Far from Home
Soldier's Son; Reluctant Witness

Many Civil War researchers and enthusiasts are familiar with the reports of Washington civilians riding out in their carriages to view the action of the First Battle of Manassas.  But as historian David Detzer reports in Donnybrook: The Battle of Bull Run, 1861:

Almost overlooked in the accounts was the fact that many civilians observed the battle on the opposite side of Bull Run…Their vantage point was much better than the Centreville knoll, and they could see more of what was happening.  One of them was a boy of about twelve… He knew his father was fighting over there, and he wept.

In reading this, I was immediately struck by the idea that this is the sort of personal reality which is so often overlooked in the general histories, and yet it is so representative of what war “feels like” for those individuals who are caught up in it. Upon researching further, I learned that a woman known to us only as “Florence”, who was presumably the wife of a Confederate officer stationed near Manassas, had come to the area to stay with family in order to be closer to her husband. As a result, she found herself right in the midst of the turmoil of the battle. In a letter to her sister dated July 24th, 1861, she describes her encounter with this young boy on the afternoon of July 21, in an area close to the field of battle known as the “Douglas Heights”:

Near me, on a noble horse that bore the marks of long and hasty travel, sat a boy of about twelve years old, the son of Colonel B____s, who had come from his home near Aldie that morning. His large blue eyes were fixed upon the distant scene, and his handsome features were convulsed with pain as he exclaimed aloud: “My father is in the midst of the fight; I must go to him!”  More than one detaining hand was laid upon his (sic) bridle, and several old men, gathering around him, represented the impossibility of finding his father in such a scene…I felt the tears dimming my eyes as I strove to speak some words of comfort to the boy.

With little solid information about this boy, I considered what may have gone through his mind, as he rode out alone some twenty miles from his home to this field of battle. He was probably driven by a desire to see his father, whom he may not have seen in a while.  He may have thought, in initially heading out, that it would be exciting to witness the battle; he may have imagined that his father would be easy to locate; he may have been thinking back to the pageantry of parades or rallies he witnessed in the several months past. But when he arrives, he is totally unprepared for the fearful spectacle he sees: the smoke, the noise, the confusion, the vast number of troops – the “machinery” of war. 

The paper in his hand is my own symbolic addition. Is it a letter from his father providing details about his company?  Is it a letter the boy wrote, hoping to get it to his father?  Is it a map? Regardless, it is the implication of a simple, basic human desire to connect with a loved one; a human need that, sadly, must be suppressed if the machinery of war is to be effective. Still, his deeply personal connection to the battle will not allow him the sort of detached curiosity that typified the mood of the Washington civilians watching from the other side of Bull Run Creek.

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View the next painting in the series:  The Notions of Safety and Security

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October 9, 2009