Weighing victories

Kevin Phillips makes the interesting observation in his bok Cousins' Wars that Bull Run is incorrectly valued as a Confederate victory:

These individual small battles and maneuvers were pivotal – General George McClellan’s victory Philippi in West[ern] Virginia on June 3; General Nathaniel Lyon’s crushing success in St. Louis, Jefferson City, and Boonville; and General Benjamin Butler’s effective use of water transport down Chesapeake Bay in late April to bypass Baltimore, reinforce embattled Washington, and establish federal control of secession-minded southern Maryland. Collectively, these were more important than the prominent Northern defeat at Bull Run. [Emphasis added.]
Phillips does not go into much depth as to why he sees them as more important, so I'll have a try.

The little victories comprised a pattern to be absorbed by the North's politically engaged but otherwise distracted, stay-at-home newspaper readers. The mass of literate Northern men could easily perceive Bull Run as one incident among many - as a big noise but noise all the same.

This was certainly my impression reading New England newspapers of that time. In contrast with the two to three news columns of war information published per issue, Bull Run got ink running up to the battle - kind of a preview - before the reports came in; it got a whole page once reporters filed stories; and then there was some follow-on bits for a third issue (or day of coverage) before the press fell back into its habitual low-level war coverage.

Compared to the constant, daily drumbeat of positive news from correspondents with Banks and Butler, Bull Run provides a short trumpet blast, at least in the NE region. The expectation of returning to normalcy (small Union victories being "normal") is palpable to the news reader of the time.

So what else is Phillips getting at? He's attacking the Centennial view of the early war head on. If Bull Run was not as galvanizing or electrifying or sobering as Williams, Nevins, Catton and their followers claim, the whole tale of the war changes.

The next logical step in the Centennial story involves McClellan being called East on a wave of popularity; as I've said before, this claim connects to no significant documentary evidence and I find that New England newsreaders - including those reading Democratic party papers - have to be cued as to who this fellow is once he takes command.

The fate of McDowell is not set when Mac arrives; Mac arrives over the objections of powerful politicians and with little public stature; the Northhern public enjoys a return to the news diet of small victories here and there.

Remember too that McClellan's Washington command is in crisis by the first week of November due to his "failure" to stage a Manassas-type advance. In other words, within 100 days of his assumption of command, patience with McClellan had come to an end, thus triggering the Scott resignation meeting.

The Centennial doctrine that Bull Run caused a big shift in policy towards preparation and training is nonsense. Policies and expectations remained what they were. The Centennial idea that McClellan then exhausted this readiness policy with additional preparations breaks down before he can reach the fourth month of his tenure.

Phillips, being a top tier political analyst by trade, is conditioned to make arresting observations from generally known information. Here has has pointed to the Centennial master narrative breaking down as early as in its descriptions of the effects of Bull Run.

Small victories counted then; so too do small revisions of the master narrative count now.