Col. W. T. Sherman to His Wife

2 02 2009

To Ellen Ewing Sherman

Fort Corcoran

July 24, 1861

Dearest Ellen,

On my arrival back here carried by the Shameless flight of the armed mob we led into Virginia I tried to stay the crowd, and held them in check to show at least some front to the pursuing force.  Yesterday the President & Mr. Seward visited me, and I slipped over for a few minutes last night to see your father.  John S. and Tom have seen me and promise to write you – The battle was nothing to the absolute rout that followed and yet exists, with shameless conduct the volunteers continue to flee – a Regiment the N. York 79th Scots were forming to march over to Washington, and I have commanded them to remain.  If they go in spite of all I can do there will remain here but one company of artillery 90 Strong and a Wisconsin Regiment.  And Beauregard is close at hand – so it seems to be true that the north is after all pure bluster – Washington is in greater danger now than ever.

I will stand by my Post, an illustration of what we all know that when real danger came the Politicians would clear out – The Proud army characterized as the most extraordinary on earth has turned out the most ordinary.

Well as I am sufficiently disgraced now, I suppose soon I can sneak into some quiet corner.  I was under heavy fire for hours – brushed on the Knee, & Shoulder – my horse shot through the leg, and was every way exposedand can not imagine how I escaped except to experience the mortification of a Retreat route, Confusion, and now abandonment by Whole Regiments.  I am much pressed with business regulating the flight of all save the few to remain on this side [of] the River.

Last night I received several letters from you, and took time to read them, and now trust to Tom & others to tell you of the famous & infamous deeds of Bulls Run.

Courage our people have, but no government.

W. T. Sherman

Col. Comdg.

To Ellen Ewing Sherman

Fort Corcoran July 28, [1861]

Saturday

Dearest Ellen,

I have already written to you since my return from the Unfortunate defeat at Bulls Run – I had previously conveyed to you the doubts that oppressed my mind on the Score of discipline.  Four large columns of poorly disciplined militia left this place – the Long Bridge and Alexandria – all concentrating at a place called Centreville 27 miles from Washington.  We were the first column to reach Centreville the Enemy abandoning all defenses en route.  The first day of our arrival our Commander Genl. Tyler advanced on Bulls Run, about 2 1/2 miles distant, and against orders engaged their Batteries.  He sent back to Centreville and I advanced with our Brigade, where we lay for half an hour, amidst descending shots killing a few of our men – The Batteries were full a mile distant and I confess I, nor any person in my Brigade saw an enemy.

Towards evening we returned to Centreville.

