THE SECOND WISCONSIN AT THE FIRST BATTLE OF BULL RUN
BY BREVET BRIG. GEN. THOMAS S. ALLEN, USV October 1, 1890
WAR PAPERS READ BEFORE THE COMMANDERY OF THE STATE OF WISCONSIN MILITARY ORDER OF THE LOYAL LEGION OF THE UNITED STATES VOLUME I, pp 374-393
WHEN the shot fired at Fort Sumter “was heard around the world,” an uprising of the loyal people of the country took place, which for numbers and unanimity of purpose had never been equalled since the time when Peter the Hermit issued his call upon the faithful to rise in their majesty and wrest the scepter of tyranny in the Holy Land from the grasp of Moslem usurpers. Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers touched the chords of patriotism, which for years had been lying dormant, as the appeals of Peter waked up the religious sensibilities of the faithful of the middle ages. The one, addressed to uneducated masses of the old world, was tinctured more or less with fanaticism; the other, addressed to the masses of an intelligent nation, was an “appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government, and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.” As is well known the famous Crusades were doomed to ignominious failure, although attended with wonderful acts of heroism, leaving the fields of Eastern Europe and Western Asia strewn with the bodies of millions of warlike but deluded knights and peasants; while the proclamation of President Lincoln resulted in military organizations of a peaceful people, which, after a terrible four years’ contest, established “Liberty and Union” on a foundation so firm that nothing less than the degeneration of a race of patriots can cause or permit its destruction.
Wisconsin responded to the call of the War Department for a single regiment, by the tender, in less than seven days, of thirty-six full companies. The 1st Regiment, enlisted for three months, and the 2d Regiment, organized as a three years regiment, went into camp—one at Milwaukee and the other at Madison—at about the same time. The former was sent to the Shenandoah Valley and the latter to Washington, it being the only Wisconsin regiment present at the first Bull Run. Although I had enlisted and drilled with company “H” of the 2d, and intended to serve in said company, having been asked by the Miners’ Guards, of Mineral Point, to take command, I accepted, and left the state with the regiment as captain of company “I,” reaching Washington on the 25th day of June, 1861. It is safe to say that not a man in the regiment knew anything of actual warfare, although nine companies, including mine, were organized from as many independent companies of state militia, actuated by a common motive and by similar patriotic impulses, yet differing as to policies and parties. And yet, perhaps, some of us had felt somewhat of the martial ardor of the old cripple, who, after a long service, “hobbled home on crutches,” singing as he drew near the old homestead:
“My father was a farmer good,
With corn and beef in plenty;
I mowed, and hoed, and held the plow,
And longed for one-and-twenty.
“For I had quite a martial turn,
And scorned the lowing cattle;
I longed to wear a uniform.
Hear drums, and see a battle.”
As was the ease with the first regiments to respond in other states, so our ranks were filled with the best young blood of Wisconsin, and officered by men, many of whom subsequently, in their present and higher stations, made their mark on various fields of action. Among them, without disparagement to others, may be named Capt. George H. Stevens, promoted to lieutenant colonel, and killed at Gettysburg; Capt. Wilson Colwell, killed at South Mountain; Capt. David McKee, promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 15th Wisconsin, killed at Perryville; Capt. Gabe Bouck, promoted to colonel of the 18th Wisconsin, commanding that regiment through the Vicksburg and other campaigns; Capt. Wm. E. Strong, promoted brigadier general, by brevet, served on staff of Gen. McPherson; Capt. Randolph, killed at second Bull Run; Capt. John Mansfield, promoted to colonel of the 2d Wisconsin, and brevet brigadier general, commanded the Iron Brigade, and was subsequently lieutenant governor of California; Lieut. John Hancock, promoted to colonel of the 14th Wisconsin. The regiment numbered a trifle over one thousand men. Our field officers were Col. S. Park Coon, Lieut. Col. Peck, and Maj. Duncan McDonald.
