Report of Maj. John G. Barnard, U.S. Corps of Engineers
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp.328-333
WASHINGTON, July 29, 1861
SIR: On the 18th of July, at about 9 a.m., I joined the commanding general about two miles beyond Fairfax Court-House, on the road to Centreville. He was then about going to Sangster’s, and invited me to attend him. Not understanding his journey to have the character of a reconnaissance, but as simply to communicate with the division of Colonel Heintzelman, I preferred accompanying the division of General Tyler to Centreville.
Proceeding to Centreville, I joined Captain Alexander, Engineers, a short distance out on the road leading to Blackburn’s Ford. He was at this time preparing to encamp his pioneer party, and it was my intention, as soon as the troops should be fixed in their positions, to propose to General Tyler to make a reconnaissance of the enemy’s position at Blackburn’s Ford.
It should be borne in mind that the plan of the campaign had been to turn the position of Manassas by the left; that is to say, that from Fairfax Courts-House and Centreville we were to make a flank movement towards Sangster’s and Fairfax Station, and thence to Wolf Run Shoals, or in that direction. In my interview with the commanding general, just referred to, he said nothing to indicate any change of plan, but, on the contrary, his remarks carried the impression that he was more than ever confirmed in his plan, and spoke of the advance on Centreville as a “demonstration.” In proposing, therefore, to reconnoiter the enemy’s position at Blackburn’s Ford, it was not with the slightest idea that this point would be attacked. But a reconnaissance would be but the carrying out of a demonstration.
While I was awaiting Captain Alexander, I encountered Mathias C. Mitchell, who was afterwards secured as a guide, representing himself as a Union man, and a resident of that vicinity. I was engaged questioning him, when intelligence was received that General Tyler had sent back for artillery and infantry, and that the enemy was in sight before him. Riding to the front, I joined General Tyler and Colonel Richardson. Proceeding with them a short distance farther, we emerged from the woods, and found ourselves at the point at which the road commences its descent to Blackburn’s Ford. The run makes here a curve or bow towards us, which the road bisects. The slopes from us towards it were gentle and mostly open. On the other side the banks of the run rise more abruptly, and are wooded down to the very edge of the run. Higher up a cleared spot could be seen here and there, and still higher–higher than our own point of view, and only visible from its sloping gently towards us–the elevated plateau (comparatively open) in which Manassas Junction is situated.
Although, owing to the thickness of the wood, little could be seen along the edge of the run, it was quite evident from such glimpses as we could obtain that the enemy was in force behind it. I represented to General Tyler that this point was the enemy’s strong position on the direct road to Manassas Junction; that it was no part of the plan to assail it. I did, not, however, object to a demonstration, believing that it would favor what I supposed still to be the commanding general’s plan of campaign. The two 20-pounders Parrotts had been ordered up; they were opened upon the enemy’s position, firing in various directions, without our being able to perceive the degree of effect they produced. We had fired perhaps a half dozen rounds, when we were answered by a rapid discharge from a battery apparently close down to the run and at the crossing of the road. The 20-pounders continued their firing, directing at this battery, and Ayres battery was brought up and stationed on the left. The enemy’s batteries soon ceased answering. After ours had continued playing for about half an hour I thought it a useless expenditure of ammunition, and so stated to you (who arrived on the spot shortly before this), and presume that General Tyler concurred in this opinion, as the firing soon ceased. I supposed that this would be the end of the affair; but, perceiving the troops filing down towards the run, I thought it necessary to impress General Tyler with the fact that it was no part of the commanding general’s plan to bring on a serious engagement. I directed Captain Alexander, Engineers, to state this fact to him, which he did in writing (having stated the same verbally before). At the same time I directed Lieutenant Houston to accompany the troops, and make such observations of the enemy’s position as he could. I remained on the heights, observing as well as I could the movements of the enemy’s forces. The affair becoming more serious than I expected, I was about to go down to the front when our troops retired, and I returned to Centreville with yourself to report to General McDowell.
It is proper to observe that before our artillery practice commenced movements of troops were observed on the road leading from Manassas to Blackburn’s Ford. As the road presented itself to the eye, those not very familiar with the locality might well feel some doubt, judging merely by the eve, whether these troops were advancing to or retiring from the position at Blackburn’s Ford. The impression seemed to be quite common among us that they were retiring. I was perfectly sure that they were columns moving up to meet us from Manassas.
