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Chapter 4: details of the battle of Manassas.

I have now told what I saw and did during the first battle of Manassas, and as many very erroneous accounts of that battle, both in its general features and its details, were given by newspaper correspondents, from both sections, which have furnished the basis for most of the descriptions of it, contained errors-even in works professing to be authentic histories,--I will here give a succinct account of the battle from the authentic official reports, and my own knowledge as far as it extends.

On the morning of the 21st we held the line of Bull Run, with our right at Union Mills and our left at Stone Bridge. EDwell's brigade was at Union Mills, Jones' at McLean's Ford, Longstreet's at Blackburn's Ford, Bonham's at Mitchell's Ford, Cocke at the fords below Stone Bridge, and Evans with Sloan's regiment and Wheat's battalion was at the Stone Bridge. Holmes' brigade, which had arrived from Aquia Creek, was some three miles in rear of Ewell's position. My brigade was in reserve to support Longstreet or Jones, as might be required, and Jackson's and parts of Bee's and Bartow's brigades of Johnston's army — which had arrived by the Manassas Gap Railroad--were held as a general reserve to be used as occasion might require. The Warrenton Pike from Centreville to Warrenton crosses Bull Run at Stone Bridge, and its general direction from Centreville is a little south of west.

MbDkowell's force had reached Centreville on the 18th, and that day the 19th and 20th had been employed by him in reconnoitring. Contrary to General Beauregard's anticipations, McDowell, instead of advancing against our centre on the morning of the 21st, left one division (Miles') and a brigade of another (Tyler's) to hold Centreville and amuse our right and centre, while [32] he moved two divisions (Hunter's and Heintzelman's) and three brigades of another (Tyler's) against our left, with the view of turning that flank and forcing us from the line of Bull Run. The three brigades of Tyler's division moved directly against Stone Bridge, over the Warrenton Pike, and opened an artillery fire at six o'clock A. M. About the same time fire was opened from two, batteries established by the enemy north of Bull Run, near Blackburn's Ford, which was kept up steadily until late in the afternoon. Hunter's division, diverging from the Warrenton Pike, moved across Bull Run at or near Sudley Mills, about three miles above Stone Bridge, and then towards Manassas on the direct road, so as to get in rear of Stone Bridge, while Heintzelman followed Hunter to support him.

When this movement was developed, Colonel Evans, leaving a very small force at Stone Bridge, where the road had been blocked up by felled timber, moved to the left to meet Hunter and encountered his advance north of the Warrenton Pike, sustaining his attack for some time, until overwhelming numbers were accumulated against him. Evans was being forced back when Bee, with the parts of his own and Bartow's brigades which had arrived, came to his assistance, and the advance of the enemy was stopped for some time until Heintzelman's division united with Hunter's and two of Tyler's brigades crossed over above Stone Bridge.

Bee and Evans, though fighting with great obstinacy, were forced back across the Warrenton Pike to a ridge south of it, and nearly at right angles with Bull Run. Here they were reinforced first by Hampton's six companies and then by Jackson's brigade, when a new line was formed and the fight renewed with great obstinacy. Subsequently two of Cocke's regiments were brought up, as also the seven companies of the 8th Virginia, under Colonel Hunter; the three companies of the 49th Virginia Regiment, under Colonel Smith; the 6th North Carolina Regiment, under Colonel Fisher; and two of [33] Bonham's regiments, under Colonel Kershaw; and engaged in the battle.

The fighting was very stubborn on the part of our troops, who were opposed to immense odds, and the fortunes of the day fluctuated for some time. From the beginning, artillery had been employed on both sides, and a number of our batteries did most excellent service. Colonel Stuart made a charge at one time with two companies of cavalry on the right of the enemy's line. At a most critical period three regiments of Elzey's brigade — which had arrived at the junction by the railroad and been promptly moved to the battlefield under the direction of Brigadier General E. Kirby Smith --came upon the field in rear of our line, and after General Smith had been wounded were moved to our left, under command of Colonel Elzey, just in time to meet and repulse a body of the enemy which had overlapped that flank. A short time afterwards, while the enemy was preparing for a last effort, my brigade arrived on the field, and operated on the left of Elzey's brigade just as the enemy began his attack.

