Correspondent Peter Wellington Alexander On the Battle

5 10 2013

The Battle of Manassas

Army of the Potomac,

Manassas, July 22, 1861

Yesterday, the 21st day of July, 1861, a great battle was fought and a great victory won by the Confederate troops. Heaven smiled upon our arms, and the God of battles crowned our banners with the laurels of glory. Let every patriotic heart give thanks to the Lord of Hosts for the victory He has given His people on His holy day, the blessed Sabbath.

Gen. Johnston had arrived the preceding day with about half the force he had, detailed from Winchester, and was the senior officer in command. He magnanimously insisted, however, that Gen. Beauregard’s previous plan should be carried out, and he was guided entirely by the judgement and superior local knowledge of the latter. While, therefore, Gen. Johnston was nominally in command, Beauregard was really the officer and hero of the day. You will be glad to learn that he was this day advanced from a Brigadier to the rank of full General. But to the battle.

At half-past six in the morning, the enemy opened fire from a battery planted on a hill beyond Bull’s Run, and nearly opposite the center of our lines. The battery was intended merely to “beat the bush.” and to occupy our attention, while he moved a heavy column towards the Stone Bridge, over the same creek, upon our left. At 10 o’clock, another battery was pushed forward, and opened fire a short distance to the left of the other, and near the road leading North to Centreville. This was a battery of rifled guns, and the object of its fire was the same as that of the other. They fired promiscuously into the woods and gorges in this, the Southern side of Bull’s Run, seeking to create the impression thereby that our center would be attacked, and thus prevent us from sending reinforcements to our left, where the real attack was to be made. Beauregard was not deceived by the maneuver.

It might not be amiss to say, that Bull’s Run, or creek, is North of this place, and runs nearly due east, slightly curving around the Junction, the nearest part of which is about 3 1/2 miles. The Stone Bridge is some 7 miles distant, in a northwesterly direction, upon which our left wing rested. Mitchel’s ford is directly North, distant four miles, by the road leading to Centreville, which is seven miles from the Junction. Our right is Union Mills, on the same stream, where the Alexandria and Manassas railroad crosses the Run, and distant four miles. Proceeding from Fairfax Court House, by Centreville, to Stone Bridge, the enemy passed in front of our entire line, but at a distance ranging from five to two miles.

At 9 o’clock, I reached an eminence nearly opposite the two batteries mentioned above, and which commanded a full view of the country for miles around, except on the right. From this point I could trace the movements of the approaching hosts by the clouds of dust that rose high above the surrounding hills. Our left, under Brigadier-General Evans, Jackson and Cocke, and Col. Bartow, with the Georgia Brigade, composed of the 7th and 8th regiments, had been put in motion, and was advancing upon the enemy with a force of about 15,000 while the enemy himself was advancing upon our left with a compact column of at least 50,000. His entire force on this side of the Potomac is estimated at 75,000. These approaching columns encountered each other at 11 o’clock.

Meanwhile, the two batteries in front kept up their fire upon the wooded hill where they supposed our center lay. They sent occasional balls, from their rifled cannon, to the eminence where your correspondent stood. Gens. Beauregard, Johnston and Bonham reached this point at 12, and one of these balls passed directly over and very near them, and plunged into the ground  a few paces from where I stood. I have the ball now, and hope to be able to show it to you at some future day. It is an 18-pound ball, and about 6 inches long. By the way, this thing of taking notes amidst a shower of shells and balls is more exciting than pleasant. At a quarter past 12, Johnston and Beauregard galloped rapidly forward in the direction of Stone Bridge, where the ball had now fully opened. You correspondent followed their example, and soon reached a position in front of the battlefield.

The artillery were the first to open fire, precisely at 11 o’clock. By half-past 11, the infantry had engaged, and there it was that the battle began to rage. The dusky columns which had thus far marked the approach of the two armies, now mingled with great clouds of smoke, as it rose from the flashing guns below, and the two shot up together like a huge pyramid of red and blue. The shock was tremendous, as were the odds between the two forces. With what anxious hearts did we watch the pyramid of smoke and dust! When it moved to the right, we knew the enemy were giving way; and when it moved to the left, we knew that our friends were receding. Twice the pyramid moved to the right, and as often returned. At last, about two o’clock, it began to move slowly to the left, and this it continued to move for two mortal hours. The enemy was seeking to turn our left flank, and to reach the railroad leading hence in the direction of Winchester. To do this, he extended his lines, which he was able to do by reason of his great numbers. This was unfortunate for us, as it required a corresponding extension of our own lines to prevent his extreme right from outflanking us – a movement on our part which weakened the force of our resistance along the whole line of battle, which finally extended over a space of two miles. It also rendered it more difficult to bring up reinforcements, as the further the enemy extended his right, the greater the distance reserve forces had to travel to counteract the movement.

