Baltimore, Md., January 15, 1897
John O. Casler:
Dear Comrade: Our command reached Manassas Junction on the 20th of July, in the morning, I think. We marched during the day to the right of the line, and the next day we marched and countermarched, halted and rushed, as the changing localities of the conflict, as far as our commanders could anticipate, seemed to require. My dinner was made from blackberries, for being outside of the ranks (as Sergeant Major) I could pick them as we passed over the fields. About 1 o’clock our regiment reached the elevation on which is seated the historic Henry house, and took position on the left flank of our brigade, up to that hour known as the 1st Brigade, or Jackson’s Brigade, ever afterwards as the Stonewall Brigade.
As we approached our position, we heard for the first time the horrid screaming of hostile shells going over our heads high up in the air, but not so high as not to be dangerous. I recall now with some amusement the intense gravity and astonishment written upon the faces of the men as these dangerous missiles from the batteries of Rickett and Griffin went hurtling over us; but I recall no signs of timidity. The men kept in their ranks, obeyed orders and moved into position on the left of the 2d Virginia, of which Brother Strother, my cousin, Willie Barton, and all my Winchester friends were members, with steadiness and resolution. My brother David was in the Rockbridge Battery, which was being supported by our brigade. My uncle, Frank Jones, and my brother-in-law, Thomas Marshall, were on Jackson’s staff. I felt the solemnity of the moment, but I recall no disposition whatever to turn and run. On the other hand, a sense of pride, a desire to emulate the action of the best men on the field possessed me, as it did, I believe, all of our command, except the Adjutant of our regiment. I think I went into that action with less trepidation than into any subsequent one. Inexperience doubtless had much to do with it, but, again, I attribute much of the nerve that sustained me to my year at Lexington. I felt on the field that the orders of our officers were supreme; that come what might, they must be obeyed, and discipline told on me from first to last. I will not give many details of the battle; they have been told by so many writers that it would prolong this narrative unduly for me to repeat them. I will only say that, after taking our position on the left of the brigade, we laid upon the ground listening to the musketry and cannonading going on to our right, or, rather, somewhat in front of our right, from the Confederate forces, which was being vigorously responded to by the Yankees. The “Henry house” was in front of our brigade, over the hill – the upper part of the house visible – and the Robinson house was to the right of that several hundred yards. Occasional shells would explode over our regiment, and the solemn wonderment written on the faces of the men as they would crane their heads around to look our for falling branches was almost amusing. I was near the left flank of the regiment, a few steps in rear, where, upon the formation of the regiment in line of battle, I belonged. Doubtless I wished I was home, but I had to stick. I remember an elderly man riding leisurely by towards the left, in rear of us, apparently giving orders. Some one, possibly myself, asked him who he was. He turned his horse and said: “I am Colonel Smith, otherwise Governor Smith, otherwise Extra Billy Smith.” It was, in fact, Colonel Smith, a game old fellow, who, I suppose, was looking over the ground for a position for his regiment, the 49th Virginia, as it subsequently took position on our left, and finally united in one of the charges on Griffin’s Battery.
Colonel Cummings and Lieutenant Colonel Lee were in front of our regiment, perhaps a hundred yards, stooping down, and occasionally standing to get a view over the crest of the hill that rose gently before us for a little over a hundred yards. The musketry kept up on our right, and then Colonels Cummings and Lee were seen to rise and, bending down, to come back with somewhat quickened steps to the regiment. I remember, as Colonels Cummings drew near, he called out: “Boys, they are coming, now wait until they get close before you fire.”
Almost immediately several pieces of artillery, their horses in front, made their appearance on the hill in front of us, curving as if going into battery, and at the same time I descried the spear-point and upper portion of a United States flag, as it rose in the hands of its bearer over the hill; then I saw the bearer, and the heads of the men composing the line of battle to the right and left of him. At the sight several of our men rose from the ranks, leveled their muskets at the line, and, although I called out, “Do not fire yet,” it was of no use; they fired and then the shrill cry of Colonel Cummings was heard, “Charge!” and away the regiment went, firing as they ran, into the ranks of the enemy, and particularly at the battery towards which our line rapidly approached. Although bearing a non-commissioned officers sword, I had obtained a cartridge box, belted it on, and had in some one secured a flintlock musket, with which one of our companies was armed. This gun, after two futile efforts, I fired at a man on horseback in the battery, one of the drivers, I think. I got near enough the battery to see that it was thoroughly disabled, horses and men falling, and our line driving ahead, when I felt the sting of a bullet tearing a piece from my side, just under my cartridge box, which I had pulled well around on the right and front of my waist. I called out that I was wounded to my uncle, Frank Jones, who helped me up on his horse, and carried me to the rear.
I think it can be demonstrated that the victory of First Manassas is traceable to Colonel Cummings. For fifteen or twenty minutes before our regiment (the 33d Virginia) rose and charged Griffin’s Battery the men of Bee’s and Bartow’s (and, I think, Evans’) commands were coming back over the hill from the Robinson and Henry houses in the greatest disorder, a flying, panic-stricken mob. The Stonewall Brigade maintained the line with the steadiness of veterans. The Rockbridge Battery, with its little guns, was doing its best. Jackson, about that time, rode along the front of his brigade, waiting for the critical moment to order his men into action. It was in his efforts to rally his command that the gallant Bee called to them to rally behind the Virginians. Pointing to Jackson, he used the memorable expression, “Look at Jackson, standing like a stone wall.” The precise expression he used it is impossible to learn. He most probably said, “Look at Jackson and his men, standing like a stone wall.” He had galloped up to Jackson a moment before, and had said: “General, they are driving us back,” and Jackson replied, the words snapping from his lips like grape-shot from a gun, “Then we will give them the bayonet.”
