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Chapter 14: the baptism of blood.

  • The first war bulletin
  • -- how Richmond received it -- practical result of Bethel -- earnest work in Government bureaux -- thunder from a clear sky -- shadows follow Rich Mountain -- Carthago delenda! -- popular comparison of fighting qualities -- the “on-to-richmond!” Clangor -- the southern pulse -- “Beware of Johnston's Retreats I” Bull run -- the day before Manassas -- waiting!
    On the afternoon of June 10, 1861, Richmond was thrown into a commotion-though of a different nature-hardly exceeded by that exciting Sabbath, “Pawnee Sunday.” Jubilant, but agitated crowds collected at the telegraph offices, the hotels and the doors of the War Department, to get the news of the first fight on Virginia soil.

    That morning the enemy had pressed boldly forward, in three heavy columns, against Magruder's lines at Big Bethel Church. He had been sharply repulsed in several distinct charges, with heavy loss, by D. H. Hill's regiment — the first North Carolina, and two guns of the Richmond Howitzers, commanded by Major John W. Randolphafterward Secretary of War.

    Naturally there was great and deep rejoicing over this news in all quarters and from all classes. None had expected a different general result; for the confidence in Magruder's ability at that time, and in the pluck of his troops, was perfect; but the ease and dash with which the victory had been achieved was looked upon as the sure presage of great success elsewhere.

    Although the conduct of the fight had been in the hands of Colonel D. H. Hill-afterward so well known as a staunch and hard fighting officer-and his North Carolinians had illustrated it by more than one act of personal daring; still the cannon had done the main work and it was taken as a Richmond victory.

    The small loss, too, where the home people had been so deeply interested, added a cheering glow to the news that nothing else could have given. Bowed and venerable men, little girls and tremulous old women spoke of the fight “we won.” And why not? Were not their sons, and husbands, and brothers, really a part of them?

    It was curious to see how prone the women were to attribute the result to a special interposition of Divine aid, and to share the laurels, gathered that bright June day, with a higher Power than rested in a Springfield rifle, or a 12-pr. howitzer. [112]

    “Don't you tell me one word, cap'n!” I heard an old lady exclaim in great ire, at the door of the War Department, “Providence is a-fightin‘ our battles for us! The Lord is with us, and thar's his handwritin‘--jest as plain!”

    “Don't say nothin‘ agin‘ that, marm,” answered the western captain, with Cromwellian sagacity; “but ef we don't help Providence powerful hard we ain't agoin‘ ter win!”

    There was a perfect atmosphere of triumph all over the state. Troops lying in camp began to get restless and eager to go at onceeven half-prepared as many of them were — to the front. Perfect confidence in the ability of the South to beat back any advance had been before the too prevalent idea of army and people; and the ease of the victory added to this conviction a glow of exultation over the invincibility of the southern soldier.

    But the confidence begotten by the result had, as yet, a beneficial rather than a bad effect. Enlistments were stimulated and camps of instruction vied with each other in energy of preparation and close attention to drill. Every soldier felt that the struggle might be fierce, but would certainly be short; and the meanest private panted to have his share in the triumphant work while there was yet a chance. The women worked harder than ever; and at every sewing-circle the story of the fight was retold with many a glowing touch added by skillful narration. And while soft eyes flashed and delicate cheeks glowed at the music of the recital, needles glanced quicker still through the tough fabric for those “dear boys!”

    Along the other army lines, the news from Magruder's inspired the men with a wild desire to dash forward and have their turn, before the whole crop of early laurels was gathered. An aide on General Beauregard's staff came down from Manassas a few days after Bethel, in charge of prisoners; and he told me that the men had been in a state of nervous excitement for an advance before, but now were so wild over the news, it was hard to restrain them from advancing of their own accord.

    The clear-headed generals in command, however, looked over the flash and glitter of the first success, to the sterner realities beyond; and they drew the bands of discipline only tighter-and administered the wholesome tonic of regular drill — the nearer they saw the approach of real work. [113]

    The Government, too, hailed the success at Bethel as an omen of the future; but rather that it tested the spirit of the troops and their ability to stand fire, than from any solid fruits of the fight. They understood that it was scarcely a check to the great advance to be made; and though perhaps not “only a reconnaissance that accomplished its intention,” as the Federal officers declared, it was yet only the result of such a movement. True, eighteen hundred raw troops, never under fire, had met more than double their number and fought steadily and well from nine o'clock till two; and had, besides, accomplished this with the insignificant loss of one killed and seven wounded!