He had been repulsed, not routed. When, however, the retreat began, it soon degenerated into a rout from the panic-stricken fears of the enemy's troops, who imagined that legions of cavalry were thundering at their heels, when really there were only a few companies acting without concert. Kershaw's two regiments with a battery of artillery moved in pursuit along the Warrenton Pike, and made some captures, but the mass of our troops on this part of the field were not in a condition to pursue at once. Ewell's and Holmes' brigades had been sent for from the right, when the day appeared doubtful, but the battle was won before they arrived, and they were ordered to return to their former positions.

D. R. Jones, in the afternoon, made an advance against the battery which I had been ordered to take in the morning, but was compelled to retire with loss. Bonham and Longstreet moved across the Run in the [34] direction of Centreville just before night, but retired to their former positions on the approach of darkness. The enemy retreated in great disorder to Centreville, where he attempted to re-form his troops on the unbroken division and brigade that remained at that place, but shortly after dark he retreated with great precipitation, and by light next morning the greater part of his troops were either in the streets of Washington, or on the southern banks of the Potomac.

Twenty-seven pieces of artillery fell into our hands, some of which were captured on the field, but the greater part were abandoned on the road between the battlefield and Centreville. Besides the artillery, a considerable quantity of small arms, a number of wagons, ambulances, and some stores fell into our hands; and we captured about 1,500 prisoners. Our loss in killed and wounded was 1,852. The enemy's loss was much heavier, and is reported by McDowell.

I have thus given an outline of the battle as it took place, but I have not attempted to give the details of what the several commands did, for which reference must be had to the official reports.

There are several popular errors in regard to this battle, which have been widely circulated by the writings of those who have undertaken to describe it, and about which very few people indeed seem to be correctly informed.

Foremost among them is the opinion that General Johnston yielded the command to General Beauregard, and that the latter controlled the operations of our troops during the battle. This erroneous statement was so often and confidently made without contradiction, that I must confess for a long time I gave it some credence, though when I saw General Johnston on the field he appeared to be acting the part and performing the duties of a commanding general. Each of these generals is entitled to sufficient glory for the part taken in this battle in the performance of his appropriate [35] duties, to render a contest among their friends for the chief glory idle as well as mischievous.

I cannot better explain the truth of the matter than by giving the following extract of a letter from General Johnston himself to me, which is in entire accordance with the facts coming within my knowledge on the field as far as they go, and will not be doubted by any one who knows General Johnston. He says: “General Beauregard's influence on that occasion was simply that due to my estimate of his military merit and knowledge of the situation. As soon as we met I expressed to him my determination to attack next morning, because it was not improbable that Patterson might come up Sunday night. He proposed a plan of attack which I accepted. It was defeated, however, by the appearance of Tyler's troops near the Stone Bridge soon after sunrise. He then proposed to stand on the defensive there and continue the offensive with the troops on the right of the road from Manassas to Centreville. This was frustrated by the movement which turned Cocke and Evans, and the battle fought was improvised on a field with which General Beauregard and myself were equally unacquainted. Early in the day I placed myself on the high bare hill you may remember a few hundred yards in rear of Mitchell's Ford, and General Beauregard soon joined me there. When convinced that the battle had begun on our left, I told him so, and that I was about to hasten to it. He followed. When we reached the field and he found that I was about to take immediate control of the two brigades engaged, he represented that it would be incompatible with the command of the army to do so, and urged that he should have the command in question. I accepted the argument. This, however, left him under me, and was the command of a small fraction of troops.”

This places the matter in its true light and does not detract at all from the very great credit to which General Beauregard is entitled for thwarting the enemy's [36] plans until the arrival of General Johnston, and for his able cooperation afterwards. But it is nevertheless true that General Johnston is entitled to the credit attached to the chief command in this, the first great battle of the war.

