By the end of June, 1861, much of the dirty work necessary to start a mighty civil war had been accomplished. Fort Sumter had been fired upon the previous April. The southern states, beginning with South Carolina in December of 1860, and then Mississippi less than a month later, had begun to secede.
Virginia and Tennessee—the states wherein the most battles of the war would be fought—were the final two states to leave, with Virginia abandoning her claim to the union in late May, 1861, and Tennessee on June 8. Like the rest of the states, both north and south, Tennessee and Virginia would pay dearly, as tens of thousands of their sons would be lost in battle.
Tennessee and Virginia also suffered the additional burden of playing host to many of the most horrible moments of the war—Tennessee would see Shiloh and Stones River, as well as battles up and down the rivers that run the length and the width of the state, while Virginia provided the fields for First and Second Bull Run (Manassas), Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and, ultimately, the surrender at Appomattox.
Also, by June of 1861, many of the leaders who were so integral to the war had assembled and had begun to prepare for a fight. The impending war was becoming infused with its personalities. The leadership in the north formed around the chief executive, Abraham Lincoln, whose election pushed the issue of secession to the front of the southern agenda.
The southern cause rallied around its own president, Jefferson Davis (right), a planter from Mississippi whose politics had carried him to the highest echelons of the American military prior to his arrival at the presidency of the confederacy. Each of these men organized their needs around the strengths and potentials of their followers. Often, they chose wisely; almost as often, their choices disappointed them.
At the beginning of the war, the man in charge of the Union army was General Winfield Scott (above), an individual who was not much younger than the nation, itself. Scott, born in 1786, was a soldier who had seen his more profound and active days. By the summer of 1861, his advice was still good, but he was in no condition to command an army in the field. After the first battle at Bull Run, Scott yielded his position to George McClellan, a man who would test Abraham Lincoln’s patience many times, eventually going so far as to oppose Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election.
In the south, Joseph Johnston was commander in chief of the rebel army of Northern Virginia until he was wounded and replaced by Robert E. Lee (right) in June, 1862. Ironically, Lee had been Winfield Scott’s choice to take control of the Union army upon Scott’s retirement.
And even though the highest ranks on each side were filled with enough interesting and disparate personalities to launch the Trojan War, the American Civil War’s first major battle at Bull Run was preceded by a much smaller battle in Alexandria, Virginia, a battle that would provide each side a martyr and give the war further unneeded emotional impetus to begin. Historian E. B. Long chronicles the events of May 24, 1861 in his tome, The Civil War: Day by Day:
As stealthily as partially trained troops could move, the Federals advanced across the Potomac at Washington and occupied Alexandria, Virginia . . . Added to the strategy and the thrill of the first advance, was tragic, dramatic death of youthful Elmer Ellsworth. Twenty-four, organizer of a famous Zouave drill team, Ellsworth led the First Fire Zouaves, or Eleventh New York.
Colonel Ellsworth with a few companions rushing toward the center of Alexandria saw a secession flag flying from the Marshall House. Ellsworth and two others dashed in to haul down the enemy flag. Descending the stairs with the banner, Ellsworth was confronted by the hotel keeper, James Jackson. Jackson blasted Ellsworth with his shotgun; Jackson was immediately fatally shot by Private Francis E. Brownell.
Ellsworth’s death plunged the North into a patriotic spasm of grief; the body lay in state in the White House. A friend of the President, Ellsworth became a martyr for the Federal cause. As the tears and cries of rage spread through the North, so, too, did Jackson become a martyr to the South.
Unlike the somewhat innocuous and blood-free fight at Fort Sumter, the clash at the Marshall House told the nation that the larger, imminent war would be viciously partisan, fierce, and horrible. That larger war would begin at Bull Run.
—Warren Perry, Catalog of American Portraits, National Portrait Gallery
The Death of Ellsworth / Alonzo Chappel / Oil on canvas, c. 1862 / Chicago History Museum / Charles E. Gunther Collection
Jefferson Davis / Mathew Brady Studio / Modern albumen print from wet plate collodion negative, undated / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Winfield Scott / Mathew B. Brady / Albumen silver print, 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Robert E. Lee / Edward & Henry T. Anthony & Company / Albumen silver print, c. 1861 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution