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Chapter 4:

  • Warlike preparations around Manassas
  • -- Beauregard and other Generals -- our position at Bull Run -- advance of the enemy -- a night surprise -- loss to the enemy -- General Tyler advances to force a passage at Blackburn's Ford -- battle of Bull Run, July eighteenth -- the enemy retire, with loss -- anxiety regarding Johnston's movements -- night adventures -- courage of an English Landowner -- our Generals forewarned of meditated movements.

For several days I was unwell, and could not attend to duty, but being allowed to walk about at leisure, I frequently strolled down to the Junction, to watch the progress of our preparations. A large redoubt about half a mile long, and a quarter wide, had been erected since my previous visit; it was at least ten feet high, and as many wide on the top, with a large ditch in front. The batteries at the angles were semicircular, with embrasures for four thirty-two-pounders, the mouths of which looked like black bull-dogs, protecting the road. In the interior were other works of greater or less magnitude, connected by covered ways, all well provided with ammunition and bomb-proof magazines. There were several smaller batteries placed in front on elevations, and the works altogether seemed formidable enough to protect the depot and stores, should the enemy penetrate so far.

“But who are our generals?” thought I, walking about, and meditating; “our men are as brave as steel, but who are to lead them?” Our best officers are from the old army, yet none of them held higher rank than that of colonel. R. E. Lee was in the cavalry, and a lieutenant-colonel; Joseph E. Johnston was quartermaster-general, and ranked as lieutenantcolonel; Beauregard had been major of engineers; Evans, Longstreet, and others, did not rank higher than major of cavalry or infantry, and had seen but little service, except on the frontier among the Indians; Bragg was a retired captain of artillery; T. J. Jackson was professor of mathematics and of [32] tactics in the University of Virginia; D. H. Hill was a lawyer; Polk, an Episcopal bishop in Louisiana, etc. This was all the talent we had, and much of it was only said to be “promising.” General Lee was at Richmond, acting as Secretary of War; General Cooper was there also as adjutant-general; Bragg and Polk were in Tennessee, and Johnston in the Valley; Beauregard was alone at Manassas, having Evans, Ewell, Longstreet, and a few less known names, as subordinates in the approaching struggle.

Of Beauregard I knew little, but had heard much. He was continually moving about from place to place, his appearance and escort being so unostentatious that many met and passed without knowing him. It was his custom to walk in the garden of the cottage where his headquarters were established after meals, smoking; and it was there I first saw him. He is a small man, with a sallow complexion, a heavy black moustache, and closely cut hair. With the left hand in his trowsers pocket, a cigar in his mouth, a buttoned — up coat, and small cap, he is the exact type of a French engineer, and could not anywhere be mistaken for a civilian. He is jaunty in his gait, dashing in manner, and evidently takes delight in the circumstance of war. It must be confessed his modesty is equal to his merit-he is not imperious or overbearing, bears great respect for his brother officers of the old service, and is never seen to such advantage as when standing on an earthwork, and giving orders, or conversing with animated gesture.

It was now the fourteenth of July, and the enemy were advancing in four columns upon Fairfax Court-House. General Bonham's brigade of South-Carolinians held the post, and had fortified it. Having made every disposition for the fight, of which he was in anxious expectation, it was much to his chagrin and disappointment that he received orders to retreat when the enemy were but a few miles distant. With much cursing, the brigade hastily fell back to Centreville, and camped on the heights on the evening of the seventeenth, the enemy's fires being visible about a mile distant. On the same day our brigade received orders to move to the front, and we quietly bivouacked in the woods on the banks of the Bull Run to guard McLean's Ford. In this position we formed the right [33] centre, and as our troops stood in excellent repute with the army, it was surmised that there was warm work in store for us — a supposition that was strongly confirmed when not less than seven guns of the Washington Corps were detailed for our support. From our position to Blackburn's Ford was half a mile, and there Longstreet was posted with a strong brigade. Ewell was to our right, lower down, and across the Run at Union Mills. While we stood in line of battle, scouts came in, reporting the enemy's approach en masse. In the afternoon an Alabama regiment came in, in good order, bringing all its baggage. They had skirmished with the enemy for several miles, taking advantage of every turn in the road, and firing from the woods with good effect. From their reports we learned that all the outposts had made good their retreat, and our skirmishers had done so much damage, that the enemy were extremely slow and cautious in their movements.

Towards nightfall four companies of our right wing crossed the ford and occupied a small valley which led to Centreville. Our pickets had not long been posted in the timber, when a cavalry scout came across the open, and reported the approach of a strong force. The men were all quietly placed and ready for business, when we distinctly saw several hundred Federals placed in the edge of the wood opposite, and could hear their conversation occasionally. One of our negroes, taking advantage of the darkness, went over to the enemy.

