Testimony of Maj. William W. Russell
Report on the Conduct of the War, Vol. 2, pp. 228-234
WASHINGTON, March 5,1862.
Major WILLIAM W. RUSSELL sworn and examined.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. What is your rank and position in the army?
Answer. I am major and paymaster of the marine corps.
Question. Were you attached to the staff of General Patterson during his advance into Virginia; and if so, how did you become so attached, being an officer of the marine corps?
Answer. From current reports and rumors I became convinced that General Patterson’s column would be engaged in the valley of Virginia, and I sought leave of absence from the Secretary of the Navy to endeavor to join General Patterson’s staff, where I thought I could be useful. I held a semi-civil position here as paymaster of the marine corps at the time. Having a great many friends south, and being a southern man myself, when my brother officers were resigning all around me, I thought it my duty to endeavor to do something for the government which had supported me for eighteen years, and something out- aide of my ordinary semi-civil duties. I obtained permission from my department and authority from the commandant of my corps to transact my business during my absence. General Cameron gave me a letter to General Patterson. General Scott, finding that I was going, also gave me a letter, though I made no application to him for it. I went up and joined General Patterson at Martinsburg, and he immediately placed me on his staff as one of his aids.
Question. What movements did General Patterson make after you joined him?
Answer. On the 15th of July he moved from Martinsburg on Bunker Hill with about 18,000 men and took possession of that place. He remained there until Wednesday morning, the 17th, when he marched to Charlestown. The only rebel force we observed on the march was a detachment of cavalry, said to be commanded by Colonel Stuart. The Rhode Island battery, on the right of our column, expended several shots in dispersing them.
Question. Were you aware of any reconnoissance being made from Bunker Hill towards Winchester?
Answer. No, sir; I was not. I heard some rumors of a reconnoissance made by some of General Sanford’s staff, but there were so many stories told I did not rely upon them. Colonel Thomas advanced several miles on the road with a portion of the cavalry under his command. I do not think any extended reconnoissance was made.
Question. What information had you relative to the force of the enemy?
Answer. A deserter presented himself at the headquarters of General Patterson at Bunker Hill, who seemed to be of a very communicative disposition. From his statement, the captain of engineers made a diagram of the works and defences of Winchester. I have it here. It reads “Defences of Winchester, obtained from a deserter from the confederate army, and believed to be reliable. J. H. Simpson, captain of engineers.” The deserter was so very communicative that I had some curiosity to find out something about him. I asked him where he was from, and he told me he was from the neighborhood of Bunker Hill. A son of a merchant whose house we occupied there was a smart, bright little fellow of some thirteen or fourteen years of age. We were very careful to protect the property left in his charge, and at my request sentinels were posted about his father’s store. He had every confidence we would protect the property and pay for what we got there. I asked him about this man. In the first place, ae a deserter I did not believe him, because he was a perjured man, and had deserted the flag he had sworn to support. This boy stated that this man and his brother were worthless characters, who resided within two miles of Bunker Hill; that he would work a few days and then loaf about the drinking establishments ; that he had no character or reputation in the community in which he lived. I stated the information I had thus gained.
Question. Did you state it to General Patterson?
Answer. I think I stated it in his presence. I said that on general principles I would not believe a deserter, because a man who would be false to his oath would be false in his statements.
Question. What was your opinion at that time relative to the force of the enemy?
Answer. I had no opinion about it. I did not believe a word that I heard. We had no positive means of getting information. They were all idle rumors, that I did not think were reliable at all. On the 17th we marched to Charlestown, not seeing any rebel force on that march, and encamped in and around that place with the whole of our army.
Question. During your service with General Patterson, were you aware of the receipt by him of any despatches from General Scott, relative to the movement of his column? If so, state what they were.
Answer. On the night of the 17th, General Patterson and his staff having all retired, I was sitting on the porch of the house we occupied as headquarters. Between twelve and one o’clock at night a special messenger arrived with a despatch for General Patterson. He was accompanied hy one of General Sanford’s aids; I do not now recollect who it was. That despatch I took up to the adjutant general of the column, Colonel Fitz-John Porter. I woke him up, and he read it in his bed, I reading it at the same rime. Colonel Porter arose from his bed, and exhibited it to Captain Newton, the chief of the engineer corps of that army. After some little discussion, of which I do not recollect the particulars, (it did not amount to much,) Colonel Porter requested me to take the despatch to General Patterson and wake him up. I suggested that I had but lately joined his staff, and would prefer his doing it. I thought it was a despatch of very great importance. He said, “You better take it.” I replied, “I will do so,” and proceeded to General Patterson’s room, where I aroused him from his sleep, and handed the despatch to him. It was as follows:
“HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY,
“July 17, 1861—9.30 p.m.
