Testimony of Col. Thomas A. Davies
Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 177-184
WASHINGTON, January 14, 1862.
Colonel THOMAS A. DAVIES sworn and examined.
By the chairman :
Question. What is your position in the army?
Answer. My present position is colonel of the 16th New York volunteers.
Question. Were you present at the battle of Bull Run?
Answer. I was not present at what is called the battle of Bull Run, but I was six miles from that, upon the left wing.
Question. What position did you occupy there?
Answer. I left Alexandria in command of the 2d brigade, 5th division of the army of the Potomac.
Question. Acting as brigadier general?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Will you, in your own way, go on and tell us what you know about the causes of the disaster of that day, what was done, and what you think might have been done ? .
Answer. Shall I tell what I did?
Question. Give us a general idea, without any great minuteness.
Answer. The fifth division, together with Runyon’s division, was marked upon our programme when we started as the reserve—I mean in the card that was issued by General McDowell. Colonel Miles, of the infantry, was in command of the fifth division, and Brigadier General Runyon was in command of his part of the reserve. There were two commanders to the reserve. We went by the way of the old Braddock road to Fairfax Court- House the second night, driving the enemy before us, and capturing some few things; skirmishing all the way through the woods about six miles. On the third day we arrived at Centreville, and camped about a mile from Centreville. The part we took in the battle of Sunday was decided upon in a military conference held the night before the battle, at which the division and brigade commanders were present. General McDowell read off the programme, and as soon as we found that our position was to be in the reserve and remain at Centreville, we left the council very early, and I heard nothing more said in respect to the plan of campaign than what was read there. Early the next morning we got our troops up—very early, for they were awake pretty much all night, or half asleep and half awake all night. We started in the morning, I with instructions to go down to the position that was occupied as a battle-field on the afternoon of the 18th, what was then called the battle of Blackburn’s Ford.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. You were not in the affair at Blackburn’s Ford?
Answer. No, sir; I lay at Centreville that day. Instead of stopping where he ought to have stopped, as I understood it, General Tyler went on there. The bringing on of that battle, as I understand it, was an accidental affair altogether. This division of Miles, on Sunday, was to occupy a position at Centreville Heights, and also at Blackburn’s Ford, which was two miles further towards Bull Run. The road from Centreville to Blackburn’s Ford runs directly to Manassas Junction. The Warrenton turnpike that led up to where the battle of Bull Run was fought made an angle with the Blackburn’s Ford road of about thirty degrees, and bore off to the right, went on to the Stone Bridge, and so on across where the balance of the army went. All the army, excepting Miles’s division, moved up the Warrenton road, while that division moved off to the left to Blackburn’s Ford with my brigade, leaving Blenker’s brigade on Centreville Heights, with instructions to intrench the heights that day. Lieutenant Prime was to furnish the tools for that purpose. We went off to the left and were to make a feint at Blackburn’s Ford to attract the attention of the enemy and draw their troops there.
Richardson’s brigade, I found, was up there. But Colonel Miles told me to go down and compare notes with him, and find out which ranked, the one ranking to take command of the two brigades. I met Colonel Richardson, compared notes with him, and found that I ranked him. I then took command of the troops, and stationed him on the road directly to Blackburn’s Ford, and exactly on the battle-ground of the 18th. I took a road that led off further south from this road, and went into an open wheatfield and took possession of the brow of a hill, where I could annoy the enemy by shell during the day, and make a demonstration. My position was about eighty rods, I should think, from Colonel Richardson’s. I had brought into the field two regiments of infantry and Hunt’s battery. Green’s battery was behind, but by mistake Green’s battery, belonging to my brigade, got into Richardson’s brigade, and Hunt’s battery belonging to Richardson’s brigade, got into my brigade. We went on making a demonstration, and at 10 o’clock I found that our ammunition was running short. I sent back word to Colonel Miles, at Centreville Heights, that our ammunition was running short, and I wanted to slacken my fire. He sent me back word to fire on. I did fire on very slowly, and kept up the fire till about 11 o’clock, when Colonel Miles came himself. He made some new disposition of the troops. I suppose, however, that is not important.
