WITH THE SECOND VIRGINIA CAVALRY AT BULL RUN – RECOLLECTIONS OF A FIGHTER WHO WAS IN THE EARLY BATTLE.
WRITTEN FOR SUNDAY REPUBLIC
I have never seen a more beautiful sunrise than that which occurred on the 21st day of July, 1861.
The approach of the “King of Day” on a midsummer morning, is hardly announced by [?] beautiful blushes on the eastern horizon, before his bright rays begin to dart through the trees and convert the dew-drops on the grass into sparkling diamonds. The limp dress of nature has been freshened since she torrid heat of yesterday, and the smiles in inexpressible loveliness at the approach of the morning light. What a pity this beautiful panorama is of so short duration! But the sun climbs so rapidly toward the meridian that we soon are panting again for breath. I can never forget this particular sunrise.
We left our camp at Fairfax Court House early on the morning of the 17th, marched slowly up the grade through Germantown on the Warrenton Pike. We were green and raw in military matters and threw away our ham and bread to lighten the load of our horses. How we wished got them before the long day’s march was over! But dewberries were ripe and, during the frequent halt, we found means of appeasing the urgent demands of our appetite. We passed Centerville in the early evening, and late at night crossed the since famous “Bull Run.” As we passed up the long hill on the south of the stream a weird sight was presented by the silent ranks of Bonham’s South Carolina Brigade stationed near the foot of the hill. A little higher up the hill was a battery of artillery, the pieces all unlimbered and pointing toward Mitchell’s Ford which we had crossed in our march from Centreville. The ropes at the end of the rods (linstocks**) were ignited and ready to “light off” the cannon, should the enemy attempt to cross the ford during the night.
We proceeded to the summit of the hill and bivouacked on the open plateau of the crest. Our position commanded a full view of the heights on the north side of the stream and as we were not on duty, we spent the next day watching for the approach of the Army of the North. It was several miles from our position to the top of the hill on the other side. In the afternoon of the 18th, we could discern the enemy debouching from the road where it came into open view from the woods.
In a short time a puff of smoke was seen and in a few moments a cannon ball hissed past, high up over our heads, and struck in the open plateau behind us. Again, another hissed past and then another. Under the circumstances, it was difficult for them to estimate how far their balls overshot our position. But we were soon called to the woods below the road where soon we could not be exposed to the view of the artillerists. Pretty soon the booming of cannon from both armies was heard and not long after, volleys of musketry were added to the display of war at the fort below use (Blackburn’s) * * * All was quiet the next day, which was spent in restless lounging by our men. It was hard to get a drink of fresh water. There was a very faint stream, or, rather, ooze of water from the side of the hill, and it required a deal of patience to wait until a small excavation in the mud should be sufficiently filled with muddy water to enable us to dip up a cupful to drink. Captain Radford spent the day apart from us all. He had a presentiment that he would be killed in the approaching battle and wrote letters and papers most of the time.
On the 20th we were sent to do picket duty for General Cooke at the ford above us. So, Sunday morning, July 21, found J. Pleasant Dawson and myself stationed under a large water oak in the edge of a green meadow that skirted “Flat Run” near where it entered the “Bull Run.” It was hard for us to resist the temptation to dismount and loll on the carpet of green verdure spread so temptingly beneath our feet.
As the sun rose on this beautiful spot, so calm and so peaceful, our thoughts reverted to our homes, our loved ones and our neighbors, then to “Old Trinity” back in Bedford County, the church we had attended for worship all of our lives. We spoke in low and tender tones of our girl friends who would be likely to attend church that day, wishing from the bottom of our hearts that we could be there in person as we were in spirit; and then we grew silent, for our talk had conjured up a multitude of sweet memories of the past on which our hungry hearts silently feasted with delight.
A call to camp put an end to our entrancing reveries – love, peace and beauty must soon give place to the horrors of battle. We had hardly gotten to camp and taken our place in the regiment before the booming of cannon was shaking the earth and balls were tearing and whizzing through the pine woods in which we were concealed. Several hours were spent in ranks, during which it was hard to banish the thought of the terrible havoc one of these deadly missiles would make should it pass from front through to the rear of our column. As the day advanced cannon began to boom northwest of us, and those that annoyed us ceased. We then formed in line in the open field on the crest of the hill.
