Southern Historical Society Papers
Vol. XXXIV Richmond, Va., January-December 1906, pp. 363-371
Thirty-Third Virginia at First Manassas
Colonel Cummings Takes Liberties with his Orders and Does Good Work
Colonel J. W. Allen’s Report–Interesting Recollections of Deeds of Valor at First Manassas Battle
From the Times-Dispatch, June 4, 1905
The fame of “Stonewall Jackson” overspread the Henry Hill combat at Manassas, 21st of July, 1861, but the reports of all his regimental commanders having been lost, no official record clarifies the movements and achievements of his five regiments on that day. The recent discovery and publication in The Times-Dispatch of Colonel Kenton Harper’s report of the Fifth Virginia Infantry, have fixed the movements of that regiment, and various communications from reliable officers and men have well nigh completed the history of the brigade on that occasion. Colonel Arthur C. Cummings, of Abingdon, commanded the Thirty-third Virginia Infantry that day. He had served in the Mexican War, and was a highly accomplished soldier and gentleman, worthy of higher command than befell his lot. His recent death has brought the name of this modest and heroic man again before the public. He shunned notoriety of all kinds, and rested content in “the conscientiousness of duty faithfully performed.”
Captain John H. Grabill, of the Thirty-third, who was with his regiment in the Manassas battle, and has kindly furnished’ me a brief statement and also with a pretty full account from Colonel Cummings, contained in a letter addressed to Captain Grabill at Woodstock, where he lives, dated May 16, 1898. It is due to history that these memorials of a brave regiment and of valiant deeds that had no little to do with the Confederate victory, be published. Captain Grabill relates his distinct memory of the charge of the Thirty-third, and that it was against the Brooklyn Zouaves (the Fourteenth New York), and a Michigan Regiment (the Michigan then commanded by Colonel, afterwards Major-General Orlando B. Willcox), who was at the front of the Federal battery. He says: “They were driven over their own battery by the charge of the Thirty-third,” and the battery captured as related by General Cummings. After the battle was over, General Jackson rode to one of the field hospitals. As he sat upon his horse he looked steadily upon the dying Captain Lee, of the Thirty-third, who was propped against a small tree, and made this remark: “The work Colonel Cumming’s regiment did today was worth the loss of the entire regiment.”
LOCATION OF THE GUNS
It will be observed that in Colonel Cummings’ description of the action, he says: “The pieces taken by the Thirty-third were situated considerably to the left (as we were facing) of the Henry House, and the pieces taken by the other regiments of the brigade were somewhat on the same line, but nearer the Henry House.”
I have no doubt that this statement as to the location of the guns is correct. Major R. W. Hunter, who was at that time first lieutenant and adjutant of the Second Virginia Infantry, which was immediately on the right of the Thirty-third, confirms Colonel Cummings’ statement, and I have seen similar statements in other accounts of the battle. The History of the Ulster Guard, a New York regiment, by Colonel Gates, who commanded it, contains a description of the battle at this point very much like that of Colonel Cummings’.
Confusion has arisen in some of the versions of this conflict, by the writer’s failing to distinguish between the separated guns that were taken by Colonel Cummings and those subsequently carried nearer to the Henry House, when the whole field was swept in the final Confederate charge.
ANOTHER FITZ LEE
The Captain Lee referred to by Colonel Cummings was William Fitzhugh Lee, born in Richmond, but then of Alexandria, the son of Rev. William F. Lee, and he was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute in the class of 1853. Two years later he became a lieutenant in the United States army. When the war broke out, he was on duty at the St. Louis arsenal, and he resigned to follow the fortunes of his State. He was soon appointed a captain in the Confederate army, and then lieutenant-colonel of the Thirty-third Virginia Infantry.