Question. Unless it led to important results.
Answer. It did. I had stationed two of my regiments on a road that led around from Centreville Heights off in the rear of my position entirely. I happened to find it out from the guide who went along with me down there to show me the way. He mentioned casually, saying, “There is a road that leads around to the enemy’s camp direct.” Said I, “Can they get through that road?” “Oh, yes,” said he, “they can.” I gave the word of command to halt immediately, and put two of my regiments on this road, and two pieces of artillery, and went on with my other two regiments into the open field with the battery. When Colonel Miles came down in the morning he was in a terrible passion because I had put these two regiments there. He gave me a very severe dressing down in no very measured language, and ordered the two regiments and the artillery forward, without knowing what they had been put there for. I complied with the order, and said nothing. But when he left me, about an hour afterwards, I immediately sent back pioneers who cut down about a quarter of a mile of trees and filled the road up. As I expected, the enemy made an attempt to go up that road, but finding it obstructed by trees, and protected by a few pickets, they went back. We did not see them coming up, but when they were going back we shelled them pretty severely.
We continued the firing by degrees all day, until I got a line from some one in the advance. I could not read the whole of it. It said something about being beaten, but I did not understand which side was beaten; but I knew one or the other was. The firing about six miles to the right had ceased when this line came to me. I afterwards learned it was from Colonel Richardson, and I could see that the enemy or we were beaten, but I could not tell which. And there was something else about it, but I do not remember now, for I have lost the note. I saw unmistakable evidence that we were going to be attacked on our left wing. I got all ready for the attack, but did not change my front. About 5 o’clock, I think, the enemy made their appearance back upon this very road up which they had gone before; but instead of keeping up the road, they turned past a farm-house, went through the farm-yard, and came down and formed right in front of me in a hollow out of my sight. Well, I let them all come down there, keeping a watch upon their movements. I told the artillery not to fire any shots at them until they saw the rear column go down, so as to get them all down in the little hollow or basin there. There was a little basin there, probably a quarter of a mile every way. I should think that, may-be, 3,000 men filed down before I changed front. We lay there with two regiments back, and the artillery in front, facing Bull Run. As soon as about 3,000 of the enemy got down in this basin I changed the front of the artillery around to the left in face of the enemy, and put a company of infantry between each of the pieces of artillery, and then deployed the balance of the regiments right and left, and made my line of battle. I gave directions to the infantry not to fire a shot under any circumstances until they got the word of command from me. I furthermore said I would shoot the first man that fired a shot before I gave the command to do so. I gave them orders all to lie down on their faces. They were just over the brow of the hill, so that if they came up in front of us they could not hit a man. As soon as I saw the rear column, I told whom I thought to be Lieutenant Edwards to fire. It proved to be Lieutenant Benjamin, because in placing the companies between the artillery they had got displaced. Lieutenant Benjamin fired the first shot at them when the rear column presented itself. It just went over the tops of their heads, and hit a horse and rider in the rear. As soon as the first shot was fired, I gave the order for the whole six pieces of artillery to open with grape and canister. The effect was terrible. They were all there right before us, about 450 yards off, and had not suspected that we were going to fire at all, though they did not know what the reason was. Hunt’s battery performed so well that in 30 minutes we dispersed every one of them. I do not know how many were killed, but we so crippled their entire force that they never came, after us an inch. A man who saw the effect of the firing in the valley said that it was just like firing into a wheatfield: the column gave way at once before the grape and canister; they were just within available distance. I knew very well that if they but got into that basin the first fire would cut them all in pieces; and it did. We continued the fire for 30 minutes, when there was nothing more to fire at, and no more shots were returned.
