War Becomes a Reality

Going to See the Elephant, July 1861

By Paul Chouinard, President of the Danville Historical Society

Editor’s Note: “Going to see the elephant” was an expression used by enlistees to the Union Army describing the experience of country boys going off to war where they would experience life in ways they could not have imagined.

With the Capitol at Washington under threat of invasion by the Confederate Army, Union soldiers transport the United States Government's standard weights and measures to St. Johnsbury for safekeeping. Caption and illustration from the book Pioneers In Industry Fairbanks, Morse & Co.

July of 1861 marked a turning point. War became a grim reality with major battles fought, resulting in serious injuries and loss of life. Men returned home bearing the physical and psychological scars of war. Generally, the reality of war did not hit home until news of local casualties arrived. The first Danville casualty was Charles D. Cook, who was just seventeen years old when he died in the hospital at Camp Griffin, Virginia, of typhoid fever in November of 1861. The optimism which had prevailed at the outset of the war, regarding the fact that union forces would quickly triumph, began to fade.

According to Susannah Clifford in Village In the Hills: “There was at least one family in Danville that had relatives fighting on both sides of the battle lines, but in this particular case kinship proved stronger than patriotism. James Davis, son of Bliss Davis, was the only known Danville soldier to see the war from the Confederate side. James went west at age eighteen to live with his uncle in Ohio and then moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to study medicine. When the war broke out in 1861, he joined the Confederate service as an assistant surgeon of the Seventh Louisiana Regiment and later became full surgeon. He served throughout the war and was present at all the major battles in northern Virginia. James cousin, Alexander, who was with the Union army, was wounded at the battle at Savage’s Station, captured by the Confederate army and sent to Andersonville Prison. While in prison, Alexander learned that his cousin was in Richmond, and he wrote to James to let him know of his situation. James immediately set to getting Alexander exchanged and even furnished him with transportation back to his regiment.”

On the home front, local farmers and horse breeders in Danville helped furnish the cavalry with fine horses. Danville’s Merino Sheep and Greenbank’s woolen mill contributed to the war effort, as did most other textile mills in New England, by providing woolen broadcloth for the production of blankets and uniforms. In the autumn of 1861, Greenbank’s mill received federal contracts to manufacture woolen broadcloth for uniforms.

A pair of stirrups made in Fairbanks factory for use by Union cavalrymen in the Civil War. Caption and photograph from Pioneers in Industry Fairbanks, Morse & Co.

Early in 1861, with the city of Washington in grave danger, the official standard weights of the United States Government were moved to St. Johnsbury for safekeeping. E. and T. Fairbanks and Co. began the manufacture of brass stirrups and brass trimmings for the Northern cavalry, as well as of artillery harness irons and curb bits. In addition the officials of the New York branch of E. and T. Fairbanks helped Governor Erastus Fairbanks secure supplies for both infantry and cavalry of the Vermont regiments.

THE NORTH STAR, July 13, 1861


It recommends that Congress provide, by legal means, for “making this contest a short and decisive one;” and the President asks that body to pass an act to raise 400,000 men, and $400,000,000. to prosecute the work. Should Congress grant it, we trust the great power thus conferred, will be wisely used, in crushing rebellion, and giving to this mighty conflict a strictly national and Union-restoring character.

Crisis and General News Items

In Ohio, a contractor made out of the simple articles of camp-kettles, tin-cups and tin plates furnished to the Government, the sum of $25,000. The amount of public swindling now going on is generally regarded as never before equaled under any former Administration.

Capt. Kellogg of the 24th Connecticut regiment, who was recently captured by the rebels, was decoyed into a house by a strange woman while on picket duty. It is said the same female has decoyed two other pickets into her dwelling in order to have them prisoners. Our soldiers will find out that it is dangerous work to go into a strange house with a strange woman to picket…

THE NORTH STAR, July 20, 1861


The war intelligence this week is unusually important; it is also cheering to the Federal cause. Gen. McClellan has achieved some grand results in Western Virginia defeating the rebels 10,000 strong, causing them not only to retreat, but a large body of them to throw down their arms and surrender; and this is no hearsay story, but is the official report.


The Great Battle and Repulse

Our war news of this week, presents a mournful record—one that must cast gloom over the loyal states, and carry sorrow to the homes of thousands. We have no heart to dwell upon the harrowing details. The Federal army has met with an unexpected and severe defeat; and yet under the circumstances, it is difficult now to see how the result could have been otherwise than disastrous. The forces engaged were by no means equal—ours being inferior to the rebels, both as to numbers and position…the “high –pressure” politicians at Washington, who have asserted all along that the Confederate army was weak in numbers, material and courage, and who have been insanely and incessantly urging Gen. Scott to make a forward movement to Richmond, almost against his better judgment—these men must now admit that the movement was precipitated, and perceive their folly in so tenaciously insisting upon it. Their counsels will hereafter be of little avail.

