Testimony of Gen. Irvin McDowell
Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 35-41
WASHINGTON, D. C., December 26, 1861.
General IRVIN McDOWELL sworn and examined.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. We were instructed to make some inquiry in regard to the battle of last July. In the first place, was that battle of Bull Run decided upon in a council of war?
Answer. No, sir. I will give you in a few words the way that was done. There is much that precedes the battle that would be interesting to you gentlemen to know. Not to be too long, I will say that the general-in-chief, General Scott, called upon me verbally to submit a plan of operations to go against Manassas,and to estimate the force necessary to carry out that plan. I cannot tell the day when this was done. I could give you a copy of the plan I submitted, but unfortunately the copy I kept has not, I think, the date to it. The one I sent to him has, I think. I sent the plan to General Scott, and he read it and approved of it. I was then summoned before the cabinet. There were some general officers there : General Sandford, General Tyler, General Mansfield, and General Meigs were there. I think those were all but I am not certain. I was then called upon to read my plan of operations, and I read it. No persons had any suggestions to make in reference to it except General Mansfield. He made some remarks, but said he had not thought about the matter, and did not know anything about it, and was not prepared to say anything in relation to it. As the plan was all approved of, without any alteration, and, I think, without any suggestion, except a slight one from General Mansfield, I then called the engineers to assist me, and gave the paper to them to discuss. They discussed it, and made no alterations, and had no suggestions to make except one. Captain Woodbury, now Major Woodbury, suggested that I should go by the right instead of by the left. I told him the reasons why I preferred to go by the left; that to go by the left was a conclusive movement, and to go by the right might not be.
Question. That is, to cut off the railroad?
Answer. Yes, sir. It was to go down by our left on their right and cut the railroad there. Your first question was as to whether there was any council of war on the plan. In reply, I said the plan was one that I submitted in compliance with verbal instructions from General Scott, and which plan received no modification either from the cabinet or from General Scott, except a mere verbal correction, changing “communications” to “communication.” Nor did any of the engineers make any suggestion, except the one I have mentioned, to go by the right instead of the left. I told him why I did not want to go in that direction, but said I was the last man in the world pledged to my own views, and if any one could tell me anything better than I could myself, I would accept it, and give him the full credit of it. Now, in regard to my plan, I had, in the first place, to assume what the enemy had in front of me. I next assumed that there would be no secret of my preparing to go against them. They would know it, and as a consequence of that they would bring up whatever disposable force they had. Therefore, it was not so much what they had here, but what they would bring here, that I was to go against. I assumed that if General Butler would keep them engaged below, and General Patterson would keep Johnson engaged above, I would then have so much to go against. To do that I asked for a certain force. They agreed to it, and gave me the force, but very late in the day. But they did not fulfil the condition with me so far as General Johnson was concerned. I had a part to play in the matter. It was but a part in a whole; it was a large part, still only a part. I had no control over the whole; that was controlled by General Scott. On several occasions I mentioned to the general that I felt tender on the subject of General Patterson and General Johnson. In reply to some suggestion once made about bringing Patterson over to Leesburg, I said if he went there Johnson might escape and join Beauregard, and I was not in a condition to meet all their forces combined. I said that I went over there with everything green. That was admitted; but they said that the other side was equally green. I said that the chances of accident were much more with green troops than with veterans, and I could not undertake to meet all their forces together. General Scott assured me—I use his own words—”if Johnson joins Beauregard he shall have Patterson on his heels.” He gave me this assurance, that there should be no question in regard to keeping Johnson’s troops engaged in the valley of Virginia. I estimated to go from Vienna with the largest force, and get in behind Fairfax Court-House; go with one force down the Little River turnpike upon Fairfax Court-House; go with one force by way of Anandale, and then go off to the south by the old Braddock road, as it is called, and then have the fourth column go south of the railroad. The railroad was then blocked up and obstructed. They had broken down the bridges and torn up the track where they could, filled in the deep cuts with earth and trees, and obstructed the road as effectually as they could. I could not at first use that railroad, though I threw the largest part of the force called reserve upon the railroad to make the communications good. The largest part of the 30,000 men were in front. I moved down Tuesday evening. When General Scott was called upon, or when the question was asked in the cabinet, when he would be ready to carry out this plan, General Scott fixed for me that day week. Up to that time General Scott never wished anything done on the other side of the river further than to merely fortify Arlington Heights. General Scott was exceedingly displeased that I should go over there. He had other