2nd Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, On Travelling to the Field and the Battle (Part 2)

7 10 2017

In the preceding chapter I described my night ride from Washington to the camp of McDowell’s army at and about Centreville. After delivering my dispatches and concluding my business at headquarters, I remounted my horse, and having been directed in the darkness the way to the ground occupied by Palmer’s seven companies of cavalry, I set out to find my company for the first time, and report to the commanding officer for duty before the column should begin the march to the battleground.

As previously informed by a staff officer at headquarters, I found it necessary only to ride a few hundred yards, when suddenly I came upon a column of cavalry already mounted and in readiness to move. It was still so dark that I could see but a few lengths of my horse in any direction. I accosted one of the troopers nearest me., and inquired, “What cavalry is this?” “Major Palmer’s,” was the brief reply. I followed up my interrogations by asking, “Can you tell me where Company G, Second Cavalry, is?” the company to which I had been assigned, but as yet had not seen. “At the head of the column,” came in response.

Making my way along the column in the darkness, I soon reached the head, where I found several horsemen seated upon their horses, but not formed regularly in column. There was not sufficient light to distinguish emblems of rank, or to recognize the officer from the private soldier. With some hesitation I addressed the group, numbering perhaps a half dozen or so individuals, and asked if the commanding officer of my company, giving the designation by letter and regiment, was present. “Here his is,” promptly answered a voice, as one of the mounted figures rode toward me, expecting no doubt I was a staff officer bearing orders requiring his attention.

I introduced myself by saying, “I am Lieutenant Custer, and in accordance with orders from the War Department, I report for duty with my company, sir.” “Ah, glad to meet you Mr. Custer. We have been expecting you, as we saw in the list of assignments of the graduating class from West Point, that you had been marked down to us. I am Lieutenant Drummond. Allow me to introduce you to some of your brother officers.” Then, turning his horse toward the group of officers, he added, “Gentlemen, permit me to introduce you to Lieutenant Custer, who has just reported for duty with his company.” We bowed to each other, although we could see but little more than the dim outlines of horses and riders as we chatted and awaited the order to move “forward.” This was my introduction to service, and my first greeting from officers and comrades with whom the future fortunes of war was to cast me. Lieutenant Drummond, afterward captain, to whom I had just made myself known, fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Five Forks, nearly four years afterward.

While it is not proposed to discuss in detail the movements of troops during the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas, a general reference to the positions held by each of the contending armies the night preceding combat may be of material aid to the reader. Beauregard’s headquarters were at or near Manassas, distant from Centreville, where General McDowell was located in the midst of his army, about seven miles. The stream which gave its name to the battle runs in a southwest direction between Centreville and Manassas, somewhat nearer to the former place than to the latter.

The Confederate army was posted in position along the right bank of Bull Run, their right resting near Union Mill, the point at which the Orange and Alexandria Railroad crosses the stream, their center at Blackburn’s Ford, while their left was opposite the Stone Bridge, or crossing of the Warrenton Pike, at the same time holding a small ford about one mile above the Stone Bridge. Beauregard’s entire force that day numbered a few hundred over 23,000 with 55 pieces of artillery, notwithstanding that the president of the Confederacy, who arrived on the battlefield just before the termination of the battle, telegraphed to Richmond, “Our force was 15,000.” Ewell commanded on the Confederate right; Longstreet in the center, at Blackburn’s Ford; and Evans the left, at and above the Stone Bridge.

The Federal forces were encamped mainly opposite the left center of their adversary’s line. The numbers of the two contending armies were very nearly equal, the advantage, if any, in this respect, resting with the Union troops; neither exceeded the force of the other beyond a few hundred. General McDowell crossed Bull Run, in making his attack on the enemy that day, with only 18,000 men and 22 guns. But to this number of men and guns must be added nearly an equal number left on the east side of Bull Run for the double purpose of constituting a reserve and occupying the enemy’s attention. All of these troops were more or less under fire during the progress of the battle. Thus it will be seen that the number of men was about equal in both armies, while the Confederates had six pieces of artillery in excess of the number employed by their adversaries.

Reconnaissances and a skirmish with the enemy on the 18th had satisfied General McDowell that an attack on the enemy’s center or left did not promise satisfactory results. He decided, therefore, to make a feigned attack on the enemy’s center at Blackburn’s Ford, and at the same time to cross Bull Run at a point above that held by the enemy, and double his adversaries left flank back upon the center and right, and at the same time endeavor to extend his own force beyond Bull Run sufficiently far to get possession of and destroy the Manassas Gap Railroad, thus severing communications between Beauregard’s army and its supports in the valley beyond.

McDowell’s forces, those engaged in the battle…divided into four divisions, commanded by Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, Connecticut volunteers; Colonels David Hunter, S. P, Heintzelman, and D. S. Miles. Tyler’s division was to occupy the attention of the enemy by threatening movements in front of the Stone Bridge, while the divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman were to move up Bull Run, keeping beyond the observation of the enemy, cross that stream, and turn the enemy’s left flank. Miles’s division was to constitute the reserve of the Federal army, and to occupy ground near Centreville. Richardson’s brigade of Tyler’s division was to act in concert with the latter, under Miles, and to threaten with artillery alone the enemy stationed at Blackburn’s Ford. Still another division, Runyon’s, formed a part of McDowell’s forces, but was not made available at the battle of the 21st, being occupied in guarding the communication of the army as far as Vienna, and the Orange and Alexandria Railroad; the nearest regiment being seven miles in rear of Centreville. It will thus be seen that as McDowell only crossed 18.000 men over Bull Run to attack about 32,000 of the enemy, his reserve, not embracing Runyon’s division, was but little less in number than his attacking force.

