Report of Col. J. B. Kershaw, Second South Carolina Infantry, of Retreat from Fairfax Court-House and Skirmish at Mitchell’s Ford
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp.451-453
HDQRS. SECOND PALMETTO REG’T, SOUTH CAROLINA VOLS.,
Vienna, Va., July 26, 1861
GENERAL: In obedience to your order, as soon as I could obtain the proper materials, I proceed to report the operations of my command from the 17th to 21st instant, inclusive, in two separate reports:
In accordance with your orders I had prepared my command to cover the movement of the advance forces from Fairfax Court-House to Bull Run whenever it should be ascertained that the enemy were approaching our position in overwhelming force. On the morning of the 17th, at an early hour, the drums of the enemy announced their movement towards Fairfax Court-House, and soon after sunrise one of the pickets stationed on the road from Flint Hill to the Falls Church road, midway between the two points, was seen rapidly retreating across the field, having two pickets of fifty men each, consisting of Captain Haile’s company and a part of Captain Rhett’s, all under the command of Captain Haile, stationed on the Falls Church road, one-half under Lieutenant Canty, two miles distant from camp, the remainder about a mile farther at the barricades, under Captain Haile in person, whose orders required that they should engage the enemy when he appeared and fall back fighting.
I at once apprehended that they would be flanked and cut off, since their left was entirely uncovered by the retreat of the picket first mentioned. Accordingly, accompanied by Mr. A. E. Doby, of my staff, I visited the pickets, instructing them to fall back one upon the other, and both to retire together so soon as it was ascertained that the enemy had passed them to the left. Hearing firing in the direction of Flint Hill, I rode to the point whence the picket had retreated, and found the enemy’s skirmishers occupying the open ground, as far as could be seen in the direction of the Vienna road, with a heavy column occupying the woods in their rear, but not at that time advancing. I returned to Captain Haile’s picket, renewed my caution, caused a barricade to be erected at the position of my nearest picket, and ordered them forward to the intersection of the Flint Hill road, to support Captain Haile and to observe the approach of the enemy along that road. Having made these dispositions I returned to camp, and found my regiment drawn up on their parade ground, tents and baggage packed and sent off as far as transportation had been provided for them, and ready for movement.
At this time I received your order in person directing me to recall the pickets, and immediately dispatched Mr. Edward Wallace, of my staff, for that purpose. I posted the companies of Captains Hoke and Cuthbert in the woods to the right of the Falls Church road, Captain Casson in reserve in front of my camp upon the road, Captain Rhett, with the remainder of his company, in front in the log-house on the road, Captain Perryman’s rifles in a wood in front of the left of the trenches, Kemper’s battery, with two pieces, occupying the trenches. By this rime the enemy, after firing a few cannon shot, had deployed their line of battle directly in front and to the left of Captain Perryman’s position, and it was announced to me that the movement to Bull Run had already been commenced by the withdrawal of Colonel Williams from his original position on the Alexandria road. I placed in position at the entrance of them into Fairfax Court-House three companies of infantry, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, and threw Captain Casson’s company on the hill on the left of the road at the hospital, placing a section of Kemper’s battery in position at the Court-House.
Receiving your orders to fall back, anxious for the safety of my picket, who had not yet returned, the enemy being now far in the rear of the position where the pickets had been posted, I went forward with Captain Hoke’s company and Captain Rhett’s to the hill near Wilcoxson’s, where I awaited their arrival. Shortly after they appeared, and my movement commenced. Withdrawing all the companies and Kemper’s battery from the Falls Church road, I occupied with them, alternating with the detachment of Lieutenant-Colonel Jones, each successive intrenchment from that point to the Germantown road as they were severally vacated by the regiments in charge of them, having in the mean time been re-enforced by the arrival of Captain Wickham’s squadron of cavalry, composed of his own and Captain Flood’s company.
Arrived at the fork of the road, I moved one battalion towards Germantown to replace Colonel Cash, and took position on the Centreville road on the hill commanding the village of Fairfax with two pieces of artillery and the other battalion, directing the other two pieces to take position in the rear at the intersection of the cross-road from Germantown, to which the first battalion had been directed to proceed. So soon as Colonel Cash had advanced sufficiently on his march I moved the whole command in good order to Centreville without interference, where we took position, much fatigued from the excessive heat of the day, at Artillery Hill.
At midnight I was informed that the march had been resumed to Bull Run, and so soon as all the troops had left the village of Centreville I put my command in motion in the following order: First, the cavalry; second, Kemper’s battery; third, infantry, with a small cavalry vedette a short distance in the rear. In this order we marched without interruption to Mitchell’s Ford, Bull Run, where my regiment resumed the position which they had occupied some weeks before in the intrenchments of their own construction. Two pieces of Kemper’s battery were placed in position in the trenches on the left of the road, the remaining two placed under direction on Kemper’s Hill north of the run, also on the left of the road. The cavalry were directed to return to their regiment.
On the 18th instant Captain Wallace’s company was stationed at Butler’s, on the Centreville road, to observe the approach of the enemy. While there an officer of the enemy, or employe’ in their quartermaster’s department, O’Brien by name, rode up to Captain Wallace and asked for General McDowell. Immediately perceiving his mistake he drew his pistol and turned to make his escape, but was immediately killed by Captain Wallace’s men. Later in the day the enemy appeared in force, and Captain Wallace withdrew his company. Captains Perryman and Cuthbert were thrown out in the morning with their companies to support Kemper’s half battery on the hill, which was commanded by Captain Kemper in person.
About noon a heavy artillery fire was opened upon our lines from the enemy’s artillery posted near Rough’s, which continued for some time without response on our part; but the range of Captain Kemper’s position, having been ascertained by the enemy, and their fire becoming more threatening, Captain Kemper fired a half dozen apparently most effective shots and retired in safety to the trenches, covered by Captains Perryman’s and Cuthbert’s rifles. After a few shots at this retreating party the enemy turned their attention almost exclusively to the troops posted to the right of our brigade. During the day there were many narrow escapes in the trenches occupied by my regiment, and the bravery and spirit of my whole command was strikingly displayed in their contempt of the danger and their eagerness for a nearer approach of the enemy.
About 4 o’clock in the afternoon, by your direction, I detached the companies of Captains Hoke, Cuthbert, Casson, and Haile, and assuming the command myself, with one piece of Captain Kemper’s artillery, under his own command, reoccupied Kemper’s Hill. Reconnoitering with Messrs. Doby and Wallace, of my staff, it was ascertained that the enemy occupied in force the graveyard near Holden’s and the ravine between Holden’s and Robert’s house with skirmishers in the open field on their right. After three shots from Kemper’s battery, which produced evident confusion in the enemy’s ranks, I received an order from General Beauregard to return immediately, which was promptly obeyed. Soon after the enemy ceased firing and withdrew. About sunset, by your order, my regiment moved with Captain Kemper’s battery and took position on the left of your command, where we remained without incident until Sunday, the 21st instant.
One unpleasant feature of the abandonment of Fairfax Court-House was the loss of much private baggage, some tents, knapsacks, and camp kettles, and all the hospital stores, for the want of sufficient transportation, which this regiment has never had. The knapsacks of Captains Rhett’s and Haile’s companies were lost in consequence of those companies being on picket guard when the movement commenced, and time was not afforded them to recover them.
I have the honor to be, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. B. Kershaw,
Colonel Second Regiment South Carolina Volunteers
Brig. Gen. M. L. BONHAM
Commanding First Brigade, &c.