Another error in regard to the battle is the belief, almost universal, that Kirby Smith, hearing the roar of musketry and artillery while passing over the Manassas Gap Railroad, stopped the cars before reaching the Junction and moved directly for the battlefield, coming upon the rear of the enemy's right flank. This is entirely unfounded in fact. Smith's command consisted of Elzey's brigade, three regiments of which were in the battle, and they moved up from the Junction to the rear of our centre, under orders which General Smith found there on his arrival, and were subsequently moved by Elzey to meet the enemy's right after Smith was wounded. My brigade went to the left of Elzey, and I am able to say that none of our troops got to the enemy's rear, unless it may have been when Stuart made his charge. The reports of Generals Johnston and Beauregard as well as that of Colonel, afterwards Major General, Elzey, show the truth of the matter, and it is a little singular that those writers who have undertaken to describe this battle have taken the newspaper accounts as authentic without thinking of having recourse to the official reports.

Another erroneous statement in refereuce to the battle which has gone current, is that Holmes' brigade came up at a critical time and helped to save the day, when the fact is that that brigade was further from the field than any of our troops, and, though sent for in the afternoon, did not reach the battlefield at all, but its march was arrested by the close of the fight.

The concentration of Johnston's and Beauregard's forces against McDowell was a master stroke of strategy well executed, and our generals displayed great ability and energy in meeting and defeating the unexpected [37] movement against our left. Claims were put forward in behalf of several commands for the credit of having saved the day and secured the victory.

It is rather surprising to observe that erroneous views often prevail in regard to the relative merits of different commands, engaged in bearing respectively very necessary parts in an action. If a small force has been fighting obstinately for hours against great odds, until it has become exhausted and is beginning to give way, and then fresh troops come up and turn the tide of battle, the latter are said to have gained the day and often reap all the glory. It is not likely to be considered, that, but for the troops whose obstinate fighting enabled the fresh ones to come up in time, the day would have been irretrievably lost before the appearance of the latter. It is an old saying that “It is the last feather that breaks the camel's back,” yet the last feather would do no harm but for the weight which precedes it. The first feather contributes as much as the last to the catastrophe.

At this battle, but for the cavalry which watched the enemy's movements and gave timely notice to Evans so that he could move to the left and check the advance of Hunter, the day would probably have been lost at the outset. But for the prompt movement of Evans to the left and the obstinate fighting of his men, the enemy would have reached the range of hills on which our final line of battle was formed, thus turning our left completely and necessitating a rapid falling back from the line of Bull Run, which would most assuredly have resulted in defeat. This would likewise have been the case had not Bee arrived to the assistance of Evans when he did and stayed the progress of the enemy by his stubborn resistance.

When Bee and Evans were forced back across the Warrenton Pike, the day would have been lost had not Jackson arrived most opportunely and furnished them a barrier behind which to re-form. From the beginning [38] our batteries rendered most essential service, and the infantry would probably have been overpowered but for their well directed fire. The arrivals of Cocke's two regiments, Hampton's Legion, the ten companies of the 7th and 49th Virginia Regiments, the 6th North Carolina and Bonham's two regiments all served to stem the tide of battle and stay defeat, but still in all probability the day would have been lost but for the timely appearance of Smith with Elzey's command and the subsequent movement of Elzey to our left.

I do not claim to have won or saved the day with my command, but I think it will be conceded by all who read the reports of Generals Johnston and Beauregard, that the arrival of that command and the cool and deliberate manner in which my men formed in line, under fire and in full view of the enemy, and their advance had a material effect in thwarting the last effort of the enemy to flank our line and in precipitating his retreat. I can bear testimony to the very efficient service rendered by Stuart with his two companies of cavalry, and Beckham's battery.

The fact is that all the troops engaged in the battle were necessary to prevent defeat and secure victory, and each command in its proper sphere may be said to have saved the day. It is very unjust to give all the credit or the greater part of it to any one command; and I would not exempt from the general commendation those troops on the right who held that part of the line, under fire, and prevented the enemy from getting to our rear and cutting off our communications.

