Capt. Robert C. McFarland, Co. H, 4th Alabama Infantry, On the March and Battle

24 08 2021

Army of the Shenandoah
Camp Bee, near Manassas, Virginia
July 29, 1861

Dear sir: On the 18th instant, the force of General Joseph Johnston left Winchester. Every street was filled with soldiers, wagons, and munitions of war. It was about 1 p.m. when our regiment marched from camp to Winchester when, owing to the length of the column it was sunset before the suburbs of the town were reached. The soldiers were much dissatisfied, thinking they were retreating and leaving the place to its fate. General Johnston, observing this, as soon as the forces were a mile outside of the town on the way to Manassas made it known that he was marching to the aid of General Beauregard who was attacked by overwhelming forces. Everyone was elated on hearing this and set forward with renewed vigor in order to reach the scene of action.

The march was kept up all night. The Shenandoah River was reached about 6 a.m. on the following morning. A few hours of rest was given here and then the column crossed the river, some in boats, some on artillery horses, while others forded. The road leading over the Blue Ridge mountains was very narrow, hilly, and rough, which very much impeded the march as the wagons were continually stopping. On reaching the highest point of the pass, a beautiful view of the country was afforded to the wearied soldiers. Piedmont was reached ay daybreak; the troops were weary and hungry having marched 30 miles over a bad road in 24 hours. A council of officers of our regiment was immediately called; General Bernard Bee, having expressed the wish that it be go on to Manassas by the first train. It was decided, notwithstanding the fact that the men had nothing to eat since morning and nothing to cook as the baggage wagons had not arrived, that the regiment would go forward without delay. This being made known all were much pleased.

The rain now fell in torrents, completely drenching the troops who were without coats or blankets. At 3 a.m., the regiment was on board the cars and reached Manassas about 10 a.m. So soon as it was formed, it was marched into a grove more remarkable for filth than anything else, being a general rendezvous for wagons and teams. Having rested about an hour, the line of march was taken for Camp Walker two miles from Bull Run and two from the field of battle. Here some crackers and middling bacon was distributed, a very welcome supper to the men who had nothing to eat for 12 hours. Having no cooking utensils, the officers and privates broiled the bacon on the end of a forked stick.

On the following morning Sunday July 21, 1861, the same kind of fare was served up. Shortly after breakfast, the enemy commenced firing on our center. In two minutes, the regiment was formed and the soldiers with baggage on their backs marched in quick and double-quick time to the scene of action. The enemy, whose lines extended from Union Mills to Stone bridge, commenced a cannonade on our center for the purpose of drawing out our forces- showing our strength, and make us believe that here he would make his grand attack. It soon became evident to our generals that he was making a feint on the center and was concentrating forces on the left flank. General Evans was posted on Stone bridge which is on the road leading from Centreville to the Junction to prevent the enemy from turning our flank. The enemy, however, marched dense masses of infantry two miles above the bridge and completely turned General Evans’ flank. He sent for reinforcements and General Bee with his brigade consisting of the 4th Alabama, 2nd Mississippi, and two companies of the 11th Mississippi was sent to Evans’ aid to hold the enemy in check until more reinforcements could be sent to that point.

The brigade was marched by the left flank in quick and double-quick time until it arrived within a mile of the enemy’s line. Here it was halted as the men were much fatigued and very thirsty, having marched about seven miles and allowed time only to throw down their baggage. The enemy’s position was a most excellent one on the Centreville road, commanding the country before them in every direction. We were marched forwarded to a road running parallel with the enemy’s line and about 700 yards from them. Here the order was given to load. Between the enemy and us lay a piece of woods on the top of a rising ground, and a small stream and meadow between us and the wood. The regiment was now formed in line and moved forward, part passing through the wood and part through an open field. On reaching the other side next to the enemy, the regiment was formed behind a fence, the 2nd Mississippi regiment being on our left.

[The original newspaper here is torn and about ten lines of text are missing. It picks up as follows:]

Imboden’s company, which was sent to our aid. We were not long halted until ordered forward. Everyone thought we were going to charge Sherman’s battery and brought his piece to a charge bayonet. When we had advanced within 75 yards of the enemy, the order was given to lie down. It so happened that the ground my company halted on was more exposed than any other position in the line. The Yankees kept close behind a hill. The first one that showed himself seemed to be an officer. I ordered one or two to shoot him. This commenced the fight. The Yankees advanced to the brow of the hill, took aim, fired, and retreated to load so that we had to shoot them while aiming at us. My men were cool and fired with great deliberation. Whenever a Yankee was killed by anyone, you could hear him tell his neighbor, “I got him.” The first one killed of the Lauderdale volunteers was Jesse Zills. He was shot through the breast early in the engagement. The next one was young Bourland who was shot through the neck. The firing was kept up briskly on both sides.

An impression seemed to have seized Major Scott that we were firing on friends, and he told some of the companies to cease firing. I left my position and went to Major Scott and told him that the enemy’s flag could be seen from where we were, and that they had killed several of my men already. On passing to Major Scott’s position, I told Lieutenant Simpson where I was going and why. This was the last conversation I had with him. He was quite cool and did not apprehend danger. He had received a slight wound in the arm but did not quit his position. Shortly afterwards I was looking along the line towards the left of the company and saw him the moment the fatal ball struck him. He never moved; he was shot dead instantly as was Lucious Lorance about the same time. They were only a short distance apart stretched at full length upon the corn row. Lieutenant Simpson was much beloved by all who knew him in the regiment- he was a good officer, a true soldier, and died like a man with his face to the foe.

Part of the first platoon took shelter while loading in the corners of a fence. The enemy, discovering this, commenced to fire on our flank as well as front so that no protection was offered by the fence. We had now kept back the enemy for the space of an hour and a quarter although they were ten times our number and we were unsupported. While looking to the right, I saw the first battalion in full retreat towards the woods. Not hearing the command to retreat, I ordered the company to retreat, having then near one half of our number killed and wounded on the field. Thomas Stone was killed on the retreat and three or four others wounded before we reached the woods. The Mississippi regiment, though not exposed to the fire, had retreated before we did, as also had a Georgia regiment on our right. Thus, we were left unaided and alone.

On reaching the wood, the enemy opened on us with grape while the regiments in our rear fired incessant volleys of musketry. It is a miracle that a single one escaped. The balls flew around as thick as hail. The grape cut the limbs of the trees. Having passed through the woods, two regiments were seen on our right flank as we descended into the meadow; we supposed them to be Mississippians. They were, however, two New York regiments that had completely outflanked us and in a few minutes would have cut off our retreat. They saluted us with a volley of musketry which did considerable execution in our ranks, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Law and killing a number of others. We crossed the branch, found the regiment, and returned their salute not without effect. Here we again were obliged to retreat; the ammunition of several companies being nearly expended, mine among the number.

The first force that came to our aid was a Virginia regiment, part of General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade. We again formed behind this regiment and in a skirt of woods in a very heavy fire of shell and ball. General Bee joined us here. Having inquired what forces we were, the reply was given that it was the 4th Alabama regiment. He said it was the only part of his forces that he could find and asked us if we would follow him. The answer was “to the death.” We had lost all of our field officers. General Bee then dismounted and faced the regiment by the left flank in order to reach the point where the battle was hottest. Some confusion being shown, as the regiment was entering a piece of wood behind Captain Albertes’ battery, General Bee called me by name and ordered me to halt the regiment and form it. This was his last command. He was fatally wounded by a musket ball and breathed forth his noble and manly spirit on the following morning. He was universally loved by his whole brigade as a brave and skillful officer.

