Civil War Trust “Hallowed Ground” Spring 2011

14 03 2011

The Spring 2011 issue of Hallowed Ground, the Civil War Trust’s members publication, is out. Happily it focuses on First Bull Run. 

There’s plenty of good stuff inside on the battle and the battlefield – see here for the table of contents. NPS historians Greg Wolf and John Reid have pieces on some battlefield detective work and the Centennial reenactment; museum specialist Jim Burgess writes on civilian spectators at the battle, and superintendent Ray Brown has an interesting article on the owner of the Van Pelt house. The folks who work and have worked at the park are the real experts on the battles that were fought here. These articles should not be missed – and yes, they’re all available online for free. While I don’t see it listed, there is supposed to be an interview with yours truly in this issue as well. Perhaps I wound up on the cutting room floor? I’ll let you know once I see the magazine itself.

One article in particular caught my attention: An End to Innocence, The First Battle of Manassas by Bradley Gottfried. Here’s the passage that stuck out:

While Lincoln and his Cabinet members listened, McDowell laid out a plan to attack the 24,000-man Confederate Army under Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, deployed near the winding Bull Run creek about 25 miles southwest of Washington. The general intended to use about 30,000 troops in the effort, marching in three columns, while another 10,000 men were held in reserve. With such numerical superiority, it appeared McDowell would overwhelm his Southern counterpart.

OK, I’ve talked about this in the past and you’re probably sick of hearing it by now. I have met Mr. Gottfried – he’s a good guy. I worked closely with him in proofing his book, The Maps of First Bull Run. But what he has written here conflicts with my understanding of McDowell’s plan. Here’s the text of the portion of McDowell’s plan regarding the force he expected to meet at Manassas (emphasis and brackets mine; you can read the whole thing here):

The secession forces at Manassas Junction and its dependencies are supposed to amount at this time [June 24-25, 1861] to–

Infantry          23,000

Cavalry          1,500

Artillery           500

Total               25,000

We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.

And here’s where he described the size of the army with which he proposed to take the field:

Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand.

I’ve not yet found any evidence that McDowell expected he would have numerical superiority in his strike against Beauregard. I’ll have more to say on this in an upcoming article in America’s Civil War.

UPDATE 3/15/2011: Let me make this clear for everyone, if for some reason you got a different impression from this post: my problem is with the notion that McDowell’s plan assumed a numerical superiority for his army over that which he expected to face around Manassas. To quote Wilfred Brimley in Absence of Malice: “That’s a lot of horse-puckey. The First Amendment (in this case McDowell’s plan) doesn’t say that.”

McDowell’s plans regarding this are clear, as stated above.





More on the Blue & Gray BR1 Issue

4 03 2011

In this post I let you know that the next issue of Blue & Gray magazine will feature First Bull Run. For those who don’t know, since 1983 B&G has been publishing this very fine magazine about six times a year.  Each issue focuses on one campaign or battle, and sometimes very specific pieces of a campaign or battle. For example Gettysburg has been done about a gajillion times over the past 28 years. But believe it or not, this will be the first issue dedicated to BR1. Go figure.

Anyway, here’s a sneak peek of the cover, from the magazine’s site.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I asked Jim Burgess at Manassas National Battlefield to proof an article I was writing (I’ve since submitted my final draft, after rewriting the whole thing – that’s what editors are for, and good editors make good writers). At the time he told me about the upcoming issue, and that the feature was written by ranger Henry Elliott. Nobody knows Bull Run like the good folks who work there at the park, so this should be first-rate. I’m really looking forward to it – 20 maps! A driving tour! This will come as quite a surprise to those supposedly learned students convinced that this important battle was simply a meeting of two armed mobs, with no displays of tactics whatsoever and therefore unworthy of attention.

Of course, Blue & Gray won’t be the only publication focusing on our favorite topic in the coming months. Keep an eye out here for more news in that regard.





Blue & Gray Does First Bull Run!

2 03 2011

Finally! Jim Burgess told me about this a couple of weeks ago, but thanks to Drew for alerting everyone to this!





The Bensons of Sudley Church

1 03 2011

An edited version of this story ran in the April 2011 issue of Civil War Times.  I’m running it here with additional photos with permission of the publisher.  It is titled as it appears in the magazine.

Repaying a Debt of Compassion

Ruins of Christian Hill

Ruins of Christian Hill

Today a pile of rubble, hard by the cut of the still unfinished Manassas Gap Railroad and across the road from the impressive bulk of the Sudley Church, is all that marks the site of what tradition holds was the home of Amos Benson and his wife Margaret.  Precisely when the Bensons occupied the house is not clear, but it was not until after the war was over. By most accounts it was to the modest dwelling known appropriately as “Christian Hill” that John L. Rice, erstwhile private of the 2nd New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry, made his way on horseback from Washington, DC in October, 1886.  He had a debt to pay.  How he had incurred that debt and how he went about paying it is the stuff of legend, a story of compassion and reconciliation.

Amos Benson

The pre-war history of the Bensons is sketchy.  Amos was born in September, 1825, in Maryland;  Margaret Newman was born in May of 1821 and grew up in the vicinity of Sudley Springs.  The two were married sometime prior to 1850.  Census records and maps indicate that at the time of the Battle of First Bull Run the Bensons were living east – the “other” side – of Bull Run, in Fairfax County.  In March of 1862, Amos would leave Margaret to go to war with Company A of the 4th Virginia Cavalry, a unit whose roster was thick with names from the area.  He eventually rose to the rank of third corporal.

On Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, members of the congregation to which Amos and Margaret belonged made their way along roads and trails to the Sudley Methodist Church along the Sudley Road south of the fords over Bull and Catharpin Runs.  They were no doubt startled to encounter columns of soldiers marching down the main road.  The worshippers had run headlong into the advance of Union General Irvin McDowell’s army as it moved to turn the forces of Confederate generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston from their positions along Bull Run.

John Rice

At the head of that column was Colonel Ambrose Burnside’s brigade of Col. David Hunter’s division, which included Rice’s 2nd NH.  Despite initial success in the morning, later in the afternoon McDowell’s forces were driven back from the Confederate position near the Henry house.  Prior to the retreat Rice was wounded, shot through the lungs by a musket ball.  His fellows carried him towards the rear and Sudley Church where Union surgeons had set up shop, but with the enemy closing in and Rice apparently dead, they laid him in under a fence and made good their escape.  Two days later, Rice recovered consciousness, still under the fence where his comrades had left him.  His wound had putrefied and become infested with maggots.

Later that evening, as they were making their way back to their home from Sudley Church where they had been assisting with the care of wounded Union soldiers, the Benson’s found Rice in his dire state.  Amos went back to the church and returned with a Confederate surgeon.  The exhausted doctor dismissed Rice as a hopeless case and returned to his duties, but the Bensons were determined.  Margaret brought some food from their home and Amos stripped and washed Rice and cleaned out his wound.  He was too seriously injured to move, so for ten days the Benson’s clothed, fed, and cared for Rice under the fence, until he was well enough to move to a freight car in Manassas for treatment and eventual imprisonment in Richmond.

Rice was later exchanged and re-enlisted to serve again in the war, becoming an officer.  But even twenty-five years later he had not forgotten the Bensons and the debt he felt he owed.  In 1886 while on a trip to the nation’s capital he determined to revisit the site of his near-death experience.  He made inquiries in the area and found the Bensons.  They took him to the place where they had nursed him and visited the battlefield.  Rice learned of Amos’s service in the war and was surprised to realize that he had doubtless faced his benefactor on the battlefield.

Rice of course thanked the Bensons for their kindness and attention in his time of need, and they modestly said they were simply “obeying the dictates of humanity”.  Rice persisted in his efforts to find some way to repay the Bensons, and Amos hit upon a solution:

Rebuilt Sudley Church

“If you want to do that you can help us poor people here pay for our little church yonder.  We owe $200 on it yet, which in this poor country is a heavy burden.”

Rice determined then to not only contribute, but to return to his home in Massachusetts and raise the entire sum of the debt remaining on the rebuilt Sudley Church, which had been destroyed during the war.  On November 24, he told story of his wounding, the kindness of the Bensons, and the plight of the congregation in the pages of Springfield’s “The Republican”:

“I do not know what creed is taught in that church, but it cannot be wrong in any essential of Christian faith when it bears such fruit as I have described…There must be still living many Massachusetts soldiers who can bear testimony with me to the timely aid rendered by those people when so many of our wounded were left uncared for on that disastrous field.”

By November 28, Rice had received $235 from seventy-nine people, including twenty-seven veterans.  The donations ranged from $0.50 to $20.00.  In describing the religious and political backgrounds of the contributors to the Bensons, Rice quoted Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

“Saxon and Norman and Dane are we,
But all of us Danes in welcome of thee”

And in a letter of thanks to Rice, Amos said the value of the act was more than financial.  In fact, it had “converted” the previously un-reconstructed Margaret.  John Rice’s debt to the Bensons was repaid.

Amos Benson Headstone

Margaret Benson Headstone

A history of the Sudley Church states that once the war ended Amos and Margaret moved to Warrenton, and in the early 1880’s had come back to the area of the Springs and were living in a house located 1/8 mile south of Sudley Church and owned by Reverend Henry Cushing – probably Christian Hill.  Margaret died in 1898, and Amos followed her in 1901.  They are buried together very near the southern door of the modern Sudley Church.  The shared marker says of Amos: “He was a good man and full of faith”; of Margaret: “She was a child of God, lived a happy life and died in peace.”

As is often the case, there are some parts of the story of what happened after Rice’s wounding that are in doubt. See John Hennessy’s post here.





“Cowardice” at First Bull Run

12 11 2010

Friend Lesley Gordon gave a talk a while back in Washington on First Bull Run, specifically the 11th New York and their experience there.  Take a look here

While you’re on the C-Span site, search “Civil War” and you’ll see a number of cool videos pop up.





D. B. Harris Map

10 11 2010

Here’s an unpublished map of the First Bull Run battlefield, by Confederate engineer D. B. Harris.  According to the notation, this sketch was used by Beauregard to prepare his map of the battlefield.  It’s a recent acquisition of the Manassas National Battlefield Park and has been provided by Ranger Jim Burgess.  You’ll need to use your photo viewer’s zoom to see the detail.  I’ve viewed the original and it’s quite faded.  It’s difficult to tell exactly what is being depicted here – for instance, is this as of a point in time or does it show movement?  Look at all the guns shown north of the Warrenton Pike, for instance.  Click once for a larger image.  Click that image for a really large image.

By sketch I mean this was made on the field and was not a final product.  As noted on the map, it was surveyed, so it is more than a free-hand sketch.  FYI, Confederate items are in blue.





First Bull Run Tour

26 09 2010

Here’s an interesting recap of a recent tour at Manassas NBP with the students of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College, led by Jim Burgess of the NPS.








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