SENTINELS’ SHARP EARS FIRST DETECTED ENEMY
How Palmetto State Pickets Got Earliest Intimation of Presence of Union Army at Manassas and Gave Information That May Have Turned the Tide of That Battle.
By Captain C. K. Henderson, of South Carolina. [*]
On Saturday afternoon, the day before the battle of Manassas, between sundown and dark, Colonel Thomas G. Bacon of the Seventh South Carolina Infantry, Bonham’s brigade, ordered Captain John S. Hard to take his Company F of that regiment and go on picket duty for the night. Captain Hard took his company across the stream Bull Run to the north side and to the top of the hill, and there filed to the left out of the road into the clover field. And here we were informed we were to spend the whole night on guard duty. Half of the company was detailed in groups of four, and the balance of the company was held in reserve fifty yard in the rear of the half that had been deployed as pickets. Mr. Henderson and his three comrades – Benjamin Sharpton, James Kadle and Smithfield Radford – formed the first group and were located on the main road between Manassas and Centerville, at Mitchell’s Ford. Two of the men of each group were allowed to sleep at the post in the clover while the other two were on guard, and they changed at intervals. The only instruction given was to halt anybody approaching from the north, and if they did not stop to shoot.
About midnight Captain Samuel McGowan, special aid to General Bonham, rode up from the rear and asked what was going on, and they reported to him that everything was well, except that the enemy was marching to their left up the creek. That information seemed to excite him and he asked how they knew, and they told him they had heard the marching soldiers, moving wagons and cannons for hours. He dismounted and one of the picket held his horse and he went forward a few paces in front of the picket. He asked if the matter had been reported to General Beauregard, and he was told that no instructions had been given as to that. He said if our opinion was correct, General Beauregard should know it at once. He reported to General Bonham and the to General Beauregard. The pickets continued on post all night, and next morning at sun-up they moved forward in the direction of the enemy, marching into and through a scope of woods. When we arrived on the north side of the woods, the whole Federal army was exposed to view, marching up the river in the direction of Stone Bridge. During the morning they were relieved of picket duty and their company rejoined their regiment down at Mitchell’s Ford. Not long afterwards the booming of cannon up the river told that the two armies had met the first time in deadly combat.
A number of years ago Mr. Henderson wrote to Captain, then Judge McGowan, the following letter about that eventful night, and Judge McGowan’s reply is recopied from the Abbeville Press and Banner. We publish both:
Aiken S.C., July 22, 1891.
Judge Samuel McGowan,
My Dear Sir, – It has been thirty years since the event occurred that leads to this not. Probably you will remember it, probably not.
On the night before the battle of Manassas, or Bull Run, which was Saturday night, the writer with a comrade, Benjamin Sharpton, was on picket guard on the outer line – on the left hand side of the rad leading from Manassas to Centerville via Mitchell’s Ford, across Bull Run – and while on post you came to us and asked us what the enemy were doping and we told you they were moving up the river to our left. You asked how we knew it, and we said: “By the noise of the wagons, artillery, etc.,” and you thought we were mistaken. You got off your horse and went forward a few steps ion front of our lines and listened for a short time, and then came back to us and said what we thought about the enemy was correct: that the general commanding the army must know of it at once, and asked why we had not reported it before that time, etc. We told you we had no instructions to report anything, but to shoot anyone coming from the direction of the enemy. You mounted your horse and made off in great haste to report the movements of the enemy, which I have no doubt you did.
I saw you several times next day (Sunday), as you attended to your duties, but it has never been my pleasure to speak to you since that Saturday night; yet I have often thought of the occurrence and wanted to know, did the commander of the army have that information before you gave it to him. Would it be asking too much of you to give me that information. As I have said before, probably you have forgotten all about it, but it is fresh in my mind.
I was quite a boy then – sixteen years old – and I did not feel quite at home and happy. My comrade was killed near Richmond. I was kept from injury during the entire war.
I occasionally meet miss Meta Lythgo and ask about you, and I ask our lawyers when they come back from Columbia, if they have seen you, how you are, etc.
If you remember this occurrence, and if I ever have the opportunity of talking with you about it, it would be very pleasant, indeed.
I have now taken too much of your time and will close, hoping that your life may be long spared to our State.
Truly, your unknown friend,
C. K. HENDERSON
General McGowan tells us this is true in every particular except one, and that is that it was not half of the whole truth. The officers did report to the General (Bonham).
1. Then he sent his acting Adjutant General (McGowan) with the report to headquarters at Manassas (three miles), and he aroused General Beauregard about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and gave the information to him.
2. Then General Beauregard sent General McGowan to General Jackson, at McLain’s Ford.
3. Jackson sent the same officer and aroused Colonel Walker, of the New Orleans Artillery.
When the staff officer on his return reached Mitchell’s Ford, the sun was just rising, and the first gun of the great battle of Manassas was fired.
The general says he has often wondered as to how much the work of those faithful sentinels, far out on the lines, contributed to our first great success at Manassas Plains.
Privates gave battle, but officers reap the reward. – Press and Banner.
James Kadle was killed at the battle of Gettysburg.
Benjamin Sharpton was killed at Cold Harbor.
Smithfield Radford died a short time after the war.
Company F, of the Seventh Regiment, was mustered in at Graniteville.
Richmond [Virginia] Times-Dispatch, 9/4/1910
Contributed by Brett Schulte
Calloway K. Henderson at Ancestry.com – includes photo.
* It appears Henderson wrote the first portion of this in the third person. Henderson mustered in as a private, but eventually was promoted corporal and sergeant – dates undetermined.