The men were now worn out by thirst and fatigue, and the regiment retired to get water and take some rest. At no time during the whole fight was it from under a severe fire until the enemy was driven from the field. It kept the enemy back until reinforcements were brought up and saved the day. It was a glorious day for the South, but it has brought mourning and sorrow into many a happy circle. Many a wife now laments her husband who fell on that field in defense of liberty and justice. How many fond sisters will look in vain for the return of their beloved brothers? Mothers, oh what a sweet word, are weeping for their brave sons whom they shall see no more until that great day when all shall stand before God.

The cannons roar having ceased and the evening’s shade closing down, my little band would not allow themselves to rest until their wounded comrades were carried off the field. Lieutenant Kirkman, Dr. Armstead, and a few more from my company together with three men from each company in the regiment joined me to go after the wounded. I pressed three or four ammunition wagons to carry the wounded; what a contrast between wagons and the splendid ambulances of the enemy. It was now dark and took some searching to find the place where most of the wounded lay. They were picked up as soon as found and put into the wagons and sent to Manassas Junction about seven miles distant. The last wagon reached the Junction about 6 o’clock in the morning in charge of Dr. Armstead and myself. Some of the wounded were put on the cars and sent to Culpeper, others were put in tents and hospitals.

One or two of my men are still missing. Having drank a cup of coffee, the first food except a Yankee cracker I had tasted for 24 hours, I returned to the battlefield to search for these and also to send in the bodies of our brave dead to the Junction. The quartermaster, however, had attended to this last duty before any of the company reached the field. My search for the missing was of no avail. Christopher Rowell being slightly wounded was taken prisoner and effected his escape during the enemy’s retreat and was safe at the Junction.

The wounded having been provided for, our next duty was the burial of the dead. Their graves were dug in a retired corner of the wood a short distance from the fortifications. The rain fell in torrents during the whole time. Officers and privates worked together until the sad labor was performed. Every effort was made to procure coffins for all, but it could be done as there was no planks to make them. We wrapped them in their blankets and laid them side by side in their graves- a sad spectacle of the horrors of war and a confirmation of the Scripture that “all flesh is but as grass.”

The company and the regiment suffered terribly on Monday and Monday night for want of food and covering from the rain. We had no tents, and the mud was six inches deep. The victory was a glorious one. If the friends of any of those who have fallen wish any further information regarding them, it will be welcome. I have written to most of them, briefly, it is true. I have endeavored to give an impartial account of the part my company took in the late battle. Every man fought like a hero though his comrades were falling fast on every side.

Very respectfully,
Robert McFarland, Capt., Lauderdale Volunteers

Florence (Alabama) Gazette, 8/14/1861

Clipping image

Contributed and transcribed by Dan Masters

See more on this letter here.

Robert C. McFarland at Ancestry

Robert C. McFarland at Fold3

Robert C. McFarland at FindAGrave


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8 responses

25 08 2021
josepharose

I have long thought that Sherman blundered by not advancing more aggressively when his forward troops began engaging the retreating Confederates shortly after crossing Bull Run. Instead, Sherman pulled them back.

As Sherman himself wrote: “Advancing slowly and cautiously with the head of the column, to give time for the regiments in succession to close up their ranks, we first encountered a party of the enemy retreating along a cluster of pines. Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty, of the Sixty-ninth, without orders, rode out and endeavored to intercept their retreat. One of the enemy, in full view, at short range, shot Haggerty, and he fell dead from his horse. The Sixty-ninth opened fire upon this party, which was returned; but, determined to effect our junction with Hunter’s division, I ordered this fire to cease, and we proceeded with caution toward the field, where we then plainly saw our forces engaged.”