This effort to turn our flank was pressed with great determination for five long, weary hours, during which the tide of battle ebbed and flowed along the entire line with alternate fortunes. The enemy’s column continued to stretch away to the left, like a huge anaconda, seeking to envelope us within its mighty folds and crush us to death; and at one time it really looked as if he would succeed. But here let me pause to  explain why it was our reinforcements were so late in arriving, and why a certain other important movement was miscarried.

The moment he discovered the enemy’s order of battle, Gen. Beauregard, it is said, dispatched orders to Gen. Ewell, on our extreme right, to move forward and turn his left and rear. At the same time he ordered Generals Jones, Longstreet, and Bonham, occupying the center of our lines, to cooperate in this movement, but not to move until Gen. Ewell had made the attack. The order to Gen. Ewell unfortunately miscarried. The others were delivered, but as the movements of the center were to be regulated entirely by those on the right, nothing was done at all. Had the orders to Gen. Ewell been received and carried out, and our entire force brought upon the field, we should have destroyed the enemy’s army almost literally. Attacked in front, on the flank and in the rear, he could not possibly have escaped, except at the loss of thousands of prisoners and all his batteries, while the field would have been strewed with his dead.

Finding that his orders had in some way failed to be executed, Gen. Beauregard at last ordered up a portion of the forces which were intended to co operate with General Ewell. It was late, however, before these reinforcements came up. Only one brigade reached the field before the battle was won. This was led by Gen. E. K. Smith, of Florida, formerly of the United States Army, and was a part of General Johnston’s column from Winchester. They should have reached here the day before, but were prevented by an accident on the railroad. They dashed on the charge with loud shouts and in the most gallant style. About the same time, Maj. Elzey coming down the railroad from Winchester with the last of Johnston’s brigades, and hearing the firing, immediately quit the train and struck across the country, and as a gracious fortune would have it, he encountered the extreme right of the enemy as he was feeling his way around our flank, and with his brigade struck him like a thunderbolt, full in the face. Finding he was about to be outflanked himself, the enemy gave way after the second fire. Meanwhile, Beauregard rallied the center and dashed into the very thickest of the fight, and after him rushed our own brave boys, with a shout that seemed to shake the very earth. The result of this movement from three distinct points, was to force back the enemy, who began to retreat, first in good order, and finally in much confusion. At this point the cavalry were ordered upon the pursuit. The retreat now became a perfect rout, and it is reported that the flying legions rushed past Centreville in the direction of Fairfax, as if the earth had been opening behind them. It was when Gen. Beauregard led the final charge, that his horse was killed by a shell.

We captured thirty-four guns, including Sherman’s famous battery, a large number of small arms, thirty wagons loaded with provisions, &c., and about 700 prisoners. Among the latter, were Col. Corcoran, of the New York Irish Zouaves, Hon. Mr. Ely, member of Congress, from New York, Mr. Carrington, of this State, a nephew of the late Wm. C. Preston, who had gone over to the enemy, and thirty-two Captains, Lieutenants, &c. We cam near bagging the Hon. Mr. Foster, Senator from Connecticut.

The official reports of the casualties of the day have not yet come in, and consequently it is impossible to say what our loss is. I can only venture an opinion, and that is, that we lost in killed, wounded and missing, about 1,500 – of which about 400 were killed. The enemy’s loss was terrible, being at the lowest calculation, 3,000.