plans in view, and personal plans, so far as I was concerned. And he was piqued and irritated that I was sent over there, and the more so that General Sandford was here in somewhat an equivocal position. He was here for three months, a major general of troops in New York. General Scott did not wish to give him the command here in Washington; at least I infer so because he did not put him in command, and he put him in command on the other side of the river. But General Scott was told that he must put either General Mansfield or myself over there. He wished to keep General Mansfield here, and he put me over there. The general had opposed my somewhat rapid promotion, because he thought it was doing a hurt to General Mansfield, and when I was promoted he insisted that General Mansfield should also be promoted, and date back a week before my own promotion. When I was ordered to the other side General Scott sent me two messages by his aide-de-camp and military secretary, to make a personal request of the Secretary of War not to be sent on the other side. I said I could not do that. Just appointed a general officer, it was not for me to make a personal request not to take the command which I had been ordered upon. I could not stand upon it. I had no reputation, as he had, and I refused to make any such application. So I went on the other side, and the general was cool for a great while. He did not like that I did not comply with his suggestion and ask not to be sent there. I was on the other side a long while without anything. No additions were made to the force at all. With difficulty could I get any officers. I had begged of the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury, who at that time was connected with the Secretary of War in many of the plans and organizations going forward, that I should not be obliged to organize and discipline and march and fight all at the same time. I said that it was too much for any person to do. But they could not help it, or did not help it, and the thing went on until this project was broached. General Scott at the same time took occasion to say to the cabinet that he was never in favor of going over into Virginia. He did not believe in a little war by piecemeal. But he believed in a war of large bodies. He was in favor of moving down the Mississippi river with 80,000 men, of which I was to command the advance. We were to go down, fight all the battles that were necessary, take all the positions we could find, and garrison them, fight a battle at New Orleans and win it, and thus end the war. I did not think well of that plan, and was obliged to speak against it in the cabinet. I felt that it was beyond everything a hazardous thing for our paper steamboats, as you might term them, to try to go down the river on such an expedition. They have some considerable difficulty to get down safely in the most peaceable times and with all the precautions possible, and it would be exceedingly hazardous for them to undertake to go down there with a large army, with all their machinery above water and exposed, and obliged to attack works opposed to them all the way down. Here is the case of the Potomac now blockaded; we do not venture to land and attack the batteries here, though this is a wide river with a broad channel, one well known and which does not change. We attempt nothing of the sort here, and yet we were expected to go down the Mississippi a thousand miles, supply our force all the way down, attack the batteries, and be diminishing our force all the while by leaving garrisons in all the places we should deem of sufficient importance to retain. I thought the plan was full of most serious and vital objections. I would rather go to New Orleans the way that Packenham attempted to go there. I went over the river, as I have told you. General Mansfield felt hurt, I have no doubt, in seeing the command he had divided in two and a portion sent over there. I got everything with great difficulty. Some of my regiments came over very late; some of them not till the very day I was to move the army. I had difficulty in getting transportation. In fact, I started out with no baggage train, with nothing at all for the tents, simply transportation for the sick and wounded and the munitions. The supplies were to go on afterwards. I expected the men to carry supplies for three days in their haversacks. If I went to General Mansfield for troops, he said: “I have no transportation.” I went to General Meigs and he said he had transportation, but General Mansfield did not want any to be given until the troops should move. I said: “I agree to that, but between you two I get nothing.” The quartermaster begged of me not to move, because he was not ready. I said: “We must move on Tuesday;” which was one week after the time General Scott had fixed. All my force had not come over by the time he fixed. A large part came over on Sunday, and some on the very Tuesday I moved. I told the general I was not ready to go. Said I to him : “So far as transportation is concerned, I must look to you behind me to send it forward.” I had no opportunity to test my machinery; to move it around and see whether it would work smoothly or not. In fact, such was the feeling,that when I had one body of eight regiments of troops reviewed together, the general censured me for it, as if I was trying to make some show. I did not think so. There was not a man there who had ever manoeuvred troops in large bodies. There was not one in the army; I did not believe there was one in the whole country; at least, I knew there was no one there who had ever handled 30,000 troops. I had seen them handled abroad in reviews and marches, but I had never handled that number, and no one here had. I wanted very much a little time; all of us wanted it. We did not have a bit of it. The answer was: “You are green, it is true; but they are green, also; you