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You must love soldiers in order to understand them, and understand them in order to lead them.

-- Henri Turenne
Bull Run6541 Reads  Printer-friendly page

Civil War The battle of Bull Run or Manassas was the first, and in many respects the most remarkable, battle of our Civil War. It was a series of surprises—the unexpected happening at almost every moment of its progress. Planned by the Union chieftain with consummate skill, executed for the most part with unquestioned ability, and fought by the Union troops for a time with magnificent courage, it ended at last in their disastrous rout and the official decapitation of their able commander.

On the Confederate side it was a chapter of mishaps, miscarriages, and of some mistakes. It was also a chapter of superb fighting by the Southern army, and of final complete and overwhelming victory. The breaking down of the train bearing General Joseph E. Johnston's troops was an accident which almost defeated the consummation of that splendid piece of strategy by which he had eluded General Patterson in the Valley, and which had enabled him to hurry almost his entire force to the support of General Beauregard at Manassas. The mistakes are represented by the fact that the feint of General McDowell on the Confederate front was believed to be the real attack, until the Union general was hurling his army on Beauregard's flank. Finally, the most serious miscarriage was that the order from Beauregard to Ewell directing an assault on the Union left failed to reach that officer. This strange miscarriage prevented General Ewell from making a movement which it then seemed probable and now appears certain would have added materially to McDowell's disaster. I had already been instructed by him to make a reconnaissance in the direction of the anticipated assault, but I had been suddenly recalled just as my skirmishers were opening fire. I was recalled because General Ewell had not received the promised order. For me it was perhaps a most fortunate recall, for in my isolated position I should probably have been surrounded and my little command cut to pieces. On my return I found General Ewell in an agony of suspense. He was chafing like a caged lion, infuriated by the scent of blood. He would mount his horse one moment and dismount the next. He would walk rapidly to and fro, muttering to himself, " No orders, no orders." General Ewell, who afterward became a corps commander, had in many respects the most unique personality I have ever known. He was a compound of anomalies, the oddest, most eccentric genius in the Confederate army. He was my friend, and I was sincerely and deeply attached to him. No man had a better heart nor a worse manner of showing it. He was in truth as tender and sympathetic as a woman, but, even under slight provocation, he became externally as rough as a polar bear, and the needles with which he pricked sensibilities were more numerous and keener than porcupines, quills. His written orders were full, accurate, and lucid; but his verbal orders or directions, especially when under intense excitement, no man could comprehend. At such times his eyes would flash with a peculiar brilliancy, and his brain far outran his tongue His thoughts would leap across great gaps which his words never touched, but which he expected his listener to fill up by intuition, and woe to the dull subordinate who failed to understand him !

When he was first assigned to command at the beginning of the war, he had recently returned from fighting Indians on the Western frontier. He had been dealing only with the enlisted men of the standing army. His experience in that wild border life, away from churches, civilization, and the refining influences of woman's society, were not particularly conducive to the development of the softer and better side of his nature. He became a very pious man in his later years, but at this time he was not choice in the manner of expressing himself. He asked me to take a hasty breakfast with him just before he expected the order from Beauregard to ford Bull Run and rush upon McDowell's left. His verbal invitation was in these words: " Come and eat a cracker with me; we will breakfast together here and dine together in hell." To a young officer like myself, who had never been under fire except at long range, on scouting excursions, or on the skirmish-line, such an invitation was not inspiring or appetizing; but Ewell's spirits seemed to be in a flutter of exultation.

An hour later, after I had been recalled from my perilous movement to "feel of the enemy," I found General Ewell, as I have said, almost frenzied with anxiety over the non-arrival of the anticipated order to move to the attack. He directed me to send to him at once a mounted man "with sense enough to go and find out what was the matter." I ordered a member of the governor's Horse Guard to report immediately to General Ewell. This troop represented some of the best blood of Virginia. Its privates were refined and accomplished gentlemen, many of them University graduates, who, at the first tocsin of war, had sprung into their saddles as volunteers. The intelligent young trooper who was selected to ride upon this most important mission under the verbal direction of General Ewell himself, mounted his high-spirited horse, and, with high-top boots, polished spurs, and clanking sabre, galloped away to where the general was impatiently waiting at his temporary headquarters on the hill. Before this inexperienced but promising young soldier had time to lift his hat in respectful salutation, the general was slashing away with tongue and finger, delivering his directions with such rapidity and incompleteness that the young man's thoughts were dancing through his brain in inextricable confusion. The general, having thus delivered himself, quickly asked, "Do you understand, sir ?" Of course the young man did not understand, and he began timidly to ask for a little more explicit information. The fiery old soldier cut short the interview with " Go away from here and send me a man who has some sense ! "