At my interview with the commanding general that evening, he informed me that he had convinced himself that the nature of the country to the left or southward of Manassas was unfit for the operations of a large army; that he had determined to move by the right, turning the enemy’s left; that the provision trains were just coming in, and that the troops would require the next day to cook their provisions for another march. I told him I would endeavor the next day to obtain such information as would enable him to decide on his future movement.
The next most prominent crossing of Bull Run above Blackburn’s Ford is the stone bridge of the Warrenton turnpike. Such a point could scarcely be neglected by the enemy. Information from various quarters gave good cause for believing that it was guarded by several thousand men; that at least four cannon were stationed to lay upon it and the ford not far below, and, moreover, that the bridge was mined, and that extensive abatis obstructed the road on the opposite shore.
Two or three miles above the Warrenton Bridge is a ford, laid down on our maps as “Sudley Spring.” Reliable information justified the belief that the ford was good; that it was unfortified; that it was watched by only one or two companies, and, moreover, that the run above it was almost everywhere passable for wheeled vehicles. Midway between the stone bridge and Sudley Spring our maps indicated another ford, which was said to be good.
Notwithstanding our conviction of the practicability of these fords no known road communicated with them from any of the main roads on our side of Bull Run. We had information that a road branched from the Warrenton turnpike a short distance beyond Cub Run, by which, opening gates and passing through private grounds, we might reach the fords. It was desirable to assure ourselves that this route was entirely practicable. In company with Captain Woodbury, Engineers, and Governor Sprague, and escorted by a company of cavalry, I on the 19th followed up the valley of Cub Run until we reached a point west 10o north, and about four miles in an air-line from Centreville, near which we struck a road which we believed to lead to the fords. Following it for a short distance, we encountered the enemy patrols. As we were most anxious to avoid attracting the enemy’s attention to our designs in this quarter, we did not care to pursue the reconnaissance farther. We had seen enough to be convinced of the perfect practicability of the route. To make more certain of the fords, however, Captain Woodbury proposed to return at night, and, with a few Michigan woodsmen from Colonel Sherman’s brigade, to endeavor to find them.
On returning to camp it was determined to send Captain Wright and Lieutenant Snyder, Engineers, with Captain Woodbury. At the same time the commanding general directed Captain Whipple, Topographical Engineers, and Lieutenant Prime, Engineers, to make a night reconnaissance of the run between Warrenton Bridge and Blackburn’s Ford. Both these night expeditions failed. It was found the enemy occupied the woods too strongly on our side of the run to permit the reconnaissances to be accomplished. It was not our policy to drive in his pickets until we were in motion to attack. On laying before you the information obtained, the commanding general believed himself justified in adopting the following plan of attack, which was decided upon on the 20th:
1. A false attack to be made by Richardson’s brigade (temporarily attached to Miles’ division) on Blackburn’s Ford; the rest of that division remaining in reserve at Centreville.
2. Tyler’s division to move from its camp at 3 a.m. (the 21st) towards the stone bridge of the Warrenton turnpike, to feign the main attack upon this point.
3. The divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman (in the order named) to leave their camps at 2.30 a.m. (they were encamped about two or three miles behind Tyler), and, following his movement, to diverge from the Warrenton turnpike at the by-road beyond Cub Run, and take the road for Sudley Springs; or, rather, it was provided (if I mistake not) that Hunter’s division should proceed to Sudley Springs, and Heintzelman to take the lower ford; these matters, however, to be regulated by circumstances.
It was intended that the head of Hunter’s division should be at the turn-off at early daylight or about 4 a.m., and that it should reach Sudley by 6 or 7.
You are aware of the unexpected delay. The two leading brigades of Tyler had not cleared the road for Hunter to this point until 5.30, and our guide, alleging that a nearer route to the ford would bring our columns in sight of the enemy’s batteries, led them by so circuitous a way that Hunter did not reach Sudley until 9.30, or thereabouts. Accompanying the commanding general; we, as you are aware, after waiting two or three hours at the turn-off, rode on to overtake the front of Hunter’s division. When we emerged from the woods (nearly northeast of Sudley) into the open country, from whence the course of the run and the slopes of the opposite shore could be seen, we could perceive the enemy’s columns in motion to meet us. The loss of time here in great measure thwarted our plan. We had hoped to pass the ford and reach the rear of the enemy’s defenses at Warrenton stone bridge before he could assemble a sufficient force to cope with us.