About the time this firing commenced, or a little before that, I received this note from Colonel Richardson. It seems that Colonel Miles, instead of sending the order through me, as the ranking colonel in command, to Richardson to retire on Centreville Heights, sent it, or his aid gave it, directly to Colonel Richardson himself, and also gave orders directly to my two regiments, which lay back as a reserve for me, to move back on Centreville Heights, leaving me in this open field with two regiments and six pieces of artillery, and no reserve to support me. As luck would have it, however, I was successful in the manner of making the fight there, and I did not require any support.
When I got through, and the order came to me to retire on Centreville Heights, I retired my own brigade first, because I was the ranking brigade. I went over to give the order for Colonel Richardson to retire, but I found he had been gone about an hour. I then went to find my other two regiments, which I had had in reserve, and found that they had already been ordered back to Centreville Heights. And when I retired my force, which I did in perfect order, I found my two regiments there on Centreville Heights, and Richardson’s brigade all formed on the heights; rather, they were all there, but running about in a great deal of confusion, for Colonel Miles was not in a condition to be very accurate that afternoon. But for the defence which Hunt’s battery made there, and the little arrangement to keep the men from firing, I think we should have been broken through by the enemy.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. You have referred to Colonel Miles. Did you see him frequently during the day?
Answer. I saw him two or three times during the day.
Question. What time in the afternoon did you last see him on the field?
Answer. He left me about three o’clock in the afternoon, with instructions to encamp on the ground.
Question. Did you see him after that?
Answer. I did, at Centreville Heights, when I first got back with these two regiments. He had thrown forward the balance of the division and Richardson’s brigade on Centreville Heights.
Question. Did you consider him in a fit condition to give orders at three o’clock in the afternoon.
Answer. Well, sir, I do not want to be the accuser of Colonel Miles here; I will give my testimony at the proper time; but I would prefer not to answer the question now, unless it be deemed essential as eliciting information in regard to the conduct of the war.
Mr. Chandler: We want to know what causes might have led to the disasters of that day. We want to find out, if we can, all the causes.
The chairman: We have some testimony to that effect already, and perhaps, in justice to those who have testified about it, we should have all of it.
The witness: Well, sir, I do not think the colonel was exactly fitted for duty much of the day. I did not see him drink, but I pretty well understood what his condition was.
By the chairman:
Question. You consider that the portion of the army you led were victorious throughout?
Answer. Entirely so. I claim that 13,000 of our men were victorious in that battle, and I never want it written down in any other way.
By Mr. Gooch:
Question. That is, our left wing.
Answer. Yes, sir. We are entitled to that, and we should have a report made so; and the 18,000 on the right were victorious, too, until a very late hour; but the left wing were entirely victorious, and have a right to claim such to be the case.
By the chairman:
Question. What led to the final defeat, as near as you could ascertain on the ground?
Answer. I can tell you what I think is the cause of the whole defeat of that day. The troops were raw; the men had been accustomed to look to their colonels as the only men to give them commands. They had never been taught the succession of officers, which is necessary to understand upon the battle-field. They did not understand the command devolving in succession upon the colonel, lieutenant colonel, major, and the captains, in their order of rank. The officers did not themselves know what to do; they were themselves raw and green. Every man went in to do his duty, and knew nothing about anybody else. When the colonels were killed or wounded, the subordinate officers did not know what to do, or the men did not know whether to obey them or not. When they lost their commanding officers, or those to whom they had alone been instructed to look for commands, they supposed they had a right to leave the field. That, I think, was the cause of many of the regiments retiring from the field; not from any cowardice, or fear of fighting, but because, having lost their colonels, they supposed they were out of the battle. I consider that the great cause of our army being put in rout on the right wing.
Question. Were you in a position to observe about the arrival of Johnston’s re-enforcements at that time?
Answer. No, sir; I know nothing about that; I was too far to the left. I was going on to give my reasons for what I suppose caused our defeat that day. There were two, probably three things, which, though they may not have controlled the matter, are, in my judgment, to be considered as some of the reasons why we were not as successful as we might have been. But every general has his own plan of campaign, and my ideas may run counter to those of our general, as he may have had, doubtless did have, reasons and considerations for his plan which I am ignorant of. But judging from what I knew, if I had been in command there I should have harassed the enemy for the three nights before the battle that we were there. I would not have allowed them to lay there quiet all that time, when, with a half a regiment or a regiment, we could have kept them awake all night and worried them exceedingly. We had the power to do it. If we had done that we should have fought them to great advantage.
