2nd Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, On Travelling to the Field and the Battle (Part 3)

18 11 2017

I was standing with a friend and classmate at the moment on a high ridge near our advancing line. We were congratulating ourselves upon the glorious victory which already seemed to have been ours, as the Confederates were everywhere giving way, when our attention was attracted by a long line of troops suddenly appearing behind us upon the edge of the timber already mentioned. It never occurred to either of us that the troops we then saw could be any but some of our reinforcements making their way to the front.

Before doubts could arise we saw the Confederate flag floating over a portion of the line just emerging from the timber; the next moment the entire line leveled their muskets and poured a volley into the back s of our advancing regiments on the right. At the same time a battery which had also arrived unseen opened fire, and with the cry of “We’re flanked! We’re flanked!” passed from rank to rank, the Union lines, but a moment before so successful and triumphant, threw down their arms, were seized by a panic, and begun a most disordered panic.

All this occurred almost in an instant of time. No pen or description can give anything like a correct idea of the rout and demoralization that followed. Officers and men joined in one vast crowd, abandoning, except in isolated instances, all attempts to preserve their organizations. A moderate force of good cavalry at that moment could have secured to the Confederates nearly every man and gun that crossed Bull Run in the early morning. Fortunately the Confederate army was so badly demoralized by their earlier reverses, that it was in no mood or condition to make pursuit, and reap the fill fruits of victory. The troops that had arrived on the battlefield so unexpectedly for the Federals, and which had wrought such a disaster on the Union arms, were Elzey’s brigade of infantry and Beckham’s battery of artillery, the whole under command of Brigadier General Kirby Smith, being a detachment belonging to Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah, just arrived from the valley. Had this command reached the battlefield a few minutes later, the rout of Beauregard’s army would have been assured, as his forces seemed powerless to check the advance of the Union troops.

General McDowell and his staff, as did many of the higher officers, exerted themselves to the utmost to stay the retreating Federals, but all appeals to the courage and patriotism of the latter fell as upon dumb animals. One who has never witnessed the conduct of large numbers of men when seized by a panic such as that was cannot realize how utterly senseless and without apparent reason men will act. And yet the same men may have exhibited great gallantry and intelligence but a moment before.

The value of discipline was clearly shown in the crisis by observing the manner of the few regular troops, as contrasted with the raw and undisciplined three months’ men. The regular soldiers never for a moment ceased to look to their officers for orders and instructions, and in retiring from the field, even amid the greatest disorder and confusion of the organizations near them, they preserved their formation, and marched only as they were directed to do.

The long lines of Union soldiery, which a few minutes before had been bravely confronting and driving the enemy, suddenly lost their cohesion and became one immense mass of fleeing, frightened creatures. Artillery horses were cut from their traces, and it was no unusual sight so see three men, perhaps belonging to different regiments, riding the same horse, and making their way to the rear as fast as the dense mass of men moving with them would permit.

The direction of the retreat was toward Centreville, by way of the Stone Bridge crossing, and other fords above that point. An occasional shot from the enemy’s artillery, or the cry that the Black Horse cavalry, so dreaded in the first months of the war in Virginia, were coming, kept the fleeing crowd of soldiers at their best speed.

Arms were thrown away as being no longer of service in warding off the enemy. Here and there the state colors of a regiment, or perhaps the national standard, would be seen lying on the ground along the line of retreat, no one venturing to reclaim or preserve them, while more than on full set of band instruments could be observed, dropped under the shade of some tree in rear of the line of battle, and where their late owners had probably been resting from the fatigues of the fight when the panic seized them and forced them to join their comrades in flight. One good regiment composed of such sterling material as made up the regiments of either side at the termination of the war could have checked the pursuit before reaching Bull Run, and could have saved much of the artillery and many of the prisoners that as it was fell into the enemy’s hands simply for want of owners.

The rout continued until Centreville was reached; then the reserves posted under Miles gave some little confidence to the retreating masses, and after the latter had passed the reserves, comparative order began in a slight degree to be restored. General McDowell at first decided to halt and make a stand on the heights near Centreville, but this was soon to be discovered to be inadvisable, if not impracticable, so large a portion of the army having continued in their flight toward Washington. Orders were then given the various commanders to conduct their forces back to their former camps near Arlington opposite Washington, where they arrived the following day.

The cavalry, on the Federal side consisting of only seven companies of regulars under Major Palmer, were not employed to any considerable extent during the battle except as supports to batteries of artillery. One charge was made in the early part of the battle near the Warrenton Turnpike by Colburn’s squadron. In advancing in the attack in the morning, Palmer’s companies accompanied Hunter’s division in the long and tedious movement through an immense forest by which Bull Run was crossed at one of the upper fords, and the left flank of the Confederates successfully turned.

After arriving at Sudley Springs, the cavalry halted for half an hour or more. We could hear the battle raging a short distance in our front. Soon a staff officer of General McDowell’s came galloping down to where the cavalry was waiting, saying that the general desired us to move across the stream and up the ridge beyond, where we were to support a battery.

The order was promptly obeyed, and as we ascended the crest I saw Griffin with his battery galloping into position. The enemy had discovered him, and their artillery had opened fire upon him, but the shots were aimed so high that the balls passed overhead. Following the battery, we also marched within plain hearing of each shot as it passed over Griffin’s men. I remember well the strange hissing and exceedingly vicious sound of the first cannon shot I heard as it whirled through the air. Of course I had often heard the sound made by cannon balls while passing through the air during my artillery practice at West Point, but a man listens with changed interest when the direction of the balls is toward instead of away from him. They seemed to utter a different language when fired in angry battle from that put forth in the tamer practice of drill.

The battery whose support we were having reached its position on an advanced crest near the right of the line, the cavalry massed near the foot of the crest and sheltered by it from the enemy’s fire. Once the report came that the enemy was moving to the attack of the battery which we were specially sent to guard, the order was at once given for the cavalry to advance from the base to the crest of the hill and repel the enemy’s assault.

We were formed in column of companies, and were given to understand that upon reaching the crest of the hill we would probably be ordered to charge the enemy. When it is remembered that but three days before I had quitted West Point as a schoolboy, and as yet had never ridden at anything more dangerous or terrible than a three-foot hurdle, or tried my sabre upon anything more combative than a leather head stuffed with tan bark, it may be imagined that my mind was more or less given to anxious thoughts as we ascended the slope of the hill in front of us. At the same time I realized that I was in front of a company of old and experienced soldiers, all of whom would have an eye upon their new lieutenant to see how he comported himself when under fire.

My pride received an additional incentive from the fact that while I was on duty with troops for the first time in my life, and was the junior officer of all present with the cavalry, there was temporarily assigned to duty with the company another officer of the same rank, who was senior to me by a few days, and having been appointed from civil life, was totally without military experience except such as he had acquired during the past few days. My brief acquaintance with him showed me that he was disposed to attach no little importance to the fact that I was fresh from West Point and supposed to know all that was valuable or worth knowing in regard to the art of war. In this common delusion I was not disposed to disturb him. I soon found that he was inclined to defer to me in opinion, and I recall now, as I have often done when in his company during later years in the war, the difficulty we had in deciding what weapon we would use in the charge to which we believed ourselves advancing.

As we rode forward from the foot of the hill, he in front of his platoon and I abreast of him, in front of mine, Walker (afterward captain) inquired in the most solemn tones, “Custer, what weapon are you going to use in the charge?” From my earliest notions of the true cavalryman I had always pictured him in the charge bearing aloft his curved sabre, and cleaving the skulls of all with whom he came in contact. We had but two weapons to choose from: each of us carried a sabre and one revolver in our belt. I promptly replied, “The Sabre”, and suiting the action to the word, I flashed my bright new blade from its scabbard, and rode forward as if totally unconcerned. Walker, yielding no doubt to what he believed was “the way we do it at West Point,” imitated my motion, and forth came his sabre. I may have seemed to him unconcerned, because I aimed at this, but I was far from enjoying that feeling.

As we rode at a deliberate walk up the hill, I began arguing in my own mind as to the comparative merits of the sabre and revolver as a weapon of attack. If I remember correctly, I reasoned pro and con about as follows: “Now, the sabre is a beautiful weapon; it produces an ugly wound; the term ‘sabre charge’ sounds well; and above all the sabre is sure; it never misses fire. It has this drawback, however: in order to be made effective it is indispensable that you approach very close to your adversary – so close that if you do not unhorse or disable him, he will most likely render that service to you. So much for the sabre.

“Now as to the revolver, it has this advantage over the sabre: one is not compelled to range himself alongside his adversary before beginning his attack, but may select his own time and distance. To be sure, one may miss his aim, but there are six chambers to empty, and if one, two, or three miss, there are still three shots left to fire at close quarters. As this is my first battle, had I not better defer the use of the sabre until I have acquired a little more experience?”

