MICHIGAN AND THE CIVIL WAR: First Battle of Bull Run

Jul 21, 2011

East Lansing, MI –

It's time to mark another 150th anniversary of an important Civil War event.

The First Battle of Bull Run was fought on July 21st, 1861.

WKAR's Scott Pohl discussed the battle with Roger Rosentreter, the former editor of Michigan History magazine and an adjunct professor at Michigan State University.

He says the Yankees lost this first battle of the war. The Northern forces included the First Michigan Infantry, led by Colonel Orlando Willcox. Despite the loss, Rosentreter calls Willcox "the Michigan hero" of Bull Run.

ROGER ROSENTRETER: "Well, first of all, Willcox is a native-born Detroiter, born in 1823. His family had actually come to America from England as early as 1634, so they've got deep American roots. They'd settled in Connecticut, ultimately they make their way to Michigan in the post-War of 1812 period. He's well educated, he likes history, he reads, he writes, he decides he needs a career. Well, he was going to be a preacher, and then he says maybe I want to go into the military. His grandfather had fought in the American Revolution. He gets an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy, graduates in 1847, doesn't have much of a Mexican War experience, and then in 1857 he will leave the Army. But again, like a lot of these guys that had been at the Military Academy (U.S. Grant comes to mind), when the Civil War starts, he's now going to respond to the call. He's going to lead the First Michigan to Washington, and then move up to brigade command, where he will have a major role in the Battle of First Bull Run."

SCOTT POHL: "How did Michigan fare, specifically, in this battle?"

ROSENTRETER: "Well, the First Michigan will fight on Henry House Hill, which is the climax of this one-day battle. It's in the afternoon of July 21st, it's a period of time where the Yankees are throwing troops in a piecemeal fashion. They really don't deal with the battle by the afternoon as well as they probably should. There is the Confederates, particularly the Virginians led by Stonewall Jackson who are standing Stonewall, yes, Thomas Jackson standing at the top of that hill, and the First Michiganians will be among those Union troops that will fight there, and it's here that Orlando Willcox will be wounded."

POHL: "What happened after he was wounded?"

ROSENTRETER: "Well, he's wounded, his troops will retreat, he will be taken prisoner. Fortunately, the miniball had not struck a bone, hence he didn't have to suffer an amputation. He will then spend a year in Confederate hands before he will be returned and then move on to other commands throughout the war."

POHL: "And you've mentioned that he did quite a bit of writing, which people can read to this day."

ROSENTRETER: "What's really wonderful about Orlando Willcox, at least in recent years, is that his memoirs and journals and his Civil War letters, the letters obviously written during the war, the journals written during the war, and then the memoirs after the war, kind of after he passed away in 1907, were in a trunk that was only discovered in the 1990s. They have since been edited and been published by Kent State University Press. It's in a publication entitled "Forgotten Valor," which is a really good look at what it was like to be a Civil War officer, and a number of the commands at a number of the fields of battle, during the war."

POHL: "Would you say that Willcox is one of the Civil War figures who isn't recognized to the degree to which he ought to be?"

ROSENTRETER: "I think that's a fair assessment. Maybe we'll see in subsequent years, with his memoirs and journals, that he'll earn greater recognition. He also sometimes is on a battlefield which was, again, a Union loss the Battle of the Crater, for example, in July of 1864 comes to mind. As a result, he's kind of on the losing end sometimes, and I don't think he received as much recognition as he should."

POHL: "We remember the winners, and they write the history."

ROSENTRETER: "Well, we do remember the winners, and I think Orlando Willcox qualifies as a winner, not just because a native Michiganian and sympathetic to Michiganians, but he's insightful, he was on a number of significant fields of battle, and gives us a good perspective. And again as we've mentioned, earns the Medal of Honor as a result of the actions at the Battle of First Bull Run, and it's kind of rare. He gets the medal in the postwar period in the 1890s. It's kind of rare for a general officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor, so clearly, at the time, they thought he had earned it."