During the night the lieutenant-colonel, anxious for our safety, attempted to reach us. Thanks to the runaway, the enemy had inclosed us on three sides, the fourth being a range of hills, beyond which was the river. Determined to extricate us, the colonel swam the river, and before the morning dawned we had safely forded it, recrossed again lower down, and flanked the enemy. The sequel was exciting. Believing us to be surrounded, the Yankees moved cautiously towards the spot, and two battalions opened close volleys. Discovering their exact whereabouts by the flash, we all took accurate aim, and pouring volley after volley into them with great rapidity, scattered their force in all directions. Wet to the skin, but much elated, we were peremptorily commanded to retire across the Run by an orderly of the General's, who said our firing had [34] aroused every man in the division. As we approached McLean's Ford through the woods, our outposts, horse and foot, were as thick as flies, and such was the danger of being fired into, that scouts had to be sent in advance to report our approach. The ford was much deepened, and the river had risen. We crossed as best we could on fallen trees; and as the moon rose, plainly saw our horse pickets on the opposite hill, while the glare of the enemy's camp fires around Centreville looked like thousands of stars flickering against the dark blue sky.

It was evident that the enemy were perfectly informed of the topographical peculiarities of the region, for there seemed to be little hesitation in their movements, but great knowledge of available ground, and practicable roads. Their extended wings and superior force led many to suppose that it was their real intention to surround and cut us off from all escape. The men laughed at such an idea, and, to use their own language, were “spoiling for a fight.” When the morning of the eighteenth dawned, our regiments formed in line, and waited hour after hour for the attack, which was now certain.

About noon, several shots in the direction of Blackburn's Ford indicated that the advance was exchanging compliments with our pickets. Shortly afterwards, I was sent on duty up the Run, and, reaching an elevation, saw that the enemy had crossed above Blackburn's Ford, and were shelling the woods in all directions. Presently, several of our light batteries came galloping on the ground, and an artillery duel immediately ensued, with fluctuating fortune; our volunteers, however, seemed to have the advantage, for they worked their pieces with such rapidity, that the Federal regulars retired, and allowed their infantry to advance, which they did in fine style, and commenced to fan out in skirmishing order. Ours did the same, and advanced. Presently the skirmishers on both side fell back, and formed; then both sides advanced in line.

After some manoeuvring and firing, eight companies on our side (they were the First Virginian Volunteers) deceived their opponents by a well-executed ruse. Having first advanced against the enemy, they suddenly turned and fled, at quick-time, but in perfect line. With cheers, the Yankees pursued; but when they were fairly drawn out into the open field, the major [35] in command gave the word, and the Virginians, facing about, fired a most destructive volley. Astonished, the Yankees stood aghast at their loss; and at the instant were charged by the Virginians, who threw themselves, with an Indian yell, upon the foe. Then the Federals threw away their arms and fled precipitately to the river bank: the artillery duel was resumed with great fury, shells bursting in all directions; and our infantry advanced on the enemy's flank, while distant musketry could be plainly heard like the pattering of rain. It was evident the enemy could not effect a permanent lodgment on the south hank; and, satisfied with the trial, they were retreating to Centreville, under cover of their numerous artillery. Advancing at a gallop across the open ground, our light batteries took up a position, and unlimbered with great celerity and coolness under fire, and so great was their precision of aim, that the enemy retired in haste. Our infantry pursued for some short distance across the river, while the artillery played until their shots fell into the Federal camps on the hill. Had a small force of cavalry been at hand, we might have inflicted serious loss and captured several pieces. As it was, the Federal enemy left many of their dead and wounded behind, together with several hundred stand of arms, and decamped in great confusion.

This auspicious opening of our campaign in Virginia spread great joy among the volunteers, and such was the enthusiasm it caused, that many regiments who, in ambush, had witnessed the fight, could scarcely be controlled by their officers: the Seventh Louisiana obliged their commanders to move forward into the open ground, to participate in the engagement, but they were too late, for the “game” had taken wing to their nest on the hills. It is strange to remark that the retreating foe shouted vociferously, and their bands struck up “Yankee Doodle” and other Northern airs, perhaps in joy for their safe retreat, it being impossible to imagine any other reason. At the critical moment, General Beauregard rode to the front, sent orders to Colonel Ferguson of his staff to pursue as far as practicable, and, galloping past our position, ascended a hill, whence he could view the Federal rout in detail. “Poor Tyler,” said some one in the group, “his decapitation has come early;” and, true enough, his name has scarcely ever been whispered in the North [36] since that fatal eighteenth day of July. In Northern reports, indeed, this affair is lightly spoken of as “a reconnoissance that was eminently successful in every way;” nevertheless, we positively know that that division was so roughly handled and dispirited that it was withdrawn to the rear, and did not fire a single shot in the great battle fought on the following Sunday. The escapes of Beauregard that afternoon were almost miraculous. Shells penetrated his Headquarters in a dozen places, bursting in the kitchen, and blowing the cooking apparatus about in all directions. The terrified black cooks struck work, and could not be prevailed upon to resume their labors till nightfall.

Expecting the attack to be resumed with great fury on the morrow, every preparation was made for it, strong picket guards being posted in all directions. It was while I was out on this duty, far away to the front, that news was brought of Patterson's retreat from the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland, his object being to effect a junction with the forces of General Scott around Washington in time for the great struggle. At the same time, telegrams informed us of Johnston's retreat to Winchester and Strasburgh; and he himself had arrived at Manassas on Friday night, (the nineteenth,) while Jackson, with one or two brigades, was on his way by railroad. The rest of Johnston's army, it was expected, would reach us before Sunday, and participate in the general engagement. This was excellent news, and Johnston's manoeuvres raised him high in the opinion of the men.

