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Chapter 5:

  • Battle of Manassas Plains, Sunday, July twenty-first
  • -- disposition of the Southern forces -- plans of the enemy -- the main battle on our left -- struggle at Sudley Ford and Stone Bridge -- attack of Louisiana Irish -- critical situation of our forces -- Stonewall Jackson -- preparations for a final advance on both sides -- arrival of Johnston's reenforcements -- total rout of the enemy.

From various causes, I was destined to enjoy but little sleep, and was on the move nearly all night. The great lights around Centreville seemed to die out about midnight, but then arose a low murmuring noise, as if large bodies of men had thus early risen, and were marching through country west of the river. Soon afterwards, being sent to the outposts, my ear quickly detected heavy masses moving along the road towards Stone Bridge, and I could faintly hear the shouts of teamsters and artillery drivers whipping up their horses. The bumping of heavy wagons and artillery was distinctly audible, while now and then the command could be faintly heard in the still night-“Attention, battalion!-forward, march!” This continued passage of men along our front gave me very melancholy forebodings regarding the enemy's force, more especially as serious fears were entertained regarding the remainder of Johnston's command in the Shenandoah, for it was now nearly three A. M., and still no troops had arrived Could it be that the enemy had sent a heavy force, torn up the track, and seized the “Gap” ? None could tell; few dared speak on the subject; but those who knew our weakness, and the necessity for the speedy arrival of reenforcements, whispered their fears of the deadly conflict that would be surely ushered in at dawn. Again and again cocks on neighboring farms carolled forth the hour. At last the first grey streaks of morning appeared in the sky, with the pure pale moon slowly descending below the distant woods. The waters of the river audibly [41] rippled past-otherwise, not a sound was heard save the quick, sharp challenge, “Halt!-who goes there?”

By entering into conversation with a well-informed comrade, I ascertained the precise position and number of our forces. Ewell's brigade constituted our extreme right, and was across Bull Run, posted at Union Mills; D. R. Jones's brigade came next, being south of the river, at McLean's (or Wolf) Ford; Longstreet's brigade was at Blackburn's Ford; Bonham's brigade at Mitchell's Ford; Philip St. George Cocke's brigade was posted at Ball's Ford, three miles farther up stream; while Colonel Nathan Evans, with two regiments, guarded Stone Bridge-making a distance of nine miles from the right to our extreme left. There were several other fords farther up, namely, the Red House Ford, and still higher, Sudley Ford, etc.; but Stone Bridge was generally considered our extreme left. The right of our line was much stronger than the left in position and numbers, even without considering the two reserve brigades of Holmes and Early, which were stationed with the former for emergencies.

At which of these points the meditated blow might fall none could foresee. Scott was said to be a crafty general, and there can be no doubt that he taxed his little genius rather heavily on this occasion to assist McDowell, who, as our prisoners assured us, held the chief command. I had scarcely returned to camp, about five A. M., when all were afoot and ready for moving. The sun had risen in more than usual splendor, and as I stood on a hill across McLean's Ford, gazing upon the distant landscape, the effect was beautiful. To our right and eastward, on the heights of Centreville, Porter's artillery was deliberately shelling Blackburn's and McLean's Fords, the smoke, in the most beautiful and fantastically formed volumes, curling away from the cannon's mouth. Westward, rose the dark outline of the Blue Ridge, which inclosed, as in an amphitheatre, the woods and hollows, the streams and open spaces of Manassas Plains. Smoke, ascending from the woods on both sides of the stream of Bull Run, eight miles away in the direction of Stone Bridge, told that the fight had commenced there, while the frequent reports of artillery proved that both sides were becoming angry, and replying sharply and vindictively to each other. Occasional sounds of musketry fire, fronting Blackburn's and Mitchell's Fords, [42] indicated that Longstreet's and Bonham's brigades at the centre were engaged in heavy skirmishes, though the enemy seemed disinclined to attempt any serious assault upon those positions.

As soon as the first guns disturbed the peace of this calm and beautiful Sabbath morning, Johnston and Beauregard had gal_ loped forward, and taken up a position on a hill to the left and rear of Bonham at Mitchell's Ford, where a full view was obtained of the entire line of Bull Run. The enemy saw the group of officers, and shell fell thick in the vicinity. These demonstrations met with no response: our generals-in-chief were intently watching the development of McDowell's movements, and seemed undecided as to his real point of attack. They had not remained long searching the plain with their glasses, when an increasing volume of smoke four miles to the left revealed the fact that the Federals were in force at that point. This was presently confirmed by the arrival of orderlies, who reported that the fire was brisk at Stone Bridge; that we held our own there, but that a strong column under Colonel Hunter had successfully crossed higher up at Sudley Ford, driven Evans back, and was slowly progressing, at right angles to the river, towards the Red House.

