“The news of the great battle is very sad.”

Clarissa Goodell, July 22, 1861

Lavinia Goodell and her family lived through the Civil War, and their correspondence gives us a bird’s eye view of those turbulent times.

The first major land battle of the war occurred on July 21, 1861 at Manassas, Virginia. It is now commonly referred to as the Battle of Bull’s Run. After fighting on the defensive for most of the day, the Confederates rallied and were able to break the Union right flank. The Confederate victory gave the South a surge of confidence and made the Northerners realize that the war would not be easily won.

New York Times, July 22, 1861

Lavinia’s father published and/or edited numerous newspapers throughout his life, and the Goodells were avid followers of the news and read multiple papers. After reading the first accounts of the battle, Lavinia’s mother wrote:

The news that came today of the great battle is very sad and I don’t feel like doing or saying anything. O, the poor mothers and sisters that are now in suspense as to the fate of their dear ones.

Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost, July 22, 1861

Lavinia’s father was a bit more optimistic. He wrote:

The war news from Washington of the retreat & slaughter in Virginia is distressing. This morning’s papers give a less dreadful picture, saying the first accounts were exaggerated.

Anxiety & suspense in many a habitation & lamentation, mourning & woe are heard in many others.

William Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost July 22, 1861

A week after the battle, Clarissa Goodell wrote to Lavinia with an account of a young man who had been on the battlefield.

Emma J. is spending a few days … at the Rev. Davis Johnsons…. They had just received a Telegraphic dispatch that their son Joseph who was in the army had been wounded when Emma wrote…. Young Fobs of Green Point had a narrow escape, the balls came so near as to take off his pocket & handkerchief from his pants. Another time a ball knocked him down without injury.

The Goodells made the acquaintance of many people who went on to achieve acclaim. In a letter to Lavinia and her sister Maria, Lavinia’s father told of an early encounter with General Daniel Tyler, one of the principal generals at Bull’s Run:

Perhaps Willie [Maria’s son] will be interested to know that his grandpa knew Gen. Daniel Tyler when he was a little boy. And that Grandma Goodell was once on a fishing party of young folks with him. I knew him at Brooklyn, Conn. when in my 18th year I was clerk for William Douglas…. Captain Daniel Tyler, an old gentleman, lived hard by the stove of Mr. D., who was a bachelor and sometimes boarded with Captain Tyler. I myself boarded there a while. Young Daniel was a bright lad of perhaps 12 or 13, the youngest of a very large family. One anecdote of him I will remember. It was much discussed, in the family, what should be done with his mother’s darling Daniel – whether he should be sent to college or no. Among the numerous hired men of Captain Tyler was a noisy young fellow Ned Davis who had a rare knack of making really good music (to rustic ears) by whistling. In the group of admiring listeners was young Daniel, who was beginning to make encouraging proficiency himself in the same fine art, not much to the satisfaction of his grave aged father. One day, at dinner table, the old gentleman, gravely announced that he had just concluded what to do with Daniel! All ears were attentive, particularly those of the boy and his mother. “I have concluded, “said his father, “to bind him apprentice to Ned Davis, to learn him to whistle!” The cool irony in which it was said – the ludicrous effect on the company – the expressions of countenance in the boy and his mother, I remember as vividly as if it were but a month ago. It had the intended effect. The older gentleman never heard Daniel whistle, afterwards. Some few years afterwards, your mother being on a visit from Providence to Killingly, was invited to a fishing party on a little lake or pond in the vicinity. Among the company, she well remembers young Daniel Tyler, a military student at West Point, in his blue suit, cockades and other military insignia, which made him quite a star in the eyes of the young ladies.

During the war, William Goodell was the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper the Principia, and the July 27, 1861 issue recounted the New York Times’ editorial of July 24 regarding the battle of Bull’s Run which voiced the opinion that a quick Union victory would likely not have brought an end to slavery whereas the Union’s loss at Manassas might galvanize the North to continue the fight until slavery was no more.

If our army had been victorious at Manassas, they would have marched on to Richmond and ended this war on a false basis: both parties ignoring. to the last, the cause of the war. The God that rules over us all, and does exact justice, in the end … would not permit a compromise of the sort to forestall this providence. And He has awakened the nation, as by the shock of an earthquake.

Would anything short of our unexpected repulse at Manassas have quickened the conscience and judgment of twenty million people in regard to this conflict? The ghost of long murdered liberty to millions of weak and despairing captives leaves its bomb and haunts our Army and frights it to panic and flight. Now shall we learn anew and rightly, our position and duties. We have an enemy to meet who has long defied God and man – and who threatens to extend over a whole continent the diabolism of his role. Shall we strike the monster where he is vulnerable? Shall we thrust in our spear where the cancer of his crime invites surgery? Shall we fight the devil with fire, according to the wisdom of the ancients? Let a paralyzed army and a needing nation answer.

The war dragged on for nearly four more years. The Principia, with William Goodell at the helm, continued publication throughout that time. A good portion of each issue was devoted to war news, and by late 1862 Lavinia was in charge of editing that section.

Sources consulted: Clarissa and William Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (July 22, 1861); Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (July 29, 1861); William Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell and Maria Frost (August 5, 1861); Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Maria Frost (December 10, 1862); “First Fruits of the Repulse at Bull’s Run,” (Principia, 27 July 1861); New York Times (July 22, 1861);



Wm Goodell’s speculation that a Union victory at the 1st Battle of Manassas would not have led to the end of slavery is an intriguing insight that was probably correct. Imagine how slavery in the United States might have continued to endure had the North been able to end the war quickly.

Thanks for bringing this aspect to light with contemporaneous observations from an anti-slavery perspective.

Beverly Wright

As always, so interesting and I enjoy the very personal accounts.

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