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The Tentacle


December 14, 2011

No Picnic in The Park or Congress

Kevin E. Dayhoff

If you are of the mind that our current session of Congress is mendacious, hapless and incompetent, you may take solace in the knowledge that an 1861 joint committee makes the recent ineffectual “Super Committee” – or other committees formed to conduct congressional investigations in recent memory – seem like Romper Room in comparison.

 

December 9th and 10th marked the 150th anniversary of one of the most powerful and controversial committees ever empanelled by Congress – The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.

 

For those who are reading this from Central Maryland and Northern Virginia, much of the history of the origins of this committee began after the First Battle of Bull Run or First Manassas, on July 21, 1861, which took place in nearby Prince William County, VA.

 

An article on the history of The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, available on the website of U.S. Senate, notes that “on Sunday, July 21, 1861, several members of Congress journeyed from Washington, D.C. … to watch the Union Army march into battle. On a hill overlooking Bull Run Creek, lawmakers, joined by journalists and other curious civilians, ate picnic lunches as they watched the battle – thus known as the ‘Picnic Battle’…

 

“As journalist Benjamin Perley Poore commented, spectators gathered ‘as they would have gone to see a horse-race or to witness a Fourth of July procession’… When Union generals finally called retreat around 4:00 p.m., the frightened soldiers fled for their lives…”

 

Furthermore, according to the Senate article: “Near the battlefield, a group of senators heard a loud noise and looked around to see the road filled with retreating soldiers, horses, and wagons. ‘Turn back, turn back, we're whipped,’ Union soldiers cried as they ran past the spectators.”

 

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. “Startled, Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler tried to block the road to stop the retreat. Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio, sensing a humiliating defeat, picked up a discarded rifle and threatened to shoot any soldier who ran.

 

“While Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts distributed sandwiches, a Confederate shell destroyed his buggy, forcing him to escape on a stray mule. Iowa Senator James Grimes barely avoided capture and vowed never to go near another battlefield. Dismayed, senators returned to Washington to deliver eyewitness accounts to a stunned President Lincoln.”

 

For those who study the American Civil War and prefer the unvarnished and unromantic version of the history of that horrific episode in our nation’s history, to say that “to the dismay of many northerners, the defeat at Bull Run was the first in a series of Union military disasters,” is an understatement.

 

“Casualties mounted and in October Senator Edward D. Baker of Oregon, a close friend to President Lincoln, died at the Battle of Ball's Bluff,” outside Leesburg, VA, 150-years ago, on Oct. 21, 1861.

 

For additional context of the gravitas of these events, know that President Abraham Lincoln had named his son, Edward, after Senator Baker.

 

Senator Baker is the only United States senator ever to die in a military engagement, according to the U.S. Senate website history.

 

Senator Baker’s death shocked the north and rattled the collective consciousness of the Union into realizing the war was for real and might not be over in weeks, as had been previously thought.

 

Unfortunately I was unable to attend a recent presentation at Morven Park, just down the road in Leesburg on “Civil War Historians Remember Ball’s Bluff Tragedy.”

 

The description of the presentation observed that “The Battle of Ball’s Bluff, Oct. 21, 1861, was not a particularly large conflict. The number of casualties was not overwhelming. No significant piece of property changed hands. And yet this is a battle about which books have been written. It was a battle that affected the way the remainder of the Civil War would be fought.

 

“Bodies of Union soldiers killed at Ball’s Bluff floated down the Potomac River to be found by Washington, D.C., residents…”

 

On December 5, 1861, in the opening days of the 37th Congress, 1861-1863, shortly after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff and the senator’s death; Sen. Zachariah Chandler (R., MI) introduced a resolution “to investigate the battles at Bull Run and Ball's Bluff, while other senators demanded a broad inquiry into the conduct of the war…”

 

In words that may sound familiar with the events of recent years, the Senate website article notes that “Senator William Pitt Fessenden … said, ‘We see many things done which do not meet the public approbation. We see some things done which we do not approve ourselves, and which evidently call for an investigation, or, at any rate, call for such an explanation as shall satisfy the people.’ ”

 

We live in the heart of where so much of the history of our nation took place and yet many take it for granted. I have been reminded of that a number of times in recent years as friends and family, who live far away, have visited the Central Maryland area specifically for the purpose of visiting Washington, or the nearby places where so much of the Civil War unfolded.

 

Morven Park is a 1,000-acre estate just south of Frederick and west of Leesburg off Route 15. The mansion dates back to 1781; and, according to the Morven Park historical account on its website, “was home to two governors: Thomas Swann, a governor of Maryland in the 19th century, and Virginia's reform Governor Westmoreland Davis.”

 

This holiday season, or in the cold winter months that approach, you may wish to take a break from the pressing political controversies of kindergarten proportions, that history may – or may not – be long remember.

 

If you have not taken the opportunity to visit Leesburg’s Morven Park, the Manassas National Battlefield Park, or Ball’s Bluff Battlefield and National Cemetery, you should put it on your day trip list with the family.

 

. . . . .I’m just saying…

 

kevindayhoff@gmail.com

 



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