Colonel Evans having been forewarned of this movement, as we have elsewhere shown, had posted about one thousand men and two light pieces near the intersection of the Warrenton Turnpike and Sudley Road. This handful of troops resisted the advance of Hunter, until they were compelled by superior numbers to retire across the Ford; and this being effected, they took up another position in the woods. The movement was misunderstood by the enemy, who, believing our force to be routed, halted at the Ford some little time to refresh themselves and fill their canteens. They then crossed in admirable order, and had advanced about a mile, when our two guns opened fire upon them, and blocked up the lane with dead. The enemy now hurried forward their artillery, and, soon overpowering ours, advanced again, meeting with a desperate resistance from Evans's heroes, whose precision of fire inflicted severe loss on the masses opposed to them.

While these events were progressing at Sudley Ford, other parts of the field began to develop more fully the enemy's plan of battle. The reader must picture to himself Wheat's [43] immortal battalion (the Louisiana) and a few other troops still engaged with Tyler's (First) division of three brigades at Stone Bridge,1 while Evans at Sudley Ford is slowly retiring before the four brigades of Hunter. Then Colonel Heintzelman, with the Second division, is seen moving towards Red House Ford between these two valiant leaders; and joining forces with Hunter, he proceeds-still at right angles with the river — to Stone Bridge, his object being to disperse the little force under Major Wheat, and allow Tyler's division to cross. Heintzelman was, in some degree, baffled and held in check. But arriving at and crossing the ford, he discovered one of our regiments (Fourth Alabama) drawn up to receive him. Recalling his skirmishers, Heintzelman cheered on the New-York “Fire Zouaves” (fifteen hundred strong) leading gallantly himself. Our Alabamians allow them to approach within fifty yards, when they deliver a volley from eight hundred Mississippi rifles, and scatter the Zouaves beyond all recall. They are reformed, harangued, reminded of their vows, their banners are shaken out, and cheers given for the Union-but “advance” they will not. The morale of these braves was destroyed: they were afterwards seen in companies, or small detachments, but never as a regiment.

Disgusted with their behavior, Heintzelman turned in his saddle, and observing the gallant appearance of the Fourteenth Brooklyn (New-York) Zouaves, placed himself at their head, and again advanced; but again the calm line of Alabamians [44] delivered a fatal volley, and again the crack Federal troops broke and fled. A Massachusetts regiment was next brought up to clear the way, but this, and two other regiments which followed it, quailed before the murderous volleys of the “Fourth.” The only regiment that did stand two volleys, was a Michigan, or Western regiment. Numbers, however, began to tell, and Bee, who commanded the Alabamians and, Mississippians, slowly fell back. By this time, it will be seen, the enemy had three full divisions and many guns across the stream, and the conflict began to assume a sanguinary aspect. To oppose their advance we had two light guns and one regiment under Evans, Seventh and Eighth Georgia under Bartow, Fourth Alabama, Second, and two companies of the Eleventh Mississippi, and four guns of Imboden's battery under Bee — a total of six guns and five regiments against fifteen thousand (including “regulars” and “marines” ) and twenty pieces of rifled artillery. Such being the disparity of numbers, the fight was maintained with desperation on our side. The enemy's line, at right angles with the river, was increasing in length every moment; their design, so far as we could judge, was to cut us off from Manassas, and entirely surround our small but heroic band. To add to our misfortune two small brigades had been detached from the division in front of Stone Bridge, and, finding a fordable place, had crossed under Sherman and Keyes, and appeared forming to our right and rear, leaving sufficient force at the bridge to occupy our small force under Major Wheat.

