Report of the Conduct of the War, Volume 2, pp. 3-8
The joint committee on the conduct of the war submit the following report, with accompanying testimony, in relation to the battle of Bull Run, in July, 1861:
So long a time has elapsed, and so many important events have occurred in the progress of the war, since the campaign which ended with the battle of Bull Run, in July, 1861, that your committee do not deem it necessary to go very much into detail in their report. The testimony they submit herewith is very voluminous, and fully covers all the points of interest connected with that campaign. They therefore submit a brief report, confining their attention principally to the causes which led to the defeat of our army in that battle.
That which now appears to have been the great error of that campaign was the failure to occupy Centreville and Manassas at the time Alexandria was occupied, in May. The position at Manassas controlled the railroad communication in all that section of country. The forces which were opposed to us at the battle of Bull Run were mostly collected and brought to Manassas during the months of June and July. The three months’ men could have made the place easily defensible against any force the enemy could have brought against it; and it is not at all probable that the rebel- forces would have advanced beyond the line of the Rappahannock had Manassas been occupied by our troops.
The next cause of disaster was the delay in proceeding against the enemy until the time of the three months’ men was so nearly expired. In that respect the movement was made too late rather than too soon, and the enemy were allowed time to collect their forces at Manassas and to strengthen the position by defensive works. The reason why the movement was so long delayed is shown, to some extent, by the testimony, to which your committee would direct the attention of those who desire to examine that point.
And when the movement was finally determined upon, much was needed to render the troops efficient. There had been but little time devoted to disciplining the troops and instructing them, even as regiments; hardly any instruction had been given them in reference to brigade movements, and none at all as divisions. When General McDowell reviewed eight regiments together—the only instance previous to the battle, so far as the evidence shows, that even that number of troops were manoeuvred in one body—he was charged with desiring to make a show.
General McDowell was instructed, verbally, by General Scott, to prepare and submit a plan of operations against the enemy at Manassas. This plan was considered in cabinet meeting, and agreed to; and the 9th of July was fixed upon by General Scott as the day when the army should move.
The plan of General McDowell was to move out in the direction of Centreville, and endeavor to turn the enemy’s right with a portion of his force, and destroy his communication by railroad with Richmond. He asked that a certain number of troops be given him to operate against the force which it was estimated that Beauregard had under his command. He was assured that the enemy below should be kept occupied by General Butler, who was in command at Fortress Monroe; and that the enemy under Johnston, in the Winchester valley, should be held there by General Patterson. Some days before the battle, upon expressing some fears in regard to the force under Johnston being detained by Patterson, he was assured by General Scott that “if Johnston joined Beauregard, he should have Patterson on his heels.”
The movement did not commence until the 16th of July, a week later than the time first decided upon. The transportation was deficient, and General McDowell had to depend upon others to see that supplies were forwarded to him in time. The march was slow, one reason being that, since the affair at Vienna, near Alexandria, and at Big Bethel, near Fortress Monroe, a fear of “masked batteries” caused hesitation in regard to advancing upon points concerning which there was a want of information. There was some delay, on the march, in consequence of the want of complete discipline among some of the troops. They were not sufficiently under control of officers to be prevented from leaving the ranks and straggling.
The affair at Blackburn’s Ford, on Thursday, the 18th, being more extensive than General McDowell had ordered, drew the attention of the enemy to that point; and, in consequence of the preparations they made there to meet any attempt of General McDowell to turn their position in that direction, it became necessary to adopt another line of operations. General McDowell determined to make the attempt to turn their right, and steps were taken to secure the necessary information. It was not until Saturday that the information which General McDowell desired was obtained.
He then issued orders for the troops to move the next morning, the 21st, some at two o’clock and some at half-past two. The division of General Tyler was in the advance, and was ordered to proceed directly out to Stone Bridge, and take up position there. General Hunter’s and General Heintzelman’s divisions were to follow, and when they reached a road leading to the right, about a mile in advance of General Tyler’s camp, they were to turn off and proceed in the direction of Sudley’s Church, and endeavor to turn the enemy’s left. The movement to the right was intended to be made under cover of General Tyler’s force at Stone Bridge.
But there was much delay in the movements of the troops that morning. Tyler’s division did not pass the point, where Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s divisions were to turn off, until after the time designated. Some of the troops were delayed for three hours, affording time to the enemy to discover the movement and make preparations to meet it.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, our forces were successful during the fore part of the day, although Beauregard had been re-enforced by some of Johnston’s forces from Winchester. Our troops were very much fatigued. The day was exceedingly warm; the roads were dusty; and they had been some hours longer on the march than had been anticipated. In the afternoon additional re- enforcements arrived from Johnston’s army, and suddenly attacked our right and threw it into disorder.