On our way to Washington we drew seven hundred and fifty muskets at Harrisburg, and marched through Baltimore at about ten o’clock at night. A howling mob of rebels and their sympathizers crowded the streets, uttering the wildest imprecations on the men who dared to desecrate the soil of “My Maryland.” It was with difficulty that our men were restrained from opening fire. During the march I walked for several blocks on the flank of my company with City Marshal Kane, who was a good conversationalist, and pretended to be a loyal citizen. He certainly performed his duty that night. Shortly afterwards, however, his sympathies drove him into the ranks of the rebel army. Arriving at Washington we went into camp on Seventh Street, next to the 5th New Hampshire, whose leading fifer used to charm us with his wonderful rendering of the reveille (our drum corps couldn’t play). Besides, our brass band afforded us daily exhibitions of tunes of excruciating melody, and of marching time, to which no man, excepting a broken-legged cripple, could possibly keep step. It was here that we had our first experience of regular army inspection. All our field officers, including the adjutant, had gone down to the city early one morning to see that the Capital was properly protected, and that the President and other officials were performing their duty. I was officer of the day in camp. All went on swimmingly during the day. Pie-women, and smugglers of the army fluid which sometimes inebriates, had been duly examined, and passed or bounced, as the case might be, while the several companies had been through their regular drills, and the camp guards been scientifically relieved. It had been ascertained that for one day at least a regiment could be run without a colonel or adjutant. But about twelve o’clock at night, a call was heard ringing out on the night air: “Officer of the Day! Post Number One! ” Supposing, of course, that our out-posts had been attacked by a force of rebels from the other side of the Potomac, the officer of the day, who was making his rounds on the opposite side of the camp, clad in all the habiliments and trappings of war, including sash, hastened to the post designated. There he found the sentinel and officer of the guard contending with Gen. Mansfield, the old veteran who commanded the Department of Washington, who, accompanied by his staff, demanded admittance to our camp. He was making the “Grand Rounds.” The General appeared to be very angry at the refusal to admit him. He said that on demand of the sentinel he had given the password, but was still refused at the point of the bayonet, and he had threatened to put the sentinel under arrest—all to no effect. I saw the situation at once, and informed him that owing to the absence of the field officers and adjutant, I had received no password for the day, and was compelled to use that of the preceding day; that I presumed his password was correct, but that, as I did not know either himself or the password, he could not be admitted. Assuming to be indignant, he rode along the whole line of sentinels, trying his password on each one, without success. What passed between him and the field officers was never confided to me; but that was the last time we were ever without the proper password.
Gen. Mansfield, his hair already silvered, as he sat on his horse that night, was an officer of distinguished appearance, and being the first general officer we had ever seen, for the time he became our beau-ideal of a soldier. He was killed at Antietam while bravely pushing the 12th Corps into action. Having displayed our prowess in conquering the rebellion in Washington, we moved on the 2d day of July across the Potomac, and planted ourselves on the sacred soil of Virginia, some two miles in front of Fort Corcoran, doubtless for the protection of that fortress. That this movement was a success, is proved by the fact that the fort was never captured by either rebel cavalry or infantry, even though Beauregard’s whole army was within thirty to forty miles of it at the time, and never dared to come much nearer so long as they knew the 2d Wisconsin was there. Such is the respect shown by an honorable enemy to an invincible foe.
We remained in this camp two weeks, learning camp duty, tactics and field movements, under our lieutenant colonel, who had studied at West Point for two years, varied by an occasional drill under two young lieutenants of the regular army. How the boys wished they had one of them for colonel! for the recent defeat of Gen. Butler at Big Bethel and the ambush of Gen.Schenck near Vienna, had already filled their heads with imaginary “masked batteries,” and their own observations suggested the advantage of having educated officers. They had not, however, learned that with a little hard work, natural capacity, and study and pluck, the volunteer officer soon became as successful a regimental commander as the most cultured graduate of our military academy.
Under pressure of public opinion, voiced by Brigadier Generals Horace Greeley, Murat Halstead, and other generals of the editorial profession who laid out all the great campaigns of the war in their dingy sanctums, Gen. Scott, with the sanction of President Lincoln, ordered Gen. McDowell to move “on to Richmond by way of Manassas with such forces as were present in front of Washington,” guaranteeing that Gen. Patterson should prevent any junction of Gen. J. E. Johnston with Beauregard; assuring him that “if Johnston joins Beauregard he shall have Patterson at his heels.” McDowell showed great energy, and a week later, on the morning of July 16th, ordered a general movement of his army to the front, to begin that afternoon. Without going into details, it is enough to say that that part of the army which marched towards and reached the front amounted to less than 28,000 men with 49 guns, to encounter an army at Manassas of over 32,000 men and 57 guns. (See Nicolay’s “Outbreak of the Rebellion,” page 174.)
