First let me apologize for the paucity of posts this past week. I’m self employed, which means when I go on vacation (say, to Shiloh), I have to work frenetically to catch myself up before I go and when I get back. And when I did get back, I had to get a little medical procedure out of the way. I did post two brief articles, and outlined quite a few more, but in the process of writing another I got way off track, which happens to me all the time and is really what this blog is all about.
That post was one alluded to in my last, and concerns an article in the current issue of Civil War Times Illustrated. No, not the Pete Carmichael interview of Gary Gallagher that burned up the blogosphere for a few days a couple of weeks ago. The article in question here is First View of First Manassas by Joseph Pierro, which features a letter from a Virginia cavalryman to his wife.
I thought this would be a pretty straightforward look at a battle participant’s [William B. Newton of the Hanover Light Dragoons] letter home that would serve as a lead-in to a bigger piece I’ve been thinking about, one that considers the limitations associated with eyewitness accounts. The apparent lust with which Newton and his cohorts – as described in the letter – assaulted unarmed Yankee soldiers and civilians also fit in with some research I’m doing concerning battlefield “atrocities”. Instead, one seemingly insignificant, annotated sentence derailed me.
But no! the gallant 27th, envious of the glorious achievement of the 4th, at a sing[l]e dash, had charged a regiment of regulars, swept them from the field, and taken every gun in [Colonel William T.] Sherman’s battery.
Here’s a Harper’s Weekly engraving of Sherman’s Battery before the battle, and a photo of it shortly thereafter:
No, it wasn’t the fact that not a single gun in Sherman’s Battery was lost in the battle that set me off. That inaccuracy in fact fits in perfectly with the often significant inaccuracies associated with contemporary, first-person accounts. Rather, it was the editor’s bracketed “clarification” of just who the Sherman in Sherman’s Battery was. The problem is that the Sherman in question was not William Tecumseh.
In 1861, Sherman’s Battery was the most famous company of artillery in the nation. It had won its fame in the War with Mexico at the Battle of Buena Vista, where along with the battery commanded by Braxton Bragg (of whom Zachary Taylor requested “a little more grape”, see watercolor at left) it played a key role in the repulse of an enemy counter-attack. It would appear that editor Pierro is not the first to erroneously associate William T. Sherman with the battery of the same name, as this site claims that Bragg fought alongside “Cump” at Buena Vista (W. T. was in California during the war). No, the battery otherwise known as Company E, 3rd U. S. Artillery was commanded at Buena Vista by Thomas W. “Old Tim” Sherman, and even after he moved on to other commands, the battery remained known as Sherman’s Battery. That’s his photo below on the left, courtesy of the LOC. Nice hairdo – I guess he wanted to be taken seriously (see this post).
So, why the confusion? Well, that’s where things get confusing. First of all, (T. W.) Sherman’s Battery was attached to (W. T.) Sherman’s brigade of Daniel Tyler’s Division at Bull Run. At the time it was under the command of Capt. Romeyn B. Ayres (to the right of Sherman above, also courtesy LOC). So, technically speaking, the battery was W. T.’s. But that is certainly not the Sherman to whom the letter writer was referring. So, either the editor was unaware of the story of the famous Sherman’s Battery, or he was unaware that the famous Sherman’s Battery was on the field at Bull Run. That’s not as unlikely as it sounds, if he used as his source the Orders of Battle included in three of the most recent studies of the campaign.
Stay with me.
There are eight “major” studies of the Campaign of First Bull Run. The earliest work, R. M. Johnston’s Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics, includes an order of battle (OOB) and a table that identifies the battery in Sherman’s Brigade as E of the 3rd. It takes some looking though and the book was written in 1913. David Detzer’s Donnybrook, Russell Beatie’s Road to Manassas, and Ethan Rafuse’s A Single Grand Victory, only refer to the battery as being commanded by Ayres or as Ayres’s Battery. Only William C. Davis’s Battle at Bull Run accurately identifies the battery as E of the 3rd, commanded by Ayres, and known both north and south as Sherman’s Battery. Three “modern” studies include orders of battle: Ed Bearss’s First Manassas Battlefield Map Study, John Hennessy’s The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence and Joanna McDonald’s “We Shall Meet Again”. These are the sources a modern researcher would most likely use as a quick reference for what unit was where. And they all get the identification of this battery wrong.
These three all list the battery in Sherman’s Brigade as Battery E, 5th US Artillery, under the command of Captain Romeyn B. Ayres. In addition to being wrong, it’s impossibly wrong. But maybe understandably wrong.
Here’s why Ayres’s command of Battery E, 5th US Arty in July 1861 is impossible: according to Dyer’s A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, that battery was not organized until May of 1862. Now, why is such a mistake understandable? I mean, we’re talking Ed Bearss and John Hennessy here!
I think the answer can be found in Ayres’s official report (I’ve made a new page for it here), and his Cullum and Heitman entries, the starting points for all biographical sketches of West Point graduates and regular army officers. Ayres (I’ll post his bio sketch in the next few days) was first posted to the 3rd Arty as a First Lieutenant in March, 1852, and remained with the regiment at least until he made Captain of the 5th Arty in May, 1861, before Bull Run. That much is clear in Heitman and Cullum. But it’s also clear from his report that he was in command of a battery in Sherman’s Brigade at Bull Run. But a less than careful reading of his report can lead to an inaccurate conclusion.
Ayres’s report, written just four days after the battle, is headed “Light Company E, Third Artillery”, which is clear enough. But in the printed OR’s, Ayres’s report is prominently titled by the compiler as the report of Capt. Romeyn B. Ayres, Fifth US Artillery. And to add to the confusion, he signed the report “R. B. Ayres, Captain, Fifth Artillery, Commanding Company E”. So, if one has no idea of the history of Battery E, 5th US Arty, and merely reads the title of the OR entry and the signature line – and ignores the heading on the actual report and the name of the 3rd US Arty AAAG at the close of the report – one could understandably conclude that Ayres was in command of Battery E, 5th Arty.
So, did these three authors all make the same mistake and come to the same conclusion when compiling their OOB’s? Or did one make the mistake first, and the others carried it over to their work? Who knows? I know that I had it wrong on my OOB until I read the CWTI article and started digging. It’s not the first mistake on Bull Run OOBs I’ve found (I’ll try to get to that this week as well).
Why was Ayers in command of Sherman’s Battery at Bull Run when the records indicate he had been transferred to the 5th Artillery in May? Either his commission was backdated and he had not reported to the 5th as of July 21, or there’s another reason. It was not uncommon for Union officers, particularly 1861 academy graduates, to be on the field at Bull Run in some capacity other than their official assignments. Just one more thing to add to my list of things to look into.
I’ll post more on Ayres later this week.
Bearss, First Manassas Battlefield Map Study
Beatie, Road to Manassas
Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy (full digital text)
Davis, Battle at Bull Run
Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion (full digital text)
Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the U. S. Army (full digital text)
Hennessy, The First Battle of Manassas – An End to Innocence
Johnston, Bull Run: Its Strategy and Tactics (full digital text)
McWhinney, Braxton Bragg and Confederate Defeat
Rafuse, A Single Grand Victory
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (full digital text)