On the left the fight up to this time had been desperate. The attack on Hunter's column at Sudley Ford was made by Evans with a full consciousness of the disparity of force, and he expected no more success than consisted in delaying the movements of the enemy; yet such was the ardor of his men and their precision of fire, that he accomplished wonders. They were so exhausted, however, with continually advancing to the attack, and were so much weakened in numbers, that at last the men for the most part were firing from the woods in skirmishing order, and, being excellent marksman, inflicted much loss. It was impossible at this time to concentrate them at any one point, for each was fighting in his own style-“bushwhacking,” as it is called. Yet they did not flinch, but [45] continued an incessant fusilade upon the enemy, who seemed to fear that the attack was from our main body. In that conviction, they moved but slowly down towards the Red House Ford, where Bee's Mississippians and Bartow's Alabamians were struggling against the craftiness and numbers of Colonel Heintzelman.

I have already recorded how five of their best regiments were successively beaten back by a single one of ours, or rather parts of two. Bee led his men admirably. Again and again he formed and reformed his little band, encouraging all with words of kindness and confidence. He frequently assailed overwhelming numbers to prevent them securing the passage of Stone Bridge, beyond which heavy divisions were waiting to cross. He was only relieved when Jackson's Brigade and Hampton's Legion were brought up; then joining with Evans, their combined forces formed a longer and better line, and repelled the enemy with more ease, although the strength and precision of the opposing artillery made fearful havoc.

It will be remembered that Major Wheat's Louisiana battalion were left sole defenders of the bridge itself. Although few in number, these heroic soldiers sustained every shock with unwavering courage, and on more than one occasion dropped their rifles, and rushed among the enemy with long bowie-knives. But when it was known that Hunter had crossed at Sudley Ford, and formed a junction with Heintzelman at Red House Ford, Sherman's and Keyes's brigades left the force at Stone Bridge, and crossed a few hundred yards higher up, as related above; and Wheat was sent to prevent their junction with the other forces on the same side. As the majority of Wheat's command were Louisiana Irish, they robbed the dead of their whisky, and were in high spirits when ordered to assail Sherman and Keyes. They could not attempt this alone, but, receiving reenforcements, wrought such havoc among the enemy that their progress was extremely slow and uncertain. The fighting was irregular. Now, the battalion would keep up a lively fire from the woods, creep through the brush, make a sudden charge, upset a cannon or two and retire. Again, they would maintain a deathlike silence until the foe were not more than fifty paces off; then delivering a withering volley, [46] they would dash forward with unearthly yells, and as they drew their knives and rushed to close quarters, the Yankees screamed with horror.

It is only fair to state that the Federal Colonels Hunter, Heintzelman, and others, nobly did their duty, and handled their troops with great precision and judgment. Scott's idea of attracting our attention on the right, and at Stone Bridge, while columns were marching through the woods to cross at Sudley and Red House Fords, was an excellent one, and it was carried out to the letter by his scientific subordinates. Had not our small force made a terrible resistance, it was more than possible the day would have proved disastrous to us, for our line was scattered over a distance of more than eight miles up and down the river, and our weakest point had been selected for the assault.

The events I have attempted to describe occupied the time till midday. There could be no longer a doubt of the enemy's real plan; and our small force under Bee gradually fell back toward the Robinson House, against vast odds, suffering severely at every yard. Johnston and Beauregard furiously galloped to the left, to retrieve our failing fortunes. Hampton's Legion and Jackson's Virginia Brigade had already arrived to succor Bee, and were ordered to lie down behind a bit of rising ground, so as to form the centre of a new line when Bee retreated thus far. Riding up to Jackson, who, on a mound, sat his horse like a statue, viewing the whole scene, Bee said: “General, they are beating us back-we're obliged to give ground.” “Well, then, sir,” was the dry, calm reply, “we will give them the bayonet!” Riding hurriedly back to his men, Bee cheered them with encouraging words, saying: “Look at Jackson yonder, boys!-he is standing like a stonewall!”

Finding that the enemy still assailed our left with overwhelming numbers and fury, General Beauregard conceived the idea of a forward movement on the right, hoping that it might serve as a diversion. Ewell and Jones were ordered to move into position and attack. The latter general marched three miles, and took up his line within half a mile of the enemy; but the extreme right failed to fire, and after remaining three hours, Jones retired south of the Run. It has been said that Ewell [47] never received these orders. Be this as it may, Ewell, Jones, and Longstreet remained idle with their magnificent commands, while the roar of battle to the left was increasing every moment. In the distance shot and shell were ploughing up the ground Towards Manassas the dark Federal line was approaching slowly, like an immense serpent moving through the fields, while the numerous artillery of the enemy belched forth grape and shell upon our weak and small line.