Question. You spoke of a council of war the night before the battle?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. What was understood there as to Patterson’s holding Johnston from that battle? Was that an element taken into consideration in that council?
Answer. I did not hear it mentioned; that I am aware of. It might have been mentioned there, but I did not hear it. I was on the outside, and did not enter much into the inside of the discussion. There were two tents there, and most of the officers were a great way inside, while I was on the outside.
Question. Was not that a fact of so much importance that it should have been known and acted upon in planning the battle?
Answer. I think it should have been considered, and it may have been. I know it was understood by all the officers there that Johnston was to be held by Patterson. That matter was talked over among the officers, and it was so understood.
Question. If it had been known the day before the battle that the next morning Johnston would be down there with re-enforcements, would it have been prudent to hazard a battle until you had also obtained re-enforcements, or until Patterson’s army had followed Johnston down?
Answer. I should not have risked it, though my reasons for not risking it may be different from those of the one in command. He may have supposed that he had good grounds for fighting the battle.
Question. Would it be according to military prudence to fight a battle that must be uncertain, when you can make it all but certain by waiting a day or two?
Answer. That is very clear, according to my view of things.
Question. What would have been the effect had you waited there on Centreville Heights and rested your men a day or two—seeing Johnston was down there—until Patterson’s army had followed him there, and been ordered to turn their left ?
Answer. We should undoubtedly have won the battle.
Question. Was there anything to prevent that?
Answer. I know of nothing that could. I was going to mention three things which seems to me ought to have been done. One was to harass the enemy all we could. Another was to have intrenched Centreville Heights during the three days we lay there. The men would have fought better after working all day and sleeping well all night, than to have gone into the field as they did. And another thing was this: Now, I do not know the facts, I am only telling you my opinion of what should have been done, if the circumstances of the case had all been as I suppose they were. Not that I find the least fault with General McDowell, for I believe he is a splendid soldier; but if I had been in command of the right wing I should have intrenched after I got to the first run, and allowed them to attack me ; we had the sure thing ; we had the game there, and they might have got it back the best way they could. After the first run, after their first line broke and retired, then we should have intrenched and let them attack, and we would have had the victory. We had a sure thing, and there was no use in throwing it away.
Question. How was it about the men coming on the ground fatigued with marching? Had they marched any considerable distance, many of them?
Answer. No, sir, I do not think they had marched a great deal. But they had been loafing around a great deal; had been out a great deal of nights, and had been broken of their rest, and had not had full rations. They were not altogether in a prime condition for fighting.
Question. There was a brigade or a division in reserve on Centreville Heights most of the day, was there not?
Answer. Yes, sir; Blenker’s brigade lay there the whole day.
Question. Could not they have strengthened our centre if they had taken their position on the field of battle
Answer. The object of leaving that force there was to intrench Centreville Heights so that in case any accident occurred we could have retired there. But instead of that being done as was designed, there was some difficulty about getting intrenching tools forward, and on that account they never broke ground there. There were 3,000 men there, and in one day they could have thrown up a pretty fair intrenchment. If those intrenchments had been prepared there when we got back we need not have gone back any further.
Question. After the repulse of our army, the enemy did not follow up their victory?
Answer. No, sir; not at all. There were only a few who came running after the right wing, firing random shots.
Question. They did not pursue?
Answer. No, sir; they did not pursue at all. Some cavalry came down, I believe, and made one or two charges which amounted to nothing.
Question. What necessity was there for bringing our army back to Washington? Why not have taken position on the heights and intrenched there at Centreville?