At about two o’clock P. M. of the same day we were moved out of camp on the road to Vienna, leaving behind us about one hundred men unfit for duty, under Lieut. Hunt, whose obesity was a guarantee of his inability to march. Recognizing the at-that-time uncontrollable habit of the men to fall out of the ranks for water, I had caused the canteen of every man in the company to be filled with strong, cold tea, which greatly lessened their temptation. After a march of twelve miles, at sundown we bivouacked for the first time without tents. Our march was resumed early the next morning, under strict orders from the War Department against foraging, issued to us by Gen. Wm. Tecumseh Sherman, our brigade commander, subsequently the commander of the “March to the Sea,” now one of the few great generals living, whose name is a household word in almost every family of this country, and whose fame is wide as the world. General orders had also been issued forbidding the harboring of fugitive slaves in our camps, and ordaining that all such as might escape into our lines should be returned to their masters. This was a concession made with the vain hope that the rebels of the South and pro-slavery copperheads of the North might be induced—the one to lay down its arms, and the other to stand by the Union as patriots. Both orders met with the disapproval of the men in the Union army, who declared that they did not propose to go hungry with provisions in sight, nor to become “nigger-hunters” to placate those who were fighting to destroy the government.
It was not very late in the afternoon when one of my men, Budlong, who stood six feet four inches in his shoes, and who had been missing for an hour or so, came to me and said: “Captain, Gen. Sherman orders me to report to you under arrest.” “Why? what have you been doing?” “Oh, nothing but helping myself to rations. You see our meat is so salt I cannot eat it, and I thought fresh mutton would taste better. I had a quarter on my shoulders, making my way to the regiment, when the General happened to ride along with his staff, and caught me.” “Didn’t you know the orders against foraging?” said I. “Yes, but I was hungry, and it was rebel mutton, anyhow.” “Well, what became of the mutton?” “Why, the General told one of his orderlies to have it cooked for his (the General’s) supper. He then said he would attend to my case after we had whipped the rebels at Bull Run.” This was the last ever heard of the matter officially. I never doubted that Gen. Sherman sympathized with the men then as always on this question.
We bivouacked the next night near the old Fairfax plantation. About dark the same culprit came to me, saying: “Captain, there is a nice lot of sheep up on the plantation. Our boys are terrible hungry, and as our muskets are all stacked under orders not to let them go out, I don’t see what I am to do.” “Have you forgotten the orders?” “No, but it is too bad that we should fare worse than the d—d rebs who are trying to destroy the government we came down here to save.” “Well, Bud, it is against orders to shoot anything but rebs. My pistol hangs on my belt on one of the stacks, but you must not touch it.” I walked off, and what was my surprise and indignation, an hour or two later, to find that my whole company were feasting on the sacred mutton of one of the F. F. V.’s of Virginia.
The march to Centerville was a delightful one, although many, unaccustomed to marching, and especially to carrying knapsacks and “forty rounds,” fell to the rear to come up later in the day. It seems almost like yesterday that, on reaching the crest of a hill, the long column of troops with its batteries of artillery in advance of us, could be seen for a mile or two, colors flying, arms glistening, drums beating, bands playing, and war putting on a holiday attire. The thought then arose—can it be possible that such an array of brave men, so well armed and equipped, and so enthusiastic, should suffer the disgrace of defeat, and ever be compelled to halt on its way to the rebel capital? The idea was preposterous, and the thought that such a result was one of the uncertainties of war was not without its pain. The experience was new, and doubtless many besides myself were reflecting on the possibilities and impossibilities. That most of our regimental officers possessed confidence in the result was attested by the fact that they had hired a private wagon to carry their trunks containing their best uniforms and clothing; for we were all dressed in the dilapidated gray with which we left our state, while the officers had provided themselves with the regulation blue, to be used only on dress occasions. For myself, some bird had whispered into my ear that it would be just as well to leave baggage in camp. The result will be seen hereafter. But the spirits of all were gay, as is usual with men in the presence of novelty, especially when cheered by hope, and the feeling that they are serving a cause just in the sight of Heaven.
