Sherman’s Battery, and Sherman’s Battery, Too, but not Really

25 06 2007

First let me apologize for the paucity of posts this past week.  I’m self employed, which means when I go on vacation (say, to Shiloh), I have to work frenetically to catch myself up before I go and when I get back.  And when I did get back, I had to get a little medical procedure out of the way.  I did post two brief articles, and outlined quite a few more, but in the process of writing another I got way off track, which happens to me all the time and is really what this blog is all about.

That post was one alluded to in my last, and concerns an article in the current issue of Civil War Times Illustrated.  No, not the Pete Carmichael interview of Gary Gallagher that burned up the blogosphere for a few days a couple of weeks ago.  The article in question here is First View of First Manassas by Joseph Pierro, which features a letter from a Virginia cavalryman to his wife.

I thought this would be a pretty straightforward look at a battle participant’s [William B. Newton of the Hanover Light Dragoons] letter home that would serve as a lead-in to a bigger piece I’ve been thinking about, one that considers the limitations associated with eyewitness accounts.  The apparent lust with which Newton and his cohorts – as described in the letter – assaulted unarmed Yankee soldiers and civilians also fit in with some research I’m doing concerning battlefield “atrocities”.  Instead, one seemingly insignificant, annotated sentence derailed me.

But no! the gallant 27th, envious of the glorious achievement of the 4th, at a sing[l]e dash, had charged a regiment of regulars, swept them from the field, and taken every gun in [Colonel William T.] Sherman’s battery.

Here’s a Harper’s Weekly engraving of Sherman’s Battery before the battle, and a photo of it shortly thereafter: 


No, it wasn’t the fact that not a single gun in Sherman’s Battery was lost in the battle that set me off.  That inaccuracy in fact fits in perfectly with the often significant inaccuracies associated with contemporary, first-person accounts.  Rather, it was the editor’s bracketed “clarification” of just who the Sherman in Sherman’s Battery was.  The problem is that the Sherman in question was not William Tecumseh.

grapeb.jpgIn 1861, Sherman’s Battery was the most famous company of artillery in the nation.  It had won its fame in the War with Mexico at the Battle of Buena Vista, where along with the battery commanded by Braxton Bragg (of whom Zachary Taylor requested “a little more grape”, see watercolor at left) it played a key role in the repulse of  an enemy counter-attack.  It would appear that editor Pierro is not the first to erroneously associate William T. Sherman with the battery of the same name, as this site claims that Bragg fought alongside “Cump” at Buena Vista (W. T. was in California during the war).  No, the battery otherwise known as Company E, 3rd U. S. Artillery was commanded at Buena Vista by Thomas W. “Old Tim” Sherman, and even after he moved on to other commands, the battery remained known as Sherman’s Battery.  That’s his photo below on the left, courtesy of the LOC.  Nice hairdo – I guess he wanted to be taken seriously (see this post). 


So, why the confusion?  Well, that’s where things get confusing.  First of all, (T. W.) Sherman’s Battery was attached to (W. T.) Sherman’s brigade of Daniel Tyler’s Division at Bull Run.  At the time it was under the command of Capt. Romeyn B. Ayres (to the right of Sherman above, also courtesy LOC).  So, technically speaking, the battery was W. T.’s.  But that is certainly not the Sherman to whom the letter writer was referring.  So, either the editor was unaware of the story of the famous Sherman’s Battery, or he was unaware that the famous Sherman’s Battery was on the field at Bull Run.  That’s not as unlikely as it sounds, if he used as his source the Orders of Battle included in three of the most recent studies of the campaign.

Stay with me.

