Two other anniversaries: the first Civil War battle and first Western gunfight

The whole world is celebrating yesterday’s 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, and while that amazing event deserves all the press it gets, there’s just one problem–you can’t walk around where it actually happened! Luckily there are two events that happened on this date that you can actually see where it all took place–the first major battle of the American Civil War and the first Old West standoff between two gunfighters.

On July 21, 1861, the United States had been in a Civil War for three months, but there had been very little real fighting. Both sides were busy recruiting men and training them, and except for a small battle in Carthage, Missouri, and a few skirmishes, the Union and Confederacy had not really tested each other, or themselves. That was about to change.

President Lincoln decided to act, and ordered the huge army guarding Washington, DC, to move south and defeat the Confederate army camped at Manassas Junction, Virginia, just 25 miles south of the capital. The Union troops marched out in a festival-like atmosphere and many wealthy citizens followed them in carriages, hoping for a good show.

The two armies clashed on July 21. At first things went well for the larger Union army and they pushed the Confederates back, but the rebels launched a counterattack that smashed the Union lines. Panicked, the undisciplined Union troops began to flee. The civilians who had come to watch abandoned their picnics and fled too. A disorganized mob of civilians, wounded, and soldiers who had ditched their weapons hurried all the way back to Washington. The Union had been thoroughly beaten and lost almost three thousand men killed, wounded, or captured. The Confederate army, while scoring the first major victory of the war, had suffered terribly too, losing two thousand killed and wounded. Despite the urging of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the Confederate commander didn’t follow up his victory by attacking Washington. Perhaps he was shocked by the huge losses, something neither side expected. Everyone now realized it would be a long, bloody war.

The Battle of Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) is memorialized by an excellent National Battlefield Park. The visitor center has an interactive electronic map that shows you how the battle progressed. Several interpretive trails take you around the major sights, but if you have the time, reserve a park ranger tour. I’ve been on several of these at various Civil War battlefields and they’re always good. The park rangers really know their stuff and bring the battles alive.

A little bit of trivia: the Battle at Manassas was the first time the Confederates used the famous rebel yell. This YouTube clip takes a recording of a Confederate veteran and multiplies it so you can hear what it would have sounded like to have a whole regiment of these guys charging at you. Intimidating to say the least.

If you like Westerns, you’ll be interested in the other historic event that happened on this date.

By July 21, 1865, the Civil War was over, but the bloodshed hadn’t stopped. Wild Bill Hickok, a former scout for the Union army, and Davis Tutt, a Confederate veteran, were both gamblers in Springfield, Missouri. They had fallen out over an alleged affair Hickok had with Tutt’s sister. One day Hickok was playing cards with a group of Tutt’s friends and winning big. Tutt was hanging around, lending his friends money in the hopes that Hickok would lose. When Hickok kept winning, Tutt grew angry and demanded he pay back $35 from a previous game. Hickok claimed it was only $25 and wouldn’t pay any more than that. Tutt grabbed Hickok’s gold pocket watch and said he would keep it as collateral. Hickok was furious, but sitting in a room full of Tutt’s friends, there was nothing he could do. He stormed off, warning Tutt not to wear the watch. Tutt laughed and said he’d show it off on the town square the next morning. An appointment had been set.

Tutt showed up on Springfield’s town square the next morning just as he promised, and so did Hickok. Some townspeople intervened and tried to settle the dispute. Tutt now wanted $45, and Hickok insisted he only owed $25. They had a drink over it, but nothing was resolved. At just before 6 p.m. they were both back on the square, this time ready to fight. They faced off for a moment, then drew their weapons and fired at the simultaneously. Tutt missed, but Hickok plugged Tutt in the side. Tutt shouted “Boys, I’m killed!” and ran around a bit before dropping dead.

This was the first time that a proper Western-style gunfight had ever occurred and it captured the public imagination. Similar fights have been played out in books and movies thousands of times, but in reality few gunfighters actually fought this way. Even Jesse James didn’t die in a proper showdown. He got shot in the back of the head by someone who was supposed to be his friend.

Two plaques on Springfield’s town square show where the gunfighters stood for their epic duel. Also take time to visit another plaque that marks the spot where three black men were lynched on April 14, 1906, for allegedly assaulting a white woman. A mob of two thousand people forced their way into the town jail, dragged them to the square, and hung them from a tower that contained a replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Lynching was all too common in the United States at that time and even today people try to forget it ever happened. A former employee at the state’s historical society, now thankfully retired, once told me there were “hardly any” lynchings in Missouri. The historical record shows otherwise. It’s good that Springfield owns up to the darker aspects of its past. The local paper did an investigative report on the incident.