During the day a young mounted officer rode past us, who attracted general notice. He wore long, flowing locks, a hat and plume, a la Murat, and was uniformed in a royal purple silk velvet jacket, brilliant with gold trimmings. His cavalier style caused admiration and wonder, being so different from anything we had ever seen. “Who is it?” was the universal interrogation. It was soon known that it was young Custer, fresh from West Point, who had been sent forward by Gen. Scott with dispatches for Gen. McDowell. From that time forward his course was watched with peculiar interest. It was his cavalry that came up to us just after my regiment, the 5th Wisconsin, had captured Maj. Gen. Ewell at Sailor’s Creek, April 6th, 1865, three days before Lee’s surrender.
On the evening of the 18th, Gen. Tyler, commanding 1st Division, was ordered to make a reconnoissance towards Blackburn’s Ford, some three miles south of Centerville, on the road to Manassas, and not to bring on an engagement. Taking Col. Richardson’s brigade and a light battery he pushed forward, attacked and drove back a division of Longstreet, who, being reinforced by Early’s brigade, in turn advanced, driving in and disorganizing the 12th New York. An order by Tyler to fall back, was executed. Sherman’s brigade, with the 2d Wisconsin, had been sent for, with orders by some ignoramus to double-quick to the field, only a short three miles from our camp. The day being excessively hot, it may be easily imagined that green men with knapsacks tried the experiment for a few rods, and then eased off into a rapid march. As we approached the top of the hill overlooking the ford, we were met by a stream of fugitives, who were subjected to a storm of raillery by our boys. “Where are you going?” “What is the matter?” The invariable reply was: “We are all cut to pieces! ” Considering the fact that the total loss of that regiment was only five men killed and nineteen wounded, the nature of the terrible tragedy may be surmised. However, we pushed on, and in a short time filed off into the woods on the right, forming line of battle. The fight continued for some time, being simply an artillery duel. Shell and solid shot crashed through the trees over our heads, and frequently close enough to keep the men dodging long after danger was past.
This was our first experience under fire, and our “first baptism of blood,” but not a man left the ranks. Only one man was killed and two wounded by the bursting of a shell in our left company. The total losses of the day were: Union, 56 killed and wounded; Rebels, 63 killed and wounded.
As to the particular feelings or impressions of being under fire for the first time without an opportunity of returning it, each man has his own. I can only remember that a sense of my responsibility as captain of a company overpowered whatever feelings I might have had of personal danger, even though the sound of the shrieking shells was anything but agreeable. This first lesson taught us, as did the lessons of four years afterwards, that while the sound of big guns was more terriffic, the real danger in battle was the whistling “minnie,” which reached one without note or warning.
Gen. McDowell was anxious to make his attack on Beauregard on Saturday, the 20th, before assistance could reach him from Johnston’s army. But it was not until Saturday evening that he and his engineer officers could find a ford, which was not strongly entrenched and guarded, by means of which he could surprise and attack the rebel army in flank and rear. To attack in front would have been a useless massacre. On that evening he issued his orders for the forward movement at two o’clock Sunday morning. The divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman were to move to the right and cross Sudley Springs Ford, attack the rebel flank and rear, driving Evans’ brigade from the Stone Bridge, while Tyler’s division was to demonstrate in front. Sherman’s and other brigades, were to cross at or above the Stone Bridge as soon as the road was clear, or the enemy driven from our front. McDowell’s strategy was perfect. Gen. Sherman afterwards said it was “one of the best-planned battles of the war, but one of the worst-fought.” Gen. Johnston, who was in command of the rebel army during the fight, said: “If the tactics of the Federals had been equal to their strategy, we should have been beaten.”
But, leaving details of the battle behind, simply stating that, owing to the lack of promptness on the part of one division, the attack was necessarily delayed for two hours, the loss of which was one of the prime causes of our final defeat.