Bee turned to gallop toward his fleeing men, with the inspiration of Jackson possessing him, called out his immortal language, and fell, mortally wounded.
“Jackson had, within the half hour before, passed along his brigade the order not to fire until the enemy was within 30 paces, and then charge. So Colonel Cummings writes to me under the date of September 20, 1896. But, says Colonel Cummings, the shells of the enemy had caused some confusion “with the left company of my regiment,” or, rather, his command of eight companies, and when Griffin’s Battery showed itself on the hill in front of us, and occasional shots began to fall among us from the enemy moving towards our left to flank us, when the tumult of the broken ranks of Bee and Bartow was threatening the steadiness of our right, and the enemy, with exultant shouts, was pressing on, Colonel Cummings, like a flash, thought if those guns get into battery and pour one discharge of grape and canister into the ranks of my raw recruits the day is gone, and then it was, with splendid discretion, he took the responsibility of changing his orders, with the changed conditions, as Grouchy should have done at Waterloo, and charged the enemy.
The suddenness of our attack, the boldness of it, for our men went over and past the battery, the disabling of the guns, all checked the advancing lines. It was immediately followed up by the remainder of the brigade charging, and the troops on our left poured in. The tide of battle turned when it dashed against the farmer boys of the 33d Virginia. It was the first resistance it had met. The enemy came upon the point of a spear, one small regiment of undisciplined boys and me, not a month from the plough-handle and mechanic’s shop. The point broadened, as to the right and left assistance poured in, until it became a sharp blade against which the enemy could not and dared not rush; but the 33d led the van of the movement that first arrested McDowell’s victorious line, and from that moment the scene changed, and from the brink of disaster our army turned to a great victory. Colonel Cummings changed the life of McDowell by his order, “Charge!” He may have changed the history of the war. The battle pivoted upon his nerve. It was the turning point in tremendous events.
I visited the Robinson and Henry houses in September, 1861, and again in September, 1896. My last visit caused me to correspond with Colonel Cummings and read every line I could lay my eyes upon, including the reports of officers on both sides, as published in the compilation called the Rebellion Record, and I believe what I have attributed to Colonel Cummings cannot be successfully gainsaid. He turned the tide of the battle at First Manassas. Instead of the Confederate army flying as a mob to the Rappahannock, the Yankee army fled as a mob to Washington.
Several days have elapsed since I wrote the above. A day or so ago I accidentally saw in the Mercantile Library the “Recollections of a Private,” by Warren Lee Goss, of the Federal army. Turning to his narrative of the battle I find (p.13) a good representation of the Henry house plateau and the confusion in Griffin’s Battery following the attack of the 33d Regiment. I recognize the Sudley mill road, the entrance to the Henry place, on the left of the road, and the fence torn away to allow Griffin’s Battery freely to leave the rad and go upon the plateau. In September, 1896, I stood on this very ground, and , observing that between the bed of the road and the fence on the left hand side there was the usual wash, or gutter, I remarked to my companions that no doubt Griffin tore down the fence and filled the wash with the rails, thus making and easy crossing into the field for his artillery. The picture I am looking at shows the fence torn down, and imagination shows the rails placed as I surmised.
And now I quote from the book what seems to me brings the 33d face to face with the troops Goss writes about. Remember that the Sudley Mills road runs a south-easterly course from the mill to the Henry plateau. Our regiment charged northwesterly. McDowell’s line came over the hill supporting Griffin’s Battery, at right angles to the Sudley Mills road, advancing southeasterly.
Says Gross: “About 1 o’clock the fence skirting the road at the foot of the hill was pulled down to let our batteries (Griffin’s and Rickett’s) pass up to the plateau. The batteries were in the open field near us. We were watching to see what they’d do next, when a terrible volley was poured into them. It was like a pack of Fourth of July fire-crackers under a barrel magnified a thousand times. The Rebels had crept upon them unawares and the batteries were all killed and wounded.
“Here,” says Gross, continuing, “let me interrupt Tinkemann’s narrative to say that one of the artillerymen then engaged has since told me that, though he had been in several battles since, he had seldom seen worse destruction in so short a time. He said they saw a regiment advancing, and the natural inference was that they were Rebels.. But an officer insisted that it was a New York regiment, which was expected for support, and so no order was given to fire on them. Then came a tremendous explosion of musketry,” says the artilleryman, “and all was confusion; wounded men with dripping wounds were clinging to caissons, to which were attached frightened and wounded horses. Horses attached to caissons rushed through the infantry ranks. I saw three horses galloping off, dragging a fourth, which was dead.
“The dead cannoneers lay with the rammers of the guns and the lanyards in their hands. The battery was annihilated by those volleys in a moment. Those who could get away didn’t wait. We had no supports near enough to protect us properly, and the enemy was within seventy yards of us when that volley was fired. Our battery being demolished in that way was the beginning of our defeat at Bull Run,” says the old regular.
This ends the quotation. I have italicized the words which strike me as a direct confirmation of the claim I make that the 33d turned the tide, and Colonel Cummings’ timely order let loose the 33d at the very crisis of the battle. I distinctly only claim that with the order and because of the order came the first check McDowell sustained. That other troops immensely aided in forcing back the Yankee line when thus checked, I freely admit. But our regiment called a halt in the victorious advance of the enemy. I dwell upon the circumstance because of the great interest it adds to the engagement to know that you belonged to the regiment that received and repelled the dangerous thrust of the enemy at the nice turning point of the day. I should think to Colonel Cummings the circumstances would be of extraordinary interest, and that he would time and again reflect how little he thought, when he braced himself to give the order to his regiment, that he was making a long page in history.
“Late Staff Officer 2d Corps, A. N. V.”
James I. Robertson, Jr., ed., Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, pp. 40 – 46
Randolph J. Barton at Ancestry.com