The result was that I returned my sabre to its scabbard, and without uttering a word drew my revolver and poised it opposite my shoulder. Walker, as if following me in my mental discussion, no sooner observed my change of weapon than he did likewise. With my revolver in my hand I put it upon trial mentally. First, I realized that in the rush and excitement of the charge it would be difficult to take anything like accurate aim. Then, might not every shot be fired, and without result…? In all probability we would be in the midst of our enemies, and slashing right and left at each other, in which case a sabre would be of much greater value and service than an empty revolver. This seemed convincing; so much so that my revolver found its way again to its holster, and the sabre was again at my shoulder. Again did Walker, as if in pantomime, follow my example.

How often these changes of purpose and weapons might have been made I know not – had the cavalry not reached the crest meanwhile and, after being exposed to a hot artillery fire and finding that no direct attack upon our battery was meditated by the enemy, returned to a sheltered piece of ground.

A little incident occurred as we were about to move forward to the expected charge, which is perhaps worth recording. Next to the company with which I was serving was one which I noticed as being in most excellent order and equipment. The officer in charge of it was of striking appearance, tall, well-formed, and handsome, and possessing withal a most soldierly air. I did not then know his name, but being so near to him and to his command, I could not but observe him.

When the order came for us to move forward up the hill, and to be prepared to charge the moment the crest was reached. I saw the officer referred to ride gallantly in front of his command, and just as the signal forward was given, I heard him say, “Now men, do your duty.” I was attracted by his soldierly words and bearing, and yet within a few days after the battle he tendered his resignation, and in a short time was serving under the Confederate flag as a general officer.

When the retreat began, my company and one other of cavalry, and a section of artillery, command by Captain Arnold, came under the personal direction and control of Colonel Heintzelman, with whome we moved toward Centreville. Colonel Heintzelman, although suffering from a painful wound, continued to exercise command, and maintained his seat in the saddle. The two companies of cavalry and the section of Arnold’s battery moved off the field in good order, and were the last organized Union troops to retire across Bull Run.

Within about two miles of Centreville, at the bridge across Cub Run, the crossing was found to be completely blocked up by broken wagons and ambulances. There being no other crossing available, and the enemy having opened with artillery from a position a short distance below the bridge, and commanding the latter, Captain Arnold was forced to abandon his guns. The cavalry found a passable ford for their purpose, and from this point no further molestation was encountered from the enemy After halting a few hours in some old camps near Centreville, it now being dark, the march was resumed, and kept up until Arlington was reached, during the forenoon of the 22d.

I little imagined when making my night ride from Washington to Centreville the night of the 20th, that the following night should find me returning with a defeated and demoralized army. It was with the greatest difficulty that many of the regiments could be halted on the Arlington side of Long Bridge, do determined were they to seek safety and rest under the very walls of the capital. Some of the regiments lost more men after the battle and retreat had ended than had been killed, wounded, and captured by the enemy. Three-fourths of one regiment, known as the Zouaves, disappeared in this way. Many of the soldiers continued their flight until they reached New York…

The press and people of the South accepted the result of the battle as forecasting if not already assuring the ultimate success of their cause, and marking, as they expressed it, the birth of a nation, and while this temporary advantage may have excited and increased their faith as well as their numbers, by drawing or driving into their ranks the lukewarm and those inclined to remain loyal, yet it was a source of weakness as well, from the fact that the people of the South were in a measure confirmed in the very prevalent belief which had long existed in the Southern states regarding the great superiority in battle of the Southron over his fellow countryman in colder climes. This impression maintained its hold upon the minds of the people of the South and upon the Southern soldiery until eradicated by months and years of determined battle.

The loyal North accepted its defeat in the most commendable manner, and this remark is true whether applied to the officials of the states and general government or to the people at large. There was no indulging in vain or idle regrets; there was no flinching from the support and defense of the Union; there was least of all hesitation as to the proper course to pursue. If the idea of compromise had been vainly cherished by any portion of the people, it had vanished, and but one sentiment, one purpose actuated the men of the North, as if acting under a single will.

Men were hurried forward from all the loyal states; more offered their services than the government was prepared to accept. The defeat of the Union arms forced the North to coolly calculate the immense task before it in attempting to overthrow the military strength of the insurgent states. Had Bull Run resulted otherwise than it did, had the North instead of the South been the victor, there would have been danger of a feeling of false security pervading the minds of the people of the North. Their patriotism would not have been awakened by success as it was by disaster; they would not have felt called upon to abandon the farm, the workshop, the counting room, and the pulpit in order to save a government tottering almost upon the brink of destruction.

