The Truth of the First Battle of Bull Run

A Civil War regiment did its bit—and has been taking grief for it ever since. But should Norristown's 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers have been denied a hero’s welcome?

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Maj. Edwin Schall staunchly defended the actions of his regiment in the local newspaper he published.A poor workman blames his tools. That pretty much sums up Civil War Gen. Irvin McDowell and the local residents who believed him. McDowell blamed his 1861 loss at the First Battle of Bull Run on a Norristown regiment.

“When the army moved forward into battle,” wrote McDowell in his official report, “these troops moved to the rear to the sound of the enemy cannon.”

Publicly branded as cowards, the 600 returning veterans of the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ridiculed in Norristown. The borough had seen them off with flags and cheers just three months earlier.

The truth was more complicated. The 4th was a three-month regiment whose enlistment expired before the battle. (Political leaders at the time thought 90 days would be plenty of time to put down the rebellion.) The men were entitled to leave. They were also exhausted, unfed for days, and had lost members to disease, suicide and official incompetence, not to mention the rebels. Because Bull Run was a surprise attack, they didn’t know they were walking away from a battle.

The Army eventually took McDowell’s measure. By 1864, after further disasters, he was reassigned to San Francisco, where he commanded all troops west of the Rockies, which was almost no one at all.

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