There are eight “major” studies of the Campaign of First Bull Run.  The earliest work, R. M. Johnston’s Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics, includes an order of battle (OOB) and a table that identifies the battery in Sherman’s Brigade as E of the 3rd.  It takes some looking though and the book was written in 1913.  David Detzer’s Donnybrook, Russell Beatie’s Road to Manassas, and Ethan Rafuse’s A Single Grand Victory, only refer to the battery as being commanded by Ayres or as Ayres’s Battery.  Only William C. Davis’s Battle at Bull Run accurately identifies the battery as E of the 3rd, commanded by Ayres, and known both north and south as Sherman’s Battery.  Three “modern” studies include orders of battle: Ed Bearss’s First Manassas Battlefield Map Study, John Hennessy’s The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence and Joanna McDonald’s “We Shall Meet Again”.  These are the sources a modern researcher would most likely use as a quick reference for what unit was where.  And they all get the identification of this battery wrong.

These three all list the battery in Sherman’s Brigade as Battery E, 5th US Artillery, under the command of Captain Romeyn B. Ayres.  In addition to being wrong, it’s impossibly wrong.  But maybe understandably wrong.

Here’s why Ayres’s command of Battery E, 5th US Arty in July 1861 is impossible: according to Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, that battery was not organized until May of 1862.  Now, why is such a mistake understandable?  I mean, we’re talking Ed Bearss and John Hennessy here!

I think the answer can be found in Ayres’s official report (I’ve made a new page for it here), and his Cullum and Heitman entries, the starting points for all biographical sketches of West Point graduates and regular army officers.  Ayres (I’ll post his bio sketch in the next few days) was first posted to the 3rd Arty as a First Lieutenant in March, 1852, and remained with the regiment at least until he made Captain of the 5th Arty in May, 1861, before Bull Run.  That much is clear in Heitman and Cullum.  But it’s also clear from his report that he was in command of a battery in Sherman’s Brigade at Bull Run.  But a less than careful reading of his report can lead to an inaccurate conclusion.

Ayres’s report, written just four days after the battle, is headed “Light Company E, Third Artillery”, which is clear enough.  But in the printed OR’s, Ayres’s report is prominently titled by the compiler as the report of Capt. Romeyn B. Ayres, Fifth US Artillery.  And to add to the confusion, he signed the report “R. B. Ayres, Captain, Fifth Artillery, Commanding Company E”.  So, if one has no idea of the history of Battery E, 5th US Arty, and merely reads the title of the OR entry and the signature line – and ignores the heading on the actual report and the name of the 3rd US Arty AAAG at the close of the report – one could understandably conclude that Ayres was in command of Battery E, 5th Arty.

So, did these three authors all make the same mistake and come to the same conclusion when compiling their OOB’s?  Or did one make the mistake first, and the others carried it over to their work?  Who knows?  I know that I had it wrong on my OOB until I read the CWTI article and started digging.  It’s not the first mistake on Bull Run OOBs I’ve found (I’ll try to get to that this week as well).

Why was Ayers in command of Sherman’s Battery at Bull Run when the records indicate he had been transferred to the 5th Artillery in May?  Either his commission was backdated and he had not reported to the 5th as of July 21, or there’s another reason.  It was not uncommon for Union officers, particularly 1861 academy graduates, to be on the field at Bull Run in some capacity other than their official assignments.  Just one more thing to add to my list of things to look into.

I’ll post more on Ayres later this week.


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23 responses

25 06 2007
Drew W.

From your listing of 8 major FBR studies, I’ve read them all at least once, except Beatie. Fairly or unfairly, I can’t recall a single positive word any subsequent scholar has ever said about it. I am not sure that I was even aware of it until the 1st volume of the AOfP series came around. Since then, I assumed everything important to glean from it was revised, updated, and reintegrated in the AofP series. Is this accurate? In your view, is “Road to Manassas” worth reading anymore?

25 06 2007
Harry Smeltzer


To tell the truth, I think much of Beatie’s Road to Manassas appears word for word in Birth of Command. Even some of the errors that Hennessy pointed out in his infamous review of Vol. I are carry-overs, IIRC. So no, I don’t recommend reading the earlier book if you have read the later one. That being said, I am a fan of Beatie’s work, despite some flaws and irritations. I’ll have a post on that later.

