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Chapter 16: the retreat.

The suddenness of their victory was entirely unexpected by the rebels. Signs of disaster to themselves were as strong as to the Federals to the very last. Intense curiosity and solicitude had brought Jefferson Davis from Richmond. It is related that, as he was riding to the battle-field from Manassas, at about four o'clock that afternoon, he met such a stream of panic-stricken rebel soldiers, and heard such direful tidings from the front, that his companions were thoroughly convinced the Confederates had lost the day, and implored him to turn back for personal safety. He went on, against their advice, to find that the conflict was already over, and to learn, with mingled amazement and joy, that the Union army had, by a sudden and unexplained impulse, ceased fighting, and half marched, half run from the field.

McDowell was no less astounded at his own overwhelming reverse. A little before Elzey and Early appeared on his right to outflank him, there had been a lull in the Confederate firing that led him to hope the enemy was giving way. At the very worst there seemed no doubt of his ability to hold the Warrenton turnpike and stone bridge and maintain free communication with Centreville. For this abundant resources were yet available. Burnside's brigade had remained in reserve on the morning's battle-field, and, after [198] four hours rest, was yet capable of effective service. Keyes' brigade beyond the hill, on his left, was substantially unharmed. Schenck had an almost fresh brigade at the stone bridge. Miles had a brigade at Centreville, which could be replaced from Runyon's division near Vienna. The engineers had cleared away the abattis at the stone bridge. The hills north of the Warrenton turnpike were excellent defensive positions. It needed but morale among the troops to hold the battle-ground, and holding this would have compelled the enemy to retreat.

Unfortunately the Union army had lost its morale. The mere disorder of the final repulse was slight; but the demoralization and loss of discipline had been growing during the whole afternoon, until, of a sudden, the army was halfdissolved. The impulse of retreat once started, there was no checking or controlling it. Despite the efforts and appeals of McDowell and his officers, the various detachments began moving from the field. The commander yielded to necessity, made the best dispositions he could to cover the retreat, and passed the word to reassemble in the old camps at Centreville, not doubting that he could there make a rally.

The way thither by the Warrenton turnpike was open and straight; the distance four and a half miles. But, through the perversity of fate, each detachment now retreated by the same road over which it had come. Thus the bulk of the army — the brigades of Porter, Burnside, Franklin, Willcox, and Howard-went back over the long detour of ten miles round by Sudley Ford; these had with them, as yet, two batteries — a total of ten field-pieces; for only the batteries of Ricketts and Griffin were lost in the main battle. Sherman's brigade, on the other hand, marched eastward, over the ground of the morning's conflict, and recrossed Bull [199] Run at the ford, half a mile above the stone bridge, by which they had approached. Keyes' brigade, becoming aware of the general retreat, also returned by that route. These two, with Schenck's brigade, soon reached the Warrenton road, making a comparatively easy march to Centreville.

It also becomes necessary to mention here that, while the main battle of the afternoon was going on, a second engagement had been fought at Blackburn's Ford. The brigades of Richardson and of Davies were sent there in the morning, to make such demonstrations as would mask McDowell's real movement. In the afternoon, however, their purpose became apparent; and to relieve the stress of the main battle, the Confederate commander sent orders to Jones' brigade to cross Bull Run and make a demonstration. At about four o'clock, Jones, with his three regiments, crossed at McLean's Ford, and endeavored, by a flank movement, to capture Hunt's battery stationed with Davies' brigade. Davies quietly watched the oncoming rebel regiments, rearranged his lines, and held his fire in reserve till the enemy were deploying to form line of battle. They had advanced within five hundred yards, only, however, to find themselves embarrassed by woods and broken ground. In this situation and dilemma Davies ordered Hunt's battery of six guns to open upon them with grape and canister. The rebel official report characterizes it as a “murderous shower,” and, no doubt, correctly. It scattered the attacking column as if by enchantment; in thirty minutes there was not a soldier of them to be seen, and Jones modestly reports a loss in the affair of fourteen killed and sixty-two wounded.

It was now near sundown. Miles, commanding at Centreville, either through illness or drunkenness, had become incapable of duty — a situation whose serious consequences [200] were averted by the prudence and good behavior of the three brigade commanders. But, from this cause, premature orders were received by the two brigades of Davies and Richardson to fall back on Centreville; while to Blenker the more judicious order was given to advance his brigade toward Stone Bridge, which he did, deploying it in line of battle across the Warrenton turnpike, half-way between Centreville and Cub Run.