    But this was not yet the test that was to try how fit they were to fight for the principles for which they had so promptly flown to arms. The great shock was to come in far different form; and every nerve was strained to meet the issue when made.

    The Ordnance Department had been organized, and already brought to a point of efficiency, by Major Gorgas--a resigned officer of the United States Artillery; and it was ably seconded by the Tredegar Works. All night long the dwellers on Gamble's Hill saw their furnaces shine with a steady glow, and the tall chimneys belch out clouds of dense, luminous smoke into the night. At almost any hour of the day, Mr. Tanner's well-known black horses could be seen at the door of the War Department, or dashing thence to the foundry, or one of the depots. As consequence of this energy and industry, huge trains of heavy guns, and improved ordnance of every kind, were shipped off to the threatened points, almost daily, to the full capacity of limited rolling stock on the roads. The new regiments were rapidly armed; their old-style muskets exchanged for better ones, to be in their turn put through the improving Tredegar process. Battery equipments, harness works, forges — in fact, all requirements for the service — were at once put in operation under the working order and system introduced into the bureaux. The efficiency of the southern artillery-until paralyzed by the breaking down of its horses --is sufficient proof how this branch was conducted.

    The Medical Department--to play so important and needful a part in the coming days of blood — was now thoroughly reorganized and placed on really efficient footing. Surgeons of all ages-some of first force and of highest reputation in the South-left home and [114] practice, to seek and receive positions under it. These, on passing examination and receiving commission, were sent to points where most needed, with full instructions to prepare to the utmost for the comfort of the sick and wounded. Medicines, instruments, stretchers and supplies of all sorts were freely sent to the purveyors in the field — where possible, appointed from experienced surgeons of the old service; while the principal hospitals and depots in Richmond were put in perfect order to receive their expected tenants, under the personal supervision of the Surgeon-General.

    The Quartermaster's Department, both for railroad transportation and field service, underwent a radical change, as experience of the early campaign pointed out its imperfections. This department is the life of the army — the supplies of every description must be received through its hands. Efficiently directed, it can contribute to the most brilliant results, and badly handled, can thwart the most perfectly matured plans of genius, or generalship.

    Colonel A. C. Myers, who was early made Acting Quartermaster-General, had the benefit of the assistance and advice of an able corps of subordinates-both from the old service and from the active business men of the South; and, whatever may have been its later abuses, at this time the bureau was managed with an efficiency and vigor that could scarcely have been looked for in so new an organization.

    The Commissariat alone was badly managed from its very inception. Murmurs loud and deep arose from every quarter against its numerous errors and abuses; and the sagacity of Mr. Davis-so entirely approved elsewhere — was in this case more than doubted. Colonel Northrop had been an officer of cavalry, but for many years had been on a quasi sick-leave, away from all connection with any branch of the army-save, perhaps, the paymaster's office. The reason for his appointment to, perhaps, the most responsible bureau of the War Department was a mystery to people everywhere.

    Suddenly the news from Rich Mountain came. It fell like a thunderbolt from the summer sky, that the people deluded themselves was to sail over them with never a cloud! The flood-tide of success, upon which they had been floating so gaily, was suddenly dammed and flowed back upon them in surges of sullen gloom.

    The southern masses are essentially mercurial and are more given [115] to sudden extremes of hope and despondency than any people in the world-except, perhaps, the French. Any event in which they are interested can, by a partial success, carry them up to a glowing enthusiasm, or depress them to zero by its approach to failure. The buzz and stir of preparation, the constant exertion attending it and their absorbing interest in the cause, had all prepared the people, more than ordinarily even, for one of these barometric shiftings. The news from Bethel had made them almost wild with joy and caused an excessive elation that could ill bear a shock. The misfortune at Rich Mountain threw a corresponding gloom over the whole face of affairs; and, as the success at Bethel had been overrated from the Potomac to the Gulf, so this defeat was deemed of more serious importance than it really was.

