Testimony of Col. William W. Averell
Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 213-218
WASHINGTON, January 28, 1862.
Colonel WILLIAM W. AVERELL sworn and examined.
By Mr. Gooch:
Question. What is your rank in the army?
Answer. I am lieutenant in the 3d regiment of regular cavalry and colonel of the 3d regiment of Pennsylvania cavalry, now commanding the second cavalry brigade.
Question. Were you at the battle of Bull Run?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. In whose division?
Answer. I was in General Hunter’s division, acting as assistant adjutant general to Colonel Andrew Porter at that time.
Question. What, in your judgment, caused the disaster of that day?
Answer. They commenced, I presume, almost from the time we started from Arlington, from the other side of the river. There were great many causes that combined to lose the day to us. The most apparent cause, however, at the time we first felt we were beaten, that we had to retire—and that we had felt for some time beforehand—was the want of concentration of the troops; the feeling that we ought to have had more men in action at one time.
Question. The want of concentration on the field?
Answer. Yes, sir. We crossed the run with 18,000 men. I do not believe there were over 6,000 or 8,000 actually engaged at any one time.
Question. There were more than that number engaged during the day?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Was it impossible to bring more men into action, or were not the proper steps taken to do so?
Answer. I am unable to say. I was not present at the council the night before, although I was almost immediately made aware by Colonel Porter of all that had taken place in the council. But as to what orders were given to other commanders of divisions or brigades I do not know.
Question. All you know is in relation to the management of your own division on the field?
Answer. Yes, sir.
Question. Were or not as many men of your own division brought into battle at any one time as could have been brought in?
Answer. I think they were.
Question. Was not the nature of the battle-field such that it was exceedingly difficult to bring a large body of men into action at any one time?
Answer. I think it was about as fine a battle-field as you can find between here and Richmond. I have no idea there was any better.
Question. Was the field favorable for the movement and manoeuvering of large bodies of men?
Answer. One or two divisions of the size we had then could have manoeuvred very well.
Question. I speak of the field as a whole?
Answer. Well, sir, to come to the causes of the disaster, another cause was perhaps the fall of General Hunter, who was wounded at the beginning of the action. That took Colonel Porter away from his brigade to look after the brigade that Colonel Burnside commanded. It was thrown into confusion, and Burnside was in danger of losing his battery, and came to Colonel Porter for a battalion of regulars to help him. That was diverted from the position it was originally intended for; from the extreme right to the extreme left of our division. They were the flank of the division, thrown out to lash the enemy, as you might say; that battalion being to our extreme right what the knot is to the lash. At the beginning of the action they could have inflicted very severe and telling blows upon the enemy. But as it was they were taken to the extreme left of the division. General Porter went to look after the affairs of that division. The enemy were repulsed and commenced giving way rapidly. In the mean time I had formed the brigade into line, developed it, and deployed it. The report of General Porter will tell you how it was done. The whole line of the centre of the enemy gave way, followed by the wings as far as we could see, and we drove them rapidly back. For the first two or three hours it seemed as though nothing could stop us. At the end of two or three hours, Heintzelman’s column came on the same ground; the 2d Minnesota, the 38th New York, and the 5th and 11th Massachusetts. There was a want of a headquarters somewhere on the field. All the staff officers who knew anything about the position of the enemy had to act without orders. I had the command of Colonel Porter’s brigade for about an hour and a half or two hours. After standing a half an hour in line, under a severe fire, without venturing to give an order to move, I formed the 8th and fourteenth New York in column, and pushed them down the road right straight to the house where we afterwards lost the batteries and everything. They went down in fine style, perfectly cool and in good order. They were going so rapidly that the enemy could not keep the range—were constantly losing the range; and the column was not cut much—had but very few casualties. When they got down to where the road they were on crossed the turnpike, then, by some misunderstanding, an order was sent to them to turn up that road, instead of keeping on according to the previous purpose, and thus those two regiments were diverted to the left. If they had gone up to that hill at the time the enemy were going away, they could, I believe, have taken that house and held that position. And then Griffin’s battery could have gone up there in safety, and they could have cut off the retreat of those rebels who were flying before Burnside’s brigade and Sykes’s battalion, probably 2,000 or 3,000 of them. Turning up this road kept our troops under the fire of the enemy’s batteries, and subjected them to a desultory fire from those running rebels, which broke them up. The eighth New York broke and never afterwards formed to any extent—not over 200. The field officers left the field and went back off the ground. There were only two officers in that regiment who afterwards displayed any courage and coolness at all that was observable—two field officers, the quartermaster and the major, I think. Griffin’s battery was then without support; and as I was passing by his battery at that time, he called to me and said he was without support, and asked what he should do. I saw the fourteenth New York collecting in little masses over to the left of the field. I rode as rapidly as possible over to them, collected them, and marched them over to the rear of Griffin’s battery.