The situation was now exceedingly critical, but reenforcements were rapidly approaching from Bonham's and Longstreet's brigades on the right, together with several pieces of artillery and some cavalry. Seizing an opportune moment, General Beauregard led on one wing, while Johnston, grasping the colors of the Fourth Alabama, rode to the front; and with a wild yell our men advanced again, and quickly recovered lost ground, having to move forward under showers of shell and small shot that assailed them at every step. Brilliant as this charge was, the enemy, it was plain, were overpowering us by weight of numbers. They had seized a plateau on which stood two wooden houses (Widow Henry's, and the free negro Robinson's) and had placed thereon Ricketts's and Griffin's celebrated batteries.

General Beauregard, determined to repossess himself of the position, formed his line for an assault, and his right rushed to the charge, while our centre, under Jackson, pierced theirs. The plateau was won, together with several guns, but the enemy some time afterwards threw forward a heavy force of infantry and dispossessed us again.

It was now about two P. M., and the battle still raged furiously on the left, though nothing, save skirmishing and an occasional discharge of ordnance, occurred on our right. The brigades of Holmes and Early were ordered up, and the first arrived opportunely at the moment when our generals were preparing for another advance: at the same time, additional pieces of artillery came galloping up, by their eagerness for action and cheerfulness inspiriting all with bright hopes for the future. At the word to charge, our men seemed to have received new life, and advanced with loud shouts to drive the enemy from the plateau. Our artillery replied admirably, but the enemy were more than a match for us, and inflicted much loss. Our infantry, however, [48] nothing daunted by the forces massed on the hill, resolutely attacked them, and after a stubborn and sanguinary combat the plateau, with the enemy's guns and ammunition, was again in our possession.

Pursuing the foe through the fields, our men never seemed weary of slaughter, although their own ranks were perceptibly thinning. It was while driving the enemy through the “open” that Bee and Bartow, riding in advance of their commands, fell mortally wounded. The latter, with colors in hand, survived a few moments, and, smiling on his comrades, said: “They have killed me boys; but never give up the fight.” The enemy were puzzled and astounded by the change which two hours had produced in the tide of fortune; as for ourselves, though still inferior in numbers, we had now no doubt of success: our reenforcements were rapidly arriving from the right, steadily our advance was continued through fields and woods, over hundreds of dead-friends and foes.

Such was the state of the battle, when, from appearances in the distance, it became evident that the enemy were planning and arranging some great final stroke for our overthrow. But while they rallied their broken line, under shelter of fresh brigades, and prepared for the renewal of the struggle, signals from the hills warned General Beauregard to “look out for enemy's advance on the left.” I must here remind the reader that the remainder of Johnston's army had been anxiously expected from the Shenandoah Valley during the whole of the previous night; and it was these troops — Kirby Smith's brigade — that had been mistaken for the enemy. As the train approached Manassas, Smith knew by the firing that a great struggle was in progress, and, having stopped the engine, he formed his men, and advanced through the fields. Every countenance was brightened by the intelligence of his arrival at this juncture. “Johnston's men have come at last!” was the remark from mouth to mouth, and that commander instantly made dispositions for an enlargement of our line. While this was going on, Early's brigade also came up from the right, (for though the message, as I have before stated, was sent at noon, it was not received until past two,) and was instantly sent to our extreme left, while Kirby Smith was ordered to assail the enemy's right and rear, which his advance through the fields enabled him to do easily. Other [49] reenforcements were coming from Bonham, Cocke, and Long, street, and as they arrived were placed in position for a general advance.

On the side of the enemy, Colonels Hunter, Heintzelman, Sherman, Burnside, Keyes, and others, saw the storm approaching, and made every effort to meet it. They had re-formed their line, and endeavored to outflank our left; but at the very moment when Major Elzey with Kirby Smith's brigade of seventeen hundred men and four guns, and Early's brigade, (Seventeenth Virginia, Seventh Louisiana, and Thirteenth Mississippi,) attacked them on the right flank and rear, Beauregard and Johnston, also, threw forward their whole line, and with loud shouts advanced to the attack; twenty pieces of cannon at the same time shook the earth with their deafening roar. Among other regiments the following formed this last grand charge, namely: Eleventh, Second, and Thirteenth Mississippi; Seventh and Eighth Georgia ; Seventh Louisiana; Sixth North-Carolina; Fourth Alabama; Tenth, Seventeenth, Fourth, Fifth, Twenty-seventh, Forty-third, Eighteenth, and Twenty-eighth Virginia; Stuart's Cavalry, and Hampton's Legion; Fourth, Second, and Eighth South-Carolina; Third Tennessee; First Maryland, etc.