    This feeling in Richmond was much aggravated by her own peculiar loss. Some of her best men had been in the fight, and all that could be learned of them was that they were scattered, or shot. Garnett was dead; the gallant DeLagnel was shot down fighting to the last; and Pegram was a prisoner — the gallant regiment he led cut up and dispersed!

    Only a few days before, a crowd of the fairest and most honored that Richmond could boast had assembled at the depot to bid them God speed! Crowds of fellow soldiers had clustered round them, hard hands had clasped theirs-while bright smiles of cheer broke through the tears on softest cheeks; and, as the train whirled off and the banner that tender hands had worked — with a feeling “passing the love of woman” --waved over them, wreathed with flowers, not a heart was in the throng but beat high with anticipation of brave deed and brilliant victory following its folds.

    Scarcely had these flowers withered when the regiment-shattered and beaten — was borne down by numbers, and the flag itself sullied and torn by the tramp of its conquerors. And the shame of defeat was much heightened to these good people, by the agonies of suspense as to the fate of their loved ones. It was three days after the news of the disaster reached the War Department before the death of Garnett was a certainty; and longer time still elapsed ere the minor casualties were known. When they did come, weeping sounded through many a Virginia home for its stay, or its darling, stark on the distant battle-field, or carried into captivity. [116]

    The details of the fight were generally and warmly discussed, but with much more of feeling than of knowledge of their real bearings. Public opinion fixed the result decidedly as the consequence of want of skill and judgment, in dividing the brigade at a critical moment. There was a balm in the reflection, however, that though broken and beaten, the men had fought well in the face of heavy odds; and that their officers had striven by every effort of manhood to hold them to their duty. General Garnett had exposed himself constantly, and was killed by a sharp-shooter at Carrock's Ford-over which he had brought the remnant of his army by a masterly retreat-while holding the stream at the head of a small squad. Pegram fought with gallantry and determination. He felt the position untenable and had remonstrated against holding it; yet the admirable disposition of his few troops, and the skill and courage with which he had managed them, had cost the enemy many a man before the mountain was won. Captured and bruised by the fall of his horse, he refused to surrender his sword until an officer, his equal in rank, should demand it. De Lagnel cheered his men till they fell between the guns they could no longer work; then seized the rammer himself and loaded the piece till he, too, was shot down. Wounded, he still fought with his pistol, till a bayonet thrust stretched him senseless.

    These brilliant episodes illustrated the gloomy story of the defeat; but it still caused very deep and general depression. This was only partly relieved by the news that followed so closely upon it, of the brilliant success of General Price's army at Carthage. Missouri was so far away that the loudest shouts of victory there could echo but dimly in the ears at Richmond, already dulled by Rich Mountain. Still, it checked the blue mood of the public to some extent; and the Government saw in it much more encouragement than the people.

    There had been much doubt among the southern leaders as to the materiel of the western armies, on both sides. Old and tried officers felt secure, ceteris paribus, of success against the northern troops of the coast, or Middle States; but the hardy hunters from the West and North-west were men of a very different stamp. The resources of the whole country had been strained to send into Virginia such an army in numbers and equipment as the preparation for invasion of her borders seemed to warrant. This had left the South and Southwest rather more thinly garrisoned than all deemed prudent. The [117] grounds for security in Virginia were that the mass of the southern troops were thoroughly accustomed to the use of arms and perfectly at home on horseback; and no doubts were felt that the men of the Northeastern States, there opposed to them, were far below them in both requirements. The superior excellence of the latter in arms, equipment, and perhaps discipline, was more than compensated to the former by their greater familiarity with the arms they carried and their superiority of physique and endurance. Any advantage of numbers, it was argued, was made up by the fact of the invading army being forced to fight on the ground chosen by the invaded; and in the excellence of her tacticians, rather more than in any expected equality of numbers, the main reliance of the southern government was placed. Hence it was full of confidence as to the result in the East.

    In the West, it was far different. There the armies of the United States were recruited from the hardy trappers and frontiersmen of the border; from the sturdy yeomen of the inland farms; and, in many instances, whole districts had separated, and men from adjoining farms had gone to join in a deadly fight, in opposing ranks. Though the partisan spirit with these was stronger than with other southern troops — for they added the bitterness of personal hate to the sectional feeling-yet thinking people felt that the men themselves were more equally matched in courage, endurance and the knowledge of arms.

