The Advantages of Defeat

A scholar argues that the Union debacle at Bull Run was not such a disaster.

The hastily dug graves left on the field after the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 presaged the terrible fighting to come in the next four years. (Library of Congress)

In the spring and summer of 1861, the armies on both sides massed and trained for battle. Finally, on July 16, Union forces headed south, intending to take the Confederate capital of Richmond and put a quick end to the war. So confident was the North in the superiority of its forces that scores of civilians traveled south as well, picnic baskets and champagne in hand, expecting to witness the Union’s triumph. But when the armies met on July 21, the expected Union victory became a thoroughgoing Union rout.

Two months later, the prominent scholar and social critic Charles Eliot Norton sought to put the Union’s dramatic defeat at Bull Run in a positive light, arguing that such setbacks would only make for greater Union resolve and a more meaningful ultimate victory. Over time, other commentators would come to agree with this perspective (see “American Civilization” and “Late Scenes in Richmond”), observing that had the Confederate capital fallen easily at the outset of the war, the victory might have been solely military and likely would not have involved the freeing of the slaves.

—Sage Stossel

When the news flashed over the country, on Monday, the 22d of July, that our army, whose advance into Virginia had been so long expected, and had been watched with such intense interest and satisfaction,—that our army had been defeated, and was flying back in disorder to the intrenchments around Washington, it was but natural that the strong revulsion of feeling and the bitter disappointment should have been accompanied by a sense of dismay, and by alarm as to what was to follow …

It is now plain that our defeat at Bull Run was in no true sense a disaster; that we not only deserved it, but needed it; that its ultimate consequences are better than those of a victory would have been …

None who lived through the months of April and May can ever forget the heroic and ideal sublimity of the time. But as the weeks went on, as the immediate alarm that had roused the invincible might of the people passed away, something of the spirit of over-confidence, of excited hope, of satisfied vanity mingled with and corrupted the earlier and purer emotion. The war was to be a short one. Our enemies would speedily yield before the overwhelming force arrayed against them; they would run from Northern troops; we were sure of easy victory. There was little sober foreboding, as our army set out from Washington on its great advance. The troops moved forward with exultation, as if going on a holiday and festive campaign; and the nation that watched them shared in their careless confidence, and prophesied a speedy triumph. But the event showed how far such a spirit was from that befitting a civil war like this. Never were men engaged in a cause which demanded more seriousness of purpose, more modesty and humility of pretension.

The duty before us is honorable in proportion to its difficulty … We are not making war to reestablish an old order of things, but to set up a new one. We are not giving ourselves and our fortunes for the purpose of fighting a few battles, and then making peace, restoring the Southern States to their old place in the Union,—but for the sake of destroying the root from which this war has sprung, and of making another such war impossible. It is not worth while to do only half or a quarter of our work. But if we do it thoroughly, as we ought, the war must be a long one, and will require from us long sacrifices …

If defeat has brought us shame, it has brought us also firmer resolve. No man can be said to know himself, or to have assurance of his force of principle and character, till he has been tested by the fires of trial in the crucible of defeat. The same is true of a nation. The test of defeat is the test of its national worth. Defeat shows whether it deserves success. We may well be grateful and glad for our defeat of the 21st of July, if we wrest from it the secrets of our weakness, and are thrown back by it to the true sources of strength. If it has done its work thoroughly, if we profit sufficiently by the advantages it has afforded us, we may be well content that so slight a harm has brought us so great a good. But if not, then let us be ready for another and another defeat, till our souls shall be tempered and our forces disciplined for the worthy attainment of victory. For victory we shall in good time have.

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