At two o’clock on the morning of Sunday, the 21st, we moved out of camp, marching and halting, mostly halting, as usual on night marches, for somebody to get out of the way, until after daylight, when we crossed Cub Run, and, ascending a hill overlooking the Bull Run valley and the Stone Bridge, we filed to the right of the road, and formed line of battle. Ayres’ battery was with us, and kept up a random firing on the batteries defending the bridge. We had a magnificent view of the historic stream and of the battle grounds beyond, which was a high plain, steep bluffs along the bank, the plain broken by ravines. Here we waited for several hours, momentarily expecting to see the smoke and hear the guns of our attacking divisions. It was not until eleven o’clock that the ball opened, and the sun was pouring down its fiercest rays. Hunter and Heintzelman had crossed the ford, and rattling musketry and puffs of smoke indicated that the skirmishers were at work. Soon the advancing lines came into view; our lines, preceded by the skirmish line, pushing forward, and the rebels as rapidly falling back. What a shout went up from our brigade! It meant, “Hurrah, boys; we have got ’em!” On and on press our troops, who continued to draw nearer to the bridge and to us, in perfect lines of battle. Soon the rebels took to their heels and Stone Bridge was ours. It looked then as though the whole rebellion was conquered. Now was our time. Knapsacks were thrown into a heap, and guard placed over them. Gen. Sherman had discovered a ford half a mile above the bridge, passable for infantry, but not for artillery. To this he directed his brigade, the 2d Wisconsin leading. Marching to the ford under fire from a rebel battery, we waded through, climbed the precipitous ascent to the field above, and pushed forward in pursuit. How different was the scene presented to us, thus far, from that of a few hours later!
Having crossed the Warrenton pike, we were halted and ordered to lie down. The rebels had been driven across the pike and had made a stand on a hill running from the Henry house northeast to Bull Run. What happened there, not being all within the range of my view, I quote from Nicolay’s account, the briefest as well as one of the best written, as follows:
“When, at about half past two o’clock, the batteries of Ricketts and Griffin were ordered to move forward from the Dogan Heights across the valley to the top of Henry Hill, they did so with the feeling that the two regiments ordered to follow and support them were tardy, inadequate and unreliable. Other regiments, moving forward to the flank attack, could not well be observed because of the uneven ground and the intervening woods and bushes. The rebels had disappeared; there was a complete lull in the battle. But danger was no less at hand. Hardly had Ricketts taken his post before his cannoneers and horses began to fall under the accurate fire of near and well-concealed rebel sharpshooters. Death puffed from bushes, fences, buildings, and yet the jets of flame and wreaths of smoke were the only visible enemy to assail. Officers and cannoneers held on with desperate courage; some moved to new positions to foil the rebel range. Griffin’s battery came and took place alongside; eleven Union guns and thirteen Confederate guns were confronted at short range in a stubborn and exciting duel. But now the rebel regiments, seeing the dangerous exposure of the Union batteries, were tempted to swarm out of their cover. They pressed cautiously but tenaciously upon Ricketts. Griffin, absorbed in directing the fire of his guns against the rebel batteries, was suddenly startled at seeing a regiment advancing boldly on his right, in open view. Their very audacity puzzled him. They could hardly be friends, he thought; yet was it possible that foes were so near and would take such a risk? Instinctively he ordered his guns to be charged with canister and trained upon them. Yet at the dreadful thought of pouring such a volley upon a Union regiment, he once more hesitated and held a brief colloquy with Major Barry, chief of support. ‘They are Confederates,’ replied Griffin in intense excitement; ‘as certain as the world they are Confederates.’ ‘No,’ answered Barry, ‘I know they are your battery support.’ Griffin spurred forward and told his officers not to fire. The mistake proved fatal. During this interval of doubt the Confederate regiment had approached to point-blank range and levelled their muskets just as Griffin gave his order to desist. Griffin’s canister would have annihilated the regiment; but now the tables were turned, and in an instant the regiment’s volley had annihilated Griffin’s and Ricketts’ batteries. Officers and men fell, smitten with death and wounds, and horses and caissons went tearing in wild disorder down the hill, breaking and scattering the ascending line of battle. Under this sudden catastrophe the supporting regiments stood a while, spellbound with mingled astonishment and terror. They were urged forward to repel the advance on the guns, but the unexpected disaster overawed them; under the continued and still advancing volleys of the same rebel regiment, they fired their muskets, turned and fled.