That occurred on Thursday.  We lay in camp till Saturday night by which the whole army was assembled in and about Centreville.  We got orders for march at 2 1/2 Sunday morning.  Our column of 3 Brigades – Schenck, Sherman & Keyes – to move straight along a Road to Bulls Run – another of about 10,000 men to make a circuit by the Right (Hunters) and come upon the enemy in front of us – Heintzelmans column of about similar strength also to make a wide circuit to sustain Hunter – We took the road first and about 6 A.M. came in sight of Bull Run – we saw in the grey light of morning men moving about – but no signs of batteries: I rode well down to the Stone Bridge which crosses the Stream, saw plenty of trees cut down – some brush huts such as soldiers use on picket Guard, but none of the Evidence of Strong fortifications we had been led to believe.  Our business was simply to threaten, and give time for Hunter & Heintzelman to make their circuit.  We arranged our troops to this end.  Schenck to the left of the Road, & I to the right -Keyes behind in reserve.  We had with us two six gun batteries, and a 30 pd. Gun – This was fired several times, but no answer – we shifted positions several times, firing wherever we had reason to suppose there were any troops.  About 10 or 11 o.c. we saw the clouds of dust in the direction of Hunters approach.  Saw one or more Regiments of the Enemy leave their cover, and move in that direction – soon the firing of musketry, and guns showing the engagement had commenced – early in the morning I saw a flag flying behind some trees.  Some of the Soldiers seeing it Called out – Colonel, there’s a flag – a flag of truce – a man in the Field with his dog & gun – called out – No it is no flag of truce, but a flag of defiance – I was at the time studying the Ground and paid no attention to him – about 9 oclock I was well down to the River – with some skirmishers and observed two men on horseback ride along a hill, descend, cross the stream and ride out towards us – he had a gun in his hand which he waved over his head, and called out to us, You D–d black abolitionists, come on &c. – I permitted some of the men to fire on him – but no damage was done he remained some time thus waiting the action which had begun on the other side of Bulls Run – we could See nothing, but heard the firing and could judge that Hunters column steadily advanced: about 2 P.M. they came to a stand, the firing was severe and stationary – Gen. Tyler rode up to me and remarked that he might have to Send the N.Y. 69th to the relief of Hunter – a short while after he came up and ordered me with my whole Brigade, some 3400 men to cross over to  Hunter.  I ordered the movement, led off – found a place where the men could cross, but the Battery could not follow.  We crossed the stream, and ascended the Bluff Bank, moving slowly to permit the ranks to close up – When about half a mile back from the Stream I saw the parties in the fight, and the first danger was that we might be mistaken for Secessionists & fired on – One of my Regiments had on the grey uniform of the Virginia troops – We first fired on some retreating Secessionists, our Lt. Col. Haggerty was killed, and my bugler by my side had his horse shot dead – I moved on and Joined Hunters column.  They had had a pretty severe fight – Hunter was wounded, and the unexpected arrival of my brigade seemed a great relief to all.  I joined them on a high field with a house – and as we effected the junction the secessionists took to the woods and were seemingly retreating and Gen. McDowell who had accompanied Hunter’s column ordered me to join in the pursuit – I will not attempt to describe you the scene – their Batteries were on all the high hills overlooking the ground which we had to cross, and they fired with great vigor – our horse batteries pursued from point to point returning the fire, whilst we moved on, with shot shells, and cannister over and all round us.  I kept to my horse and head of the Brigade, and moving slowly, came upon their heavy masses of men, behind all kinds of obstacles.  They knew the ground perfectly, and at every turn we found new ground, over which they poured their fire.  At last we came to a stand, and with my Regiments in succession we crossed a Ridge and were exposed to a very heavy fire, first one Regiment & then another and another were forced back – not by the bayonet but by by a musketry & rifle fire, which it seemed impossible to push our men through.  After an hour of close contest our men began to fall into confusion.  111 had been killed and some 250 wounded and the Soldiers began to fall back in disorder – My horse was shot through the foreleg – my knee was cut round by a ball, and another had hit my Coat collar and did not penetrate an aid Lt. Bagley was missing, and spite of all exertions the confusion increased, and the men would not reform – Similar confusion had already occurred among other Regiments & I saw we were gone.  Had they kept their ranks we were the Gainers up to that point – only our field Batteries exposed had been severely cut up, by theirs partially covered.  Then for the first time I saw the Carnage of battle – men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way – but this did not make a particle of impression on me – but horses running about riderless with blood streaming from their nostrils – lying on the ground hitched to guns, gnawing their sides in death – I sat on my horse on the ground where Ricketts Battery had been shattered to fragments, and saw the  havoc done.  I kept my Regiments under cover as much as possible, till the last moment, when it became necessary to cross boldly a Ridge and attack the enemy by that time gathered in great strength behind all sorts of cover – The Volunteers up to that time had done well, but they were repulsed regiment by Regiment, and I do think it was impossible to stand long in that fire.  I did not find fault with them but they fell into disorder – an incessant clamor of tongues, one saying that they were not properly supported, another that they could not tell friend from foe – but I observed the gradual retreat going  on and did all I could to stop it.  At last it became manifest we were falling back, and as soon as I perceived it, I gave it direction by the way we came, and thus we fell back to Centreville some four miles – we had with our Brigade no wagons, they had not crossed the River.  At Centreville came pouring in the confused masses of men, without order or system.  Here I supposed we should assemble in some order the confused masses and try to Stem the tide – Indeed I saw but little evidence of being pursued, though once or twice their cavalry interposed themselves between us and our Rear.  I had read of retreats before – have seen the noise and confusion of crowds of men at fires and Shipwrecks but nothing like this.  It was as disgraceful as words can portray, but I doubt if volunteers from any quarter could do better.  Each private thinks for himself – If he wants to go for water, he asks leave of no one.  If he thinks right he takes the oats & corn, and even burns the house of his enemy.  As we could not prevent these disorders on the way out - I always feared the result – for everywhere we found the People against us – no curse could be greater than invasion by a Volunteer army.  No goths or vandals ever had less respect for the lives & property of friends and foes, and henceforth we ought never to hope for any friends in Virginia – McDowell & all the Generals tried their best to stop these disorders, but for us to say we commanded that army is no such thing – they did as they pleased.  Democracy has worked out one result, and the next step is to be seen – Beauregard & Johnston were enabled to effect a Junction, by the failure of Patterson to press the latter, and they had such accurate accounts of our numbers & movements that they had all the men they wanted – We had never more than 18,000 engaged, though Some 10 or 12,000 were within a few miles.  After our Retreat here, I did my best to stop the flying masses, and partially succeeded, so that we once more present a front: but Beauregard has committed a sad mistake in not pursuing us promptly.  Had he done so, he could have stampeded us again, and gone into Washington.  As it is I suppose their plan is to produce Riot in Baltimore, cross over above Leesburg, and come upon Washington through Maryland.  Our Rulers think more of who shall get office, than who can save the Country.  No body – no one man can save the country.  The difficulty is with the masses – our men are not good Soldiers – They brag, but dont perform – complain sadly if they dont get everything they want – and a march of a few miles uses them up.  It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not.  I propose trying to defend this place if Beauregard approaches Washington by this Route, but he has now deferred it Some days and I rather think he will give it up.