26 06 2007
Dave Powell

Order of battle confusion is always fun. For added fun, try figuring out the Confederate Tennessee units say from 61-63 – the 4th Cav is really the 8th, multiple 4th Tenn Infantry regiments etc.

Being meticulous in OOB work can pay rewards in posts like this: every little side trail becomes a fascinating story.

I was surprised to discover that I own 3 of the 8 studies you mention, and had read 2 more. I wasn’t aware that I was that ‘up” on 1BR scholarship.:)

Dave Powell

26 06 2007
Harry Smeltzer

What are the other two?

Edit…Dave has explained that the “other two” are two of the mentioned titles which he has read but does not own.

29 06 2007
Romeyn Beck Ayres « Bull Runnings

[...] famous Sherman’s Battery, which was attached to Sherman’s brigade of Tyler’s division (see here); this despite his official assignment with the 5th Artillery.  Being unable to cross Bull Run [...]

30 06 2007
Joseph Pierro

Dear Harry–

Thank you for raising this issue. You are correct in noting that the Tables of Organization for First Bull Run contain a number of mistakes (it’s a failing common to many tables in the OR, for reasons too complex to explain here). And many authors DO mistakenly attribute this battery to William T. Sherman.

In the case of MY article, however, I did so deliberately. I believe that the author of the Confederate letter in question DID mean to refer to the COMMANDER OF THE BRIGADE to which the battery belonged, and not to the battery commander.

The letter in question was written by a Confederate cavalryman somewhat removed from the fighting on this confused field (and operating without the benefit of a formal TOO of the enemy forces.) In his only OTHER mention of a Union battery, he refers to it as SPRAGUE’S (a reference to Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island–who was on the field in a quasi-official capacity that day and was often mistaken as the commander of the brigade led by Ambrose Burnside.) In that case, Newton was clearly referring to a Union battery by the name of what he THOUGHT was the commander of the brigade to which it was attached. For the sake of consistency, I believed that he was likely doing the same with his reference to “Sherman’s battery.”

Had the letter appeared in a forum allowing for footnotes and lengthy parenthetical digressions, I would have gone into detail and explained the confusion over designation, as you did so comprehensively here. Given the restrictions of the Civil War Times format, I chose to use a bracketed insertion of the person to whom, in my best judgment, Newton was referring, and then simply noted in my introduction that “[h]e made occasional errors of detail in regard to the fate of specific units on both sides—understandable amid the swirl and smoke of battle between two raw armies.” (Thinking back on it, I believe this sentence originally read “. . . designation and fate of specific units” – a qualifier which was cut for space.)

Such at least was my logic. Perhaps in retrospect it was the WRONG editorial decision to make, but I was not unaware of the distinction between the two Shermans when I wrote the piece. Indeed, I spent more time puzzling over how to address this question than any other aspect of the letter. If there is fault in my presentation of Newton’s letter, it was one of commission, not of omission.

30 06 2007
Harry Smeltzer


Thanks for taking the time to comment. For those readers who don’t know, Gov. Sprague of Rhode Island was the Forrest Gump of First Bull Run. Ubiquitous, to say the least; he managed to have a horse shot out from under him. There are accounts of his moving forward with the RI battery, including on its brief foray across the Pike to Henry House Hill. A bio sketch of him will appear here, but that’s a ways off yet.

By the way, feel free to have your publisher forward me a complimentary copy of your edition of the Carman papers for review. I’m being facetious, of course. At $95 a pop, I’m betting they’re throwing those books around like manhole covers ;-)

30 06 2007
Joseph Pierro

Lol! That’s sticker price. I’m sure we can do better for you. :)

1 07 2007
Joseph Pierro


Looking back through my notes reminded me of another point:

Had Newton been Old Army (he had no prior military experience, save for local Virginia militia), I’d have be more inclined to credit the idea that he was referring to the name of the battery’s old commander.