Later in the war, when I was commanding a division in Stonewall Jackson's old corps, then commanded by General Ewell, I had a very similar experience with this eccentric officer. It was in the midst of one of the battles between Lee and Grant in the Wilderness. As already explained, General Ewell's spirits, like the eagle's wings gathering additional power in the storm, seemed to mount higher and higher as the fury of the battle increased. My division of his corps was advancing under a galling fire. General Ewell rode at full speed to the point where I was intensely engaged directing the charge, and asked me to lend him one of my staff, his own all having been despatched with orders to different portions of the field. I indicated a staff-officer whom he might command, and he began, in his characteristic style under excitement, to tell this officer what to do. My staff-officer had learned to interpret the general fairly well, but to catch his meaning at one point stopped him and said: "Let me see if I understand you' sir ?'' General Ewell was so incensed at this insinuation of lack of perspicuity that he turned away abruptly, without a word of explanation, simply throwing up his hand and blowing away the young officer with a sort of "whoo-oo-oot." There is no way to spell out this indignant and resounding puff; but even in the fierce battle that was raging there was a roar of laughter from the other members of my staff as the droll and doughty warrior rushed away to another part of the field.

I cannot conclude this imperfect portrayal of the peculiarities of this splendid soldier and eccentric genius without placing upon record one more incident connected with the first battle of Bull Run. While he waited for the order from Beauregard (which never came), I sat on my horse near him as he was directing the location of a battery to cover the ford, and fire upon a Union battery and its supports on the opposite hills. As our guns were unlimbered, a young lady, who had been caught between the lines of the two armies, galloped up to where the general and I were sitting on our horses, and began to tell the story of what she had seen. She had mounted her horse just in front of General McDowell's troops, who it was expected would attempt to force a crossing at this point. This Virginia girl, who appeared to be seventeen or eighteen years of age, was in a flutter of martial excitement. She was profoundly impressed with the belief that she really had something of importance to tell. The information which she was trying to convey to General Ewell she was sure would be of vast import to the Confederate cause, and she was bound to deliver it. General Ewell listened to her for a few minutes, and then called her attention to the Union batteries that were rushing into position and getting ready to open fire upon the Confederate lines. He said to her, in his quick, quaint manner: " Look there, look there, miss ! Don't you see those men with blue clothes on, in the edge of the woods ? Look at those men loading those big guns. They are going to fire, and fire quick, and fire right here. You'll get killed. You'll be a dead damsel in less than a minute. Get away from here! Get away!" The young woman looked over at the blue coats and the big guns, but paid not the slightest attention to either. Nor did she make any reply to his urgent injunction, "Get away from here!" but continued the story of what she had seen. General Ewell, who was a crusty old bachelor at that time, and knew far less about women than he did about wild Indians, was astounded at this exhibition of feminine courage. He gazed at her in mute wonder for a few minutes, and then turned to me suddenly, and, with a sort of jerk in his words, said: "Women-I tell you, sir, women would make a grand brigade-if it was not for snakes and spiders! " He then added much more thoughtfully: "They don't mind bullets-women are not afraid of bullets; but one big black-snake would put a whole army to flight." And he had not fired very wide of the mark. It requires the direst dangers, especially where those dangers threaten some cause or object around which their affections are entwined, to call out the marvellous courage of women. Under such conditions they will brave death itself without a quiver. I have seen one of them tested. I saw Mrs. Gordon on the streets of Winchester, under fire, her soul aflame with patriotic ardor, appealing to retreating Confederates to halt and form a new line to resist the Union advance. She was so transported by her patriotic passion that she took no notice of the whizzing shot and shell, and seemed wholly unconscious of her great peril. And yet she will precipitately fly from a bat, and a big black bug would fill her with panic.

Those who are inclined to investigate the mysteries of that strange compound which makes up our mental, moral, and physical natures will find abundant material in the wild panic which seized and shook to pieces the Union army at Bull Run, scattering it in disorganized fragments through woods and fields and by-ways, and filling the roads with broken wagons and knapsacks, and small arms-an astounding experience which was the prototype of similar scenes to be enacted in both armies in the later stages of the war. No better troops were ever marshalled than those who filled the Union and Confederate ranks. Indeed, taking them all in all, I doubt whether they have been equalled. How courage of the noblest type, such as these American soldiers possessed, could be converted in an instant into apparent-even apparent-cowardice is one of the secrets, unsolvable perhaps, of our being. What was the special, sufficient, and justifiable ground for such uncontrollable apprehensions in men who enlisted to meet death, and did meet it, or were ready to meet it, bravely and grandly on a hundred fields? The panic at Bull Run seized McDowell's whole army; and yet a large portion of it at the moment the panic occurred was perhaps not under fire-certainly in no danger of annihilation or of serious harm. Yet they fled, all or practically all-fled with uncontrollable terror. Of course there were times when it was necessary to retreat. Occasions came, I presume, to every command that did much fighting during those four years, when the most sensible thing to do was to go, and without much thought as to the order of the going-the faster the better. It is not that class of retreats that I am considering. These were not panics; nor did they bear any special resemblance to panics, except that in both cases it was flight-even disorganized flight. There was, however, this radical difference between the two: in one case the men were ready to halt, reform their lines, and fight again; in the other case these same men were as heedless of an officer's orders (supposing the officer to have retained his senses) as a herd of wild buffaloes.