The newspapers will tell ten thousand things none of which are true.  I have had not time to read them, but I know no one now has the moral courage to tell the truth.  Public opinion is a more terrible tyrant than Napoleon – My own hope is now in the Regulars, and if I can escape this Volunteer command I will do so, and stick by my Regular Regiment.  Gen. McClellan arrived today with Van Vliet -Stoneman, Benham – Biddle – and many others of my acquaintance.  Affecy. &c.

W. T. Sherman

[Simpson, Brooks D.& Berlin, Jean V. Sherman's Civil War: Selected Correspondence of William T. Sherman, 1860-1865, pp. 121-125]

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7 responses

2 02 2009
Will Keene

“Yesterday the President & Mr. Seward visited me, and I slipped over for a few minutes last night to see your father. John S. and Tom have seen me and promise to write you …”

The man was politically well connected.

2 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Will,

Pretty much everyone with a brigade command was connected. I long ago dropped the label “political generals.” They were all political generals. At this point Sherman was a political colonel. At Bull Run, it also helped to be from Ohio. See my sketch of Sherman and this post.

2 02 2009
caswain01

Well as long as we are looking at political ties, notice the setting for the letters – Fort Corcoran, named for Michael Corcoran, Colonel of the 69th NYSM with ties to Tammany. Later commander of the “other” Irish Brigade.

At the time Sherman was writing, the fort (Use the click for map link here for a pinpoint – http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=5106) was part of the forward string of forts in Arlington. Only later in the fall would the Federal forts creep out toward Falls Church.

His assessment of Beauregard’s options to flank the Capital by way of Maryland and Leesburg, Va is of interest.

Craig.

2 02 2009
Terry Johnston

Sherman’s July 24 reference to the 79th New York Infantry, one of the units in his brigade (“a Regiment the N. York 79th Scots were forming to march over to Washington, and I have commanded them to remain”), is an early indication of the discontent in that regiment that eventually resulted in its mutiny on August 14. The men of the 79th generally seemed to hold Sherman in low regard—responsible, in part, for the high casualties they suffered at Bull Run, but also for an alleged incident (stories of which spread through the regiment quickly) in which Sherman, on July 22, was said to have ejected a group of 79th NYers from a barn in which they had sought shelter during the rain-soaked retreat. Soon thereafter, the regiment successfully petitioned Secretary of War Cameron (brother of their late colonel, KIA at Bull Run—talk about connections) for a transfer from Sherman’s command.

Interestingly, time seemed to heal all wounds. In his memoirs, Sherman recalled his Bull Run command as follows: “These were all good, strong, volunteer regiments, pretty well commanded; and I had reason to believe that I had one of the best brigades in the whole army.”

Terry

2 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Terry,

Thanks for the info. Yes, it seems Sherman had a lot of trouble with his regiments after the battle. IIRC the 69th NYSM threatened to mutiny as well, and he had some problems with officers that even brought Lincoln into the fray.

By the way, I’ll be posting something from one of the Scottish newspapers you sent me, regarding Lincoln and Scott after the battle. It’s the only account of their encounter that I’ve seen that interprets its meaning the same way I do.

3 02 2009
Terry Johnston

Harry:

I’ll look forward to that post. I don’t recall offhand the 69th’s post-Bull Run discontent, but it’d be interesting to see evidence of it. Also, I’m pretty sure I have something else—from an actual Scottish newspaper (what I sent you was from a New York-based Scottish-American publication—about the 79th and Bull Run. Once I figure out what it is—and locate it in my files—I’ll send it along.

Terry

3 02 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Terry,

The post is already up – see the one for Feb. 3. Maybe I’m mistaken on the 69th – I think what I read was in Beatie Vol. I, and part of it was definitely about the 79th including the barn story. Looking forward to anything you have on BR.

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