Report of Capt. Daniel P. Woodbury, U.S. Corps of Engineers
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp 233-234
FORT CORCORAN VA., July 30, 1861
MAJOR: In compliance with your request that I should furnish a report of my own services and observations at the unfortunate battle of Bull Run, I have the honor to say that I accompanied the divisions of Colonel Hunter and Colonel Heintzelman, and, assisted by Captain Wright, directed their course around the headwaters of Bull Run, leaving the Centreville and Warrenton road about one-third mile west of Cub Run at 5.30. a.m., July 21, and arriving at the upper ford, or Sudley’s Mill, at 9.30 a.m. The distance between these points by our route is between five and six miles. We followed in the main an old road as laid down upon the map, halting occasionally to prepare the road for artillery. At Sudley’s Mill we lingered about an hour, to give the men and horses water and a little rest before going into action, our advance guard in the mean time going ahead about three-quarters of a mile. Resuming our march, we emerged from the woods about one mile south of the ford, and came upon a beautiful open valley about one and a quarter miles square, bounded on the right or west by a wooded ridge, on the east by the rough spurs or bluffs of Bull Run, on the north by an open plain and ridge, on which our troops began to form, and on the south by another ridge, on which the enemy were strongly posted, with woods behind their backs. The enemy were also in possession of the bluffs of Bull Run on our left.
The flankers of the advanced guard on the left of our road first received the fire of the enemy–a single regiment lying on the ground on the south side of the northern ridge of the valley. At the same time the enemy opened upon the head of our column, and particularly upon the road, with many pieces of artillery in prepared batteries and in the open field. These batteries were more than a mile off, and did little execution, but the shells falling continually somewhat intimidated our troops. It was evident at a glance that the enemy was fully prepared, and I suggested to Colonel Hunter, commanding the leading division, that we should confine our operations mainly to our left flank, driving the enemy from the immediate vicinity of Bull Run, and securing a junction with General Tyler’s division, then to act according to circumstances as the commanding general might think best.
Colonel Hunter unfortunately was wounded at the very beginning of the action. He had gone forward to the very lines of the enemy to see better how to direct the attack, and was struck by the fragment of a shell. The loss of a chief, and so gallant a chief, at that moment was a great calamity. After this I reported to Colonel Porter, then in command, and afterwards to General McDowell, with whom I finally retired from the field.
It is not for me to give a history of the battle. The enemy was driven on our left from cover to cover a mile and a half. Our position for renewing the action the next morning was excellent; whence, then, our failure? It will not be out of place, I hope, for me to give my own opinion of the cause of this failure. An old soldier feels safe in the ranks, unsafe out of the ranks, and the greater the danger the more pertinaciously he clings to his place. The volunteer of three, months never attains this instinct of discipline. Under danger, and even under mere excitement, he flies away from his ranks, and looks for safety in dispersion. At 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st there were more than twelve thousand volunteers on the battle-field of Bull Run who had entirely lost their regimental organizations. They could no longer be handled as troops, for the officers and men were not together. Men and officers mingled together promiscuously; and it is worthy of remark that this disorganization did not result from defeat or fear, for up to 4 o’clock we had been uniformly successful. The instinct of discipline which keeps every man in his place had not been acquired. We cannot suppose that the troops of the enemy had attained a higher degree of discipline than our own, but they acted on the defensive, and were not equally exposed to disorganization.
Lieutenant Cross, of the Engineer Corps, who has been my assistant during the last two months, had immediate charge of a working party of sappers and miners on our march from this place to Bull Run, following in the rear of the advance guard and promptly clearing away all obstructions. He was on the field of battle, zealously seeking and reporting information.
D. P. WOODBURY,
Maj. J. G. BARNARD,
Corps of Engineers,