One of our favorite television “history” shows is Comedy Central’s, Drunk History. In this show, learned scholars with expertise in a specific area, historical event and/or person of historical significance, tells a story of said historical event/person peppered with additional insight/information based upon their studies/knowledge, whilst significantly inebriated. Comedy Central actors act out the scenes (and dialogue) as told by said learned expert.
With that in mind, this day’s excursion was fraught with history. Our destination, via General Lee Highway, Bull Run. The Winery at Bull Run to be specific (as there are around 250 wineries in Virginia)
What a better way to examine the completely disastrous (for Union forces) Civil War’s First Battle of Bull Run (yes there were two), then from where the first shot was fired.
Here with our niece and nephew (who are “club members”…with benefits), we would taste two flights of tastey Virginia wine, which by the way, in order to qualify as “Virginia” wine has to have the grapes, from which the wine is made of, predominately grown in Virginia. This particular winery boasts of a wine made from Virginia’s own “native” grape, the Norton.
Following the generous tasting pours, we enjoyed another bottle (or two…can’t remember) with an elevated view of the beautiful landscape that “hosted”, the Battle of Bull Run. Here, I would learn that this particular battle (of Bull Run) apparently had a “cheering” section, ie Spectators. Spectators you ask, well have I got a story for you…via “drunk history”.
History and libations! What could go wrong?
(This next entire piece is more fun, if read with a slur…real, or imagined.)
So this particular First Battle of Bull Run, also known as the “First Battle of Manassas” (so much easier to say after a few drinks), took place approximately 25 miles from Washington DC, on July 21, 1861. (By the way, and fun fact. The Confederate forces liked to name battles after nearby towns, while Union forces named them after natural features like rivers/creeks/hills.) So anyways, up to this point, the “Union” and the “Northerners” didn’t really take this Civil War thing seriously.
[Insert scene with period attire “Northerners” at afternoon tea…
“This war thing is so preposterous.
I mean really. Slavery is so 1600’s.
Geez, get with the times!
I freed my slaves years ago. Now I pay them wages and they don’t live in my house.
If you ask me, those Southern folk are all just a bunch of country bumpkins, who we should give a good thrashing”.
But the fact that the Confederate forces were camped some 25 miles away along the Bull Run creek, near the town of Manassas , put them just “too close for comfort”. The political big wigs wanted the Confederate “menace” removed, and this “rebellion” quashed…immediately!
[Insert scene with President Lincoln, influential Congressmen, Senators and Lincoln’s cabinet...
“We don’t have the time or the money for a lengthy war!
Hell, we don’t have enough soldiers as it is.
Not to mention the 90 day enlistements, that genius came up with over here, expire near the end of July.
Isn’t that a good bulk of our Union forces?
We need to get this “rebellion” over pronto!
Our 35,000 soldiers vs their 20,000 is a no-brainer.
It’s a simple numbers game, and it’s a days walk to Bull Run where those hillbillies are camped.
I say we end this NOW!
Get McDowell in here!”
Nevermind that the Union Army’s Brig. General, Irwin McDowell (newly promoted 3 ranks from “desk duties”, thanks to the influence of his buddy, and Secretary of the Treasury – Salmon P. Chase) didn’t think his troops were adequately trained or disciplined. ‘Sorry ass bunch of greenhorns’…or something to that affect is how he described his troops. But the politicians (who obviously knew better) thought if they attacked right away, the war would probably be over in a couple hours, or so. Besides, they told McDowell, if you won’t do it, we’ll promote a General that will. So on July 16th, 1861, McDowell not wanting to lose his job title rallied his troops and marched them in ridiculously hot and muggy weather…to battle…and for the most part, this very place upon which we are imbibing. Did I mention that it took twice as long as they had planned? Some dumbass forgot to pack enough field rations for the troops, so they had to wait for the wagon(s) to arrive. And, as it was so frick’n miserable of a walk, the troops, regardless of orders, would stop to rest and/or wander off to get a drink and/or pick apples, blackberries, whatever they could find, before continuing on…reluctantly. Meanwhile, the Confederates, led by West Point graduate and former US Military officer, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (the “Little Frenchman”), was camped by the town of Manassas, fully fed, rested and aware that McDowell and his exhausted men were coming (thanks to a spy in the Union Army…or would you call him a traitor?). Just for good measure, the “Little Frenchman” called for reinforcements (8,900), that were delivered by train, and just in time! These reinforcements just happened to include, of notable report, a Thomas J. Jackson, aka. “Stonewall Jackson”. It is here that the legend of “Stonewall Jackson” would begin, with having stood his ground (on Henry House Hill with his artillery)…like a Stonewall, whilst Confederate General Elliott Bee Jr. and his troops retreated…because they were tired.
