cover Battle of Manassas
Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins
and 1st Battle of Bull Run
“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.” – 16th US President Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War
July 1861, Manassas Virginia
Everything caught them off guard. From the cunning strategy of General Beauregard, to the fortitude of the Confederate army; from the induction of psychological warfare – known later as the Rebel Yell. From length and intensity of the American Civil War’s first major land battle, and ultimately to the realization, that the stampede of Union troops headed in their direction, were not galloping in jubilant celebration, but running in a chaotic retreat.
Hundreds of civilians had been picnicking in the distance, anticipating a swift and victorious ending. The reality of war crashed down like thunder, as they turned and fled with their soldiers. While the 1st Battle of Bull Run was a clear win for the Confederacy – with thousands dead, wounded and missing, the Battle of Manassas – the bloodiest combat in the Republic’s 85 year history – proved too costly to stand as a war victory, so Blind Tom offered victory in song.
“In an age before recorded sound, Blind Tom’s Battle of Manassas was perhaps the only reference point whereby soldiers, citizens and slaves could make sense of the aural assault.” Author Deirdre O’Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom
Battle of Manassas
composed by Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins
courtesy of Tiesha Dynell Wiggins
Born blind and into slavery, Thomas ‘Blind Tom’ Wiggins, also suffered from a severe mental health disorder (believed to be autistic savant), that allowed only limited awareness to self: a passionate appetite and a musical ability, that had never been seen. At age 5, he composed The Rain Storm. By the age of 8, he was performing live on a sold out national circuit. And by age 11, he became the first Black American to give a command performance by invitation of the White House. But it was 1861, and the sounds of war, that gave rise to Battle of Manassas, a masterpiece of its time.
“Tom’s impressionistic musical description of the battle pits the harmony of the right hand against the discord of the left. An insistent bass conjures the trudge of marching columns, tonal clusters evoke the roar of cannon and musketry. A brooding soundscape then ducks, weaves and punches its way into a medley of popular and patriotic songs – Yankee Doodle, Dixie, The Star Spangled Banner and Le Marseillaise – discord tugging at the heels of the melody until it finally implodes into the chaos of a harem-scarem finale.” – The Ballad of Blind Tom
Blind Tom died as a free man in 1908, but remained under the care of the former wife of General Bethune. In a career filled with music, Thomas Wiggins became the highest paid pianist of the 19th Century, making a fortune for the Bethunes, who became financial supporters of the Confederate army. And so, the Confederacy of the last slave would see a man pay for his own loss of freedom, exposing an ideology, that had to be defeated.
written & edited by Kendall F. Person