“I have nothing official from you since Sunday, but I am glad to learn from the 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 taken to-morrow.
“Major General PATTERSON,
“United States Forces, Harper’s Ferry.”
I read from a copy which I got at the War Department, and I believe it a true copy of that despatch. After General Patterson had read it twice over he turned to me and asked me if I had read it. I told him that I had. He then asked me what I thought of it. I replied that I had lately joined his staff, and would beg that he would ask Colonel Porter, or some other officer who had been with him longer than I had, as I did not like to give him an opinion. He said, “I desire your opinion, sir.” I then replied, “I will give you my opinion, honestly and without hesitation. I look upon that despatch as a positive order from General Scott to attack Johnston wherever you can find him; and if you do not do it, I think you will be a ruined man. It will be impossible to meet the public sentiment of the country if you fail to carry out this order. And in the event of a misfortune in front of Washington, the whole blame will be laid to your charge.” Those were as nearly the words as I can now recollect. He said, “Do you think so, sir?” I repeated that that was my honest conviction. He then said, “I will advance to-morrow. But how can we make a, forced march with our trains?” I said, “Sir, if you cannot send them across the river into Maryland, we can make a bonfire of them.” I then said, “General, have you positively made up your mind to this advance?” He said, “I have.” “Then,” said I, “I hope you will allow no one to influence you tomorrow in relation to it.” The next morning orders were sent to the different brigades and divisions to cook three days’ rations, and to be ready to march at a moment’s notice. I had no conversation with any one in relation to my interview with General Patterson up to 9 o’clock in the morning. About 9 o’clock I was in the room occupied as an office, when several prominent officers of the column appeared. I think they had been summoned there by the general. General Patterson entered and said, “Gentlemen, I have sent for you, not for the purpose of consulting you as to the propriety of the movement I intend to make, but as to the best mode of making it.” I then left the room. After these officers had separated I was told by the general that he did not think the Pennsylvania troops would march, and that an order had been issued for them to be assembled on their parade grounds that afternoon, that he might consult them in person. He did so. He appealed to them in very strong terms to remain with him a week or ten days; that they had promised him that in the event of a battle taking place they would stand by him, and he desired them to intimate, when the command “shoulder arms” was given to each regiment, whether they would comply with his wish. Several of the Pennsylvania regiments came to a shoulder when the order was given—one (Colonel Patterson’s) with but one exception; but the majority in the others failed to respond. I was near General Patterson during the whole time, and heard his speech to them. The advance was not made.
By Mr. Covode:
Question. Did General Patterson, at any time when he was addressing the troops, propose to march on to Winchester?
Answer. No, sir; not to my knowledge. General Patterson did not ask the troops whether they would advance against the enemy at Winchester. He asked them if they would remain with him. I think it due to those troops to state their condition as to clothing. They were very poorly clothed, indeed. Many of the men had their pantaloons patched with canvas from the flies of the tents, and their garments were particolored. They had received very hard treatment; were very badly clad, and many of them were without shoes. I did not hear General Patterson, before any regiment of Pennsylvania troops, ask them if they would advance against the enemy.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Had you any conversation with any of the officers in relation to this advance?
Answer. After I left the room, which I did while this discussion was going on, and which I had no curiosity to hear, Colonel Abercrombie, who commanded one of the brigades, came to me and asked me what I thought of the proposed movement of General Patterson. From the relations that existed between Colonel Abercrombie and General Patterson, I felt satisfied that he already knew my views about the proposed movement. When conversing in reference to the movement of the trains, and the suggestion that if they could not be saved, I thought that, under the circumstances, they should be burned, Colonel Abercrombie desired to know how the men could get along without their cooking utensils. I suggested that there were plenty of trees and bushes between Charlestown and Winchester, and the men could cook their meat as they did in California, by holding it before the fire. Then he remarked, “You would place everything on the hazard of the die; sacrifice our line of communication, and in all probability cause the command to be cut off.” I told him that I thought General Patterson was just in the position to place everything at that hazard; that if he failed to move, I was satisfied that, no matter how pure his intentions might be, he would be overwhelmed by public sentiment. I told him that as to cutting off our communication, I felt perfectly satisfied that the people of this country would open the line of communication if he took the risk suggested. The colonel did not agree with me, and our conversation ceased.