are all green alike.” We went on in that way. But there is one thing clear beyond any doubt. If the movements which had been ordered had been carried out, we should have had no difficulty at all. My plan was simply this: It was to move out this force upon these four lines. I had to move them on four lines that had no communication with each other from the very nature of the country. But I thought I made each column strong enough to hold its own. If it could not penetrate it could stand still, and if attacked it could hold its own, while the other columns were pressing forward and trying to get behind the enemy. The roads from Alexandria radiate. One goes out to Vienna, one goes to Fairfax Court-House, one to Fairfax Station, and one further south to Pohick church. My orders were, that those on the right should go the first day—Tuesday—out to Vienna. I had taken the precaution before to send General Richardson, who commanded a brigade I had organized at Chain Bridge, out to examine the road he afterwards moved over. Generals Keyes, Schenck, Richardson, and Sherman, in all four brigades, were to be at Vienna that night. General Hunter, who commanded what I intended to be a sort of reserve, composed of General Burnside’s command and General Porter’s command, were to go on the Little River turnpike to Anandale. General Miles was to go to Anandale a little before and turn down on the Braddock road. General Heintzelman was to go out also from Alexandria on the railroad, and send up some force to Vienna to hold that point after our troops left it. The next morning General Tyler was to march from Vienna and go down upon the road towards Fairfax Court-House. General Hunter was to go forward to Fairfax Court-House direct. General Miles was to come down on the Braddock road to another road that crossed it, going from Fairfax Court-House to Fairfax Station, while Heintzelman went down below. They were to be there early in the morning, I think at 8 o’clock. At Fairfax Court-House was the South Carolina brigade. And I do not suppose anything would have had a greater cheering effect upon the troops, and perhaps upon the country, than the capture of that brigade. And if General Tyler could have got down there any time in the forenoon instead of in the afternoon the capture of that brigade was beyond question. It was but 5,000 or 6,000 men, and Tyler had 12,000, at the same time that we were pressing on in front. He did not get down there until in the afternoon; none of us got forward in time. That was due to two things, perhaps. The affair of Big Bethel and Vienna had created a great outcry against rushing into places that people did not know anything about. I think the idea of everyone was that we were to go into no such things as that; that we were to feel our way. That, perhaps, caused the march to be very, slow; because, from Vienna across the march was not more than five or six miles, and if they started by 4 o’clock in the morning they should get there by 8 o’clock. They did not get there until 3 o’clock, and the South Carolina brigade marched at 11 o’clock, so that it slipped through our hands. Then, too, the men were not used to marching; they stopped every moment to pick blackberries or to get water. They would not keep in the ranks, order as much as you pleased. When they came where water was fresh they would pour the old water out of their canteens and fill them with fresh water; they were not used to denying themselves much. They were not used to journeys on foot; the men of the north no more than the men of the south were used to going on foot much. While the men of the south were accustomed to riding horseback, those of the north rode in wagons for the shortest journeys, and they were pretty well broken down with this short march; therefore, when I wanted them to push on to Centreville, they were so broken down that they could not get more than half way there. The subsistence was to come on the next morning. Thursday morning I went off to see about making this march off to the left. That day General Tyler got involved at Blackburn’s Ford, which made it necessary to move the whole of the troops forward that day, instead of keeping them behind to draw their rations. The attack at Blackburn’s Ford had a bad effect upon our men. They were all in high spirits before that, but had not succeeded in their first attack. That attack made all wish to know what we were going to do, and where we were going to go, so that the next two days were employed by General Barnard and those under him in trying to discover where we could penetrate this line. They went out and were unsuccessful. They went out again at night, and were again unsuccessful. On Saturday about noon they reported that they had found a place. I at once gave orders to march at 6 o’clock that night, going part of the distance and stopping, and then move on early in the morning; but General Burnside, who was the furthest off, said that it would be much less fatiguing for his men to make one march instead of two, and that if we started early enough in the morning we could reach there in time. I yielded to it at once, as it was only on account of the men that I wanted to stop. I started in the morning. We got around late, it is true; there were delays about getting into the road. General Tyler was late, and General Hunter was slow in getting around; still, we substantially carried out the plan. We got over there and met the enemy; and there I found that, in addition to General Beauregard, I had General Johnston—how much of him I did not know. I learned afterwards that some 7,000 or 8,000, the bulk of his force, had arrived. Still, we were successful against both until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when the remainder of his force came upon us upon our right when our men were tired and exhausted, and that caused the day to turn against us.