It is not easy to account for McDowell's delay in making his attack, thereby permitting the concentration against him. So far as he is personally concerned, a ready excuse is to be found for him in the fact that he was inexperienced in command, having before that served in the field only in the capacity of a staff officer; but General Scott, an old and distinguished [39] soldier, was in fact controlling the operations and was in constant communication by telegraph with McDowell, who had been his aide and was selected to carry out his plans. General Scott was in fact the commander and McDowell was merely his executive officer in the field. The former was the responsible man and to his name must be attached the discredit for the failure at Bull Run. Had McDowell's whole force been thrown against our centre on the day Tyler advanced on Blackburn's Ford, our line must have been broken and a defeat to us must have ensued, for at that time our troops were too few and too much scattered to have furnished sufficient resistance to the enemy's overwhelming force, or to have permitted an effective attack on his flanks. By delay this opportunity was lost and the two armies were concentrated against McDowell.

McDowell seems to have made an honest effort to conduct the campaign on the principles of civilized warfare, and expressed a very just indignation at the excesses committed by his troops. In a dispatch from Fairfax Court-House, dated the 18th of July, he said: “I am distressed to have to report excesses by our troops. The excitement of the men found vent in burning and pillaging, which, however, was soon checked. It distressed us all greatly.” On the same day he issued an order from which I make the following extract:

Any persons found committing the slightest depredation, killing pigs or poultry or trespassing on the property of the inhabitants, will be reported to the then headquarters, and the least that will be done to them will be to send them to the Alexandria jail. It is again ordered that no one shall arrest or attempt to arrest any citizen not in arms at the time, or search or attempt to search any house, or even enter the same without permission. The troops must behave themselves with as much forbearance and propriety as if they were at [40] their own homes. They are here to fight the enemies of the country, not to judge and punish the unarmed and helpless, however guilty they may be. When necessary, that will be done by the proper person.

By command of General McDowell. Jas. B. Fry, Assistant Adjutant General.

This order deserves to be exhumed from the oblivion into which it seems to have fallen, and is in strong contrast with the subsequent practice under Butler, Pope, Milroy, Hunter, Sheridan, Sherman, etc. This war order of McDowell's might well have been commended to the consideration of military satraps set, to rule over the people of the South in a time of “peace.” It did not prevent the burning of the entire village of Germantown, a few miles from Fairfax Court-House, but the citizens agreed that McDowell had made an honest effort to prevent depredations by his troops; and it gives me pleasure to make the statement, as it is the last time I will have occasion to make a similar one in regard to any of the Federal commanders who followed him.

Pursuit of the enemy was not made after the battle in order to capture Washington or cross the Potomac, and as this omission has been the subject of much comment and criticism, I will make some observations on that head.

In the first place, it must be borne in mind that our generals were inexperienced in command.

In the next place, it must be conceded that a commanding general knows more about the condition of his troops and the obstacles in his way than any other can know; and for very obvious reasons he is debarred from making public at the time the reasons and conditions which govern his course.

It must also be considered that he cannot know beforehand as much as the critics who form their judgment from the light of after events. Those, therefore, who ascertained some days after the battle what was the [41] actual condition of McDowell's army on the retreat, must recollect that this was not known to General Johnston until that army was safe from pursuit, even if it had been practicable to accomplish any more than was done with our army in its then condition.

Without having been in General Johnston's confidence, or professing to know more about the motives actuating him at the time than he has thought proper to make public, I will undertake to show that it was utterly impossible for any army to have captured Washington by immediate pursuit, even if it had been in condition to make such pursuit, and that it would have been very difficult to cross the Potomac at all.

In the first place, I will say that the army was not in condition to make pursuit on the afternoon of the 21st after the battle, or that night. All the troops engaged, except Cocke's regiment, the 19th Virginia, the two regiments with Kershaw, and my command, were so much exhausted and shattered by the desperate conflict in which they had participated, that they made no attempt at pursuit and were incapable of any.