THE SECOND TO THE FRONT
Just after that sally of the Thirty-third, the Second Virginia Infantry, under Colonel James W. Allen, which was the next regiment to its right, advanced to the assault. Colonel Allen, born in Shenandoah, had moved with his father’s family in boyhood to Bedford County, and had attended the old New London Academy. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1849, and became there an assistant professor of mathematics after first teaching at the Piedmont Institute in Liberty. No report from him appears in the war records, but an extract from it is found in “The Memorial of the Virginia Military Institute,” by Charles D. Walker, p. 324, which indicates that it has been published in the press, and it happily preserves the continuity of the story of the Stonewall Brigade at Manassas. Colonel Allen had but one eye, and during the cannonade which preceded the infantry combat on that day, a shot cut off the limb of a pine tree and hurled it in his other eye, temporarily blinding him. He afterward greatly distinguished himself, and was killed while in command of the brigade at Gaines’ Mill, June 27, 1862.
COLONEL ALLEN’S REPORT
In the report of Colonel Allen of the action of his regiment on the occasion referred to, he says:
“About 1 P. M. I was directed to station my regiment at the edge of a pine thicket to support the battery immediately on my right, with orders to fire when the enemy appeared in sight over the hill, then to charge and drive them back with the bayonet. In this position my men lay somewhat under the cover of the hill for more than an hour and a half, during all of which time they were exposed to the effects of shell and shot from the enemy’s batteries, which had advanced, under cover of the hills, to my left flank. Many of my men and officers were wounded by explosions that took place immediately in their midst; yet they stood their ground, awaiting the approach of the infantry. Colonel Cummings, on my left, met them, endeavoring to turn their flank. After advancing, two of his companies fell back through my left, which was kept in position by the coolness of Captain Nelson, who gallantly maintained his position, though exposed to a front fire of grape and shell, and a flank fire from the enemy’s musketry. At this juncture I was informed by Major Botts (whose coolness, energy and perseverance in rallying the men deserves special mention) that my left was turned. Not seeing the enemy in front, I directed that the three left companies be drawn back to meet them. This order was partially misunderstood by the centre companies for a general direction to fall back, and all the line turned. I at once gave the order to charge, but the thicket was so close and impenetrable that only a part of the right wing, under Lieutenant-Colonel Lackland, could be rallied about thirty yards in rear of the original position, the enemy having advanced to the position originally held by the left of the regiment, judging by their fire, for it was impossible to see them.
“At this moment Colonel Preston, who was on my right, and in rear of the battery, advanced, and Lieutenant-Colonel Lackland, with about one hundred of my right, charged on the enemy’s batteries, drove them from their pieces, and took position immediately in front of the guns, sheltering themselves as much as possible by them. Wishing to secure one of the rifle cannon, he ordered five or six men to take it to the rear, but had not proceeded more than fifty yards, when the enemy opened on his right, which was unsupported, and he was compelled to retire with the few men under his command, having lost nine killed and thirty-four wounded in the charge. The line did not retire until after our battery was withdrawn.
“The list of killed and wounded having been handed in, it is unnecessary to repeat it. I cannot, however, close this report without again making honorable mention of Captain Nelson, who gallantly fell at his post, supposed to be mortally wounded, and to the gallantry of Lieutenant-Colonel Lackland, who, with but a handful of men, charged on the enemy’s battery and actually brought one of their rifled guns to the rear, with but four men.”
Colonel Allen’s reference to the appearance of Colonel Preston, “who was on the right and in the rear of the battery,” denotes the time when Jackson’s right centre advanced under his immediate direction. This was the third and effectual movement which carried the position defended by Griffin’s and Rickett’s one of twelve guns, which were posted near the Henry House, some of them being turned on the front of the Second and Thirty-third Regiments, and the most of them on the batteries of Pendleton to the right of these regiments, and on the front of the other three regiments of the brigade; i.e., the Fourth, Twenty-seventh and Fifth. When Colonel James P. Preston went forward with the Fourth, the Twenty-seventh, under Lieutenant-Colonel John Echols, moved simultaneously, and the two regiments commingled at the captured guns, each losing heavily in the charge.