“These disabled batteries, visible to both armies, now became the center and coveted prize of an irregular contest, which surged back and forth over the plateau of the Henry hill; but, whether because of confusion of orders, or the broken surface of the ground, or more probably the mere reciprocal eagerness of capture and rescue, the contest was carried on, not by the whole line, but by single regiments, or at most by two or three regiments moving accidentally rather than designedly in concert. Several times the fight raged past and over the prostrate body of Ricketts, lying wounded among his guns, and who was finally carried away a prisoner to Richmond. The rebels would dash forward, capture the batteries, and endeavor to turn the pieces on the Union lines; then a Union regiment would sweep up the hill, drive them back, and essay to drag the guns down into safe possession. And a similar shifting and intermitting fight went on, not merely on this single spot, but also among the low concealing pines of the middle ground in front, as well as in the oak woods on the Union right, where at times friend became intermingled with foe, and where both sides took occasional prisoners near the same place.
“In this prolonged and wasteful struggle the Union strength was slowly and steadily consumed. Arnold’s battery crossed the valley to the support of Griffin and Ricketts, but found itself obliged to again withdraw. The Rhode Island battery took part in the contest as well as it might from the hill north of Young’s Branch. Brigade after brigade—Sherman’s, Franklin’s, Wilcox’s, and finally Howard’s reserve, were brought forward—regiment after regiment was sent up the hill—three times the batteries were recovered and again lost.”
The above corresponds with my own observations, excepting that we were the last on the right of the line to make the charge. As we moved forward I distinctly saw two pieces of Ricketts’ battery, over which the forces on each side were contending, hauled to the rear. Men from some of the repulsed regiments, which had charged before us, straggled through our ranks, while others remained with us. Just then, too, on the hill, beyond range of our guns, we saw the famous but somewhat mythical Black Horse Cavalry rushing across our front, after a futile attack on the New York Zouaves to our left. This cavalry consisted of only a few companies raised in the vicinity of Warrenton, and was valuable only as scouts, or for the purpose of picking up stragglers. Its success in the latter direction was demonstrated before the day ended.
The crest of the hill in front of us, upon which the rebels had massed their infantry and artillery, was of a semi-circular form, so that when our regiment pushed on to the summit our left and center was facing south, while the four right companies faced east and south-east, our flank not far from the Sudley Springs road. This was an obstacle in the way of any concerted action, since no command could be heard along the whole line, nor was more than half the regiment visible at the same time. Col. Coon had been temporarily transferred to Sherman’s staff, leaving Lieut. Col. Peck in command. For some reason known to himself, the latter had dismounted and sent his horse to the rear, thus rendering it impossible for him to command so large a regiment, especially in such a position. Capt. Stevens’, Ely’s and my company were on the extreme right of the line; at least no troops were visible on our right, nor was any firing heard in that direction.
As we mounted the crest we were met by distinctive volleys of musketry, which were promptly returned, but it was impossible to push our line forward against the evidently superior forces massed in our front. The fire had continued for some time, when an officer on foot, dressed in blue uniform, ran down the rear of our line exclaimingly wildly: “For God’s sake, stop firing; you are shooting your friends.” Fearing this might be true, many of our men hesitated to continue firing, until by orders and appeals they were induced to begin again. Not long afterwards the same, or another, officer repeated the performance, with precisely the same exclamations. Whether this was a ruse on the part of the rebel officer, or whether he really supposed from our being dressed in gray that we were also rebels, may be a matter of doubt. But taking into consideration the ruse by which our batteries had just been captured, and subsequent attempts to deceive our troops by hoisting the Union flag, I am satisfied that it was a premeditated piece of iniquity. Whatever may be thought of it, the effect on our men was the same. They were certainly confused by doubt. To satisfy them, I picked up the musket of a wounded man, advanced to the front, saw distinctly a rebel flag, fired at the color-bearer, and induced my men to re-open fire. I continued to fire for some minutes, or longer, until my attention was called to an enfilading fire from the woods on our right. The fact that Johnston’s troops from Winchester were expected, and that this was in the direction of the railroad by which they would arrive, explained our view of the situation. About this time Col. Peck appeared on foot and asked me what I thought of this flank fire. My answer was that we could not maintain ourselves very long unless we were reinforced in that direction. He replied that that was his opinion, and left. Not very long after this, but how long I do not know, as the flight of time in a fight is a matter of conjecture, the Colonel appeared again in our rear and gave the order: “Fall back to re-form!” This was an indication that the left and center of our line, which we had neither seen nor heard from since the fight began, had met with no better success than the right, which turned out to be the fact.