Question. How many men did the regiment have then?
Answer. It was pretty nearly formed. .
Question. Pretty nearly full?
Answer. Yes, sir; I should think that three-fourths of the men were there. They formed very well, did very well, indeed. The officers behaved well; but, as I said before, this feeling was uppermost: want of orders. Lieutenant Whipple, who was acting assistant adjutant general to the division commander, and reported to Colonel Porter after General Hunter fell, and myself met about this time. We talked over the position of affairs, and came to the conclusion that that hill in front of us was the key-point of the enemy’s position, and must be taken before the battle would be given up. We felt that we had won the battle; but in order to make it decisive and hold the position, we would have to take that hill. We agreed upon a plan which was to collect the regiments in the centre of the field : the fifth and eleventh Massachusetts, the second Minnesota, the thirty-eighth New York, and, I think, Colonel Coffer’s regiment, sixty-ninth, I think—five or six regiments—and to send them up on the hill in line. Put the fourteenth on the right, with the marines and zouaves, and then move them all up together with Griffin’s battery in the centre. That would make an embrasure of troops for the battery to fire through, and they never could take the battery as long as these supports were on its flanks, neither could their cavalry ever charge upon the infantry line as long as the battery was there. We went over to the centre and succeeded in getting these five regiments started. I found Colonel Franklin and two or three other officers there who assisted me. Colonel Franklin was conspicuous. Colonel Wadsworth was also conspicuous in starting these regiments. Just about this time I became aware that General McDowell had come on the field from this fact. We saw the battery moving up on the hill. I had gone to Griffin and notified him of this plan, telling him these troops were going to move up, not to mistake them for the enemy and fire upon them. He had necessarily, from his position, to fire over their heads at one point of the movement, if he kept up his fire. A great many incidents occurred along about that time that I presume you have heard many times.
Question. We want the main statement.
Answer. The battery was seen moving up on the hill, and without any support except the marines and zouaves. The New York 14th was then down in a hollow; they had followed Griffin’s battery for about half the distance. There were two slopes coming down to each other; Griffin was on one slope and the enemy was on the other, which was a little higher than-the one we were on. The 14th went down into the hollow and there waited. The marines and zouaves went up with the battery, and had to cross a deep run with high banks on each side.
Question. Did Ricketts’ battery go with Griffin’s?
Answer. It joined it in this movement. I immediately rode over to the right of the field and inquired where General McDowell was. I found him on top of a little hill in a little field beyond the turnpike. In going over I had spoken to the 14th, and told them to push up to the woods on the right of Griffin’s battery. They went forward finely in line. I followed the 14th, going around the right flank of it, and got up on the hill where General McDowell was. General McDowell called out to the colonel of the 14th to march the regiment by flank. There was probably a delay of two or three minutes in executing that movement. I spoke, then, to the General, and said: “General, if that battery goes up on the hill it will be lost; the woods are full of the enemy, for I have seen them there. I had then been on the ground seven hours watching closely with a glass all the movements. Said I, “For heaven’s sake let the 14th go up in the woods.” Marching them by the flank, changing the movement, was sending them up in rear of the battery, where they could have no effect upon the enemy on the flank. General McDowell said: “Go and take the 14th where you want it.” I immediately went to the 14th, changed its direction to the woods, and told it to take the double quick. The battery was still moving. The general said it was too late to recall the movement. I was so apprehensive that the battery would meet with a disaster there that I rode up to where the battery was. The marines were then sitting down in close column on the ground on the left of the battery. The battery was then getting into position and unlimbering. The fire zouaves were still in rear of the battery. The zouaves immediately commenced a movement, rose up and moved off in rear of the battery, a little to the right. I rode up then to the left of the battery, and there met Colonel Heintzelman. I saw some troops immediately in front of us, not over 75 or 100 yards off. I should say it was at least a regiment; we could see their heads and faces very plainly. I said to Colonel Heintzelman: “What troops are those in front of us?” He was looking off in another direction. I said: “Here, right in front of the battery.” I do not remember the reply he made, but I dropped my reins and took up my glasses to look at them, and just at that moment down came their pieces, rifles and muskets, and probably there never was such a destructive fire for a few minutes. It seemed as though every man and horse of that battery just laid right down and died right off. It was half a minute—it seemed longer—before I could get my horse down out of the fire. I then went to the marines and halloed to them to hurry on. Their officers were standing behind them keeping them in ranks; but the destruction of the battery was so complete that the marines and zouaves seemed to be struck with such astonishment, such consternation, that they could not do anything. There were probably 100 muskets fired from the zouaves and marines—not over that; and they, of course, fired too high. They were below the battery, and where the battery was we could not see more than half of the bodies of the rebels, and what they did fire was ineffective. They began to break and run down the hill, and nothing could stop them, and then the enemy rushed right over there like a lowering cloud—right over the hill.