From the material collected in the contribution to The Times-Dispatch, the historian, with the aid of the War Records, can now compute the complete story of the Stonewall Brigade at First Manassas.
JOHN W. DANIEL
Colonel Cummings’s Account
On the night of the 20th of July, 1861, our army lay in rear and facing Bull Run, the right resting near Union Mills, and the left at the Stone bridge. General Beauregard expected to be attacked the next morning on the front and right, but very soon in the morning he and General Johnston saw that the enemy was moving on the Centreville road, in the direction of the Stone bridge, with the view of attacking and turning our left flank, the demonstration on our front being only a feint. Leaving a force to protect our right, the rest of the army, except the command at or near the Stone bridge, already engaged, were moved along and in the rear of Bull Run to reinforce the troops already engaged, and to resist the attack on our left.
The Stonewall Brigade, after being halted several times, reached the brow of the hill or ridge. The centre of the brigade, when thus formed in line in a pine thicket at the edge of the plateau, was about opposite the famous Henry House, After the brigade was formed in line, we were ordered to lay down in the edge of the pines. This was about 12 or 1 o’clock, and the battle had then been raging for hours, and our troops were being driven back. As the brigade was then in line, the Thirty-third was on the left and was at that time the extreme left of our army. On its right the Second, Fourth, Twenty-Seventh and Fifth–the latter, as I understand, a little detached from the balance of the brigade. [The Fourth was in line behind Colonel Pendleton's batteries, and the Twenty-seventh just in rear of it; so that the right centre was four deep.--J. W. D.]
Two of the largest companies of the Thirty-third had been left in the Valley. The eight companies present were from Shenandoah, Page, Hampshire and Hardy (five were from Shenandoah, and one each from Page, Hardy and Hampshire); both the latter companies were small, about fifty men, so that deducting the sick and absent, there were only about 400 men in the action. I was then the only regular field officer in the regiment; but there was a Captain Lee, a splendid man and gallant officer, who had been temporarily assigned to the regiment and acted as field lieutenant-colonel; he was, in the charge, struck in the breast with a piece of shell and fell at his post mortally wounded, and died soon afterwards.
THE CHARGE OF THE THIRTY-THIRD WAS VIOLATION OF ORDERS
After giving this brief account of our movements and the position of the brigade previous to our going into action, I will give my recollection, which is quite distinct, of the charge made by the Thirty-third and the reasons which led to its being made before the charge was made by the other regiments of the brigade. This charge by the Thirty-third was made contrary to the order of General Jackson, and I will give you the reason why his order was not strictly obeyed–as you will remember, the eight companies that participated in the charge, whilst made up of an exceedingly fine body of gallant men, were, with probably the exception of one or two companies, composed of undrilled and undisciplined men; in other words, they might almost be termed raw recruits. Whilst the brigade was laying in the edge of the pines the Thirty-third, a little to the left and front of the Henry House, as we were facing, General Jackson rode along in line and directed me to look out for the enemy’s artillery and to wait until the enemy were within thirty paces, and then to fire and charge bayonets. The battle was then raging to our front and right and our forces still being driven back.
About this time, or soon thereafter, some men, dressed in red, presumably Federals, appeared in the bushes on the left flank of the regiment, and some of the men of the left company fired at them, and about the same time some shots from the enemy’s artillery raked through the brush just over the regiment and tore up the ground uncomfortably near the men, and the two things together, coming about the same time, caused considerable confusion in a part of the regiment, and realizing that the most trying position that raw men, and even the best disciplined and bravest could be placed in, was to be required to remain still, doing nothing and receiving the enemy’s fire without returning it, I feared the consequences, if I strictly obeyed General Jackson’s orders; therefore it was that I gave the orders to charge, contrary to his order to wait until the enemy was within thirty paces, the enemy being much further off at that time.