As soon as Johnston and Beauregard had sufficiently recovered from their astonishment at seeing the Union army in unmistakable retreat, they ordered pursuit to be made, but, as it would seem, with the greatest caution. In truth, McDowell's vanquished brigades marched from the immediate battle-field only half-disbanded; there remained, in most instances, a little nucleus at least of each organization, which yet, for a time, held together, while several of the brigades were nearly intact. Thus it happened that, while the battalion of rebel cavalry under Stuart was ordered to pursue along the Sudley road, they found the Union forces generally so compact, and the rear so well protected, that they could only dash in here and there and pick up or scatter isolated squads of stragglers. Another reserve battalion of rebel cavalry under Radford was sent in pursuit from the vicinity of Ball's Ford up toward the turnpike; while Johnston also sent orders to Bonham to take the remainder of his own and Longstreet's brigades, and move against the line of retreat at Centreville. Radford, like Stuart, saw that the retreating brigades of Sherman, Keyes, and Schenck were too formidable to attack; and Bonham, on nearing Centreville, found the brigades of Blenker, Richardson, and Davies so well posted, and so superior in numbers, that he was quite content to stop with a mere reconnoissance, and at nightfall returned to his camps behind Mitchell's and Blackburn's [201] Fords. Meanwhile, though the Confederate pursuit could nowhere venture a serious assault, an accident served to greatly enlarge their harvest of trophies.

The business of war was such a novelty, that McDowell's army accumulated an extraordinary number of campfol-lowers and non-combatants. The vigilant newspapers of the chief cities sent a cloud of correspondents to chronicle the incidents of the march and conflict. The volunteer regiments carried with them personal sympathies and companionships unknown to regular armies. Congress had met in special session; and senators and representatives, full of the patriotic hope and pride of their several States, no less than their own eager political solicitude, in several instances joined in what many rashly assumed would be a mere triumphal parade. McDowell's unopposed and apparently irresistible advance through the enemy's outposts lured them on to Centreville in a false security; and the uniformly favorable reports which went back to Washington even brought out a fresh accession of the same material on Sunday morning of the battle.

By that time, however, the situation had become more serious, and generally made the non-combatants somewhat circumspect. Only a few of hardier courage followed to the battle-field; most of them remained at Centreville until the cannonade announced the beginning of the fight, and then drifted gradually down the turnpike toward the stone bridge, not nearer than a mile and a half to the actual fighting, but where they could hear the volleys, see the smoke and dust, and perhaps the occasional manoeuvres of Schenck's and Keyes' brigades. In a certain sense they were under fire, because the long-range shells of the field-pieces rendered even that locality somewhat dangerous. From this situation were written many highly sensational, but purely [202] imaginary and most grotesquely confused accounts of the battle, first published in the newspapers. A famous correspondent of the London times, who earned the sobriquet of “Bull Run Russell,” wrote his description of the affair for European readers, after a leisurely lunch at Centreville, and a stroll of perhaps a mile toward Stone Bridge, taking his departure with the earliest fugitives.

It also happened that on the afternoon of the battle a considerable number of provision, baggage, and ammunition wagons, together with some private vehicles of the non-combatants heretofore mentioned, had been sent down the Warrenton turnpike from Centreville, toward the stone bridge. When finally the first wave of fugitives brought unfavorable news from the front, these began a general movement in return, which unavoidably produced quick confusion and blockade; and it was chiefly among these that the disgraceful panic and flight, which has furnished the nearly universal theme of criticism of the battle, first broke out. Naturally the tide of disaster rose quick and high; the retreating brigades, and nearer approach of cannonade and musketry, soon confirmed the worst fears of overwhelming defeat and pressing pursuit, and started a veritable scramble and stampede for safety. Arms and clothing were thrown away by those on foot; wagons were abandoned, and even ambulances with wounded soldiers left standing in the road, while the frightened teamsters rode away at headlong speed, on horses unhitched or cut out of their harness.