About the same time two of our batteries (Ricketts’s and Griffin’s) were captured by the enemy, and our entire force began to fall back in great confusion. In regard to the capture of the batteries, it appears by the testimony that they were ordered to take an advanced and exposed position, and were not sufficiently supported. Not long after they were placed in position, a rebel regiment appeared in their immediate vicinity. Captain Griffin states that he took them to be rebels from the first, and directed one of his lieutenants to open upon them with canister. But Major Barry, chief of artillery, coming up at the time, told him that they were some of our own troops coming to the support of the batteries, and directed him not to fire upon them. The battery was accordingly turned in another direction, and, almost immediately after, this regiment of the enemy opened fire upon it, disabling the horses, and killing and wounding most of the men at the guns. That completed the discomfiture of our troops, and the day which had opened upon our success, closed upon a defeated and retreating army.
A division, under Colonel Miles, had been stationed at Centreville, partly for the purpose of a reserve, and partly to guard against any flank attack. The enemy did attempt a movement upon our left, but were promptly met and checked by our forces there.
The principal cause of the defeat on that day was the failure of General Patterson to hold the forces of Johnston in the valley of the Shenandoah. He had a force of about 23,000 men; while the force of the enemy opposed to him, according to the best evidence your committee could obtain, did not exceed from 12,000 to 15,000 men. General Patterson testifies that he was satisfied that Johnston had from 35,000 to 40,000 men, and over 60 guns. He also states that a large number of his troops were anxious to return home; that their time had about expired, and he could not persuade them to remain. There is considerable testimony to show that the troops became dissatisfied, and refused to remain, only when they learned that their movement from Bunker Hill on the 17th of July was a retreat, and not an advance upon the enemy; that while they supposed they were being led to the attack, little, if any, complaint was made, and they were in excellent spirits.
In reference to the orders given to General Patterson, and the object to be accomplished by his operations, there seems to be no question. That object was to prevent Johnston from joining Beauregard before General McDowell could have an opportunity to attack the forces under the latter. The character of the orders is indicated by the following telegram of the 13th of July (Saturday) from General Scott to General Patterson:
“I telegraphed you yesterday, if not strong enough to beat the enemy early next week, make demonstrations so as to detain him in the valley of Winchester. But if he retreats in force towards Manassas, and it be hazardous to follow him, then consider the route via Keyes’s Ferry, Leesburg, &c.”
General Scott had, the day before, conveyed to General Patterson the intimation that General McDowell would commence his movement on the 16th or July, and on the 15th General Patterson advanced from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill, remaining there the 16th.
On the 17th General Scott telegraphs to General Patterson:
“I have nothing official from you since Sunday, but am glad to learn through Philadelphia papers that you have advanced. Do not let the enemy amuse and delay you with a small force in front, whilst he re-enforces the Junction with his main body. McDowell’s first day’s work has driven the enemy beyond Fairfax Court-House. The Junction will probably be carried to-morrow.”
There is no evidence at what time that despatch was received. But it could not have been received before the movement from Bunker Hill to Charlestown was made by General Patterson, for that movement commenced very early in the-morning of the 17th, the date of the despatch.
On the 18th General Scott telegraphs :
“I have certainly been expecting you to beat the enemy. If not, that you had felt him strongly, or at least had occupied him by threats and demonstrations. You have been at least his equal, and, I suppose, superior in number. Has he not stolen a march, and sent re-enforcements towards Manassas Junction? A week is enough to win a victory.”
To this General Patterson replies on the same day:
“The enemy has stolen no march upon me. I have kept him actively ‘ employed, and, by threats and reconnoissances in force, caused him to be re- enforced.”
General Patterson testifies as follows :
“Question. During all this time you knew that General Scott expected of you that you should either engage and beat Johnston, or detain him in the valley of Winchester; or, in the event that he should come down by a route where you could not follow him, that you should follow him via Keyes’s Ferry and Leesburg ?
“Answer. Yes, sir.
“Question. And yet, when you were at Charlestown, you found yourself not in a condition to do either. Now, my question is : Why did you not communicate that fact to General Scott ?
” Answer. There was no occasion for it, in my judgment. He knew my condition, and to have added to the information he already had would have been a waste of time and paper. I had informed him of my condition, and it was his business to order me what to do. I had asked him : ‘ Shall I attack ?’ It was not my business to say anything beyond that.”
When asked if the telegram of the 18th, from General Scott, did not show that he still deemed it was of the first importance that he (Patterson) should detain Johnston there, General Patterson replies:
“I looked upon that telegraph, and so did every gentleman upon my staff, as nothing more nor less than an exhibition of bad temper.”
