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Chapter 2: from New Mexico to Manassas.

  • The war-cloud
  • -- the journey northward -- appointed Brigadier-General -- report to General Beauregard -- assigned to command at the scene of the first conflict -- Personnel of the confronting forces -- Description of the field of Manassas, or Bull Run -- Beauregard and McDowell of the same West point class -- battle of Blackburn's Ford -- Early's mistake -- under fire of friend and foe.

I was stationed at Albuquerque, New Mexico, as paymaster in the United States army when the war-cloud appeared in the East. Officers of the Northern and Southern States were anxious to see the portending storm pass by or disperse, and on many occasions we, too, were assured, by those who claimed to look into the future, that the statesman would yet show himself equal to the occasion, and restore confidence among the people. Our mails were due semi-monthly, but during winter seasons we were glad to have them once a month, and occasionally had to be content with once in six weeks. When mail-day came the officers usually assembled on the flat roof of the quartermaster's office to look for the dust that in that arid climate announced the coming mail-wagon when five or ten miles away; but affairs continued to grow gloomy, and eventually came information of the attack upon and capture of Fort Sumter by the Confederate forces, which put down speculation and drew the long-dreaded line.

A number of officers of the post called to persuade me to remain in the Union service. Captain Gibbs, of the Mounted Rifles, was the principal talker, and after a long but pleasant discussion, I asked him what course he would pursue if his State should pass ordinances of secession and call him to its defence. He confessed that he would obey the call. [30]

It was a sad day when we took leave of lifetime comrades and gave up a service of twenty years. Neither Union officers nor their families made efforts to conceal feelings of deepest regret. When we drove out from the post, a number of officers rode with us, which only made the last farewell more trying.

Passing Fort Craig, on the opposite side of the Rio Grande, we pitched our camp for the night. A sergeant of the Mounted Rifle Regiment came over to see me, and stated that he was from Virginia, and thought that he could go with us to his native State, and at the same time asked that several other soldiers who wished to return to their States might go as my escort. I explained that private soldiers could not go without authority from the War Department; that it was different with commissioned officers, in that the latter could resign their commissions, and when the resignations were accepted they were independent of military authority, and could, as other citizens, take such action as they might choose, but that he and his comrades had enlisted for a specified term of years, and by their oaths were bound to the term of enlistment; that I could not entertain the proposition.

We stayed overnight at Fort Fillmore, in pleasant meeting with old comrades, saddened by the reflection that it was the last, and a prelude to occurrences that must compel the ignoring of former friendships with the acceptance of opposing service.

Speaking of the impending struggle, I was asked as to the length of the war, and said, “At least three years, and if it holds for five you may begin to look for a dictator,” at which Lieutenant Ryan, of the Seventh Infantry, said, “If we are to have a dictator, I hope that you may be the man.”

My mind was relieved by information that my resignation was accepted, to take effect on the 1st of June. In our travel next day we crossed the line into the State of [31] Texas. From the gloomy forebodings of old friends, it seemed at El Paso that we had entered into a different world. All was enthusiasm and excitement, and songs of “Dixie and the South” were borne upon the balmy air. But the Texas girl did not ascend to a state of incandescent charm until the sound of the first notes of “The Bonny Blue flag” reached her ear. Then her feet rose in gleeful springs, her limbs danced, her hands patted, her eyes glowed, her lips moved, though she did not care to speak, or listen to any one. She seemed lifted in the air, thrilled and afloat, holding to the “Single Star” in joyful hope of Southern rights.

Friends at El Paso persuaded me to leave my family with them to go by a train that was to start in a few days for San Antonio, and to take the faster route by stage for myself.

Our travelling companions were two young men, returning to their Northern homes. The ride of our party of four (including the driver) through the Indian country was attended with some risk, and required vigilance, to be assured against surprise. The constant watchfulness and possible danger over a five-hundred-miles travel drew us near together, and in closer communion as to our identity and future movements, and suggested to the young men that it would be best to put themselves under my care, trusting that I would see them safely through the Confederate lines. They were of the laboring class, and had gone South to find employment. They were advised to be careful, and talk but little when among strangers. Nothing occurred to cause apprehension until we reached Richmond, Texas, where, at supper, I asked for a glass of milk, and was told there was none.