It would seem that things had already come to this pass before the columns which were retreating around the long detour by way of Sudley Springs and Ford once more came in sight of the Warrenton turnpike, at a point between Stone Bridge and Cub Run. Cub Run seems to have been [203] a difficult little stream, provided with a “suspension bridge” of some kind where the turnpike crosses it. Radford's cavalry had not only been hovering along and occasionally dashing in on the turnpike, but a rebel light battery succeeded in establishing itself where it commanded the “suspension bridge.” When the retreating column from Sudley Ford came in sight, they found to their consternation that it was necessary to run the gauntlet of this artillery fire. “The enemy opened fire,” says Burnside's report, “upon the retreating mass of men. Upon the bridge crossing Cub Run, a shot took effect upon the horses of a team that was crossing. The wagon was overturned directly in the centre of the bridge, and the passage was completely obstructed. The enemy continued to play his artillery upon the train, carriages, ambulances, and artillery wagons that filled up the road, and these were reduced to ruin. The artillery could not possibly pass, and five pieces of the Rhode Island battery, which had been safely brought off the field, were here lost.” The four pieces of Arnold's battery were also abandoned here from this cause. Four pieces of Carlisle's battery were apparently lost in the same neighborhood, though from a charge of Radford's cavalry. This “suspension bridge” over Cub Run was distant some three miles from the main battle-field, and it was here that the enemy made his largest capture of guns and wagons.

It may be imagined that at Confederate headquarters that night the measure of satisfaction was well-nigh full. Yet that their rejoicing was tempered with a serious alloy of rebel danger and losses, is also clearly enough revealed in Jefferson Davis' telegraphic bulletins. “A terrible battle is raging,” said his first. “We have won a glorious, though dear-bought victory,” was the language of his second. In his third he repeated, “Night has closed upon a hardfought [204] field. Our forces have won a glorious victory.” He forbore to add, what the official reports and correspondence afterward developed, namely: that not only was the field “hard-fought” and the victory “dear-bought,” but they were by no means confident it was final. On the contrary, the rebel headquarters was in serious apprehension lest McDowell should turn from Centreville and once more assail the Confederate light flank at or below Blackburn's Ford. To meet this reported danger, Ewell and Holmes were that night ordered post-haste back to Union Mills. “You will not fail to remember,” afterward wrote Jefferson Davis to Beauregard, “that, so far from knowing the enemy was routed, a large part of our forces was moved by you, in the night of the 21st, to repel a supposed attack upon our right, and the next day's operations did not fully reveal what has since been reported of the enemy's panic.”

When McDowell left the battle-field his intention and orders were to rally at Centreville. But, arriving there, he found the conditions less favorable than he anticipated. It had been designed that Blenker's brigade should, during the day, throw up intrenchments; this was not done, because the necessary tools did not get forward as expected. Next he found that Davies and Richardson had left their stations at Blackburn's Ford and were falling back. “Great God! Richardson,” exclaimed McDowell, on meeting that officer, “why didn't you hold on to the position at Blackburn's Ford?” “Colonel Miles ordered me to retreat to Centreville, and I obeyed the order; Colonel Miles is continually interfering with me, and he is drunk, and is not fit to corn mand,” was the reply. The officer stood justified, for Mc-Dowell had already suspended Miles from command. The retrograde movement was stopped, the brigades were faced about and put in the best possible line of defence, with [205] orders to hold the position. Repairing again to Centreville, McDowell found still further discouragement in the loss of the thirteen guns at Cub Run and the increased disorder among the troops. When, toward nine o'clock-just about nightfall for that season — the last brigade reached Centreville, and the various commanders were called together, it was generally agreed that it was unwise to undertake to make a stand, as contemplated. “The condition of our artillery and its ammunition,” says McDowell's report, “and the want of food for the men, who had generally abandoned or thrown away all that had been issued the day before, and the utter disorganization and consequent demoralization of the mass of the army, seemed to all who were near enough to be consulted-division and brigade commanders and staff — to admit of no alternative but to fall back.” If these reasons might be questioned, there was still another absolutely conclusive. The enlistment of the three months men was expiring. The Pennsylvania Fourth, which had insisted upon and received its discharge that very morning, while the army was advancing to battle, “moved to the rear to the sound of the enemy's cannon.” “In the next few days,” continues McDowell, “day by day I should have lost ten thousand of the best armed, drilled, officered, and disciplined troops in the army.” The practical logic of war is stern and swift. Even while the officers were deliberating, the disorganized fugitives, in a contagious and increasing panic, were already on the march. Toward ten o'clock Mc-Dowell began to distribute his orders to retire from Centreville; and a little after midnight Richardson's and Blenker's brigades marched away from that village in a deliberate and orderly retreat, maintaining their organization as a steady and effective rear-guard till they once more reached the Potomac camps.

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