General Patterson also testifies:
“Question. You say you could have attacked on the 18th if ordered to do so. You knew the necessity of detaining Johnston, and you must have inferred from the telegraph of General Scott that he expected or required of you that you should do something in that direction. Why did you not do all that yon could to detain him without an order?
” Answer. Because I could not go up there without fighting, as I could not fall back again. I had no reason to believe that that telegram was not written in the morning in reply to mine of that morning, [1.30 a. m., asking ‘ Shall I attack?’] General Scott did not fight that day, and there was no more occasion for my going up and perilling my men without an order, than of doing anything entirely uncalled for—not the slightest occasion for it. ******* If General Scott did not fight, and saw the necessity for my acting, I repeat it was his business to give the order.”
In another place he testifies:
“Question. When you found you were in no condition to detain Johnston, was it not all important that that fact should have been communicated to General Scott; not the fact that you could not fight Johnston, but that you could not detain him, that your strength was insufficient for that, and that he could not rely upon his being kept back?
“Answer. I never supposed, for a moment, that General Scott believed for the fifty-fifth part of a second that I could hold him.”
General Patterson further testifies :
“Question. You were not threatening Johnston at Charlestown so as to prevent his joining Beauregard at Manassas?”
“Answer. No, sir. I remained there because I was ordered to remain in front of him until he left.
” Question. You knew at that time that you were not offering any obstacle to his going down to Manassas ?
“Answer. Perfectly: I knew I had not the means to do it.
“Question. Why did you not communicate that fact to General Scott immediately ?
” Answer. I did communicate my condition, and where I was.
“Answer. On the 16th I wrote him in detail from Bunker Hill. On the 17th I wrote again. And on the 18th I gave him all the information necessary. And it was his business to order me, not my business to make any further suggestions to him.
“Question. Did you communicate to him by telegraph?
“Answer. Certainly. I sent three telegrams to him on the same day.
“Question. On what day ?
“Answer. On the 18th, at half-past one in the morning, I telegraphed him my condition, and asked him if I should attack. To have sent further information to him would have been rather impertinent, and he would have so considered it.
“Question. Why did you not inform him that you were not then in a condition to offer any obstacle to Johnston’s joining Beauregard ?
“Answer. I would have considered it rather a reflection on him to have told him so. He knew my condition.”
General Scott testifies:
“But, although General Patterson was never specifically ordered to attack the enemy, he was certainly told and expected, even if with inferior numbers, to hold the rebel army in his front on the alert, and to prevent it from re-enforcing Manassas Junction, by means of threatening manoeuvres and demonstrations— results often obtained in war with half numbers.”
Instead of doing that, however, General Patterson came down to Bunker Hill, remained there over the day when he had been given to understand the advance would be commenced by General McDowell; and early the next morning, without waiting to hear how far General McDowell had advanced, or whether he had advanced at all, left the neighborhood of Winchester, where the enemy was, and turned off to Charlestown, where, as he himself says, he had no means to offer any obstacle to Johnston’s joining Beauregard whenever he chose. Johnston at once took advantage of the opportunity thus afforded him, and re-enforced Beauregard in season to inflict a defeat upon our forces at Bull Run.
Johnston started the greater portion of his forces from Winchester on the 18th; some of the testimony shows that a portion started on the afternoon of the 17th. General Patterson, though only some twenty miles distant from Winchester, and under orders to prevent the enemy from re-enforcing Beauregard, did not discover that Johnston had left Winchester until two days afterwards, when he telegraphed, on the 20th, to General Scott that re-enforcements had left there.
In reference to deferring the attack upon Beauregard, when the arrival of Johnston’s forces had become known, General McDowell says that the information that he received was too indefinite, mere rumor, and he could not tell how much credit to give to it. The arrival of the cars during the night preceding the battle was not certain evidence of the arrival of Johnston’s forces; for it was expected that re-enforcements would be hurried up to the enemy from every direction possible. And he had been assured that “if Johnston joined Beauregard, Patterson should be on his heels.”
General Scott testifies on that point:
“As connected with this subject, I hope I may be permitted to notice the charge made against me on the floors of Congress, that I did not stop Brigadier General McDowell’s movement upon Manassas Junction after I had been informed of the re-enforcement sent thither from Winchester, though urged to do so by one or more members of the cabinet. Now, it was, at the reception of that news, too late to call off the troops from the attack. And, besides, though opposed to the movement at first, we had all become animated and sanguine of success. And it is not true that I was urged by anybody in authority to stop the attack which was commenced as early, I think, as the 18th of July.”
B. F. WADE, Chairman