It now became necessary to have Tyler’s division force the passage of the bridge. It had always been intended that this division should pass at or near the bridge; but it was hoped, by taking its defenses in rear, it could be passed without force. The commanding general promptly sent orders to Tyler to press his attack with all vigor. I had yet much confidence that, though we had been anticipated (owing to the delays mentioned), the enemy was not yet assembled to oppose us in great force (a confidence which I think the facts justified); that We might successfully attack him in front, while the division of Tyler should fall upon his flank and rear.
When we reached the front of Hunter’s column, the battle was just commencing. The events of the battle-field will be described in the reports you will receive from other quarters. I was near the commanding general until some time after the arrival of Sherman’s brigade on our left. Being accidentally separated, I saw yourself on the right, and, joining you, we observed for some time the action on the heights, where the enemy made his final and successful stand. As we were observing, the zouave regiment of Heintzelman was driven back, leaving Ricketts’ battery, upon which we observed the enemy charge.
You left me here, and I remained a few minutes longer, an anxious spectator, and for the first time beginning to anticipate a possible defeat. Two brigades of Tyler’s division had passed over the run, and I supposed (and believe the commanding general supposed) that the entire division was over. If so, the stone bridge was unguarded, and if we were defeated, our retreating columns might be cut off from Centreville by the detachments of the enemy crossing this bridge. I became so anxious on this point, that I sought you again and found you at some distance in the rear. After some consultation, you, on my assuming the responsibility, sent an order to Colonel Miles to move up two of his brigades to the stone bridge, and to telegraph the Secretary of War to send up all the troops that could be spared from Washington. While I was returning towards the front, intending to rejoin the commanding general, I saw our front give way, and it soon became evident that we were defeated.
I have stated that it was a part of the plan of the battle that Tyler’s division should pass at or near the stone bridge. Two of his brigades actually did pass, but not at the bridge (they finding fords a half mile higher up), and connected themselves with our left. In anticipation that the stone bridge would be blown up, Captain Alexander had been instructed to prepare a trestle bridge to replace it. This he had on the spot, but there appear to have been no mines prepared under the bridge. Captain Alexander passed over his pioneers one by one, and set them to cutting away the abatis, 200 yards in extent, obstructing the road. This task was accomplished, and the way was opened for Schenck’s brigade to fall on the enemy’s right at the moment when our lines finally gave way in front.
It will be seen from the above that the combination: though thwarted by adverse circumstances, was actually successful in uniting three entire divisions, excepting the brigade of Schenck, which had just opened its way to fall on the enemy’s right at the moment when our lines finally gave way in front, upon the decisive point.
A fault, perhaps, it was that it did not provide earlier for bringing the two brigades of Miles (in reserve at Centreville) into action. One of his brigades (Richardson’s) actually did participate, though not on the battle-field, and in its affair at Blackburn’s Ford probably neutralized at least an equal number of the enemy.
On retiring to Centreville, my opinion was asked as to maintaining our position, and I gave it in favor of a prompt retreat, for I believed the enemy was far superior in numbers, and that, elated by his victory, he would pursue, and I believed that a defeated army actually driven back on Washington before a pursuing enemy would endanger the safety of the capital.
The Engineer officers under my Command and attached to the different divisions were as follows:
Capt. D. P. Woodbury and Second Lieut. Chas. E. Cross, to the Second Division, under Colonel Hunter.
Capt. H. G. Wright and First Lieut. G. W. Snyder, to the Third Division, under Colonel Heintzelman.
Capt. B. S. Alexander and First Lieut. L. C. Houston, to the First Division, under General Tyler.
First Lieut. F. E. Prime, to the Fifth Division, under Colonel Miles.
They have all been most active and zealous in the discharge of the duties devolving Upon them.
A report from Capt. D. P. Woodbury is herewith. Reports from Captains Wright and Alexander and Lieutenant Prime will be furnished when received.
I am, very respectfully, your most obedient,
J. G. BARNARD,
Major of Engineers
Capt. J. B. Fry,