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Chapter 2: the battle of Bull Run (July, 1861)

  • At Richmond.
  • -- general Robert S. Garnett. -- orders received. -- at Manassas. -- installing signal stations. -- strategic opportunities. -- Beauregard's suggestions. -- McDowell's moves. -- orders sent Johnston. -- Johnston marches. -- Patterson remains ignorant. -- the odds against us. -- marked batteries, etc. -- Blackburn's Ford. -- an infantry skirmish. -- an artillery duel. -- New plan needed. -- plan adopted. -- McDowell Overpersuaded. -- in the Confederate lines. -- McDowell's New plan. -- Beauregard's plan. -- how it failed. -- Tyler at Stone Bridge. -- at the signal Station. -- Beauregard informed. -- a pause. -- the dust cloud. -- the action begun. -- Bee and Bartow come in. -- the generals go to the left. -- watching the battle. -- Johnston and Beauregard arrive. -- Reenforcement sent for. -- McDowell's four idle brigades. -- two hours fighting. -- the Henry House Hill. -- Cummings's brilliant Coup. -- the Federal collapse. -- leaving signal Station. -- stragglers in the rear. -- Davis and Jackson. -- lost opportunities. -- order checking Kershaw. -- order stopping pursuit. -- affairs on the right. -- Jones and Longstreet. -- Bonham takes the lead. -- Bonham halts. -- overcaution in New commanders. -- the final scene. -- return from the field. -- Hill's report. -- inaction of council.

I arrived in Richmond, Saturday night, June 1, reported for duty Monday morning, and received my commission as captain of Engineers. Engineer officers were in demand, but President Davis remembered my appearing with Maj. Myer before the Military Committee of the Senate, in connection with the system of signals, and I was first ordered to start in Richmond a little factory of signal apparatus, such as torches, poles, and flags. I was told that I would soon be sent to install the system in some one of the small armies being collected at several points.

I was quickly ready, and anxious for orders, which for some cause were delayed. Gen. Robert S. Garnett was in Richmond at the time, organizing a force for service in West Virginia, and made application for me upon his staff, but it was refused. He had been Commandant of the Corps of Cadets during my [14] first year at West Point, and the impression I formed of him as a soldier is not lower than that formed of any other officer I have ever known. In every one else I have seen some mere human traits, but in Garnett every trait was purely military. Had he lived, I am sure he would have been one of our great generals.

He lost his life, however, in his first affair, July 13, 1861, near Carrick's Ford, Va., and in a characteristic manner. With ten of his men, who were raw troops, he had halted to delay the enemy at a creek crossing. His men were nervous under a sharp fire, and Garnett remarked that ‘they needed a little example.’ He stepped out in full view of the enemy and walked slowly back and forth, a target for the sharpshooters. He was presently shot dead, just when he was prepared to withdraw.

Nearly the whole of June passed while I was kept, from day to day, awaiting orders. Near the end of June, I was ordered to organize five batteries of artillery into a battalion, and prepare them for the field. I was forming classes for the instruction of officers, and making requisitions for supplies when new orders came, sending me to signal duty with Beauregard at Manassas.

I had just decided to have my wife come on to Richmond, and she was en route when I had to leave. I regretted giving up the Artillery Battalion. It would have been a decided step in advance had we inaugurated, so soon, a battalion organization of several batteries. We came to it about a year later, but meanwhile our batteries had been isolated and attached to infantry brigades. So they fought singly, and in such small units artillery can do little.

On July 2, I arrived at Manassas, reported to Beauregard, was assigned to duty upon his staff, and ordered to install the system of signals for use in the coming battle. It was certain that a battle must be fought soon.

Federal armies were being collected in West Virginia under McClellan; on the upper Potomac threatening Winchester, under Patterson; at Alexandria under McDowell; and, at Fortress Monroe, under Butler. These armies were mostly raw troops, but among them were the 75,000 three-months men, first called out in April, and they were now fairly well disciplined. [15]

Their terms of service would begin to expire soon after the middle of July, and it was sure that some use would sooner be made of them. For we were then less a military nation than ever before or since, and neither side recognized its own unpreparedness.

By June 24 McDowell had submitted a plan of aggressive operation, and July 8 had been named as the date of the proposed movement. Gen. Scott had urged longer delay, and that the three-months men should be allowed to go, and their places supplied with the three-years men now being enlisted. Political necessities, however, overruled his objections. Fortunately for the Confederates, with all their resources the Federal forces were not able to move before the 16th, and when they did move, they consumed four days more, from the 17th to the 20th inclusive, in about 20 miles of marching and in preliminaries. Battle was only delivered on July 21, and the crisis of this battle occurred about 3.30 P. M.

We shall see that not only every day of that delay, but even every hour of it, was essential to the Confederate victory which resulted.

So on my arrival at Manassas, July 2, there was really more time to install the signals than I expected, for ‘rumors of the foe's advance’ now swelled upon almost every breeze. I had brought with me from Richmond all necessary equipment and I had only to select men and train them. I soon made acquaintances and got the names of some intelligent privates, who might later be promoted. I had these detailed and put upon a course of instruction and practice. Meanwhile I procured a horse, and between times began an exploration of the country to find what facilities it offered for lines of signals.

The topography was far from favorable. Our line of battle had been chosen behind the stream of Bull Run, about three miles north of Manassas, and the course of the stream was generally wooded and bordered with small fields and pastures, giving few open stretches. I was not sanguine of rendering any valuable service, but fortunately had time to examine the country, and, as will be seen, the line was found which disclosed the enemy's attack in time to defeat it. [16]

About a mile east of Manassas, on the farm of a Mr. Wilcoxen, was a high rocky point having a good outlook over a valley to the north and west. I made this point a central station, and by a little clearing here and there got two straight six-mile ranges. One was northwest to a bluff over Bull Run valley on our extreme left, near the house of Van Ness, just above the Stone Bridge by which the Warrenton Turnpike crossed Bull Run. The other was north, to Centreville, about three miles beyond the Run, opposite our centre. A third station was found near the house of McLean, opposite our right centre, and a fourth near our headquarters at Centreville. This was the utmost the topography permitted, and the men were encamped at the stations and set to practising by day and night.

Where the opponents have each two armies in the field, each has the opportunity to combine his whole force upon his adversary.

This was the situation in Northern Virginia.

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