The Third Vt. Regiment Off For Washington

The Third Regiment of Vt. Volunteers, which for several weeks has been encamped at St. Johnsbury, is finally off for the war…A large number of friends, relatives, and spectators, were present to see them start,

Gen Mansfield has issued the following order. “Headquarters of the Department of Washington.—Fugitive slaves will, under no pretext whatever, be permitted to reside or be in any way harbored in quarters and camps of troops serving this Department. Neither will such slaves be allowed to accompany the troops on the march.”

March of the Grand Army—50,000 Strong—Arrival at Manassas—Terrible Fighting all the Way

Last week Tuesday, the grand advance movement of the Federal army, under General McDowell commenced. The whole column moved from the vicinity of Washington and Arlington Heights, and numbered in all, some 55,000. The 2nd Vermont regiment was among them. The enemy it was supposed would be met the whole way, to Manassas Junction, which has proved true…

The entry of the Federal troops into Fairfax is said to have been inspiring beyond description.

Battle at Bull’s Run (The first Battle of Bull Run)

The first engagement of any moment took place on the 18th, at a placed called Bull’s Run, a few miles this side of Manassas. But a small part of our troops were engaged, but our loss was considerable, including several Mass. Soldiers…

Washington, July 19—From a careful inquiry and personal observation the number of wounded on the Federal side amounts to 60 killed and 40 wounded. Several amputations have taken place. ..The rebels are still in possession of their principal batteries. Their pickets approach to within 150 yards of ours.

Battle Resumes at Bull’s Run (The second Battle of Bull Run)

A dispatch dated Washington July 21, says:–The Secretary of War has received a dispatch that fighting was resumed at Bull’s Run this morning. Our Troops engaged the enemy with a full force, silenced their batteries and drove the rebels to the Junction.

Another dispatch says that the Federal troops have won the day. The loss on both sides is heavy, but the rout of the rebels is complete.

Later reports state that the rebels were all driven from the batteries on the road, but that after hard fighting, they retreated to Manassas Junction, where it is reported another great battle was going on. The rebel forces are there combined under Johnson and Beauregard, and number 75,000 or 100,000 men

Great Battle near Manassas

At this time of writing (Tuesday forenoon) we have various conflicting and painful reports relative to a battle at Manassas. One report is, that our forces were repulsed, with a large loss, had retreated some fifteen miles, &c….Another report that our main army had not attacked Manassas—that only a detachment had gone forward to reconnoiter &c. and were obliged to retreat to the main body.

Our Army Defeated and Retiring on Washington

The Rebels Reinforced by Gen. Johnson—The Union Army Driven in Disorder from the Ground—The Loss Great

After the severe battle at Bull’s Run, our army having taken three batteries, the fight was continued at a place called Warrington Turnpike, a short distance from Manassas.—Meantime the enemy had been reinforced by a large body under Gen. Johnston. Gen Patterson failed to join our forces, so that left us with only about 35,000 troops, against 80,000 or 90,000 of the enemy. Yet, even with these great odds, our troops fought desperately and bravely, until overpowered by the superior numbers…Our loss in men, wounded, prisoners, field batteries, ammunition, &c. must be great, tho’ the accounts representing to much less than at first, which stated it as high as 5,000. It is now reduced down to 300 to 400 killed, with many wounded and missing.

Warrington Turnpike

35,000 Federal and 50,000 Rebel Troops Engaged

Washington, July 22—I returned to this city from Centreville last night. The battle of yesterday was fought on Warrington Turnpike, which crosses Bull’s Run. Thirty-five thousand Federal and eighty thousand rebel troops were engaged.

The rebels were commanded by Jeff. Davis in person, assisted by Generals Beauregard and Johnston. The latter made a junction with the main Southern army on Saturday….

No description can give an idea of the fire that belched from the enemy’s lines, as well as our own and large bodies of rebels could be seen flying in all directions…

It is reported than Gen Schenck gave the order for every man to look out for himself. There was a terrible commotion. Artillery, infantry, baggage and private vehicles, and thousands of men fleeing toward our bridge across Cub Run, a small stream west of Centreville…Our troops behaved nobly, fought bravely, won the field, and then were subjected to a complete rout.

Our loss is severe…Undoubtedly very many stragglers have been captured by the enemy. No correct estimate can be obtained of our loss, but it is supposed that one thousand will cover the loss of the killed, with three thousand wounded and prisoners.

Many think this estimate is too high.



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