One of the conditions under which General McDowell consented to the movement against the enemy at Manassas was that the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah Valley, under Johnston, who were then being confronted, and supposed to be held in check by the Federal army, under Major General Patterson of the Pennsylvania volunteers, should not be permitted to unite with the forces of Beauregard.

This was expecting more than could be performed, unless Patterson had been ordered to attack simultaneously with the movement of McDowell. As it was, Beauregard no sooner learned of McDowell’s advance on the 17th of July than Johnston was ordered by the Confederate authorities at Richmond to form an immediate junction at Manassas with Beauregard. Other troops, under Holmes, consisting of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, amounting to about one brigade, were also ordered to join Beauregard.

The promised arrival of these heavy reinforcements induced Beauregard to depart from his resolution to act upon the defensive. He determined to attack General McDowell at Centreville as soon as he should be assured of the near arrival of Johnston’s and Holmes’s commands. His first plan was to have a portion of Johnston’s army march from the valley by way of Aldie, and attack McDowell in rear and upon his right flank, while his own army should make an attack directly in front. This plan was abandoned, and instead it was agreed between Beauregard and Johnston that the forces of both should be united west of Bull Run, and matched to the direct attack of the Federals.

In pursuance of this plan Johnston arrived at Manassas at noon on the 20th, the day preceding the battle, and being senior to Beauregard in rank, he nominally assumed command of both Confederate armies, but assented to Beauregard’s plans, and virtually conceded their execution to that general.

It is somewhat remarkable that the Federal and Confederate commanders had each determined to attack the other on the same day, the 21st. The Confederate general was induced to alter his plan, and act upon the defensive, but a few hours before his lines were assailed by McDowell; his decision in this matter being influenced by two circumstances. One was the detention of about 8,000 of Johnston’s men, whose presence had been relied upon; the other was the discovery several hours before daylight that the Federal army was itself advancing to the attack. Beauregard had ordered his forces under arms and was awaiting his adversary’s attack at half-past four o’clock the morning of the 21st.

Reasoning correctly that McDowell was not likely to attack his center at Blackburn’s Ford, not to operate heavily against his right near Union Mills, Beauregard no sooner discovered the movement of Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s divisions, to pass above and around his left flank at Sudley Springs, than he began moving up his reserves and forming his left wing in readiness to receive the attacking division as soon as the latter should cross Bull Run.

Hunter and Heintzelman were forced to make a much longer detour, in order to make the designated crossings of Bull Run, than had been anticipated.

The first gun announcing the commencement of the battle was fired from Tyler’s division in front of the Stone Bridge. It was not until nearly 10:00 A. M. that the troops of Hunter’s division came in contact with the enemy near Sudley Springs.

Once over the stream, both Hunter and Heintzelman promptly engaged the enemy, and slowly forced his entire left wing back until the troops under Tyler were able to cross and participate in the battle. Beauregard, soon after satisfying himself of the real character and direction of his adversary’s movement, decided upon a counter-attack by throwing his right wing and center across Bull Run at Blackburn’s and Union Mills fords, and endeavoring to do with his enemy exactly what the latter was attempting with him – to turn his right flank. By this movement he hoped to place a large force in rear of Centreville and ensure McDowell’s defeat.

The orders for this movement, which were sent to Ewell on the right, miscarried, and too much time was lost before the mistake could be rectified. It was fortunate for the Confederates that this was the case, as had this turning movement been attempted, the troops sent to the Federal side of Bull Run to execute it would in all probability have been held in check by the heavy Federal reserves under Richardson and Miles, and would have been beyond recall when, later in the day, Beauregard, finding his left giving way in confusion before the successful advance of Hunter’s, Heintzelman’s, and Tyler’s divisions, rapidly moved every available man from his right to the support of his broken left. Had Beauregard attempted to turn the position at Centreville, McDowell would have achieved a complete victory over all the Confederate forces opposed to him on the Confederate side of Bull Run several hours before the arrival upon the battlefield of the Confederate troops from the valley whose coming at a critical time decided the battle in the Confederates’ favor.

With the exception of a little tardiness in execution, something to be expected perhaps in raw troops, the plan of battle marked out by General McDowell was carried out with remarkable precision up till about 3:30 P.M. The Confederate left wing had been gradually forced back from Bull Run until the Federals gained entire possession of the Warrenton Turnpike leading from the Stone Bridge. It is known now that Beauregard’s army had become broken and routed, and that both himself and General Johnston felt called upon to place themselves at the head of their defeated commands, including their last reserves, in their effort to restore confidence and order; General Johnston at one critical moment charged to the front with the colors of the Fourth Alabama. Had the fate of the battle been left to the decision of those who were present and fought up till half-past three in the afternoon, the Union troops would have been entitled to score a victory with scarcely a serious reverse. But at this critical moment, with their enemies in front giving way in disorder and flight, a new and to the Federals unexpected force appeared suddenly upon the scene. From a piece of timber directly in rear of McDowell’s right a column of several thousand fresh troops of the enemy burst almost upon the backs of the half-victorious Federals.

From Civil War Times Illustrated (submitted there by Peter Cozzens), The Half-Victorious Federals, Vol. XXXVII, No. 7, February 1999

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7 10 2017
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