Question. You spoke some time ago about some information furnished by a deserter. Had General Patterson, that you know of, any reliable information in regard to the enemy?
Answer. Not that I know of. I think I should have heard it if he had had any.
By Mr. Odell:
Question. You deemed Bunker Hill an important position for the purpose of holding the enemy?
Answer. Well, sir, Bunker Hill was, I think, 10 miles from Winchester, and at Charlestown we were 22 miles in another direction. By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Did you not at Bunker Hill directly threaten Johnston?
Answer. By our advance from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill we threatened him.
Question. When you turned off to Charlestown from Bunker Hill, did you not intimate to the enemy that you were leaving him, and that he was free to move where he pleased?
Answer. If putting more miles between us and the enemy was such an intimation, we made it.
By the chairman:
Question. As a military man, in your judgment, was there any insuperable obstacle or barrier to your detaining Johnston there, if you had pursued him vigorously from Bunker Hill?
Answer. I think if we had advanced on Johnston, our men could, in all probability, have marched as fast as he could. Having only 10 miles the start of us, he could not have got to Manassas much before we could. If he had attempted to pull up the railroad as he passed along, we should then have overhauled him.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question. Did General Patterson send you to Washington with despatches for General Scott? If so, what took place at that interview?
Answer. General Patterson sent me to Washington to explain to General Scott the reason of his not moving against Winchester. He sent me on Friday, the 19th, and I arrived here on Saturday morning. I immediately called upon General Scott at his private quarters, and found him there with several of his staff. I stated to him what General Patterson had directed me to say to him, as nearly as I could. I exhibited to him the sketch made by the captain of engineers, giving the plan of the fortifications at Winchester, and the forces that occupied them, as stated by the deserter. General Scott seemed very much annoyed at the failure of the troops to advance, and said to me, “Why did not General Patterson advance?” I said, “Sir, General Patterson directed me to say to you that he understood your orders to him were to make demonstrations; to hold Johnston, not to drive him.” The general turned in his chair very fiercely on me, and said very excitedly, “I will sacrifice my commission if my despatches will bear any such interpretation.” Seeing the excited manner of the general, I begged to be excused for the present, and said I would call on him again at 12 o’clock, at his office. I then left him. I called at 12 o’clock, and he informed me that the Secretary of War had the day before relieved General Patterson from the command of that column, and had ordered General Banks to succeed him. I will state, also, that at this time I urged upon General Scott the request of General Patterson that re-enforcements should be sent him to enable him to make the movement on Winchester. And after my return my impression was that if they would give General Banks 25,000 men, and let him force his way through and take possession of Winchester and Strasburg, it would be an important movement at that time. That same movement seems now to be taking place under General Banks, other troops being placed in position at his old camps. On Monday morning, the 22d of July, I left this place on my return. On my arrival at Sandy Hook, a mile this side of Harper’s Ferry, I observed some officers I had left at Charlestown, and a number of troops. I called to them and asked them what they were doing there. They said that the whole army was at Harper’s Ferry. That was the first knowledge I had of any contemplated movement from Charlestown to Harper’s Ferry.
Question. Did you not understand when you advanced from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill that your object was to whip Johnston, or at least to hold him there?
Answer. To hold him; not to allow him to re-enforce Manassas. There is another thing that convinced me that my view of the despatch to which I have referred was correct. Another despatch was received by General Patterson from General Scott, on the 18th, as follows :
“SIR : I have certainly been expecting you to beat the enemy; if not, to hear 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 his superior, in numbers. Has he not stolen a march, and sent re-enforcements towards Manassas Junction? A week is enough to win victories. The time of volunteers counts from the day of mustering into the service of the United States. You must not retreat across the Potomac. If necessary, when abandoned by the short-term volunteers, intrench somewhere and wait for re-enforcements.”
By Mr. Odell:
Question. What was the temper of the troops on the receipt of orders to move from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill, and while at Bunker Hill?