However, it was the totality of clues–his lack of prior military experience (and a resulting familiarity with Army lore), the distortions in his overall account (you and I both pointed out that the captured guns weren’t actually from Sherman’s Battery–whichever Sherman he meant), and his method elsewhere of referring to other Union batteries by the name of the commander of the brigade to which he thought they were attached–that led me to the conclusion that Newton was referring to the brigade commander (who actually had been on the field at Bull Run) and not the former battery commander (who wasn’t).

If he were referring to Thomas W. Sherman in a historical context (as you note correctly, the battery had a famous pedigree, due to the Mexican War incident), I would expect the reference to be to “Sherman’s old battery” or “Sherman’s famous battery” (or, as Col. R. E. Withers of the 18th Virginia says in his after-action report, “the celebrated Sherman battery”).

Had Newton known enough of the battery’s history to have connected it with Thomas W. Sherman, I simp,ly don’t think he would have been so nonchalant in his reference (erroneous, at it happened, but he didn’t know that) to the capture of every one of its guns.

After all, this is a letter to his wife. If he was consciously making reference to a battery that had gained fame nearly fifteen years ago in the Mexican War, one would expect him to point that out for her benefit.

Given the length of the overall letter (close to 3,300 words), we know he had no compunction against going into detail. . . . :)

1 07 2007
Harry Smeltzer


What you say makes sense, but I still rhink Newton would have been more aware of the fame of Sherman’s Battery than of an obscure colonel from Ohio. In many ways soldiers were the rock stars of the day. Newton may even have assumed his readers would know exactly what battery he meant (you and I wouldn’t refer to “The Famous Raquel Welch”, right?). Ditto with Sprague – I suspect the rebels were well aware of the Yankee governor who took the field against them.

But we’ll never really know for sure, and that’s what makes all of this so much fun.

Thanks again for participating here. Come back often. And tell all your friends, too.

2 07 2007
Joseph Pierro

“In many ways soldiers were the rock stars of the day. Newton may even have assumed his readers would know exactly what battery he meant (you and I wouldn’t refer to “The Famous Raquel Welch”, right?).”

Ah, but now now you’re being too abstract in your analysis, Harry. Documents don’t exist in a vacuum; there’s always a context. For William B. Newton, there ARE no readers (plural) for his letter. There’s only his wife.

As the newspaper that originally reprinted the letter mentioned–a point which I also made in my introduction–Newton was UNAWARE that it was going to be made public. As far as he knew, he had an audience of one.

So the question is not “Would I refer to the ‘famous’ Raquel Welch?” (BTW, I would–IF my listener was (a) too young to remember the “One Million Years BC” pinup and (b) COMPLETELY and utterly disinterested in women), but rather “Do you think a 19th century Southern woman in her 20s would remember the story of some Yankee artilleryman from the LAST war?”

Try a crude test of your hypothesis: nonchalantly tell the next twenty women with whom you have a conversation that you JUST had lunch with Terrell Davis. I’d wager a free copy of Carman’s Antietam that not ONE of them says anything other than, “Who?”

Like I said, everything has a context. . . . :)

On a different note, in a discussion of faulty ToOs in your first post, you wrote that Jack Davis was the only author to correctly identify the battery. Do you mean to say he identified it in his NARRATIVE? The reason I ask is because MY copy of “Battle at Bull Run” contains no ToO–but it’s also a much later reprint from a different publisher than the original edition. (You have me wondering if perhaps the ToO was dropped in the reprint.)

2 07 2007
Harry Smeltzer


Terrell Davis was a Bronco. I live in Pittsburgh. You see the problem here? Pittsburgh is a drinking town with a football problem. Don’t underestimae the NFL accumen of our fairer residents!

Yes, Davis correctly identified Sherman’s Battery in his narrative. No OOB is in my first printing either.