    It is an old axiom in war, that when the personnel of armies is equal, victory is apt to rest with numbers. In the West, the United States not only had the numbers in their favor, but they were better equipped in every way; and the only hope of the South was in the superiority of its generals in strategic ability.

    Thus, the fight at Carthage was viewed by the Government as a test question of deep meaning; and Sterling Price began at once to rank as a rising man. The general gloom through the country began to wear off, but that feeling of overweening confidence, in which the people had so universally indulged, was much shaken; and it was with some misgivings as to the perfect certainty of success that they began to look upon the tremendous preparations for the Virginia campaign, to which the North was bending its every effort, under the personal supervision of General Scott. The bitterness that the mass [118] of the people of the South-especially in Virginia-felt against that officer did not affect their exalted opinion of his vast grasp of mind and great military science. The people, as a body, seldom reason deeply upon such points; and it would probably have been hard to find out why it was so; but the majority of his fellow-statesmen certainly feared and hated “the general” in about an equal degree. It was a good thing for the South that this was the case; and that the mighty “On to Richmond!” --the clang of which was resounding to the farthest limits of the North and sending its threatening echoes over the Potomac — was recognized by them as a serious and determined attempt upon the new Capital.

    Every fresh mail, through “the blockade,” brought more and more astounding intelligence of these vast preparations. Every fresh cap that was exploded, every new flag that was broidered, was duly chronicled by the rabid press. The editors of the North seemed to have gone military mad; and when they did not dictate plans of battles, lecture their government and bully its generals, they told wondrous stories of an army that Xerxes might have gaped to see.

    All the newspaper bombast could easily be sifted, however; and private letters from reliable sources of intelligence over the Potomac all agreed as to the vast scale and perfection of arrangement of the onward movement. The public pulse in the South had settled again to a steady and regular beat; but it visibly quickened as the time of trial approached.

    And that time could not be long delayed!

    The army of Virginia was in great spirits. Each change of position-every fresh disposition of troops-told them that their leaders expected a fight at any moment; and they panted for it and chafed under the necessary restraints of discipline, like hounds in the leash.

    When General Johnston took command of the Army of the Shenandoah at Harper's Ferry, he at once saw that with the small force at his command the position was untenable. To hold it, the heights on both sides of the river commanding it would have to be fortified, and a clear line of communication maintained with his base.

    General McClellan, with a force equal to his, was hovering about Romney and the upper Valley, ready at any moment to swoop down upon his flank and make a junction with Patterson, who was in his front, thus crushing him between them. Patterson was threatening [119] Winchester, at which point he would be able to cut Johnston's supplies and at the same time effect his desired junction with McClellan.

    To prevent this, about the middle of June, General Johnston evacuated Harper's Ferry, destroying the magazines and a vast amount of property, and fell back to Winchester. Then, for one month, Patterson and he played at military chess, on a field ranging from Winchester to Martinsburg, without advantage on either side. At the end of that time — on the 15th of July--the former made his grand feint of an advance, which Colonel Jeb Stuart--who was scouting in his front-declared to be a real movement; warning General Johnston that the blow was at last to fall in earnest. This warning the clear-headed and subtle tactician took in such part, that he at once prepared to dispatch his whole force to Manassas to join Beauregard. Well did General Scott say, “Beware of Johnston's retreats;” for-whatever the country may have thought of it at the time — the retreat from Harper's Ferry culminated in the battle of Manassas!

    Meanwhile, in Richmond the excitement steadily rose, but the work of strengthening the defenses went steadily on. Fresh troops arrived daily — from the South by cars — from the West by railroad and canal; and from the country around Richmond they marched in. Rumors of the wildest and most varied sort could be heard at any hour. Now Magruder had gained a terrible victory at Big Bethel, and had strewn the ground for miles with the slain and spoils! Then Johnston had met the enemy at Winchester and, after oceans of blood, had driven him from the field in utter rout! Again Beauregard had cut McDowell to pieces and planted the stars-and-bars over Alexandria and Arlington Heights! Such was the morbid state of the public mind that any rumor, however fanciful, received some credit.