Question. Why did not the batteries open upon those men in front?
Answer. I do not know from actual operation why they did not. The battery was unlimbered, and the men were standing at the guns. In going down the hill, after the general wreck, I saw an officer galloping along a little in front of me. I recognized Major Barry, and cried out, “Halloo, Barry, is that you?” He said, “Yes,” Said I, “Where is Griffin?” He said, “I am afraid he is killed.” I said, “That battery is lost; I am afraid we are gone up,” or some remark to that effect. Barry then said: “I am to blame for the loss of that battery. I put Griffin there myself.” Well, the 14th, by this time, had reached the woods on the right, The 38th New York, which led the column on the left, which we intended to support when they got there, had reached this little cross-road, and the 14th and 38th held on very well—indeed, splendidly. The enemy came right over the brow of the hill, and their fire was very deadly. They made a rush over the top of the hill, and their cavalry made their appearance at the same time; this 14th and 38th hung on for fifteen minutes there, while all the officers about there tried to collect these scattered troops and get them back to that position to the assistance of the 14th and 38th, and appealed to them in every way that possibly could be done. But it was of no avail. What there was left of the battery, a few limbers and caissons that had live horses to drag them, came galloping down the hill, right through this mass of running troops, and occasionally a horse would fall, and the whole thing would get all tangled up.
Question. Was or not that the beginning of the panic?
Answer. That was the turning point of the affair, right there.
Question. Did you not look upon that as the turning point upon the field?
Answer. Yes, sir; oh! yes, sir. We had eight regiments marching towards that hill then.
Question. Were those batteries properly supported when they moved up the hill?
Answer. No, sir; that is shown from the fact that they were taken.
Question. If they had been properly supported they would not have been taken?
Answer. No, sir.
Question. Could they have been properly supported?
Answer. Yes, sir; the troops were there to do it.
Question. Then it was a mistake to order those batteries forward without a proper support—a mistake on the part of some one?
Answer. It must have been so.
Question. Do you know why Captain Griffin did not open fire upon the regiment in front of them?
Answer. It was generally understood that these troops were mistaken.
Question. By whom was the mistake made?
Answer. It was understood that these troops were mistaken for our own, and Captain Griffin was ordered not to fire. My impression is that it was the chief of artillery on the field who made the mistake.
Question. Who was the chief of artillery?
Answer. Major Barry.
Question. General Franklin’s brigade came on after that, did they?
Answer. Well, sir, they were partially on the field then. I do not know exactly what troops composed his brigade. He was there himself. Then Sykes’s battalion moved across and occupied this hill in the middle ground, and held it. Our troops then scattered all over the battle-field, their backs turned towards the enemy, and all going to the rear.
Question. The capture of that battery, and the rapid retreat of the horses and men in the vicinity of the battery, tended to create confusion among all those in the rear?
Answer. Yes, sir; that taken in connexion with the exhaustion of the men. There was no water for the men to drink about there, except in the rear, and a great many were dying of thirst. Everybody wanted water. Well, sir, it was a pretty hot day; and it was probably a little unfortunate for us that the water was in the rear of the field of battle. We then came back to our first position on the field of battle. If we had had a fresh division there, or a fresh brigade there, we could have made a stand. Johnston’s forces—that is, I have been told since they were Johnston’s forces—made their appearance on the field at that time.
Question. Just at the time of the loss of the batteries?
Answer. Yes, sir. They deployed in several lines on our extreme right, and with the rapidity, apparently, of fresh troops. The moral effect of that deployment had a great deal to do with the panic among our troops.
Question. That happening at the same time with the loss of the batteries?
Answer. Yes, sir. If we had not lost the batteries, and had had a fresh brigade there, we could have made a stand there, because our troops formed very well back on our first position. The 27th New York formed first, and stood steady (though the men were very much exhausted) for nearly half an hour, while the other fragments of regiments gathered in their places about them, the enemy’s artillery throwing projectiles right through us all the while. We had no artillery to reply to them, only a section of the battery of Captain Arnold. We had no artillery, no fresh troops, and could not make a stand, but were forced to retire.
Question. Then you attribute the disasters of the day to the loss of Griffin’s and Ricketts’ batteries, the great exhaustion of the men from the want of water, and the fact that Johnston’s troops came on the field fresh just at the tune of the loss of the batteries?
Answer. Yes, sir. Those three causes alone would have been sufficient to have defeated us. But there were many other minor causes that had their effect. There was a want of discipline in our troops.
Question. The troops were not familiar with their officers?
Answer. Yes, sir; that was one thing. That they could have stood was shown in the way that Sykes’s battalion stood, because they were disciplined, and came off the field in regular order.