From this you will readily see how it happened that the Thirty-third made the charge before the other regiments made the charge as a brigade. A more gallant charge is rarely made than was then made by the Thirty-third (though in not a very good order). The men moved off with the greatest alacrity, killed and drove off the gunners, shot down their artillery heroes and captured the battery of artillery, but the loss was so great, there being about 43 killed and 140 wounded altogether, we were forced to abandon the captured guns and fall back in the face of a deadly fire and overwhelming numbers, and this was the first check the enemy received up to that time. Very soon thereafter the other regiments of the brigade made a charge and captured another battery. The pieces taken by the Thirty-third were situated considerably to the left (as we were facing) of the Henry House, and the pieces taken by the other regiments of the brigade were somewhat in the same line, but nearer the Henry House (the Robinson House being still further to the right). One of the men of the Thirty-third cut a bridle bit from a bridle of one of the artillery horses and gave me afterwards, which I have used ever since and have now. I am inclined to think, from what I have since learned that the battery or pieces taken by the Thirty-third was Griffin’s, and that the one or pieces taken by the other regiments of the brigade was Rickett’s or probably, if there was but one battery in front of the brigade it was placed in two sections, the one on the left taken by the Thirty-third, and the other, in the same line, but nearer the Henry House, and the one taken but abandoned by the Thirty-third was also retaken by the brigade.
I think, however, it is more probable that both Griffin’s and Rickett’s were in position near and to the left of the Henry House. With batteries or sections of batteries at two different points near and to the left of the Henry House, will readily account for the Thirty-third taking one and the other regiments taking the other, and also retaking the one captured by the Thirty-third.
RETAKING OF THE ARTILLERY BY THE BRIGADE
There are two things, however, about which there can be no doubt–one that the Thirty-third, being at the time on the extreme left of our army, charged alone and took the enemy’s battery or section thereof on our left, and that the rest of the brigade immediately charged and took a battery or section of one nearest the Henry House, and as I now recollect, if not mistaken, retook the one previously taken by the Thirty-third, numbers of the Thirty-third falling in with other regiments as individuals, and not as a regiment, and also that I ordered the charge by the Thirty-third before the time arrived to execute General Jackson’s order for the reason before given. Every regiment gallantly did its whole duty, the other regiments likely doing more fighting than the Thirty-third, owing to the heavy loss sustained by it in making the first charge alone and the disorganization that followed.
I had frequent talks with the officers of the brigade after the fight and never knew of any difference of opinion as to the action of the different regiments of the brigade, and see no occasion for any now. In a fight, of course, every one sees more clearly what takes place in his immediate presence, and no doubt, many things were seen by others of which I have no personal knowledge. I have evidence in my possession from others of the Thirty-third which more than sustain my account of the action of the Thirty-third. From having been somewhat unwell, my hand is a little tremulous, but I hope you may be able to wade through this badly written letter, and if you tire before you reach the end, you can stop and take it in broken doses. I should have written you a clean and better account of the part performed by the Thirty-third and the rest of the brigade at the first battle of Manassas, but you must be satisfied at present with this. I should regret very much for any controversy to arise as to the part performed by any regiment of the brigade that was immortalized on the eventful 21st of July, 1861, when all behaved so gallantly and are entitled to the consolation of knowing that their full duty was well performed. But as you are an editor, though I may be over-cautious, I will ask, as there is no necessity of it, you will not make public my letter. The whole brigade measured up to its full standard of duty, made its reputation and there let it rest. Ever since the close of the war I have had a great longing to visit the Valley of Virginia, but the time never seemed opportune, but I still cherish, perhaps, the vain hope of doing so. As age advances, my heart instinctively turns to old friends and old things, many of whom (that is, friends) I fancy, I would meet in the Valley. I shall be pleased to hear from you any time when you are at leisure, and in the meantime, I remain,
ARTHUR C. CUMMINGS
Abingdon, May 16, 1898