During the night we picked up several stragglers from Scott's army, and learned from them that McDowell was in chief command, and had seventy-five thousand men. These prisoners did not wish to be sent far from Manassas, and for peculiar reasons. “Don't send us to Richmond,” they said; “our army will be in Manassas before Sunday, and therefore we wish to save trouble. Lincoln and Scott both promise to be in Richmond within a week, and as the thing will be over so soon, we don't wish to be sent far off,” etc. We could not help laughing at the simplicity of these would-be “conquerors,” but allowed them to continue cherishing their fond expectations, resolved, however, to make breastworks of our bodies rather than allow these Northern hirelings to rule over us. [37]

On Saturday morning, early, we were provisioned for three days, and every thing seemed to denote a forward movement on our part. Some sharp skirmishing occurred on our right, but towards nine A. M. we were withdrawn to the position occupied on Thursday. I did not, and do not, believe that an advance was seriously intended by Beauregard, although he is proverbially a dashing and spirited commander; for the enemy were in immense force on high ground, and superabundantly supplied with artillery. This partial advance was more, probably a “feint,” designed to make the enemy believe we intended to move forward, and thus engage their attention, and gain more time for our troops in the Valley, to join us. Up to Saturday noon, not more than five thousand had arrived, while, could we avert the impending attack until Sunday, it was thought all would have come up from that and other directions, making an aggregate of fifteen thousand additional to our strength. The idea, if correct, was commendable; yet, although Johnston had made every possible preparation for the transport of his force, unforeseen circumstances completely thwarted the design, and up to one P. M., none had arrived. The more observant were particularly silent — things did not exactly please them; yet these were the men to speak encouragingly to all, and plead unbounded confidence in the ability of our leaders.

To encourage the troops, a report was spread that all Johnston's force had safely arrived, together with several thousand additional from different quarters. All seemed pleased; and when tattoo sounded, a terrific howl rent the skies, commencing on our extreme right, and gradually extending away to the left. What it meant none could tell; the men seemed to shout and howl from an overflow of spirits, and from no other cause. Being on distant picket duty at the time, I could not help remarking the effect these Indian yells had on the Yankees. We had crept so close as to see them plainly moving about and hear their conversation. One of the pickets was very valorous in his speech; he was willing to stake any thing in the world that “the rebels would evacuate Manassas before morning! He only wished he came across half-a-dozen rebels! He'd show them what fighting stuff Union troops were made of-he'd show them what old Massachusetts could do!” etc. Determined to try the metal of this pugnacious individual, two of us [38] crawled through the underbrush, Indian fashion, and waiting an opportunity; seized this bombastic New-Englander, without the shadow of resistance, and, having gagged and tied him, led him into our lines I From this trembling hero we learned that the greater part of McDowell's forces were on the move across country to Stone Bridge or the vicinity, and that the fight would certainly begin at dawn; heavy masses being sent round to turn our left, and get into Manassas by the flank. When we were relieved at midnight, we communicated our fragments of information to the officer of the guard, and returned across Bull Run to our regiment, bivouacked in a cedar grove, and refreshed ourselves.

But ere I attempt to give details of the important engagement of the morrow, I must be permitted, in a short digression, to speak of important movements that were taking place all night long within the Federal lines. Mr. Thornton, an English gentleman, possessed of a very large and handsome estate about a mile northward of Centreville, and, being of Southern sentiments, left his plantation on the approach of McDowell's forces, (on Wednesday night,) and fled with his friends across Sudley's Ford towards Manassas — a distance of some seven or more miles. Hearing that the Yankees invariably destroyed all property found deserted, he returned on Saturday through the woods to ascertain the fate of his house, barns, and stock. When within half a mile of his premises, he observed large columns of the enemy making a detour through the country, so as to flank Sudley Ford. That this was their intention he had no doubt, for it was far beyond our left wing, and the stream there only ankle-deep. He attempted to retreat at nightfall, but found that the ford was hemmed in by large masses of troops-far greater in number than he observed congregated round Stone Bridge, (our extreme left,) about two miles lower down the stream. Determined to advise our generals of these movements, he made several attempts to pass the lines, but failed and was fired at repeatedly. Penetrating the woods by cow-paths well known to him, (being an extensive stock-raiser,) he finally succeeded in crossing the Run, and set off post-haste for the nearest Headquarters. It was past two. A. M. on Sunday when Mr. Thornton ushered himself into the presence of Colonel Nathan Evans, who commanded a brigade near Stone [39] Bridge. Evans listened to the narration, asked important questions,--and, arriving at conclusions, maliciously showed his white teeth with a wicked grin, and, ordering coffee, dressed himself. Mounted men were immediately sent to Beauregard, yet no additional force arrived, and Evans was left to his own resources. Detaching a portion of his brigade, he immediately moved up towards Sudley Ford, and reenforced the Fourth Alabama Regiment and a Mississippi battalion he found stationed there.

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