Our cavalry consisted of one organized regiment of nine companies, and a number of unattached companies. This cavalry was armed principally with shot guns and very inferior sabres, and was without the discipline and drill necessary to make that arm effective in a charge. Moreover it had been necessarily scattered on the flanks and along the line, to watch the enemy and give information of his movements. It could not readily be concentrated for the purpose of an efficient pursuit, and the attempts made in that direction were desultory.

By light on the morning of the 22nd, the greater part of the enemy's troops were either in the streets of Washington or under the protection of the guns at Arlington Heights.

The question then arises whether, by pursuit on the morning of the 22nd, Washington could have been captured. And I will here call attention to some facts which [42] seem entirely to have escaped the attention of the critics. The Potomac is at least a mile wide at Washington and navigable to that place for the largest vessels. The only means of crossing the river, except in vessels, are by the Long Bridge, the aqueduct on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal at Georgetown, and the chain bridge above Georgetown.

The Long Bridge is an old wooden structure with at least one draw and perhaps two in it, and could have been easily destroyed by fire, besides being susceptible of being commanded through its entire length by vessels of war lying near Washington, where there were some out of range of any guns we would have brought to bear.

The aqueduct is long and narrow with a channel for the water, which we could not have turned off as it runs from the northern side of the Potomac, and a narrow towpath on the side. One piece of artillery at its northern end could have effectually prevented the passing of troops over it, and besides it could have been easily ruined and some of the spans blown up, so as to render it impassable.

The chain bridge is a wooden structure and could have been easily burned. If therefore the entire Federal Army had fled across the river on our approach, we could not have crossed it near Washington. The largest pieces of artillery we had, capable of being transported, were small field pieces of which the heaviest for solid shot were six pounders, and we had no Howitzer larger than a twenty-four pounder if we had any of that size. None of our guns were of sufficient range to reach across the river into the city. If, therefore, we had advanced at once upon Washington and the Federal Army had fled across the river on our approach, abandoning the city itself, still we could not have entered it, unless the bridges had been left intact; and it is not to be supposed that McDowell, General Scott, and all the officers of the regular army, were so badly frightened and demoralized that they would have fled on our approach, and omitted to destroy the approaches to the city, even if such had [43] been the case with the volunteers, the civil authorities, and the Congress.

All the bridges above, to and beyond Harper's Ferry, had been burned, and the nearest ford to Washington, over which at low water it is possible for infantry to pass, is White's Ford, several miles above Leesburg, and forty miles from Washington. This was then an obscure ford, where, in 1862, General Jackson had to have the banks dug down before our wagons and artillery could cross, and then the canal on the northern bank had to be bridged. We had nothing in the shape of pontoons, and it would have been impossible to have obtained them in any reasonable time.

I had occasion, in 1864, to make myself acquainted with the character of the Potomac and its crossing at and above Washington, and what I state here is not mere speculation. General Johnston had resided in Washington for several years, and must be supposed to have been acquainted with the difficulties.

I have heard some wiseacres remark that if we had gone on, we could have entered pell-mell with the enemy into Washington. To have done that, if possible, we would have had to keep up with the enemy, and I don't think any one supposes that a solitary soldier in our army could have reached the banks of the Potomac by daylight the morning after the battle. It is possible to cross a bridge of a few yards in length, or enter through the gates of a city pell-mell with an army, but no one ever heard of that thing being done on a bridge more than a mile in length and with a draw raised in the middle.

The truth is that, while the enemy's retreat was very disorderly and disgraceful, some of his troops retained their organization and the condition of things at Washington was not quite as bad as represented. Spectators in the city, seeing the condition of the fugitives thronging the streets, and the panic of the civilians, may have well supposed that the whole army was disorganized, and so utterly demoralized that it would have fled on [44] the very first cry that the “rebels are coming,” but if General McDowell and his officers are to be believed, there still remained on the southern bank of the Potomac a considerable force in fighting condition. Miles' division had not been engaged and Runyon's had not reached Centreville when the battle took place. Besides a considerable force had been retained in Washington under Mansfield.

