Testimony of Col. David B. Birney
Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 163-168
WASHINGTON, January 11, 1862.
Colonel DAVID B. BIRNEY sworn and examined.
By the chairman:
Question. What is your rank and position in the army?
Answer. I am colonel of the 23d regiment of Pennsylvania volunteers, from Philadelphia. I was the lieutenant colonel of the same regiment in the three months’ service, under General Patterson.
Question. What number of troops, with which to operate against Johnston’s army, had General Patterson while at Martinsburg?
Answer. I have only my own estimate from seeing the regiments. I have no official knowledge of it.
Question. Will you give your best estimate?
Answer. I thought there were about 25,000 men—from 20,000 to 25,000— merely from seeing the camps and troops; that is only my estimate of them.
Question. What number of troops had General Johnston under him at that time, according to the best estimate that you had about it?
Answer. There was a great variety of opinions about that. I thought, from information that I got from the people there, in the country, that he had from 15,000 to 20,000 men.
Question. Was his army thought to be superior in numbers to that of General Patterson?
Answer. I do not know as I could state that; there was such a variety of opinion about it. Our regiments were all very anxious to try that point —to meet them—but they had no chance. That was the great trouble with our regiments.
Question. How long did you remain at Martinsburg?
Answer. We remained at Martinsburg some ten days, I think.
Question. Where was Johnston understood to be during those ten days?
Answer. On the road between Martinsburg and Winchester, and intrenched at Winchester. We marched from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill.
Question. How far was that?
Answer. About seven miles.
Question. Can you give the date of your march from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill? ‘
Answer. I know we spent the 4th of July at Martinsburg. It was a few days after the 4th of July, but I cannot tell exactly the date.
Question. When you got to Bunker Hill, how long did you stay there?
Answer. We got there in the evening and encamped. The next day I was sent by General Patterson, with a detachment of six companies of infantry, a squadron of cavalry, and two sections of artillery of the Rhode Island battery, with instructions to make a demonstration and persuade the enemy that the army was marching upon Winchester, and to approach within two or three miles of Winchester. I marched down the road until we came to Stuart’s cavalry. We fired upon them and they retreated, and I continued my march as far as I thought was prudent. I found the road barricaded—trees across it, and fences built across it. My instructions were only to give the enemy the idea that the army was coming. When I thought I had done that, I halted and came back. I suppose I went to within about four miles of Winchester.
Question. How far is Bunker Hill from Winchester?
Answer. I think the sign-post shows it to be eight miles.
Question. While you were at Bunker Hill what direction would Johnston’s army have to take to get down to Manassas? How near to where you were stationed would they have to pass?
Answer. As I understand the geography of the country, they would come no nearer to us.
Question. They would still keep about the same distance from you?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. They would have to pass within about eight miles of you?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. If you had remained at Bunker Hill, would there have been any difficulty in your encountering them on their way to Manassas, if you had sought to intercept them on their way? Would there have been any difficulty in having an encounter with them, supposing they had come out of Winchester to go down to Manassas?
Answer. They would have been going in a side direction—laterally. They would not have come any nearer to us.
Question. You could have moved so as to have prevented their going down without an engagement with you, could you not?
Answer. Yes, sir; that could have been done by a forced march.
Question. Do you know any reason why you turned off from there to Charlestown?
Answer. No, sir; I do not.
Question. That, however, opened the way to them—gave them a free way to Manassas, did it not?
Answer. Yes, sir. Well, we would not have obstructed them if we had remained where we were at Bunker Hill. But we were told when we left Bunker Hill on our march that morning, that we were to take a road about half-way between Bunker Hill and outflank them. We were told that, as the road from Bunker Hill to Winchester had been found to be barricaded, we were to march towards Charlestown, and take the road turning off to the right as we approached Charlestown, and thus outflank them and prevent their coming down to Manassas. We had no idea of marching to Charlestown.
Question. You had no such idea when you started?
Answer. No, sir. We understood from our brigade commanders, &c., that we were still going to march upon Winchester, but to take this side road, instead of the one that was barricaded, and thus intercept them and prevent their joining Beauregard down here?
Question. Do you know the real purpose that was expected to be effected by this army of Patterson? Was it to prevent Johnston from joining Beauregard? Was that understood to be the object of Patterson’s movements?
