“Most of the boys here think that we are just going to have a frolic,” wrote one South Carolinian before the Battle of Bull Run. It turned out to be rather more serious than all that, as this middling chronicle relates.
The Battle of Bull Run was more a colossal mess than a donnybrook, with respect to the title of Detzer’s (Emeritus, History/Connecticut State Univ.; Allegiance, 2001, etc.) latest work: it was inexpertly planned, turned on serious blunders, and provided a near–textbook example of the “fog of war.” Even so, only about a thousand soldiers were killed in the battle—a significant enough figure, Detzer writes, considering that “only 1,733 American soldiers had been killed during the entire Mexican War.” The chief virtue of Detzer’s overlong and overwritten account is its marshalling of such thought-provoking details: he notes, for instance, that a soldier’s woolen uniform weighed about four to six pounds and his backpack and other equipment about 40 more—far less weight than soldiers have to carry today, “but their burden tends to be much more artfully balanced”; and he affords a thorough look at how difficult it is, logistically and mechanically, to keep an army on the march through hostile countryside, which often leads to hungry, tired, and confused men being forced into battle. Unfortunately, however, Detzer tends to toss off characterizations—Jefferson Davis had no sense of humor, Pierre Beauregard was muscular but on the short side, Robert E. Lee was “certainly one of the best military minds of the era”—that do precious little to move the story or our understanding of history forward. And too often the prose sounds like Cormac McCarthy on a bad day: “. . . intestines handing like confetti from low bushes, soldiers with no faces or with holes blasted completely through them, men whose dying agonies had made them tug spasmodically at the grass until their fingertips turned green.”
Interesting perhaps for some Civil War buffs in its portraits of everyday life under arms. For the rest, though, there’s nothing particularly significant here.