“What!” said one of my companions, “haven't the keows come up?”

Signal was telegraphed under the table to be on guard. The nom de plume of the Texas bovine escaped attention, and it passed as an enjoyable lapsus linguae. [32]

At Galveston we took a small inland sailing-craft, but were a little apprehensive, as United States ships were reported cruising outside in search of all vessels not flying the Stars and Stripes. Our vessel, however, was only boarded once, and that by a large Spanish mackerel that made a misleap, fell amidships, and served our little company with a pleasant dinner. Aboard this little vessel I first met T. J. Goree, an intelligent, clever Texan, who afterwards joined me at Richmond, and served in faithful duty as my aide-de-camp from Bull Run to Appomattox Court-House.

At New Orleans, my companions found safe-conduct to their Northern lines, and I journeyed on to Richmond. Relatives along the route, who heard of my approach, met me at the stations, though none suggested a stop overnight, or for the next train, but after affectionate salutations waved me on to join “Jeff Davis, for Dixie and for Southern rights.”

At every station old men, women, and children assembled, clapping hands and waving handkerchiefs to cheer the passengers on to Richmond. On crossing the Virginia line, the feeling seemed to culminate. The windows and doors of every farm-house and hamlet were occupied, and from them came hearty salutations that cheered us on to Richmond. The spirit electrified the air, and the laborers of the fields, white and black, stopped their ploughs to lift their hats and wave us on to speedy travel. At stations where meals were served, the proprietors, in response to offers to settle, said, “Meals for those going on to join Jeff Davis are paid.”

On the 29th of June, 1861, I reported at the War Department at Richmond, and asked to be assigned for service in the pay department, in which I had recently served (for when I left the line service, under appointment as paymaster, I had given up all aspirations of military honor, and thought to settle down into more peaceful [33] pursuits). On the 1st of July I received notice of my appointment as brigadier-general, with orders to report at Manassas Junction, to General Beauregard.

I reported on the 2d, and was assigned to command of the First, Eleventh, and Seventeenth Regiments of Virginia Volunteers, to be organized as a brigade. The regiments were commanded respectively by Colonels Moore, Samuel Garland, and M. D. Corse, all active, energetic, and intelligent officers, anxious to acquire skill in the new service in which they found themselves. Lieutenant Frank Armstead was assigned to duty at brigade Headquarters, as acting assistant adjutant-general, and Lieutenant Peyton T. Manning as aide-de-camp. Dr. J. S. D. Cullen, surgeon of the First Virginia Regiment, became medical director. The regiments were stationed at Manassas Junction.

On the 6th they were marched out, formed as a brigade, and put through the first lessons in evolutions of the line, and from that day to McDowell's advance had other opportunities to learn more of the drill and of each other. General Beauregard had previously settled upon the stream of Bull Run as his defensive-aggressive line, and assigned his forces accordingly. A brigade under Brigadier-General R. S. Ewell was posted at Union Mills Ford, on the right of the Confederate lines; one under Brigadier-General D. R. Jones at McLean's Ford; Brigadier-General Bonham's brigade was placed on outpost duty at Fairfax Court-House with orders to retire, at the enemy's approach, to Mitchell's Ford, and Brigadier-General P. St. George Cocke was to hold the fords between Mitchell's and the Stone Bridge, the latter point to be defended by a regiment and a battalion of infantry, and a battery, under Brigadier-General N. G. Evans.

