Report of Col. R. E. Withers, Eighteenth Virginia Infantry
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp. 546-548
Colonel: I have the honor to transmit a report of the share taken by the Eighteenth Regiment in the battle of the 21st of July.
The position occupied by my command was, as you are aware, on the north side of Bull Run, at Ball’s Ford, which we were ordered to defend. This position they had occupied for three days, sleeping on their arms, as their position was very much exposed. Colonel Preston’s regiment (Twenty-eighth) was on my right.
Early on the morning of the 21st I heard firing in the direction of my advance picket. Supposing it caused by an advance of the enemy on my position I hastened to the point, and found that the firing was caused by an advance of the enemy along the Warrenton turnpike, driving in the pickets of Major Evans on that road. I could distinctly hear the moving of a very large number of men and many ammunition wagons, indicating that a formidable attack was designed upon our lines. Causing two companies to be deployed as skirmishers on my left and in front I awaited further developments. No attack having been made on us we remained in position until 2 o’clock p.m. At this time, being enabled to see from my position the progress of the fight, and that the extreme left of the position of our army had been turned by the enemy crossing Bull Run at Sudley’s Mill, some distance above stone bridge, and were outflanking and forcing back by immensely superior numbers our forces on the left and center, I crossed the run and formed my regiment in readiness for immediate action. Soon after Colonel Cocke sent down by one of his aides an order to bring my regiment into action as speedily as possible. We moved forward in double-quick time, and soon came under fire of the enemy’s battery about Lewis’ house. Continuing to advance beyond the house, I was ordered by General Beauregard to conduct my regiment obliquely to the left and attack the center of the enemy. On approaching their position I found a pretty strong force posted in a thicket of pines, in some places almost impenetrable. With a cheer we dashed into the thicket and pushed forward, the enemy retiring as we advanced.
They were composed principally of the Fourteenth New York Chasseurs, and several of their number were killed and captured by the left wing of my regiment. Emerging from the pines I halted and reformed the regiment, which had been thrown into some disorder whilst advancing through the pines. I now found myself exposed to a hot fire of musketry, and could not clearly distinguish friends from foes. Ordering my men to lie down in a slight depression of the field, so as to protect them as far as possible, I rode to the left of the line, and after some trouble was enabled to discover the U.S. flag with about two regiments on a hill opposite our position and across the Sudley road. A pretty sharp fire at long range was kept up between these troops and my command for some time. Just at this time a number of troops to my right, who had been stationed around an old house (Mrs. Henry’s), fell back in a good deal of confusion, but rallied as soon as they passed my line. One of the captains came up, and, announcing that they constituted a part of the Hampton Legion, and had no field officers left to take charge of them, as their colonel was wounded and lieutenant-colonel killed, desired to know what they should do. I directed them to form on the right of my regiment, which they did with promptness. I was then told that they had been forced back from a battery which they had taken from the enemy, but which they seemed determined to regain, as their skirmishers had advanced very nearly to the guns, supported by a heavy force of infantry. I ordered the whole regiment to charge, which they did in beautiful style, driving back the enemy (not only the skirmishers, but the supporting infantry) beyond the hill.
This battery consisted of eight rifled cannon, and I was told constituted a part of the celebrated Sherman battery. They were posted between Mrs. Henry’s house and the Sudley road, in a little triangular plat of grass land. It was as immediately proposed to turn their guns on them. I ordered the two rear companies of my command, Company I and Company K, to drag the guns into proper position. They immediately brought up two of the guns and ammunition. Captain Claiborne, of Company B, Adjutant Withers, and Lieutenant Shields, of Company E, assisted by a gallant South Carolina officer, afterwards understood to be Green, and several others, soon loaded one of the pieces, and brought it to bear upon a large number of men who were congregated near a two-story house beyond the turnpike. Just as we were about to fire I discovered among them the Confederate flag, and ordered them not to fire. I know in this I am not mistaken, as it was first recognized by the naked eye, and an examination with a good field-glass confirmed my first opinion. Whilst debating the question amongst ourselves I saw two other bodies of troops passing up the hill towards the house, amongst whom the U.S. flag was dearly visible. They joined the party first seen, and proving thus that they were enemies and had raised our flag with the intention of deceiving us, we no longer hesitated to open fire upon them from their own cannon.
The South Carolinian alluded to above fired the first gun, and a most effective one it seemed to be. A few shots sufficed to drive all the enemy out of sight. My regiment was then ordered by General Beauregard to push for the turnpike at stone bridge and cut off, if possible, the retreating enemy at that point. We reached the run and crossed it just below the cut timber east of the stone bridge, and entered the turnpike road just beyond that point. The enemy, however, had retreated by the Sudley’s Mill and other points above.
Soon after we crossed the run we were joined by two South Carolina regiments, commanded respectively by Colonels Kershaw and Cash, and together we pursued the enemy along the turnpike road in the direction of Centreville, until I was recalled by an order to fall back to stone bridge. Before reaching the point we designed to occupy we were met by another order to march immediately to Manassas Junction, as an attack was apprehended that night. Although it was now after sunset, and my men had had no food all day, when the command to march to Manassas was given they cheerfully took the route to that place. On arriving in the immediate neighborhood of that place I was directed to carry my command to Camp Walker, a mile or two below. This place we reached late at night, and our wearied men threw themselves on the ground and slept till morning. On the 22d we were ordered back to our former position on Bull Run, and the next day to the position we now occupy, near suspension bridge, on Cub Run.
Too much praise cannot be awarded to the Eighteenth Regiment for their conduct during the memorable action of the 21st. Officers and men, with one or two individual exceptions, exhibited the utmost coolness and determined bravery. The last charge made by them was most brilliant and successful, and enabled us to retain possession of their cannon. I believe these pieces had been captured once or twice before during the action, but I claim for the Eighteenth the honor of holding the guns and turning them upon the enemy.
During the action Lieutenant-Colonel Carrington and Major Cabell rendered efficient and valuable service, as did Adjutant Withers and all the staff officers. Indeed, the officers generally displayed so much valor and determination that it would be invidious to draw distinctions. The whole command, indeed, exhibited a steadiness under fire remarkable for raw troops.
Considering the length of time we were under fire our loss was very small. I append the report.(#)
Captain Matthews, Company H, was among the wounded, but fortunately not very seriously. No other commissioned officer was hurt.
I would respectfully mention the necessity that exists for supplying many of the men with knapsacks, blankets, &c. As they advanced into battle, by my orders they threw away everything except their guns and ammunition, and, having subsequently marched to Camp Walker the same night, they had no opportunity of getting their clothing and blankets again.
I would also request that those of my companies who are now armed with the smooth-bore altered musket may be permitted to exchange them for the more efficient Enfield or minie gun.
With much respect, I am, your most obedient servant,
R. E. WITHERS,
Colonel Eighteenth Regiment Virginia Volunteers
Col. PHILIP ST. GEORGE COCKE,
Commanding Fifth Brigade, Virginia Volunteers.
*The nominal list shows 6 killed, 23 wounded, and 1 missing.
#Which shows 5 killed, 16 wounded, and 1 missing.