Answer. I do not know as I understood that it was especially to prevent him from joining Beauregard. Our conversation with our superior officers led us to suppose that we were to attack Johnston and whip him. I knew nothing about Johnston joining the enemy at Manassas, except, when we left Bunker Hill, we were then told that our object was to take this side road and prevent Johnston from coming down to Manassas on the railroad.
Question. You knew nothing, then, about the expectation of a battle being fought at Manassas at that time?
Answer. Yes, sir; the reason I knew was this: I called upon General Patterson about that time. General Cadwalader, who was our brigade general, referred me to General Patterson. We called to represent to him the state of our regiment, and he told me that he expected that a battle had been fought at Manassas on Tuesday, and thought he should hear of that battle on that day, and that we were to attack Winchester.
Question. In your judgment, as a military man, while you were at Bunker Hill would it have been in your power to have detained Johnston in the valley of Winchester, if that had been your purpose and object? Could you have prevented him from coming down to Manassas?
Answer. That is rather a difficult question to answer. I do not know what I would have thought then, if I had had the information that General Patterson had. But I think now, knowing the strength of the two parties, that we could have done it. That opinion is, however, based upon my present knowledge of the situation of the two parties, and not upon the knowledge that General Patterson and all the officers may have had at that time.
Question. How strong did you take the enemy to be at that time? Did you estimate his strength to be superior to your army?
Answer. He was not generally thought by the officers composing our army to be superior. There was a great deal of indignation among men and officers that we were marched and countermarched so much. There was great anxiety to march on—to get on. It was very difficult for those of us commanding regiments to make our men satisfied. We were there without tents—only four tents to a company—and when it rained the men were exposed. We had supposed that we were going to be marched on to fight. And the men were marched and countermarched until they became very tired of it.
Question. At what time did you first discover that it was not the intention to bring on a battle?
Answer. At Charlestown.
Question. Was there any dissatisfaction among the men until it was found that there was no probability of their being led to battle?
Answer. There was not in our brigade—in the 21st, the 6th, and the 23d Pennsylvania regiments, composing our brigade.
Question. Did the men refuse to go further or stay longer after their time should expire, at any time before they ascertained that they were not going to be led against the enemy?
Answer. I can speak better of my own regiment. At Charlestown there was some dissatisfaction in the regiment about the marching and countermarching, and the retreat; for they considered this march to Charlestown a retreat.
Question. It was a retreat in fact, was it not?
Answer. Yes, sir; they so considered it when we did not take this side road, as we expected. When we came to Charlestown their three months’ time was out, and about 300 of my men were without shoes. My regiment had offered again for the war under myself—had offered to remain before that—but the offer had not been accepted at Washington. The time had come to go home, and a great many of them were without shoes, and they felt discouraged. I went to see General Patterson, and told him that if shoes were furnished my men to march, and there was any prospect of any fighting—if they were going to march on to Winchester—the regiment would to a man go on to Winchester and fight their way to Manassas, and so come on through Washington home. But if they were to be kept there marching and countermarching, it would be almost impossible to detain them much longer than their term of enlistment.
Question. At what time did you ascertain that Johnston had left Winchester?
Answer. I did not hear of it until the 21st or 22d of July.
Question. You were not near enough to him to ascertain when he did leave, I suppose?
Answer. No, sir.
Question. How far is Charlestown from Winchester?
Answer. I think it was some fifteen or sixteen miles. We were about eight miles from Winchester while we were at Bunker Hill, and this was a side movement that took us away some seven or eight miles further. I think it was about fifteen miles, though I do not know how far it was.
Question. You have already said that you considered this march to Charlestown a retreat?
Answer. Yes, sir; when we passed through the little town about half-way to Charlestown, and passed the little road down which we expected to turn towards Winchester—when we passed that, we understood that we were retreating.
Question. And then the dissatisfaction among the troops commenced ?
Answer. Yes, sir; when we got to Charlestown.
Question. You had not heard the dissatisfaction before in your own brigade ?
Answer. No dissatisfaction; some feeling at marching and countermarching so much.
Question. While they were expecting to be led to battle they did not reckon upon quitting the service?
Answer. No, sir. If the men had been told that they were to be led to battle, I think they would have gone. I think there would have been no dissatisfaction if there had been any certainty that they would be led to battle.
Question. .I am thus particular in asking about this matter, because that has sometimes been assigned as a cause for the retreat.
Answer. There was a great deal of dissatisfaction at Charlestown—that is, these regiments did not want to be retained if they were going to be marched and countermarched as they had been.
Question. That is, after all prospect of fighting was over?