    Each night some regiments broke camp noiselessly and filed through the streets like the army of specters that

    Beleaguered the walls of Prague,

    to fill a train on the Central, or Fredericksburg road, en route for Manassas. Constantly, at gray dawn the dull, rumbling sound, cut sharply by the clear note of the bugle, told of moving batteries; and the tramp of cavalry became so accustomed a sound, that people scarcely left their work even to cheer the wild and rugged-looking horsemen passing by. [120]

    Then it began to be understood, all over the country, that the great advance would be over the Potomac; that the first decisive battle would be joined by the Army of the Shenandoah, or that of Manassas.

    A hushed, feverish suspense-like the sultry stillness before the burst of the storm-brooded over the land, shared alike by the people and government.

    My old friend — the colonel of the “Ranche” and “Zouave” memory — was stationed at Richmond headquarters. Many were the tribulations that sorely beset the soul of that old soldier and clubman. He had served so long with regulars that he could not get accustomed to the irregularities of the “mustangs,” as he called the volunteers; many were the culinary grievances of which he relieved his rotund breast to me; and numerous were the early bits of news he confidentially dropped into my ear, before they were known elsewhere.

    The evening of the 18th of July-hot, sultry and threatening rain-had been more quiet than usual. Not a rumor had been set afloat; and the monotony was only broken by a group of officers about the “Spotswood” discussing Bethel, Rich Mountain and the chances of the next fight. One of them, with three stars on his collar, had just declared his conviction:

    It's only a feint, major! McDowell is too old a soldier to risk a fight on the Potomac line-too far from his base, sir! He'll amuse Beauregard and Johnston while they sweep down on Magruder. I want my orders for Yorktown. Mark my words! What is it, adjutant?

    The colonel talked on as he opened and read a paper the lieutenant handed him-“Hello! Adjutant, read that! Boys, I'm off for Manassas to-night. Turning my back on a fight, by-!”

    Just then I felt a hand on my shoulder; and turning, saw my colonel with his round face-graver than usual-near mine. The thought of some devilish invention in the pudding line flashed across me, but his first word put cooks and dinners out of my mind.

    “ The ball's open, egad!” he said seriously. “We whipped McDowell's advance at Bull Run to-day, sir! Drove 'em back, sir! Did you hear that mustang colonel? Turning his back on a fight! Egad, he'll turn his stomach on it before the week's out!”

    It was true. How McDowell's right had essayed to cross at [121] Blackburn's Ford; how Longstreet's Virginians and the Washington Artillery met them; and how, after a sharp fight, they retired and gave up the ford is too well known history to be repeated here.

    In an hour the news was public in Richmond and-though received with a deep, grave joy-braced every nerve and steadied every pulse in it. There was no distaste to face the real danger when it showed itself; it was only the sickening suspense that was unbearable. No one in the city had really doubted the result, from the first; and the news from the prelude to the terrible and decisive fight, yet to come, but braced the people, as a stimulant may the fevered patient.

    The heavy pattering of the first drops had come, and the strained hush was broken.

    Beauregard telegraphed that the success of Bull Run was complete; that his men had borne their baptism of fire, with the steadiness of veterans; and that a few days-hours, perhaps-must bring the general assault upon his lines.

    He urged that every available man should be sent him; and within twenty-four hours from the receipt of his despatch, there was not a company left in Richmond that had arms to carry him.

    Surgeons were sent up; volunteer doctors applied by dozens for permission to go; ambulance trains were put upon the road, in readiness at a moment's warning. Baskets of delicacies and rare old wines and pure liquors; great bundles of bandages and lint, prepared by the daintiest fingers in the “Old Dominion ;” cots, mattresses and pillows-all crowded in at the medical purveyor's. Then Richmond, having done all she could for the present, drew a deep breath and waited.

    But she waited not unhopefully!

    Every eye was strained to Manassas plains; every heart throbbed stronger at the mention of that name. All knew that there the giants were soon to clinch in deadly wrestle for the mastery; that the struggle was now at hand, when the flag of the South would be carried high in triumph or trampled in the dust!

    But no one doubted the true hearts and firm hands that had gathered there to uphold that banner!

    No one doubted that, though the best blood of the South might redden its folds, it would still float proudly over the fieldconse-crated, but unstained!

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