Although I don’t know whether McFarland, in the letter above, was referring to his right flank as he originally faced or in the opposite direction as he was retreating (although that doesn’t seem likely), this letter corroborates the conclusion that Sherman’s brigade could have easily disrupted the Confederate retreat. McFarland wrote: “Not hearing the command to retreat, I ordered the company to retreat …. On reaching the wood, the enemy opened on us with grape while the regiments in our rear fired incessant volleys of musketry. It is a miracle that a single one escaped. The balls flew around as thick as hail. The grape cut the limbs of the trees. Having passed through the woods, two regiments were seen on our right flank as we descended into the meadow; we supposed them to be Mississippians. They were, however, two New York regiments that had completely outflanked us and in a few minutes would have cut off our retreat. They saluted us with a volley of musketry which did considerable execution in our ranks, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Law and killing a number of others. We crossed the branch, found the regiment, and returned their salute not without effect.”

The two New York regiments were almost assuredly Sherman’s 69th and 13th. As a soldier in the 13th NY’s Co. A wrote (in a letter found on this website): “Here came the cry that the rebels were running! On, on went our men, with the Stars and Stripes over our heads. Arriving upon the hill, the 69th opened a tremendous fire upon the enemy, as they were flying in all directions, and the 13th did great execution with their rifles. The enemy, of course, took to the woods where their damnable masked batteries were.”

My thesis is supported by the writings of a large number of the battle’s other participants, many, if not all, of them found on this website.

The ironic conclusion is that certain historians assert that Sherman was the “star” of the battle, especially given that his later piecemeal attacks at Henry House Hill were disastrous to his brigade and certainly did not help the Union’s battle effort.

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25 08 2021
Harry Smeltzer

Perhaps if Sherman’s orders had been to attack the enemy wherever he found them, I might agree with you. However if, as I suspect, they were to make contact with Hunter’s/Heintzelman’s forces, I can’t.

I’m not aware of any historians who assert that Sherman was the star of this battle. Care to share?

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25 08 2021
josepharose

McDowell wrote that he sent an aide-de-camp “to Brigadier-General Tyler to direct him to press forward his attack, as large bodies of the enemy were passing in front of him to attack the division which had crossed over.” If that were communicated correctly to Sherman, then the latter certainly blundered by his timidity. He definitely was timid.

Tyler only wrote that “I ordered Colonel Sherman, with his brigade, to cross Bull Run and to support the two columns already in action.” Even so, doesn’t one offer “support” by attacking the enemy troops in front of the units one is supporting?

Even without orders, shouldn’t Sherman have shown the initiative expected of an officer on the battlefield where events often necessitate a deviation from orders? With the Union troops, which he was to support, advancing in the rear of the retreating enemy, a move straight into the Confederate flank would soon bring him into contact with the main federal columns.

As to those who commend Sherman for this battle:

William C. Davis, in Battle at Bull Run: A History of the First Major Campaign of the Civil War, wrote: “But the star of this division, as indeed of the whole army that fought on July 21, was Sherman.”

John Marszalek, in Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order Page 151, cited Davis and copied that sentiment: “He had proved himself to be ‘the star . . . of the whole army that fought on July 21.'”

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25 08 2021
Harry Smeltzer

Interesting. Sherman’s orders are of course not known precisely, as they were verbal. If he had “gone off on his own hook,” before finding the forces he was to support, he may have caused more damage to the already retreating Confederates, likely the 8th GA and 4th AL at this point. The 8th GA was hors de combat regardless, so I don’t know that killing more of them would have accomplished much. I still go with Sherman obeying the spirit of the overall plan as layed out (effecting a junction with the forces that crossed before him). Here’s what he had to say about that:

“Here you sent me the order to cross over with the whole brigade to the assistance of Colonel Hunter. Early in the day, when reconnoitering the ground, I had seen a horseman descend from a bluff in our front, cross the stream, and show himself in the open field, and, inferring we could cross over at the same point, I sent for ward a company as skirmishers, and followed with the whole brigade, the New York Sixty-ninth leading. We found no difficulty in crossing over, and met no opposition in ascending the steep bluff opposite with our infantry, but it was impassable to the artillery, and I sent word back to Captain Ayres to follow if possible, otherwise to use his discretion. Captain Ayres did not cross Bull Run, but remained with the remainder of your division. His report, herewith, [No. 27], describes his operations during the remainder of the day.