Answer. The march from Martinsburg to Bunker Hill was made in admirable order. I rode along the line several times to convey orders from the right to the left, and there did not seem to be any dissatisfaction that I could observe. The men preserved the order of march, and seemed to be in very good spirits.
Question. Did any dissatisfaction manifest itself at Bunker Hill?
Answer. I heard of none. The men violated the regulations somewhat, by foraging around, as all soldiers will.
Question. Did you hear of any expression of opinion to the effect that the men did not want to make an advance?
Answer. I heard some of the officers speak of the certainty of the Pennsylvania troops claiming their discharge at the expiration of their term of service.
By Mr. Chandler:
Question Where was that?
Answer. I do not know. It was a general rumor.
Question. At Charlestown you heard of great dissatisfaction?
Answer. Yes, sir.
By Mr. Odell:
Question. Was there any dissatisfaction among the troops at going to meet the enemy?
Answer. I do not know that the men ever had that point—that they were going against the enemy—presented to them. Many of the men were in very bad condition as to clothing, &c. There was a regiment there from Indiana that was in as bad, if not a worse, condition than any regiment I have seen. General Patterson did not address that regiment. But they volunteered through their colonel to remain, without the suggestion of any one. Many of the men had no shoes, and the feet of some of them were so cut and injured by the flinty roads over which they marched that their officers had to order them to be carried in the wagons. Yet they volunteered through Colonel Wallace, their commander, to advance on Winchester, or against the enemy.
By Mr. Covode:
Question. Did the troops know they were retreating when they left Bunker Hill?
Answer. I do not think that either the officers or the men were aware that they were retreating, except from the direction that they took. After General Patterson was relieved, General Banks invited me to remain and occupy the same position on his staff that I had on General Patterson’s. I did so until after he moved across the Potomac with the main body of his army and encamped on this side. The movement across the river was made hy General Banks after full consultation with all the highest officers in his command, who voted each separately that it would be highly imprudent and dangerous to attempt to continue the occupancy of Harper’s Ferry with the small force left under his command; and that it could be held by means of guns mounted on the Maryland side, and without risk to his troops. On their advice he acted. He never surrendered, during the time I was up there, the place of Harper’s Ferry, but always kept a guard there for its protection.
By Mr. Covode:
Question. Did you, before you went up there, hare any conversation with General Scott; and if so, what did he tell you as to what he wanted done?
Answer. After receiving permission, and the order from General Cameron to proceed to join General Patterson, I called on Colonel Townsend, the assistant adjutant general, and offered to convey any despatches he might have for General Patterson’s column. While there General Scott heard my voice and called me into his room, and inquired when I was going. I told him. He then asked why I did not come to him for a letter to General Patterson. I told him I knew he was very much engaged, and I was almost afraid to ask to see him. He then directed Colonel Townsend to write a letter and bring it to him to sign. I think he remarked that we were in the same boat, meaning that we were both southern men, he from Virginia and I from Maryland. I said to him, “General, I have made up my mind that the column of General Patterson will be engaged by Sunday.” He replied, “It may be before that, but it cannot be long before it is.” I told him then that I would hurry and try to join General Patterson as soon as possible, which I did. I will remark here, that what I have stated in my testimony are entirely impressions of my own. And my advice, if it may be so called, to General Patterson as to an advance, was to meet the sentiment of the country, and what I conceived to be the first wish of the people—the defeat of the army of the rebels in front of Washington.
By Mr. Odell:
Question. What were your relations with General Patterson while with him and subsequently?
Answer. The first time I ever met General Patterson was at Martinsburg, when I presented the letters of General Cameron and General Scott, recommending me to his notice. General Patterson’s bearing towards me was exceedingly kind; he extended to me every courtesy and confidence during the time I was with him, and, in consequence, I have always felt the liveliest feelings of gratitude towards him. His impressions of my services may be obtained from this letter:
“HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF PENNSYLVANIA,
“Harper’s Ferry, July 25, 1861.
“MAJOR : I regret that in relinquishing the command of this department I can no longer avail myself of your services on my personal staff. For the promptness and gallantry with which those services were tendered at a critical moment, and the zeal and fidelity with which they have been discharged throughout, I can only offer you my cordial thanks.
“I remain, with great regard, very sincerely, yours,
“Major General Commanding.
“United States Marine Corps, &c.”