The soldiers on both sides who may read this book will recall many instances of both kinds of flight. One of the good-natured gibes with which the infantry poked the ribs of the cavalry was that they had too many feet and legs under them to stand and be shot at ; but what old soldier of either arm of the service will refuse to bear testimony to the fact that the Confederate cavalry on many occasions charged batteries and solid lines, and, after being repulsed, would retreat, reform, and charge again and again-a constant alternation of charges and rapid retreats without the slightest indication of panic? I saw Sheridan's cavalry in the Valley of Virginia form in my front, charge across the open fields and almost over my lines, which were posted behind stone fences. They rode at a furious rate, driving spurs into their horses' sides as they rushed like a mountain torrent against the rock wall. Some of them went over it, only to be captured or shot. They discharged carbines in our faces, and then retreated in fairly good order, under a furious fire, with apparently no more of panic than if they had been fighting a sham battle.

But those sudden and sometimes senseless frights which deprived brave men of all self-control for the time, were so unexpected, so strange and terrible, so inconsistent with the conduct of the same men at other times and under circumstances equally and perhaps even more trying, that they justify a few additional illustrations.

The battle of Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley, on October 19, 1864, about which I shall have more to say in its chronological order, furnishes cases in point by both armies and on the same day. Neither the panic which struck with such resistless terror, Sheridan's two corps as they were assaulted at dawn, and which sent them, as the sun rose over the adjacent mountains, flying in wildest rout from the fields and for miles to the rear, with no enemy in pursuit; nor the panic which seized and sent General Early's army, as that same sun was setting behind the opposite mountains, rushing across the bridges, or into the chilly waters, and through the dense cedars of the limestone cliffs-neither of these was the necessary, logical, or even natural sequence of the conditions which preceded them. There is no logic in a panic. It is true that in both cases the armies had been assailed in front and flank ; and the cry, " We are flanked!" not infrequently produced upon the steadiest battalions an effect similar to that caused among passengers at sea by the alarm of fire. But the point is that while it might not have been possible to prevent the opposing forces from achieving a victory after the flank movement was under full headway, yet the retreat in each case could have been accomplished with far lighter losses in killed, wounded, and prisoners. If the armies had not allowed the unnecessary panic to deprive them of their reason and thus of all control of will power, they would have had a better chance for life in a somewhat orderly retreat, distracting and confusing the aim of the advancing lines by returning fire for fire, than by permitting the pursuers deliberately to shoot them in the back.

The strangest fact of all is that many of these men in both armies had often exhibited before, as they did on many succeeding fields and under just as trying conditions, a heroism rarely equalled and never excelled in military annals-a heroism that defied danger and was impervious to panic. Sheridan's men, who threw away everything that could impede their flight in the morning at Cedar Creek, fought with splendid courage before and afterward. Indeed, they returned that same afternoon and made most honorable amends for the mistakes of the morning. Some of these same Confederates had been flanked and almost surrounded by McDowell's army in the early hours at Bull Run and yet felt no symptoms of panic. Some of them had been with me at South Mountain in '62, detached for the moment from the main army, at times nearly surrounded, attacked first in front, then upon the right, and then upon the left flank, changing front under fire, retreating now slowly, now rapidly, but in every case halting at the command and forming a new line to repeat the manœuvres, and without a semblance of panic. I verily believe they would have died, almost to a man, on the rocks of that rugged mountain-side, but for the gracious dropping of night's curtain on the scene. They did die, nearly or quite half of them, the next day at Antietam or Sharpsburg. Still more striking the contrast-large numbers of these Confederates who were overwhelmed with panic at Cedar Creek fought upon the last dreadful retreat from Petersburg with marvellous intrepidity, while flanked and forced to move rapidly from one position to another. And on that last morning at Appomattox these same Confederates were fighting in almost every direction, surrounded on all sides except one, with a column plainly in view and advancing to complete the circle of fire around them; and they continued to fight bravely and grandly until the flag of truce heralded the announcement that the war was over.

Note: by General John B. Gordon


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