“Advancing slowly and cautiously with the head of the column, to give time for the regiments in succession to close up their ranks, we first encountered a party of the enemy retreating along a cluster of pines. Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty, of the Sixty-ninth, without orders, rode out and endeavored to intercept their retreat. One of the enemy, in full view, at short range, shot Haggerty, and he fell dead from his horse. The Sixty-ninth opened fire upon this party, which was returned; but, determined to effect our junction with Hunter’s division, I ordered this fire to cease, and we proceeded with caution toward the field, where we then plainly saw our forces engaged.

And while we’re at it, here’s what Tyler had to say:

“At this time I ordered Colonel Sherman, with his brigade, to cross Bull Run and to support the two columns already in action. Colonel Sherman, as appears by his report, crossed the run without opposition, and after encountering a party of the enemy flying before Hunter’s forces, found General McDowell, and received his orders to join in the pursuit. The subsequent operations of this brigade and its able commander having been under your own eye and direction, I shall not follow its movements any further, but refer you to Colonel Sherman’s report, which you will find herewith.”

Both Davis and Marszalek are damning Sherman with faint praise, I think – note that they claimed him the star of the Federal army, not of the battle. No brigade in that army covered itself in glory that day.

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25 08 2021
josepharose

So, Sherman “… found General McDowell, and received his orders to join in the pursuit.” Really, he was already in the perfect position to pursue and to wreck the retreating Confederates. He could have done earlier what he was ordered to do later.

I don’t think that Sherman even deserved “faint praise” for the Battle of First Bull Run.

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25 08 2021
Harry Smeltzer

And he knew he was in “the perfect position” how, exactly? Having just come on the field, seen none of the troops he was to support, or even spoken to anyone with direct knowledge of the situation on Matthews Hill? I don’t know if you’ve ever stood in the spot where Sherman first made contact, but you can’t see much from there. He had no idea of the situation with Hunter, or how going freelance would help, hinder, or abandon him.

You’re free to feel or think whatever you want about Sherman. But let’s not confuse what was known then with what is known now. And, even knowing what we know now, I’m not sure how the “wreck” of the 4th Alabama (the 8th GA having already been wrecked) or – perhaps – Sherman’s absence on Henry Hill as a result of his running about willy-nilly on Matthews Hill would have affected the outcome.

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25 08 2021
josepharose

You are, of course, correct that Sherman wouldn’t have a good knowledge about what was ahead of his brigade. But going ahead to break up the retreating enemy regiments would have brought his brigade closer to Henry House Hill (and not cause his “absence” from that location; and this straightforward movement should not be characterized merely as “willy-nilly.”

And remember, Sherman should have known that Keyes’ brigade was following his directly. These two fresh brigades could probably have threatened, if not wrecked, the Confederate positions on Henry House Hill before they became better established.

In fact, a “pursuit” of the fleeing Confederates would have pointed Sherman “at” Henry House Hill, as opposed to away from it, which is where Sherman initially led his brigade.

Isn’t it a possibility that an aggressive advance by Sherman could have been a boon for the Union effort?

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25 08 2021
Harry Smeltzer

There’s a lot of confusing what is known now with what was known then going on. When I say that Sherman abandoning his orders and pursuing an already retreating enemy might have led to his never reaching Henry Hill later (which he did do – Keyes did not get far), I say it because anything could have happened. He could have run into resistance on his front or flank. He had no idea what was out there.

Keyes did not try to go to Hunter’s support as ordered. Perhaps had he done so, a more concerted effort by his and Sherman’s brigades could have been made at the key point on Henry Hill. Perhaps a less aggressive, yet completely ineffective, advance by Keyes (under Tyler’s supervision) might have been a boon for the Union effort. Who knows?

To sum it up, I think Sherman prudently followed his orders. You think he blundered by not chasing what may or may not have been a fox across an estate over which he’d never ridden. That’s OK. We don’t have to agree.

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