Report of Brig. Gen. M. L. Bonham, C. S. Army, Commanding First Brigade, of Retreat from Fairfax Court-House and Skirmish at Mitchell’s Ford
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp. 449-450
HDQRS. FIRST BRIG., FIRST CORPS, ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Camp Gregg, July 31, 1861
GENERAL: In making, in obedience to your orders, a report of the operations of my brigade on the 18th instant, I beg leave to make a brief statement of the events immediately preceding that day, and which are closely connected with it.
On the morning of the 17th instant, at Fairfax Court-House, the advance forces of the Army of the Potomac under my command consisted of the Second Regiment South Carolina Volunteers, Colonel Kershaw; Third, Colonel Williams; Seventh, Colonel Bacon; Eighth, Colonel Cash; the Eighteenth Virginia Volunteers, Colonel Withers, temporarily attached; part of Colonel Radford’s cavalry.; Captains Wickham’s, Ball’s, Powell’s, and Payne’s troops of cavalry, and the batteries of Captain’s Kemper and Shields. Early that morning I received from my scouts confirmation of what I had been hearing many hours previous, viz, that the enemy would probably advance upon me that morning by the Alexandria, Flint Hill, and, it was said, the Falls Church roads.
In obedience to your orders, which I had previously received, to fall back on the approach of an enemy to attack my position in “superior force,” I ordered my baggage and supply wagons to be put in immediate motion, and to be parked in rear of Bull Run, Mitchell’s Ford. This was promptly and successfully accomplished by Colonel Kemper, assisted by Lieutenant Washington, quartermaster, and Major Kennedy, commissary for the command, with but little loss.
Between 8 and 9 o’clock I heard the report and saw the smoke of the enemy’s artillery at Flint Hill, about two miles off, and learned at the same time that my pickets were being driven in. I immediately ordered the troops to their trenches, their places having been previously designated, which order was obeyed with the greatest alacrity and enthusiasm, the body of the troops not knowing that they were to fall back at all. My plan of falling back on Bull Run, based upon your instructions, I had previously explained to the commanding officers of corps, assigning each his position on the march at Centreville and at Bull Run in a confidential order, which I did not deliver till on the march.
Finding the enemy did not seem to be approaching by the Falls Church road, I ordered the pickets to be withdrawn from that road. About 9 o’clock the enemy made his appearance in large force on the Flint Hill slope, and, deploying his columns, moved down toward the Court-House, his lines extending a great distance across the open fields, stretching out from Flint Hill to the Court-House. I awaited his approach till a part of his force had arrived within a half mile of my works, to be satisfied that his force was such “superior force” as I had heard it would be and as came within the intent of your order.
Having satisfied myself that he was concentrating around me a force many times my number–in three columns, from Alexandria upon my right, upon my left at Germantown, from the same place, and having sent word to General Ewell that I was about to begin my movement–I ordered my regiments to take up the line of march according to my prearranged plan, and directed Kershaw’s regiment (which with Kemper’s battery and Wickham’s and Floyd’s troops of cavalry, constituted my rear guard) to file, as they retired, through the trenches as the preceding regiments filed out. The column thus fell back in perfect order to Centreville, the enemy not venturing to attack my rear guard. At dark our pickets were within a few hundred paces of each other.
At midnight, Major Rhett having returned from a personal interview with yourself, I resumed the march, in obedience to your orders, and at daylight put my command in position at Mitchell’s Ford, on Bull Run, the place previously assigned me, placing two pieces of Kemper’s battery six hundred yards in front of my center, on Kemper’s Hill, supported by two companies of light troops, in order to give the enemy’s advancing column a few shots before retiring to the position assigned those pieces behind the run. The Eleventh North Carolina Volunteers, Colonel Kirkland, and the Eighth Louisiana Battalion, Colonel Kelly, reported to me during the morning. The former, having been kept for a while in reserve, was placed on the extreme left; the latter was held in reserve in rear of the center of my position.
At about 12 m. the enemy, following up his movements of the day previous, opened a heavy cannonade on my position, which was kept up most of the day, throwing shell and shot into every portion of my command, but fortunately without injury to the troops. As the range of his guns and the weight of his metal were greater than my own, Captain Kemper’s two pieces, with the two supporting companies, were withdrawn to their position in the rear of the run, but not till some effective shots had been made at the enemy. In the course of a few hours he attacked the position of General Longstreet at Blackburn’s Ford, a short distance to my right, from which he was most gallantly repulsed. He then began to show his troops in some force in my front. By your leave I ordered Colonel Kershaw, with four companies of his regiment and one piece of Kemper’s battery, to move forward to Kemper’s Hill, and open fire upon that force. It was promptly and gallantly executed, three or four effective shots being thrown into the grove near Butler’s house, doing some execution and scattering the enemy in every direction.
I cannot too highly commend the conduct and bearing of all the officers and men under my command. Everything that characterizes gallant people prepared to perish before a superior force, if necessary, for the defense of their homes, was exhibited by them throughout the trying and fatiguing operations of the 17th and 18th of July. Inclosed I send reports of officers of my command as far as received.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
M. L. BONHAM,
Brig. Gen. G. T. BEAUREGARD,
Commanding Army of the Potomac