An extract from Gen. Sherman’s report is as follows: “This regiment (the 2d Wisconsin) ascended to the brow of the hill steadily, received the fire of the enemy, returned it with spirit, and advanced delivering its fire. This regiment is uniformed in gray cloth, almost identical with that of the great bulk of the secession army, and when the regiment fell into confusion, and retreated toward the road, there was a universal cry that they were being fired upon by their own men. The regiment rallied again, passed the brow of the hill a second time, but was repulsed in disorder.”
Whether Col. Peck’s order to fall back was given to the whole regiment or not, I cannot say. But, so far as the right companies were concerned, they began to fall back without waiting for orders from their company officers. It was then the confusion began, and owing to the mixture of men of the different companies it was impossible to maintain order or discipline. The result was that the whole regiment fell back across the turnpike, where there was a rally around the colors and a movement with nobody in command toward the ford by which we had crossed. This must have taken place about four o’clock, as it was dark when we reached Centerville some five or six miles away, every man on his own account, owing to confusion and strife in crossing the fords, Stone Bridge and the bridge at Cub Run, which were blockaded by broken-down teams. On reaching Centerville I was informed by our hospital steward, in charge of the field hospital at that place, that Gen. Sherman had just passed through towards Washington, giving him orders to tell such of the 2d Wisconsin as passed, to make their way back to their old camp on the Potomac at once.
The general description of the retreat is too well known to be repeated. Members of congress, newspaper reporters, soldiers and spectators of the fight formed a confused mass of humanity. Just at the rear of Centerville, at the camp we had left at 2 o’clock in the morning, Capt. McKee and myself gathered together some two or three hundred men, and under the command of the former, marched in good order to our camp near Fort Corcoran, arriving there about twelve o’clock the following day, having marched and fought some thirty-six hours without rest or sleep, probably not less than fifty miles, the last twelve hours in a soaking rain.
Here we found Lieut. Hunt had orders from Gen. Sherman to burn our tents and move immediately to the fort. After consulting together, we concluded to have some dinner, and take a rest; and finally moved to the fort, shortly before dark. The wagon containing the officers’ baggage never returned.
The loss of the 2d Wisconsin in this campaign was 24 killed and 103 wounded, a total of 127. The loss of Sherman’s brigade was 317, killed and wounded. Our army lost an aggregate of 1496, killed and wounded. The loss of the rebel army was 1969, killed and wounded.
The first great battle of the war was fought and lost. The reasons need not be repeated. They are fairly stated in the report of Gen. McDowell, and in the various histories of the war.
I cannot refrain from saying that, in my humble opinion, Gen. McDowell was among the most capable of our army officers. His failure at Bull Run, however, aroused the ghouls of the press to charge him with incapacity, with disloyalty, and with drunkenness—three as baseless charges as were ever aimed at the reputation of a capable, loyal and temperate man. But for these vile slanders he might have had command of the Army of the Potomac, which under him would not have fought only to be repulsed or defeated through all its campaigns until it held its own at Gettysburg. His brilliant strategy was imitated by Gen. Hooker at Chancellorsville, who, with ten times the odds in his favor, failed in his tactical movements. Three days before the opening of the second Bull Run fight, in 1862, while we were camped near Warrenton, Gen. McDowell rode along our front. Acknowledging my salute, and after a short conversation in which he referred to the charges against his loyalty, he asked: “Well, Major, how would your boys like to have another fight on the old Bull Run battle ground?” To this I replied that they would appreciate highly a chance to pay off old scores. He then remarked very decisively: “We will meet the rebels on the same ground within a week and we shall win.” It was not his fault that the prediction was not fulfilled.