McClellan states in his report, that, when he assumed command on the 27th of July, the infantry in and around Washington numbered 50,000, and this was much larger than our whole force was after the reinforcements had reached us subsequent to the battle. The strength of our army at this time, as well as on all other occasions, has been greatly exaggerated even by Southern writers; its organization was very imperfect, many of the troops not being brigaded.

If we had advanced, Alexandria would probably have fallen into our hands without a struggle, and we might have forced the enemy to evacuate his works south of the Potomac, but very likely not until after a fight in which our loss would have been greater than the object to be accomplished would have justified. We might have transferred our line to the banks of the Potomac, but we could not have held it, and would eventually have been compelled to abandon it with greater damage to us than the evacuation of the line of Bull Run caused.

So much for the question as between the commanding general and the cavillers. But there is another phase of it, in which a staff officer of General Beauregard, writing for a Northern journal, has endeavored to raise an issue between that general and the Government at Richmond. I have before shown that General Johnston, as commander of the army, was the responsible person, and I believe he has never attempted to evade the responsibility. General Beauregard's agency in the matter could only be as an adviser and lieutenant of the commanding general. [45]

The point made against the Government is that Washington could and would have been taken, if the President, Secretary of War, and the heads of the Quarter-master and Commissary Departments had furnished sufficient transportation and supplies, though it is admitted that Mr. Davis left the question of an advance entirely to his generals.

Now in regard to transportation, we had an abundance of wagons to carry all the ammunition needed, and for gathering in provisions, and if the bridges on the railroad had not been burned, we might have moved our depot to Alexandria as we moved, provided we could have advanced to that point, as the enemy had repaired the railroad to Fairfax Station, and had not interfered with it on his retreat. The burning of the bridges on the railroad did not impede the progress of the enemy before the battle, as he did not march on it and Bull Run was fordable anywhere. That burning could only have served the purpose of obstructing the use of the railroad by the enemy in the event of our defeat, which with his means of reconstruction would have been but a very few days, and it did not obstruct our movements for a much longer time. At the time of the battle, the county of Loudoun on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and the whole State of Maryland, were teeming with supplies, and we could have readily procured all the transportation needed from the citizens, if we had not taken it from the enemy, which would probably have been the case if an advance had been practicable otherwise.

Certain it is, that in 1862, after the second battle of Manassas, when the enemy's army had been defeated, not routed, and was still vastly superior in number and equipment to our own, we did not hesitate a moment about supplies, though our army was without rations and Fairfax and Loudoun had been nearly exhausted of their grain and cattle; but taking only transportation for the ammunition and the cooking utensils, and sending [46] the rest of our trains to the valley, except wagons to gather up flour, we marched across the Potomac into Maryland, our men and officers living principally on green corn and beef without salt or bread. Neither was our army prevented from making the movement into Pennsylvania, in 1863, for fear of not getting provisions. We depended upon taking them from the enemy and the country through which we marched, and did thus procure them. The alleged difficulties in 1861 would have been no difficulties in 1862, 1863, or 1864. These were not the real difficulties which prevented the capture of Washington after the battle of the 21st of July, and the issue which is attempted to be made with the Government at Richmond is therefore an idle one.

These remarks are not made with the slightest purpose of disparaging in any way General Beauregard, for whom I have great regard and admiration. When he ordered the burning of the bridge over Bull Run, he had reason to apprehend that his comparatively small force would have to encounter McDowell's whole army before any reinforcements arrived to his assistance, and he had therefore good grounds to regard this as a precaution which the circumstances warranted and demanded.

The foregoing reflections and comments are such as my subsequent experience and observation have enabled me to make, and I do not pretend that a tittle of them occurred to me at the time.

Both of our generals, notwithstanding their inexperience in command, displayed extraordinary energy and capacity in thwarting the plans of a veteran commander, whom the country at that time regarded as one of the ablest military chieftains of the age. If they did not accomplish all that might have been accomplished by an experienced and skilful commander, with an army of veterans, they are not therefore to be condemned; but it is equally unjust to attempt to shift the responsibility to the shoulders of the Government at Richmond.

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