Between Mitchell's and McLean's Fords, and about half a mile from each, is Blackburn's Ford. The guard at that point was assigned to my command,--the Fourth [34] Brigade,--which was ordered to be ready, at a moment's warning, to march to position, and prepare for battle. In the mean time I was to study the ground and familiarize myself with the surroundings and avenues of approach and retreat. Bull Run rises from the foot-hills of the Blue Ridge and flows southeast through deeps and shallows into the Potomac, about forty miles south of Alexandria. The swell of the tide-waters up to Union Mills gives it the depth and volume of water of a river. Blackburn's Ford is in a great bend of the river, the north bank holding the concave of the turn. On the convex side was a strip of alluvial soil about seventy feet wide, covered by large forest-trees and some tangled undergrowth. Outside and extending some three hundred yards from the edge of the woodland was an arable field upon a pretty ascending plain, beyond which was a second growth of pine and oak. On the north bank stood a bluff of fifteen feet, overhanging the south side and ascending towards the heights of Centreville. Below Blackburn's Ford the bluff extended, in more or less ragged features, far down to the southeast. Just above my position the bluff graded down in even decline to Mitchell's Ford, the position assigned for Bonham's brigade, the latter being on the concave of the river, six hundred yards retired from my left and at the crossing of the direct road between Centreville and Manassas Junction. At the Junction well-constructed battery epaulements were prepared for defence.

The bluff of the north bank was first designated as my most suitable ground, and I was ordered to open the front, lay out and construct trenches, to be concealed by green pine-boughs. The regiments were from Richmond, Lynchburg, and Alexandria,--more familiar with the amenities of city life than with the axe, pick, spade, or shovel. They managed, however, to bring down as many as half a dozen spreading second-growth pines in the course of [35] two days work, when General Beauregard concluded that the advanced position of the brigade would mar his general plan, and ordered the line to be taken along the river bank of the south side, under the woodland, and close under the bluff, a position only approvable as temporary under accepted rules of warfare, but this proved a favorable exception between the raw forces of the contending armies. In addition to the two brigades on my right, the Sixth Brigade, under Colonel Jubal A. Early, was posted (with artillery) near the fords. As proximate but separate commands, stood General Theo. Holmes, thirty miles off to the right, with a brigade, a battery, and cavalry, at and about Acquia Creek, and General J. E. Johnston, sixty miles away, over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Holmes's should have been an outpost, but he had ranked Beauregard in the old service, and as a point of etiquette was given a separate command. Johnston's command should have been an outlying contingent, but he had been assigned to the Shenandoah Valley when, because threatened with immediate invasion, it was of first importance. Beauregard was subsequently assigned to Manassas Junction, which, under later developments, became the strategic point. As Johnston was his senior, another delicate question arose, that was not solved until the tramp of McDowell's army was heard on the Warrenton Turnpike.

The armies preparing for the first grand conflict were commanded by West Point graduates, both of the class of 1838,--Beauregard and McDowell. The latter had been assigned to command of the Federal forces at Washington, south of the Potomac, in the latter part of May, 1861. The former had assumed command of the Confederates at Manassas Junction about the 1st of June.

McDowell marched on the afternoon of the 16th of July at the head of an army of five divisions of infantry, supplemented by nine field batteries of the regular service, [36] one of volunteers, besides two guns operating separately, and seven companies of regular cavalry. In his infantry columns were eight companies of regulars and a battalion of marines, an aggregate of thirty-five thousand men.

Beauregard stood behind Bull Run with seven brigades, including Holmes, who joined on the 19th, twenty-nine guns, fourteen hundred cavalry,--an aggregate of twenty-one thousand nine hundred men, all volunteers. To this should be added, for the battle of the 21st, reinforcements aggregating eight thousand five hundred men, under General Johnston, making the sum of the aggregate, thirty thousand four hundred.

The line behind Bull Run was the best between Washington and the Rapidan for strategy, tactics, and army supplies.

General Beauregard gave minute instructions to his brigade commanders of his position and general plan, which in itself was admirable. Bonham was to retire from Fairfax Court-House, as the enemy advanced, and take his place behind Mitchell's Ford on the Centreville and Manassas Junction road. It was proposed that he should engage his rear-guard so as to try to bring on the battle against him, as he approached his crossing of Bull Run, when the brigades along the Run on his right should cross, wheel to the left and attack on the enemy's left and rear.