3 07 2007
Harry Smeltzer


Here’s another thing to consider. Ayres’s battery did not move forward with Sherman’s brigade – remember he could not cross Bull Run. So why would Newton have drawn the conclusion that the battery in question was attached to Sherman’s brigade and identify it as such? I still think it likely that Newton was referring to the ID he, or whoever his informant was, could see – the guidon or flag of Company E, 3rd US Artilley, Sherman’s Battery, a unit much better known than some red-headed Ohio colonel. Yes, more well known even to a woman, I suspect.

Thanks for making me think a little more.

13 08 2007
This Battery Just Keeps Going, and Going, and Going… « Bull Runnings

[...] recent post discussed confusion regarding the identity of just which Sherman a Confederate participant in the [...]

27 08 2007
Peter Williams

Dear Sir
Just examined your site and liked it.Well done. Might you be so good as to answer a question for me? I am an Australian military historian and wargamer. Recently, after a long drought my wargames group has got back into American Civil War games. AS I am the one who always gets the job of designing the scenarios can you could direct me to a site where I can ask questions to those who really know their stuff about ACW battles. As an example we are going to do Shiloh next month so I would like to ask a few questions of someone who has seen the terrain and can speak about it from a military perspective.

Yours sincerely
Peter Williams
Charles Darwin University

27 08 2007
Harry Smeltzer


I’m going to forward your email address to a friend of mine in Canberra. He participates in several forums here in the US, and I think he’d be a great starting point for you.


28 08 2007
Shawn Prouty

First off, excellent research and a great website on “Sherman’s Battery”. I have a question that is in the ball park. Do you know of what flag Major Wheat’s Battalion captured? Evan’s OR report said “capture of a stand of colors”. There were no OR reports on Wheat’s Battalion. This has many of us just completely stumped.

We are thinking either the 2nd Rhode Island or 11th New York regiment. We are working on ALL Union and Confederate flags that were captured during the Civil War. This project will take a long time.

If you have any information or could tell me where to find it, I would be very grateful.

Thank you, Sir

Shawn Prouty

28 08 2007
Harry Smeltzer


For more on Sherman’s Battery, go here.

I will respond fully to your question in the form of a post later on. For now I’ll say that I don’t think the battalion ever got close enough to the 2nd RI on Matthews’ Hill to capture any colors, having been forced to veer off to the left about 20 yards short of the battle line on emerging from a corn field in front. Also, the 11th NY colors were lost at one point but retaken. The battalion did seem to take part in the general assault made by Beauregard’s line on Henry Hill. Evans’ report says that Capt. Harris’ report for the battalion was enclosed with his, but it was not found by the compilers. I’ll check with a friend who has a set of the supplement and see if it was later located. I’ve dropped a note to Jim Burgess at the park as well.

Thanks for stopping by! That sounds like an ambitious project – is it web based?


28 08 2007
Wheat’s Tigers – Did They or Didn’t They? « Bull Runnings

[...] Wheat’s Tigers – Did They or Didn’t They? Earlier I received the following comment to this post: [...]

27 09 2007
Sherman’s Battery Had Some Kinda Juice! « Bull Runnings

[...] here and here (be sure to read the comments), the renown of Battery E., 3rd US, commonly known as [...]

21 12 2007
The Sherman’s Battery Posts « Bull Runnings

[...] Sherman’s Battery, and Sherman’s Battery, Too, but not Really [...]

29 07 2009
Romeyn B. Ayres « Bull Runnings

[...] famous Sherman’s Battery, which was attached to Sherman’s brigade of Tyler’s division (see here); this despite his official assignment with the 5th Artillery.  Being unable to cross Bull Run [...]

28 09 2011
Suspicions She’s a Spy | Blue Gray Review

[...] Bull Runnings explains that Sherman’s famous battery was famous because of its success at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican war. It’s commander then was Thomas W. “Old Tim” Sherman. [...]

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