Before passing from the consideration of the Battle of Bull Run, the plan of the battle is entitled to a few words. No subsequent battle of the war, no matter how successful or important in result, was more carefully or prudently planned; and so far as left to the accomplishment of what he had proposed to da and what he had expressly stipulated he would do – the overthrow of Beauregard’s army – McDowell did all and more than had been expected of him. He had asked that the Confederate forces in the Valley under Johnston should be prevented from reinforcing Beauregard, but this was not done. Johnston united most of his force with that of Beauregard before the battle began; and even over these combined armies McDowell’s plan of battle, after hours of severe struggle, was carried to successful execution and only failed in attaining final triumph by the arrival at a critical moment of fresh troops from the Valley.

From Civil War Times Illustrated (submitted there by Peter Cozzens), The Necessary Defeat, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 8, March 1999. Thanks to reader Jon-Erik Gilot

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7 responses

18 11 2017
18 11 2017
18 11 2017
Jens C. Falster

Leading the one charge mentioned was squadron commander Capt. Albert V. Colburn, West Point Class of 1855, with his Co A, along with Co. E, both of 1st Cavalry.

Custer’s comments about the other officer following his changing lead with sabre and pistol seems odd since the only candidate attached to Co. G, 1st Cav., was his senior, 1st Lt Thomas Drummond, West Point Class of May, 1861, who commanded in place of Capt. Robert N. Eagle, not present. A bit of humorous insertion?

The officer who later changed sides and became a Confederate General was Capt Francis (Frank) Crawford Armstrong, (resigned 13 Aug 61) commanding Co K., 2nd Dragoons, attached as escort to Hunter’s 2nd Div, from 19 July. This company may or may not have been in the battle line close to Custer’s view and hearing, perhaps in conflict with Custer’s recollections, written some years later Literary licence here too?

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18 11 2017
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Jens,

In his annotation (which I did not include in my transcription – as a rule, I don’t do that) Cozzens indicates that the officer with whom Custer abortively charged was probably 2d Lt. Leicester Walker, with whom Custer would be transferred to the 5th US Cav in August.

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18 11 2017
Harry Smeltzer

Also, while it is always possible that Custer’s memory either failed him or was embellished, and placed him later where he was not, it is just as likely that his personality placed him then somewhere he was not supposed to be.

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27 11 2017
Jens C. Falster

Hi Harry,

Your mention of Leicester Walker opened up some interesting avenues of research for me and subsequent corrections, for which my thanks go out o you.
. To begin, Walker was a member of a local Washington defense company known as the Louis Frontier Guard of 100 men, stationed at the White House and charged with protecting the President. It was disbanded on 27 April and Walker discharged. Soon after he was commissioned 2nd Lt in the 2nd Cavalry to rank from 8 May This.appointment means he ranked Custer. Walker is often mentioned in the Official Records and was present in nearly every major campaign of the Army of the Potomac, but in staff and supply positions. He remained in the army post war and retired a major.
Regarding where the two officers were in the battle line, I presume they were together, each appropriately stationed on the flanks of their respective companies, one adjoining the other. We know that Custer was in Co. G, 2nd Cav, and that Walker was commissioned in the same regiment.. But given the chaotic nature of assignments, he could have been attached to 1st Cav or 2nd Dragoons, anywhere in a unit next to Custer.
My research on the US battalions of regulars at Bull Run still has plenty of holes, At any rate, by presidential order in August the cavalry and dragoon regiments were renumbered, the 1st and 2nd Dragoons becoming the 1st and 2nd US Cavalry, respectively, and the 1st and 2nd cavalry becoming the 4th and 5th in order, Custer’s Co G transferred over directly to 5th Cav,, but Walker was assigned to Co K, which was not present at Bull Run. But another Co K was present: that of the 2nd Dragoons under Capt Frank Armstrong. Could it be that this was Walker’s assigned troop. and if so, would it not then have placed Custer within hearing of Armstrong’s speech to his men?
Armstrong was a long-serving cavalryman, a veteran campaigner and Indian-fighter, so the words would have rung true. And he wasn’t the only officer in the battalion to resign and change sides. Ist Lt Manning Marius Kimmel (West Point 1857) also quit the service, effective 14 Aug., the day after Armstrong, yet more proof of how divisive the times and how conflicted in personal and professional loyalties so many were..
Also, my comment that 1st Lt Thomas Drummond, Custer’s Co Cmdr was West Point is incorrect. His commission ranked from 20 May, but he was not of that WP class. I misread my notes and stand corrected here as I most humbly do in presuming to question Custer’s veracity.

. . .

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27 11 2017
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Jens!

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