A Woman Flees Battle and Finds Battle
Mrs. J.K. M’Whorter, “Caring for the Soldiers in the Sixties” *
Mrs. McWhorter lived near the intersection of Frying Pan Church Road and the Little River Turnpike, north of Centreville. Later she would find the presence of Confederates about her exciting—“My sister and I had a great time all the summer of 1861….We were patriotic, and the Confederates stationed at this strategic point had to be looked after.”
But in July, as the Union army advanced, her family fled, heading west, taking refuge at the home of R.C. Weir, the owner of Sudley Mill, on the northern edge of the Bull Run Battlefield, a few hundred yards from Sudley Church.
One of the stirring events in which we participated was the flight from home just a few days before the first Manassas battle on July 21, 1861. We learned that the Yankees were advancing from Washington toward Manassas and became almost panic-stricken, for we supposed our homes would be in their path and that everything would be stolen, and, like the Widow Bedotte, “Our houses might conflagerate, and we be left forlorn.” So we decided there was no time to lose in getting inside the Confederate lines, as if the Confederacy could have any permanent lines!
The farm teams were hitched up and wagons packed with provisions and servants, some of the negroes being left at home to take care of things. The carriages and horses of the two families, with as many of our valuables as we could carry, brought up the rear of our procession. We moved off with no objective point that I can remember except getting inside the Confederate lines. Fortunately, we had some means in hand and supposed that would answer until better times dawned upon us.
We took the back roads leading from our neighborhood, hoping to keep clear of the Yankees. We had not gone more than seven or eight miles from home, I suppose, when, as we were going up a hill, the horses to the Cockerille carriage became unruly and commenced backing down hill. The occupants got out in a hurry, but the carriage was broken so that we could not go farther that day than Sudley Springs. Already a number of refugees were there. The house was occupied by a private family, but, as it had formerly been a hotel, it was large enough to accommodate a number of people. Mrs. Weir very kindly agreed to board us until we could get fixed up again and could see what best to do. Little did we suppose when we left home to get away from the Yankees that we would find ourselves encamped on what was to be a part of the famous first Manassas battle field.
We had been at Sudley Springs several days, waiting to see which way the Yankees were coming. Sunday morning, July 21, 1861, dawned on us clear, a typical July day. Most of the crowd had gathered about the long piazzas and front windows. We numbered about twenty ladies, several refugees from Washington among the number. Not long did we have to wait. We soon saw skirmishers scattered broadcast over the fields in front of us. One of these was a wheat field, full of shocks, each of which received special notice from a Yankee, who ran his bayonet through it in order to be sure it did not contain a hiding “Rebel.” Before long, however, Yankees discovered that this was not the way they would find the Rebels. There we sat or stood with feelings would be hard to describe now. Those were the first Yankees we had seen. A few moments more, a dark line of blue, with glittering bayonets, came slowly winding down the front of us. It was McDowell’s Corps, crossing Sudley Ford to flank Beauregard’s left. We were in the Yankee lines! Then some of them called at the house and told us of the “On to Richmond” program, of their great numbers, and how they had “Long Tom” in McDowell’s Corps and anticipated a small job in surrounding the little Confederate Army and capturing and killing the whole. Others told us they had men in a hollow and were mowing them down.
We had all of our silver buried that morning and, strange to say, we got it all again. My sister and I, with a number of the other ladies, a day or two before had helped tear up a bolt of red flannel, and a strip was tied around the arm of each soldier in a Virginia regiment to distinguish them from the enemy. Then we were all day holding up for our cause the best we could in our bearing toward the “Yanks.”
Late in the afternoon, as a fresh supply of stragglers were recounting their glorious deeds, we saw a dingy, dusty-looking body of cavalry dash over a distant hill in pursuit of some dark-looking objects. A lively little widow, who was discussing the battle with some of the Yanks, who were boasting of what they were doing, looked up and said: “What does that mean?” It was hard for them at first to think it was “Rebel” cavalry pursuing some of their panic-stricken, well-equipped men. You may be sure it did not take them long to think and say they had better be going. With that the little widow commenced singing and beating time with her hands to a quick step for them.
The fields spoken of soon presented a different appearance from what they did in the morning. Running Yanks were scattered all over them again, throwing down arms and everything that would hinder their speed. No time to run bayonets through wheat shocks! The “Rebs” were dashing after them and they were running for their lives. Soon we were in a glorious state of excitement. Our men were all about us, some bringing up prisoners and wounded Yanks.
Some of the cavalry paused at the doors long enough for us to hand them a cup of coffee or something to eat in hand. It was our supper time, and every one gladly gave up what was cooked to refresh the poor soldiers who had been fighting all day with nothing to eat. My grandmother and Aunt Martha contributed some provisions they had taken from home, and we had some of our best servants go to the kitchen and help cook. I remember handing coffee to some of our men who were on their horses at the back door; they had only time to swallow it down in a hurry, as they had to go the pursuit, and some looked after the wounded Yanks too.
We did not see a great deal of the fighting, as there was a hill between us and a part of the field where there was some heavy fighting. About dusk, when the crowd had passed on, we all went out on the field to see what we could capture in the way of arms. I picked up one of those valuable rifles; it was still cocked, and as I had not learned to handle fire arms I was afraid of it, and you can imagine how I looked when taking it to the house.
That night some of our badly wounded men were brought to the house, and we had plenty to do caring for them. Some of us sat up all night with them. It was dreadful to see them suffering so! Sudley church, a few hundred yards from us, used as a temporary hospital, was filled with the dead and dying, and they were scattered all about.
A few days later, when things were quiet again, we went back home, went near the Bull Run Bridge and not far from the Henry House. We walked over that part of the battle field, stood on the ground where Bee and Bartow fell, and saw the bullet holes in the old Henry House. The elderly woman who lived in this house was sick in bed during the battle and was wounded. Dead horses were lying thick around the house, and we could see blue coats sticking out of the shallow graves, while bones and skulls lying about made a horrible sight. I saw enough of the horrors of war to last me.
* Confederate Veteran, Vol. 29 (1921), p. 410-411.