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[495]

In vindication of General Rufus King.

by Charles King, Captain, U. S. A.
In writing for “The century” magazine his recollections of “The Second battle of Bull Run,” General Pope has, perhaps inadvertently, used the exact language which, in 1863, and long after, so bitterly hurt one of his most loyal subordinates. In the course of his article appear these words [see p. 470]:
I sent orders to McDowell (supposing him to be with his command), and also direct to General King, several times during that night and once by his own staff-officer, to hold his ground at all hazards.

Now the casual reader, ignoring the commas before and after the words “and also direct to General King,” would say that orders were sent to King several times that night and once by his own staff-officer. Indeed, these words have been used as authority in the army, in histories, even in Congressional debate, for the statement that General King received repeated orders to hold his ground on the evening of August 28th, 1862, and abandoned it in spite of them.

No order or message of any kind, sort, or description reached General King that night from General Pope or any other superior officer; no staff-officer of General King saw or heard of General Pope that night; and, in point of fact, no matter how many he may have sent to McDowell, Pope has since admitted that he sent none to King.

Early in 1863, when those words first met General King's eyes, he wrote at once to his late commander to have the error rectified. General Pope claimed that the construction of the sentence proved that McDowell was meant as the one to whom the repeated orders were sent, but at that time he thought he had sent one message to King by a staff-officer. I quote from his letter now in my possession, the italics being mine:

It was far from my intention to imply even that any blame attached to you in the matter. . . . The officer came into my camp about 10 o'clock looking for McDowell, to report the result of your action. I told him I had no idea where McDowell was, but to return at once to you with the message to hold your ground. He got something to eat, I think with Ruggles, and went off. . . . Whether he was on your staff or not I really do not know, though I thought he was your staff-officer.

Several officers of McDowell's staff came to me during the night looking for him, and to more than one of them I gave the same message for McDowell. If McDowell had been with his command, as I supposed he was, Sigel and Reynolds could have been brought to your support. I was disappointed, of course, but did not for a moment attach any sort of blame to you. I never knew whether the aide-de-camp reached you that night or not, but I felt always perfectly satisfied that whether he did or not you had done the very best you could have done under the circumstances.

Now the aide-de-camp in question was Major D. C. Houston, Chief of Engineers, of General McDowell's staff. He had witnessed the severe engagement of King's division, west of Groveton, and some time after dark had ridden off through the woods in search of his general, who had not been seen by King or his officers since 2 o'clock in the afternoon. McDowell, in hunting for Pope, got lost in the woods, and Houston, hunting for McDowell, stumbled in on Pope's camp late at night, told there of King's battle, got refreshment, he says, of Ruggles, and went off; but he remembered no message from Pope to King, and if there was one, which he doubts, he did not deliver it, for he never attempted to return to King, but went on in search of McDowell until he found him late the following day. No other officer from King got within range of Pope that night, so far as rigid investigation has ever disclosed, and that none at all came from Pope to King is beyond peradventure. Indeed, in 1878 General Pope declared it was to McDowell that all the orders were sent.1

As to King's falling back to Manassas Junction, that was the result of the conference between him and his four brigade commanders, and was vehemently urged upon him as the only practicable way to save what was left of the command after the fierce conflict that raged at sunset. King's orders were to march to Centreville, which was objected to strenuously by Stonewall Jackson's corps, and they were in the majority. The brigade commanders voted for a deflection to the right toward Manassas, General John Gibbon being most urgent, and the following extract from a letter from him to King, dated Baltimore, March 17th, 1863,gives his views:

I deem it not out of place to say that that retreat was suggested and urged by myself as a necessary military measure . . . I do not hesitate to say, and it is susceptible of proof, that of the two courses which I considered open to you, of obeying your orders to march to Centreville or retreat on Manassas on your own responsibility, the one you adopted was the proper one.

Having first suggested the movement and urged it on military grounds, I am perfectly willing to bear my full share of the responsibility, and you are at liberty to make any use of this communication you may deem proper. I am, General, very respectfully, your obedient servant, John Gibbon, Brig.-Gen. Vols.

1 General Pope also repeated this statement in a conversation with me in July, 1887, and expressed his regret that this phraseology had not been corrected in his article which appeared in “The century” magazine for January, 1886.--C. K.

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