Handcuffs at Bull Run

26 08 2008

This report of Captain Edward Porter Alexander on men and equipage captured by the Confederates at Bull Run is pretty straightforward and not too exciting.  Alexander grossly overestimates the strength of McDowell’s army, though other Confederate reports were even further off.  And this tidbit is enticing:

Incomplete returns of many miscellaneous articles, such as bed-ticks, buckets, coffee-mills, halters, picket-pins, saddles and bridles, ten barrels commissary stores, and a few handcuffs left from a large lot captured, but carried off by individuals as trophies.

That McDowell’s army brought thousands of handcuffs in which to haul the defeated rebels back to Washington is one of the oldest myths of First Bull Run, but myths are not necessarily false.  Indignant southern commentators reported 30-40,000 handcuffs captured.  You can read some of the accounts in Vol. II of The Rebellion Record (1862) – the Northern publishers ridiculed them, claiming they were written by Baron MunchausenThe New York Times had a similar attitude.   Southern papers and authorities certainly used the story of the handcuffs to their advantage, adding it to the rhetoric extolling the righteousness of the Confederate cause.

Mary Chesnut wrote shortly after the battle (at least, she would have us believe it was shortly after the battle):

They brought us handcuffs found in the debacle of the Yankee army.  For whom were they?  Jeff Davis, no doubt.  And the ringleaders.  Tell that to the Marines.  We have outgrown the handcuff business on this side of the water.  C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, New York, 1981, p.113

Chesnut’s passage here is interesting, because the phrase Tell that to the Marines implies that she did not believe the handcuff story (in England sailors looked down on marines, and the phrase meant try that line of bull on somebody who doesn’t know any better).  So it would appear that at the time the story was contested not only by northern wags, but by some prominent southerners.

Folks were still fighting over the truth of the story years after the war.  I have copies of a few articles from Confederate Veteran magazine, which was published from 1893 through 1912.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the dates of publication for these articles (maybe someone out there can help me out with this):

HANDCUFFS ON THE MANASSAS BATTLEFIELD

By George G. Bryson, Gallatin, Tenn.

I cannot tell you much about the handcuffs seen on the First Manassas Battlefield.  I saw them in barrels on the slope of the hill between the Henry House and the spring.  There were also several barrels of crackers , which had been opened and out of which I replenished my haversack.  There may be some survivor’s of Lindsay Walker’s Battery who were present in this battle.  It was Walker’s guns which so effectually demolished the last effort to form line made by the Federals on this part of the field.  If there are any of them living, I believe they can also testify, for the handcuffs were within a few yards of the spot occupied by this battery while in action.  There were also several boxes, still unopened, on which was written: “To be opened on streets of Richmond.”

I have had a talk with my old friend M. E. Head, who was with me and saw the cuffs and boxes.  His recollection and mine are the same, except as to locality.  He thinks they were on the opposite side of the hill from where our command (Holmes’s Brigade) halted; but as to the fact of seeing them there is no doubt in his mind than in my own.

In the same issue, and on the same page (304):

ANOTHER ACCOUNT OF HANDCUFFS

By Mrs. E. A. Meriwether, St. Louis, MO.

I notice in the Veteran for April an article about the handcuffs found on the field of the First Manassasbattle.  The writer says: “I confidently defy any one to find in print a reference to this fact.”  About two years ago a book entitled “Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South in 1861-65″ was published.  Among other known “facts” contained in the book may be found an interesting account of the handcuffs and shackles captured at Bull Run [read it here].

Some years ago my husband’s cousin, Capt. Robert Walker Lewis, of Albemarle, Va., wrote to him (Col. Minor Meriweather) of being in that First Manassas battle, and that he and his men captured a wagon loaded with handcuffs and shackles.  Some of the Union prisoners captured at the same time stated that these instruments were intended to be used on the Rebels they expected to make prisoners, and intended to march them into Washington in that shackled condition.  I now have hanging on my wall one of those shackles.  It is made of two strong iron rings, with lock and key, to be fastened on the ankles.  These rings are fastened together by a strong iron chain seventeen inches long.

Was there a cache of Union handcuffs and/or shackles captured by the Rebels at Bull Run?  I’m not sure one way or the other.  However, one would think that of so many thousands carried off for display on southern walls, at least some would survive today.  So if you’re aware of the whereabouts of any of these mementos, drop me a note!

Photo of Delestasius style 1860s handcuffs at top from this site.

UPDATE 8/27/2008: Friend, reader, and researcher extraordinaire Teej Smith turned up a couple more contemporary references to the captured handcuffs.  First is this report in the New York Times on August 26, 1861, which examines the mathematics of 32,000 one-pound handcuffs loaded onto three 800 pound capacity wagons (I’m not sure upon what the correspondent based his estimate of the load limit). 

Second comes this announcement in the Raleigh North Carolina Standard for July 31, 1861.  In it, the writer not only perpetuates the handcuff story, but recognizes the need to perpetuate it in order to garner support for the war, avoid the necessity of a draft (the author misapprehended the eventuality: the Confederacy instituted conscription before the Union), and ultimately to raise a company of infantry:

AN APPEAL TO THE PATRIOTIC!

It is evident that the tyrannical despotism which has been inaugurated at Washington City by Lincoln and his supporters — smarting under the signal defeat it sustained in the great battle at Manassas — is still resolved to prosecute this unjust and iniquitous war upon the South with all its power, and with fresh rancor. If it succeeds in the appeal it has made to the worst passions of the Northern people, the question for the men of the Southwill be, not, who can with convenience volunteer for the defence of their rights and firesides, but, who can, in honor and duty, remain longer inactive, or refuse to lake the field for the protection of all that is valuable and dear to them? The subjugation of the South, is the dedicated purpose of that despotic government. The destruction of our homes, the confiscation our property, the massacre of our people, is its wish — its proclaimed intention. But the other day, on the floor of the Senate, one of its mercenaries declared that, if successful, ” Yankee Governors should be placed over the States of the South to be rule them as conquered provinces.” Another proclaimed in the same place, that “hemp was the only argument they intended to use to the South.” It is said that amongst the “booty ” they left, on their retreat from Manassas, were thousands of handcuffs, which had been forged for “Southern traitors” All admit that the South must arouse herself to an energy and boldness, fully equal to the conflict that may be forced upon her by the rapacity and tyranny of the Northern government. If volunteers cannot be obtained, the system of drafting will be necessarily adopted. No one can believe, for a moment, that the patriotic young men of our State, will, by inactivity, and or disregard for the importance of the struggle, and the odds with which their gallant brethren, who have been already subjected to the hardships and dangers of the battle field, must encounter, submit to be drafted! All they ask is, to be convinced that their services are needed, and they will rush, with alacrity, to the post of duty and danger.

This appeal is made to the patriotic who may wish to aid in procuring volunteers for a company of Infantry, to be organized for immediate service. Those wishing to volunteer, will apply to the undersigned, from whom all necessary information may be obtained.

JOHN DEVEREUX,

Raleigh, S. C.

July 30, 1861

My impression is that this John Devereux served as Quartermaster for North Carolina during the war, and was part of the delegation that surrendered the city to Sherman’s army in 1865 (see here.)

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2 responses

31 10 2008
Second Chance « Bull Runnings

[...] Handcuffs at Bull Run [...]

13 02 2010
Battles and Leaders – Joe Johnston on Handcuffs at Bull Run « Bull Runnings

[...] written about the rumor of handcuffs on the field here, and James Longstreet’s aide T. J. Goree mentioned them as [...]

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