The Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the Civil War, and it drew a group of spectators to watch the action on July 21, 1861, near Manassas, Virginia. Onlookers gathered with something of a sporting atmosphere, as many Northerners expected the war to end in a swift Union victory. Describing the scene for The Times of London, Irish war reporter William Howard Russell wrote, “A lady with opera glasses shouted loudly at each discharge of cannon: ‘That is splendid. Oh my! Is not that first rate?’” Union Captain John Tidball later wrote that people came “in carts loaded with pies and other edibles.” In fact, so many people brought food and drink to the hill overlooking Bull Run Creek that the conflict became known as “the picnic battle.” The crowd even included some prominent politicians: Senators Benjamin Wade from Ohio, Zachariah Chandler from Michigan, James Grimes from Iowa, and future Vice President Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who brought and distributed sandwiches.
The battle ended with what was a surprising outcome for the spectators, as the Confederate forces managed to drive the Union Army back, sending soldiers retreating through the crowd. Senators Chandler and Wade attempted to stop the retreat — Chandler by blocking the road, and Wade by picking up a rifle and threatening deserters — but they were ultimately unsuccessful. Many Union soldiers had only signed up for a 90-day war (as that was all the President could mandate by law), and the Confederate victory at Bull Run was a chilling sign that the fight was likely to stretch on longer than anyone had anticipated.