I have learned since, in relation to that movement of General Johnston, which was the fatal thing in the whole of this battle, and which General Scott assured me should not take place, or if it did General Patterson should be driving him in, that General Patterson was before General Johnston on Wednesday, and on Thursday morning, at 4 o’clock, he ordered his troops to march. I learned from General Morell—now in General Fitz-John Porter’s division, but who was then on the staff of General Sandford, who commanded under General Patterson— that they all expected that they were going right down to Winchester on Thursday, and that all the men were in the highest possible spirits at the idea of going there.and that General Sandford believed they were superior to Johnston’s force. But instead of going down to Winchester, after they got down to a place called Bunker Hill, they turned off to the left and went off towards Harper’s Ferry. Then the men became so dissatisfied that they demanded their discharge. Up to that time there had been no indications of turbulence. General Johnston, on that same day—Thursday—when he found out that Patterson had gone away, left in the afternoon between 2 and 3 o’clock, and pushed down in a masterly manner as hard as he could to join Beauregard. General Patterson in the meantime was, I am told, under the greatest possible alarm, and telegraphed all the time, and sent an officer down, who arrived on Sunday, to General Scott for re-enforcements against General Johnston, General Johnston at that very time being before me here; and General Scott was so impressed with this, that a large part of the force in Washington was ordered to go up there to join General Patterson. So completely was General Patterson outwitted that he thought General Johnston had 40,000 men there. One who was on his staff, and his adjutant general, told me that they had got records, reports, and returns to the effect that Johnston had something like 40,000 men. All I can say is, that if he had 40,000 men, I had the whole of them on me.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Do you believe he had 10,000?
Answer. I think he had from 12,000 to 15,000, and General Patterson had in the vicinity of 20,000. If he had 40,000, then I had them all. But I assume that he joined Beauregard in the first place with 8,000, and that his last re-enforcement was about 4,000.
By the chairman:
Question. When did you first learn that Johnston was released from Patterson and down here?
Answer. I first learned it in a way beyond all doubt on the field of battle. About 11 o’clock in the day I made some prisoners.
Question. Did no one tell you before?
Answer. A man came to me before. But, great God! I heard every rumor in the world, and I put them all aside unless a man spoke of his own personal knowledge. Some person came to me; I did not know who he was. I had people coming to me all the time, each one with something different. All that I paid no attention to. This person came to me and said, I think, “The news is that Johnston has joined Beauregard.” He might have said that somebody else had joined Beauregard. He did not know it himself; had heard it from others. Some one said: ” We heard the cars coming in last night.” Well, I expected that. I expected they would bring into Manassas every available man they could find. All I did expect was that General Butler would keep them engaged at Fortress Monroe, and Patterson would keep them engaged in the valley of Virginia. That was the condition they accepted from me to go out and do this work. I hold that I more than fulfilled my part of the compact because I was victorious against Beauregard and 8,000 of Johnston’s troops also. Up to 3 o’clock in the afternoon I had done all and more than all that I had promised or agreed to do; and it was this last straw that broke the camel’s back—if you can call 4,000 men a straw, who came upon me from behind fresh from the cars.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Has it not been a fact, all through this war, that our generals in front of the enemy—as was General Patterson in front of General Johnston— have been deceived as to the force of the enemy? General Patterson says that he had positive information that General Johnston had over 35,000 men, while he had only 20,000. Has this not been a bragging, lying force that they have been exhibiting along our lines all the time?
Answer. There is one thing: In war the object is to deceive the enemy as to your force and make him believe that you are stronger than you really are. I have taken the evidence of negro.men and found it very good myself. But that is a matter of judgment; you may get yourself overreached.