When the order was given to advance, couriers were sent to our right, with instructions for Longstreet, Jones, and Ewell to make a strong demonstration towards Centreville. The roar of cannon and musketry on the left was terrible; clouds of smoke and dust hung over the entire plain; high above the din of the strife might be heard one of the enemy's heavy pieces, a thirty-two-pounder, called “Long Tom.” Simultaneously attacked on all sides, and with unexampled fury, the foe made a determined resistance on a rising ground in the vicinity of Chinn's House, and it looked like an island round which flames were gathering in all directions. Appalled by the unexpected change of fortune, the Federal commanders knew not what to do. It was now past three in the afternoon, yet no reenforcements were at hand, and their cannon were being captured at every turn. In vain they rallied their forces; no sooner were they formed than our troops broke them again, until at last their line, thousands in number, sought safety in [50] sudden flight. The landscape was darkened by their fugitive masses flying in all directions, and pursued by the half-wild victors.

The pursuit was the business of Stuart's cavalry, aided by artillery, and the scene that ensued was awful and heartrending. Ten miles from Centreville Heights, these fugitive thousands rushed across Bull Run by the various fords, and horse, foot, artillery, wagons, and ambulances were entangled in inextricable confusion; the roads were blocked up, reenforcements arriving were seized with a panic, and every one rushed towards Centreville by the roads, through the woods and fields. To add to their horror, Jones's brigade on the right, without waiting for Ewell or Longstreet, attacked their reserves on Centreville, and turned what would have been an orderly retreat into a disastrous rout. Thousands rushing towards Centreville for safety, only arrived in time to learn that our troops were advancing on the village, and that Blenker's and other reserve corps, unable to withstand the pressure, were rushing towards Washington. For miles around clouds of smoke and dust obscured the landscape, while the rattle of musketry and the cheers of Jones's brigade, as they, rushing into the deserted camps, and seizing upon the artillery, only added additional fears to the horror-stricken multitude. Kemper's and Beckham's batteries, on our left, also pursued the enemy, and kept up such a destructive fire upon them, that at many points of the road, wagons, artillery, caissons, ambulances, and carriages were jammed in masses, and thus barricaded the roads. At these points the fugitives took to the fields and woods, throwing away their arms and accoutrements, and whatever might impede flight. Even the sick and wounded were dragged from ambulances, and their places taken by red-legged Zouaves; ambulance, wagon, and artillery horses had their traces cut, and were mounted by officers of every grade, from captains to generals and governors of States. Such a roar, confusion, and dust it is impossible to imagine. Every road leading from Manassas was crowded by the fugitives-soldiers in every style of costume, ladies, members of Congress, governors of States, editors, “special correspondents,” “own correspondents,” telegraph operators, surgeons, paymasters, parsons-all were [51] running for dear life-hatless, bootless and ragged, dusty and powder-blackened. Behind them thundered our avenging cavalry and artillery; while the sharp rattle of musketry at the foot of Centreville Heights told where Jones and Longstreet hurled destruction on their flank.

1 General Thomas W. Sherman (brigadier of volunteers, in Tyler's division) is a fine, well-made man, six feet high, erect, moderately stout, precise in manner, but quick and voluble in discourse, fair complexion, and closely shaven. He was Captain First United States Artillery, and served during the Mexican war. His battery was well-known for its efficiency and drill, and was generally called “Sherman's battery.” When he retired from the United States service he ranked as major. He lived in Louisiana for some time, and conducted a semi-military academy, at Alexandria in that State, in which occupation he realized much money. When war seemed inevitable between the North and South, he gave up his academy, and offered his services to the Lincoln Government, to assist in killing the pupils who gave him bread. He was appointed Brigadier-General of volunteers, and made himself conspicuous at Manassas. In the old army he enjoyed great reputation as an artillerist, but now seems to have sunk into oblivion, or all talent has departed, for we never hear of him as distinguishing himself. His once famous battery; subsequent to his resignation, was commanded by Captain James B. Ricketts, of New-York, who greatly distinguished himself at Manassas, and quite eclipsed the fame of Sherman as an artillery officer.

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