going out of buissines sounds good to me!!.
     
  14. M E Wolf

    M E Wolf Colonel Retired Moderator

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    Dear Bobby,

    Try just doing a search on Wilmer McLean House or just Wilmer McLean; it pops up fine on AOL as well as Google.

    As for future Presidents --
    1. Andrew Johnson - May 4, 1862 - Mar 3, 1865 Army, Military governor of Tennessee: raised 25 regiments for Union. Lincoln's VP.
    2. Ulysses S. Grant - Jun 6, 1861 -1865, Army, 7th Regt (21st Illinois Volunteers
    3. Rutherford B. Hayes - Jun 27, 1861 - Jun 8, 1865, Army, 23rd Ohio Volunteers
    4. James A. Garfield - Aug 14, 1861 - Dec 1863, Army, 42nd Ohio Volunteers
    5. Chester A. Arthur - Jul 10 - Dec 31, 1862, Militia, Served six months as quartermaster general of New York state troops
    6. Benjamin Harrison - Jul 14, 1862 - Jun 8, 1865, Army, 70th Indiana Regt.
    7. William McKinley - Jun 11, 1861 - Jul 26, 1865, Army, 23rd Ohio Volunteers


    Just some thoughts.

    Respectfully submitted for consideration,
    M. E. Wolf
     
  15. matthew mckeon

    matthew mckeon Brigadier General Moderator

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    Jefferson Davis rode out during the 1st Bull Run and the Seven Days Battles, and saw some fighting, or the results of fighting.

    Famously Abraham Lincoln watched the fighting from Fort Stevens in 1864, during Early's raid. I think Thaddeus Stevens was there too, but I may be mistaken. According to legend, Lincoln was dragged to cover by a young Oliver Wendell Holmes, shouting "get down, you fool."
     
  16. BlowHorn

    BlowHorn Cadet

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    What an interesting poem. It almost makes you feel like you're being taken back in time. I've never really thought of people turning up to watch battles like a show before. It sounds pretty risky.
     
  17. Specster

    Specster First Sergeant

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    Even the photographers stayed away, after 1st Mannassas/Bull Run. (The pictures were taken of the aftermath)
     
    Last edited: Dec 17, 2015
  18. Tom Elmore

    Tom Elmore Sergeant

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    Curiosity got the better of John Wills, a resident of Gettysburg who resided at the Globe Inn on Chambersburg Street. On the late afternoon of the second day of battle, he climbed up to the roof of the inn to watch Latimer’s artillery deployment. A Confederate officer soon appeared on the street below, calling out, “General Early wants to see you, and if you come down now you will not be hurt.” He was marched to Early’s headquarters on East Middle Street. Early demanded to know what Wills was doing up on the roof. Wills replied that he was watching the battle. Early angrily responded, "Your people are on the streets. They are at their garret windows. I sent guards door to door to tell them to get into their cellars, or at least stay inside, the only safe place. I want to save your people." Wills was indeed fortunate that he was not arrested and forced to accompany the Confederates back to Virginia, as happened to other citizens in the vicinity whose intentions were suspect, that is, gathering intelligence on behalf of the enemy, as opposed to mere idle curiosity. The same held true in Confederate territory - Mosby forged an illustrious career by enlisting the local populace to help him defeat the Federal occupiers, who had good reason to distrust the motives of any civilians they encountered. A curiosity seeker may also be a spy.

    Early's advice was both sound and humane. Any civilian who showed themselves at a window, or even walked down the street, was liable to get struck by a bullet (minie ball), fired at random or deliberately. Federal sharpshooters were active trying to counter Confederate snipers posted in the town, and while they were very accurate at a great distance, they could not distinguish an enemy combatant from a citizen. So there were a number of close calls. In the first battle of Manassas, many folks had no idea what to expect, although they were soon educated. But, just as curiosity killed the cat, it can also easily kill a civilian around a battlefield.
     
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  19. AndyHall

    AndyHall Lt. Colonel

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    [​IMG]

    The shooting war on the Texas coast began on August 3, 1861, when a Confederate battery fired on a U.S. schooner that strayed too close to shore here at Galveston. Civilians in town heard the firing, and by late in the afternoon, when U.S.S. South Carolina steamed in close to return fire in retaliation (above), the dunes along the beach were lined with civilians who'd come to watch the fight. There must have been several hundred, at least -- not nearly so many as at First Manassas a couple of weeks before, but still a sizable number. Quite a few shots went wild in the ensuing exchange between South Carolina and the batteries, landing in the town and in the dunes, and one civilian spectator was killed -- or at least, all the parts they found of him afterward were definitely deceased.

    So yes, it happened elsewhere, but it was very much a practice limited to the first few engagements.
     
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  20. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Lt. Colonel Forum Host

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    You do wonder at the naïve perspective attached to civilians who thought observing Bull Run's battle would be another of those Victorian entertainments where you took a plaid rug and picnic. They did, too. Thankfully the ensuing shambles erased forever any desire to regard death as a past time. My grgrgrandfather's brother, JPK's uncle was one- a politician, went out with another 3. Several explanations what in blazes they were doing out there, 2 were captured, my uncle the next day after having the wit to slip away. A lot of civilians were captured at Bull Run- anyone suspected of having government ties was not released. Died in Richmond. That's a whole, 'nother story, Van Lew having spotted him sick with Typhoid in Leggons, took him home to the Van Lew mansion. He died there. Long journey from getting into a carriage one day to go see a battle.
     
  21. JPK Huson 1863

    JPK Huson 1863 Lt. Colonel Forum Host

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    I'm not sure- and it wouldn't be very close, but isn't this photo meant to be watching a battle, Nashville?

    nashville.jpg
     

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