Answer. I did take position there. General McDowell, after the suspension of Colonel Miles, wrote an order on a visiting card, putting me in command of the left wing of the army as it stood; and I was going to stay there, and should have stayed there, except that I got an order between 11 and 12 o’clock, first to retire to Fairfax Court-House, and then to Washington. My brigade was the last to leave the heights at Centreville, which we did between 12 and 1 o’clock. There was no enemy there then.
Question. Would there have been any difficulty in rallying your whole forces and holding your position on Centreville Heights, while you sent for Patterson, or for re-enforcements from here and Fortress Monroe? Would you not have worsted the enemy in that way?
Answer. We never should have been compelled to leave the place with what troops I had under my command. I could have held my position there with the troops I had, which were my brigade, Richardson’s brigade, Blenker’s brigade, and some batteries that came down from the point above.
Question. Was it not a terrible military blunder to come back to Washington in disorder?
Answer. That is putting it rather strong. I should not like to say it was a military blunder.
Question. Well, it was a mistake, then?
Answer. I think this: that we could have held our position there; there is no doubt about that.
Question. Then you ought to have held it, ought you not?
Answer. That is a matter I am not responsible for. That is a matter which rests with the other powers, for I do not know all that combined to make up their judgment.
Question. Would it not have been easier to have defended Washington on Centreville Heights than to have come pell-mell here to do it?
Answer. I can answer that very readily: I think it would; there is no doubt about that.
By Mr. Gooch:
Question. I understand you to say that our left wing was victorious that day?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Have you stated precisely what the left wing did?
Answer. Not in every respect, for Runyon’s division lay behind us as part of the left wing.
Question. Was that engagement you have referred to the only one of the left wing that day?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Did our left wing make any attack that day?
Answer. No, sir; not at all; we only defended ourselves. We were the reserve; we were to maintain our position.
Question. When you say you were victorious, you mean to say that you maintained the position assigned you?
Answer. Yes, sir; that is always a victory. When one is attacked in a position, and is successful in repelling that, attack, that is as complete a victory as can be; and I think that all those troops which have been, in the accounts, submerged with a defeated body of troops, ought to have the credit of being victorious. It ought to have read that we were victorious with the 13,000 troops of the left wing, and defeated in the 18,000 of the right wing. That is all that Bull Run amounts to. The attack upon the left wing was repulsed, and the enemy never attacked there again. I have understood from the secession accounts of that battle that we killed there about one-third of all that we killed at the battle of Bull Run. And neither of my two regiments there fired a shot; if they had, we probably should have been defeated.
Question. What was the number of the enemy that came around the first time upon the road you speak of?
Answer. As near as we could judge, there were about 3,000—that is, judging from the time it took them to pass a given point; we could see the dust, but we could not see the troops; there was a light growth of bushes that separated them from us; we fired shell into the bushes.
Question. The force left at Centreville and the force under your command were both necessary, in your opinion, to prevent the enemy coming around and attacking the main body of our army in the rear?
Answer. Certainly: entirely so.
Question. Then you cannot strictly call that a reserve?
Answer. No, sir; not strictly so. We were put down upon the programme, as I stated in the forepart of my testimony, as a reserve. But we, in truth, expected to make an attack upon the enemy, as well as the right wing. We, however, made an attack simply upon a body of troops that lay in the woods waiting for us. There were about 10,000 of the enemy’s troops concentrated upon our position all day long, hoping to take our army in the rear.
Question. So that it would not have been safe at any hour of the day to have taken our troops from Centreville and moved them forward to the main body of the army?
Answer. I think, as it turned out, that Blenker’s brigade, which was expected to have intrenched Centreville Heights, might have been spared. Yet, after all, we might not have been able to have maintained our position. We might have been broken, and then Blenker’s brigade would have been necessary for us to have fallen back upon. If the failure had taken place on our left wing, nothing in the world could have saved our army or Washington. When I got here to the city I could have taken the place with a thousand men, or even a less number. I never saw such an excited condition of things as there was here.
By the chairman:
Question. At what time did you get back and form on Centreville Heights?
Answer. The last two regiments got on Centreville Heights about 7 o’clock in the evening.