Answer. Yes, sir. There was no such dissatisfaction at Martinsburg or Bunker Hill that I saw. I never saw men more rejoiced, who seemed to feel more like being led into action, than our men at Bunker Hill.
Question. They were enthusiastic and anxious to be led on?
Answer. Yes, sir, until we began to go back.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Are you aware of the fact of Captain William McMullin, of the Rangers, having been sent out to ascertain the number of troops at Winchester?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. What was his report?
Answer. I heard from others that he reported the enemy to have forty thousand men.
Question. Did you solicit the privilege of taking some of your men, and heading a reconnoissance, to ascertain the exact force of the enemy?
Answer. I told General Thomas that I had very little confidence in Captain McMullin; that I considered him a very disreputable character; and that I had in my regiment men who would make excellent scouts, and that I should be very happy to take a few of them, and try myself to ascertain the strength of the enemy.
Question. The permission was not granted to you?
Answer. No, sir; but the general said he would mention it.
Question. You did not believe McMullin’s report at all?
Answer. Well, sir, it was just in this way: You probably know McMullin’s reputation. He has always been a noted character in Philadelphia— a bully, a kind of a character there. He is a fellow of courage, and all that, but he is not a man in whom I would place the most implicit confidence.
By Mr. Odell:
Question. Do you mean his judgment?
Answer. His judgment is good enough. But I would not place the utmost confidence in his statements. He is a man of courage, and of fighting propensities, and all that. He is that strong enough.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. He would report according to circumstances, not according to the fact? That is about the amount of it, is it?
Answer. Yes, sir; that is, I would not have that amount of confidence in his statements that I would have in the statements of others who felt more interest in the cause.
By Mr. Covode :
Question. Was he sent out to reconnoitre before you came back to Charlestown or after?
Answer. He was used for that purpose. There was a company raised at the request of General Patterson—not exactly as a body guard, but he used them as scouts and in matters of that kind.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Did he not make this report, that Johnston had 40,000 men at Winchester, after Johnston had left Winchester entirely?
Answer. I think so. We left Winchester on Sunday, and marched back to Harper’s Ferry. I did not think there was any knowledge then—at least we did not know—that Johnston had left Winchester.
By Mr. Covode :
Question. Was it after you came back to Charleston that you proposed to reconnoitre?
Answer. That was merely in the way of conversation with General Thomas. I merely stated to him, as we were talking about the fire in the evening, that I had very little confidence in McMullin, and that I had some men in my regiment whom I had the most implicit confidence in; and I would even go with them and see that this information was obtained. That was before we went to Charlestown; that was when we were at Martinsburg.
By the chairman:
Question. Had you any reason to believe that Johnston’s army had been re-enforced?
Answer. No, sir.
Question. You knew that Beauregard was to be attacked at Manassas?
Answer. I heard so.
Question. They would not, of course, under those circumstances, re-enforce Johnston from Manassas. And where was there any probability of his army being re-enforced ?
Answer. I do not know.
By Mr. Odell:
Question. When did the time of your regiment expire?
Answer. On the 21 st of July.
Question. What was the spirit of your men at Bunker Hill, in reference to marching against the enemy?
Answer. They were perfectly willing to go; they were anxious to march on Winchester.
Question. From Bunker Hill?
Answer. Yes, sir. We had the idea that we were to go home by way of Manassas, through Washington, and so on home that way. There was a rumor that we were to go home that way.
Question. How was it with the men when they were at Charlestown?
Answer. There was great dissatisfaction there.
Question. Do you think, as a military man, that Johnston could have been held or fought better from Bunker Hill than from Charlestown?
Answer. We were then seven miles nearer to him.
Question. Seven miles nearer at Bunker Hill than at Charlestown?
Answer. Yes, sir. We supposed the idea in the movement to Charlestown was to take this side road, and thus avoid the intrenched turnpike.
Question. Did not you and your officers understand that your business at Bunker Hill was to hold or fight Johnston while General McDowell engaged Beauregard at Manassas?
Answer. Yes, sir; I was told we were to prevent the junction.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. That was the general understanding, so far as you knew, of all the officers there?
Answer. Yes, sir; we supposed we were to attack him.
By Mr. Covode:
Question. Did you not believe that efforts were being made by McMullin and others to magnify the size and strength of Johnston’s army?
Answer. Not exactly that; I only judged from my knowledge of the man. I did not feel that I could depend upon his statements.