Thus far I have said but little of the part taken by particular officers and regiments; for the reason that I desire first to obtain all the facts. Nor have I said anything of the gallant seventh and eighth regiments from Georgia. This part of my duty is most melancholy. It may be enough to say, that they were the only Georgia regiments here at the time, that they were among the earliest on the field, and in the thickest of the fight, and that their praise is upon the lips of the whole army, from Gen. Beauregard on down. Col. Gartrell led the seventh regiment, and Lieutenant-Colonel Gardner the eighth, the whole under the command of Col. Bartow, who led them with a gallantry that was never excelled. It was when the brigade was ordered to take one of the enemy’s strongest batteries, that it suffered most. It was a most desperate undertaking, and followed by the bloodiest results. The battery occupied the top of a hill, on the opposite side of Bull’s Run, with a small piece of woods on the left. Descending the valley along the Run, he proceeded under cover of the hill to gain the woods alluded to, and from which he proposed to make a dash at the battery and capture it. On reaching the woods, he discovered that the battery was supported by a heavy infantry force, estimated at 4,000 men. The whole force, together with the battery, was turned upon the eighth regiment, which was in the van, with terrible effect. Indeed, he was exposed on the flank and in front to a fire that the oldest veterans could not have stood. The balls and shells from the battery, and the bullets from the small arms, literally riddled the woods. Trees six inches in diameter, and great limbs were cut off, and the ground strewn with the wreck. It became necessary to retire the eighth regiment, in order to re-form it. Meanwhile, Col. Bartow’s horse had been shot from under him. It was observed that the forces with which his movement was to be supported had not come up. But it was enough that he had been ordered to storm the battery; so, placing himself at the head of the seventh regiment, he again led the charge, this time on foot, and gallantly encouraging his men as they rushed on. The first discharge from the enemy’s guns killed the regimental color-bearer. Bartow immediately seized the flag, and gain putting himself in front, dashed on, flag in hand, his voice ringing clear over the battlefield, and saying, “On, my boys, we will die rather than yield or retreat.” And on the brave boys did go, and faster flew the enemy’s bullets. The fire was awful. Not less than 4,000 muskets were pouring their fatal contents upon them, while the battery itself was dealing death on every side.

The gallant Eighth Regiment, which had already passed through the distressing ordeal, again rallied, determined to stand by their chivalric Colonel to the last. The more furious the fire, the quicker became the advancing step of the two regiments. At last, and just when they were nearing the goal of their hopes, and almost in the arms of victory, the brave and noble Bartow was shot down, the ball striking him in the left breast, just above the heart. His men rallied behind him, and finding him mortally wounded and that the forces that had been ordered to support their charge had not yet come up, they gradually fell back, bearing him in their arms and disputing every inch of ground. I learn that they would never have retired but for the orders which were given in consequence of the non-arrival of the supporting force. It appears that the order to support our charge, like that to gen. Ewell, miscarried – a failure which had nearly cost us two of the best regiments in the army. Col. Bartow died soon after he was borne from the field. His last words, as repeated to me, were: “they have killed me, my brave boys, but never give up the ship – we’ll whip them yet.” And so we did!

The field officers of the Seventh Regiment escaped except Col. Gartrell who received a slight wound. All the superior officers in the Eighth Regiment, except Maj. Cooper, were killed or wounded. Lieut. Col. Gardner had his leg broken by a musket ball, and Adjutant Branch was killed. Capt. Howard of the Mountain Rangers from Merriwether county was also killed. But I shall not go into a statement of the killed and wounded preferring in delicate and painful a matter to await the official report, which I hope to get tomorrow, when I shall have more to say about our heroic regiments. I will add just here, that our loss in officers was very great. Among others may be mentioned Gen. Bee, Lieut. Col. Johnson of Hampton’s Legion, and Col. Thomas of Gen. Johnston’s Staff, and others. Gen. Jackson was wounded in the hand, and Col. Wheat of the New Orleans Tigers was shot through the body. Col Jones of the 4th Alabama Regiment it is feared was mortally wounded. The regiments that suffered most and were in the thickest of the fight, were the 7th and 8th Georgia, the 4th Alabama, 4th South Carolina, Hampton’s Legion, and 4th Virginia. The New Orleans Washington Artillery did great execution.

If we consider the numbers engaged and the character of the contest, we may congratulate ourselves upon having won, one of the most brilliant victories that any race of people ever achieved. It was the greatest battle ever fought on this continent, and will take its place in history by the side of the most memorable engagements. It is believed that General Scott himself was nearby, at Centreville, and that he directed as he had planned the whole movement. Gen. McDowell was the active commander upon the field.

President Davis arrived upon the field at 5 o’clock, just as the enemy had got into full retreat. His appearance was greeted with shout after shout, and was the equivalent to a reinforcement of 5,000 men. He left Richmond at 7 in the morning.

But “little Beaury” against the world.

P. W. A.

Savannah Republican, 7/27/1861

William B. Styple, Ed., Writing and Fighting the Confederate War: The Letters of Peter Wellington Alexander Confederate War Correspondent, pp 19-23

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