We had occasional glimpses behind the lines about Washington, through parties who managed to evade the eyes of guards and sentinels, which told of McDowell's work since May, and heard on the 10th of July that he was ready to march. Most of us knew him and of his attainments, as well as of those of Beauregard, to the credit of the latter, so that on that point we were quite satisfied. But the backing of an organized government, and an army led by the foremost American war-chief, that [37] consummate strategist, tactician, and organizer, General Scott, together with the splendid equipment of the field batteries, and the presence of the force of regulars of infantry, gave serious apprehension.

On the 16th of July notice came that the advance of McDowell's army was under definite orders for the next day. My brigade was at once ordered into position at Blackburn's Ford, and all others were ordered on the alert. Cocke's detachments were recalled from the fords between Mitchell's and Stone Bridge, and Evans was left to hold the bridge. Bonham withdrew from Fairfax Court-House as McDowell advanced. He retired behind the Run at Mitchell's Ford, his vedettes following after exchanging shots with the enemy's advance on the 18th. Early that morning a section of the Washington Artillery was posted on a rear line behind Blackburn's Ford, and trailed across towards the left, so as to flank fire against the direct advance upon Bonham at Mitchell's Ford.

At eight o'clock A. M. on the 18th, McDowell's army concentrated about Centreville, his immediate objective being Manassas Junction. From Centreville the Warrenton Turnpike bears off a little south of west, crossing Bull Run at Stone Bridge (four miles). The Manassas Junction road due south crosses at Mitchell's Ford (three miles). Other farm roads turned to the fords above and below Mitchell's. His orders to General Tyler, commanding the advance division, were to look well to the roads on the direct route to Manassas Junction and via the Stone Bridge, to impress an advance upon the former, but to have care not to bring on a general engagement. At the same time he rode towards his left to know of the feasibility of a turning move around the Confederates' right. There were three moves by which it was supposed he could destroy the Confederates,--first, by turning their right; second, by direct and forcible march to the Junction; third, by turning their left. McDowell's orders to his [38] leading divisions indicated that he had settled down to a choice as to the two opposite flanking moves; but to justify either he must first test the feasibility of the direct route. The ride to his left disclosed rough ground, rocky heights cut by streamlets, and covered by heavy forest tangle, as formidable to military manoeuvres of raw troops as armed battlements. According to preconceived plans, this eliminated the question of the flanking move by the Confederate right.

Under the instructions, as General Tyler construed them, he followed the Confederates to the heights of Centreville, overlooking the valley of Bull Run, with a squadron of cavalry and two companies of infantry. From the heights to the Run, a mile away, the field was open, and partially disclosed the Confederate position on his right. On the left the view was limited by a sparse growth of spreading pines. On the right was Mitchell's Ford, on the left Blackburn's. To have a better knowledge of the latter, he called up a brigade of infantry under General Richardson, Ayres's battery of six field-guns, and two twenty-pound rifle guns under Benjamin. The artillery was brought into action by the twenty-pound rifle guns, the first shot aimed at the section of the Washington Artillery six-pounders in rear of Blackburn's Ford, showing superior marksmanship, the ball striking close beside the guns, and throwing the dust over the caissons and gunners.

It was noticed that the enemy was far beyond our range, his position commanding, as well as his metal, so I ordered the guns withdrawn to a place of safety, till a fairer opportunity was offered them. The guns were limbered and off before a second shot reached them. Artillery practice of thirty minutes was followed by an advance of infantry. The march was made quite up to the bluff overlooking the ford, when both sides opened fire.

The first pouring-down volleys were most startling to [39] the new troops. Part of my line broke and started at a run. To stop the alarm I rode with sabre in hand for the leading files, determined to give them all that was in the sword and my horse's heels, or stop the break. They seemed to see as much danger in their rear as in front, and soon turned and marched back to their places, to the evident surprise of the enemy. Heavy firing was renewed in ten or fifteen minutes, when the Federals retired. After about twenty minutes a second advance was made to the top of the bluff, when another rousing fusillade followed, and continued about as long as the first, with like result. I reinforced the front line with part of my reserve, and, thinking to follow up my next success, called for one of the regiments of the reserve brigade.