Anyhoo. The Union troops arrive around the 18th, and get a day or so of rest. The morning of the 21st, and in the dark (say 2am-ish), 12,000 troops moved into their positions for a morning attack, having spent most of the time stumbling in the dark and getting lost. ( So they had that going for them as well.) As daybreak comes, reporters, government officials and average citizens are picnicking not far from this winery (actually nearby as there wasn’t a winery here then) with lunches and libations to watch the “festivities”. Many of them, I’m sure drinking wine made from Virginia’s own “native” grape, the Norton. I am told also, that German monks (brown robe guys), seeing that war was coming, and to be sure that the orginal Virginia grapes weren’t ALL lost in upcoming battle(s) dug up some plants and high tailed it to Missouri or someplace like that to preserve the “native” Norton grape…or maybe that was during prohibition…Either way, it was a good idea, as I found the Norton wine to be quite good.
If you think about it, who doesnt’ want to watch a good battle, in your Sunday best, over snacks and a bottle of wine? The battle begins, and things seem to be going okay for the Union forces, to which I’m sure the admiring spectators were clinking their glasses of wine, peering through opera glasses, commenting on the soldiers attire and tactics, and fist-bumping with each successful surge and kill by the Union Army…until it droned on to late in the afternoon. It appears that being hot, sweaty, a little chaffed and poorly rested and fed, take a lot out a person, particularly a volunteer soldier with a week left in their enlistment. In fact, some (two full units – 300ish) whose enlistment ended on the 21st, just said ‘fuck it’ and left. McDowell tried to get them to stay, but seeing as he wasn’t the “boss” of them anymore, they told him ‘it’s been nice knowing ya’, and walked back to DC to turn in their stuff, and get their check. So, by 4pm the battle was about even, and snacks were in short supply. The fans were a little dismayed. General Beauregard (the Little Frenchman) had also had enough of the stalemate, and not wanting to be late for dinner (I added that part), ordered his confederate troops to “Charge”. Stonewall Jackson, additionally told his troops, “And when you charge, yell like furies!”…’that should make them shit their pants!’ And with that, the “Rebel yell”, was born. David Bowie had nothing to do with it. So, this apparently scared the shit out of the Union forces, so much so that they hastily advanced to the rear…also known as running away. They fled in a very disorganized retreat.(I imagine a Three-Stooges style retreat here) This of course was quite upsetting to the spectators, who having become a little bored with the lack of action, weren’t really paying attention, or were in the process of high-fiving over what they thought was going to be a big “W”. NOT! “WTF!” I’m sure they said, as the soldiers trampled over their neatly laid out picnic blankets near Centerville Virginia (a few miles from the actual battle). Being good citizens, some offered refreshments to the fleeing soldiers, while others threaten to shoot the same soldiers if they didn’t go back and fight. But like all superficial sports fans, who leave a perfectly good game early, believing they know the outcome, the spectators similarly packed their shit and left before the battle was fully over. Actually it was a good thing, cause Union Army lost, BIG TIME! That put two big battles in the WIN column for the Confederates and especially the Little Frenchman , who started this whole Civil War fighting thing when he successfully attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston South Carolina (April 12-13, 1861).
Following the successful “Charge” and dispersal of Union troops back to DC, Stonewall Jackson returned from battle to where Beauregard had withdrawn his troops. Because both the Union and Confederate flags looked so similar (from a distance and when really tired), Beauregard got a little worried that he was about to get overrun, as he was not sure who was advancing on his position.
[Insert counrty scene with Beauregard and Stonewall in conversation…Stonewall clasping Beauregard’s shoulder,
Stonewall: “Dude, it’s just me and the guys. We won!”
Beauregard: “Ya scared me there for a moment. I thought I was gonna get my ass kicked. We gotta do something about this flag.”
Stonewall: “Ya, I was wanting to talk to you about that. General Lee has an awesome battle flag. A fully red flag with a big blue X with stars on it. Dude, it’s really distinctive. We might think about getting a few from him”.
Beauregard: “Ya, that would be a little less confusing, and I wouldn’t have to change my shorts so often…if ya know what I mean. Let’s celebrate with a drink!”
Stonewall: “No thanks. I like liquor, its tastes and its effects, and that’s why I never drink it”. (true quote)
And with that, the Little Frenchman pops open a bottle of “local” wine and finishes it off himself]
…just like this nice bottle here.
So when everyone got back to DC, which miraculously only took a day for what remained of the army, and the smoke cleared, 2700 Union Troops had been either killed (460), wounded (1124) or missing (1312). 2000 Confederate troops had also been either killed (387), wounded (1582) or missing (13). This defeat woke up the North, and President Lincoln for that matter, to the fact that the South was serious about the economics of maintaining slavery and which powers (State vs Federal) rightly belonged to whom. In fact, so shocked by the loss, the next day, Lincoln signed a bill authorizing 500,000 more troops and 3 year enlistments. No more of this skipping off from a perfectly good battle, because your contract ran out. Sadly, the 2nd Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas – if you’re a Confederate) would be won by the Confederates…again. Yet the Union would prevail, nearly 4 years later (April 9, 1965), but not without over 620,000 (some put it as high as 850,000) American soldiers (combined, both “sides) having lost their lives.
All joking and libations aside, the breadth of history (good and bad) that can be found within the DC area is mind boggling…or in this case, mind bottling.