Colonel Hays, of the Seventh Louisiana Regiment, was sent, but was not in time for the next attack. He was in position for the fourth, and did his share in that fight. After the fourth repulse I ordered the advance, and called for the balance of the reserve brigade. The Fourth Brigade, in their drills in evolution, had not progressed as far as the passage of defiles. The pass at the ford was narrow, unused, and boggy. The lagoons above and below were deep, so that the crossing was intricate and slow. Colonel Early came in with his other regiments, formed his line behind my front, and was asked to hurry his troops to the front line, lest the next attack should catch him behind us, when his raw men would be sure to fire on the line in front of them. He failed to comprehend, however, and delayed till the next attack, when his men promptly returned fire at anything and everything before them. I thought to stop the fire by riding in front of his line, but found it necessary to dismount and lie under it till the loads were discharged. With the Federals on the bluff pouring down their fire, and Early's tremendous fire in our rear, soldiers and officers became mixed and a little confused. Part of my men got across the Run and partially [40] up the bluff of the enemy's side; a body of the Union soldiers were met at the crest, where shots were exchanged, but passing the Run, encountering the enemy in front, and receiving fire from our friends in rear were not reassuring, even in handling veterans. The recall was ordered as the few of the enemy's most advanced parties joined issue with Captain Marye of my advance. Federal prisoners were brought in with marks of burnt powder on their faces, and Captain Marye and some of his men of the Seventeenth, who brought them in, had their faces and clothing soiled by like marks. At the first moment of this confusion it seemed that a vigorous pressure by the enemy would force us back to the farther edge of the open field, and, to reach that stronger ground, preparations were considered, but with the aid of Colonels Garland and Corse order was restored, the Federals were driven off, and the troops better distributed. This was the last effort on the part of the infantry, and was followed by the Federal batteries throwing shot and shell through the trees above our heads. As we were under the bluff, the fire was not annoying, except occasionally when some of the branches of the trees were torn off and dropped among us. One shot passed far over, and dropped in the house in which General Beauregard was about to sit down to his dinner. The interruption so annoyed him that he sent us four six-pound and three rifle guns of the Washington Artillery, under Captain Eshleman, to return fire and avenge the loss of his dinner. The guns had good cover under the bluff, by pushing them as close up as would admit of effective fire over it; but under tactical formation the limbers and caissons were so far in rear as to bring them under destructive fire. The men, thinking it unsoldierlike to flinch, or complain of their exposure, worked away very courageously till the limbers and caissons were ordered forward, on the right and left of the guns, to safer cover. The combat lasted about an hour, when the [41] Federals withdrew to their ground about Centreville, to the delight of the Confederates. After this lively affair the report came of a threatened advance off to our right. General Beauregard recalled Early's command to its position in that quarter. He was ordered to march to the right, under the bluff, so that his men could not come within range of the batteries, but he chose to march back on the road leading directly to the rear, when the dust of his columns drew fire of a battery, and several damaging shots were thrown among his troops. The Confederate losses were sixty-eight; Federal, eighty-three. The effect of this little affair was encouraging to the Confederates, and as damaging to the Federals. By the double action of success and failure the Confederate infantry felt themselves christened veterans. The Washington Artillery was equally proud of its even combat against the famed batteries of United States regulars.

McDowell was disposed to ignore this fight as unwarranted under his instructions, and not a necessary adjunct of his plans. His course and that of the officers about him reduced the aggressive spirit of the division commander to its minimum, and had some influence upon the troops of the division. For battle at this time McDowell had 37,3001 mnen and forty-nine guns. Beauregard had 20,5002 men and twenty-nine guns.

1 Rebellion Record, vol. II. p. 309. Less two regiments and one cavalry troop.

2 General Beauregard claims that he was not so strong, but estimates seem to warrant the number given.

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