Ever fresh in memory is the sight of a South Carolina regiment that passed by to take a position in the line in rear of the fort. In their ranks was the tall figure of old Mr. Ruffin, who fired the first shot at Fort Sumpter. His long snow-white locks hung down below the collar of his coat from under the fur (silk) hat so often worn by elderly gentlemen of that day. The regiment passed in silence and the firm and stately tread of the men showed that the spirit that animated every bosom was of the “do-or-die” type.
After we had been in ranks for some time with the noonday sun beating down upon us from the cloudless sky, we were allowed to dismount and stand by our horses. We strained our eyes toward the northwest, where the battle was now fiercely raging, and tried to see some hoped for signs of victory for the noble band of Southrons but there was little to encourage us, although our painful interest in the scene made us forget the intense heat that enveloped us. We had no means of knowing the time of day, but the sun had some time passed the zenith, when the clear ringing voice of Colonel Radford gave forth the cautionary command, “Attention!” Then “Prepare to mount!” and then, “Mount!” We were well-drilled and the simultaneous rattle of sabers showed that we were all in the saddle. “From the right by fours, gallop, march!” In a moment, the whole column of 700 or 800 horsemen shook the earth in their gallop towards the battlefield. The dust was so thick that we could not see our file leaders, but our horses kept us right and we rapidly covered the distance between our camp and the Lewis House. Before we reached that point our gallop had been changed to a trot, so that we could pass the regiments of infantry which were also making their way to the scene of battle. A regiment of Tennessee troops attracted my attention as we passed. They were of the race of “Ana[?],” tall muscular men, with mouth firmly set, nostrils expanded and faces lit up with the light of battle, they gave us a lofty inspiration for the work we expected to be called upon to perform in a few moments. I must not forget to say that in one set of fours a jet-black negro, as large as the white giants with whom he marched, filled his place with all the dignity and determination of a born soldier.
After passing the Lewis House we began to see the effects of battle. The wounded men on the stretchers and in the “ambulances,” with cheerful voices would encourage us. “We are whipping them,” said they, “go on and make the victory a complete rout.” The stragglers, however dirty and dusty, and with down and out and rueful looks, told us their regiment had been cut all to pieces, and they were all that were left.
We rode rapidly forward and halted in column on the north side of Holkum’s Branch in rear of Stonewall Jackson’s command, and under shelter of the intervening hill.
The rising clouds of dust had given our movement and position to the enemy’s batteries and immediately they began to fire on us from the north, from the northeast and from the northwest. Shells burst on our flanks – our left flanks as we stood in column being toward the northwest.
After using shells for some time, they tried to reach us by solid shot in ricochet firing. These would strike the brow of the hill on our left and rebounding over our column would bury themselves with a dull thud in the hill beyond the branch. As we heard the hissing and screaming of the balls and shells, nearly every man would duck his head instinctively down the neck of his horse, which stood with that subdued and resigned look they always have when standing out in a thunderstorm or in the battle’s rage.
It seemed that we stood in that spot for many hours, but I know it could not have been actually much more than half an hour. Then the firing of musketry from Jackson’s line began. It would begin on the right, not in volleys but in succession and sounded as the grinding of coffee – only magnified a thousand times. Before the wave of reports would reach half way to the left flank, it would begin again on the right – the cannon of both armies playing a bass to the tenor of the musketry. Suddenly there was a yell – as unmistakable as the tocsin of the rattlesnake or the vindictive [?] of the bumble-bee as he thrusts his sting into you – and we knew the Rebels were charging the Army of Coercion. The terrible ordeal was soon over and we had to duck our heads no more. In a short time we began to march back toward the Lewis House. As our rear was approaching the top of the hill on the south of Holkum’s Branch, and old or elderly man called out: “General Johnson says ‘the cavalry must halt.’” We stood there some time. At length we were ordered to take position in a kind of natural amphitheater on the west of the Lewis House. While stopping on this hill several of our horses were wounded by bullets from parting shots of the retreating foes.
The tide of battle was now changing rapidly and our spirits were rising correspondingly. Cheer after cheer went up as Adjutant Burks told us that the “Sherman” and “Ricketts” batteries which had just worried us so much, had been captured. Then other and louder cheers when he told us a Virginia regiment had captured them. Presently Lindsay Walker and his “derringers,” as he called them, passed and took position on the hill northeast of the Lewis House, whence they fired with deliberation and regularity. In a short time, we were ordered to charge.
As we reached the top of the hill at the Lewis House and galloped down to the Lewis Ford, we could see the road to Centerville lined with the retreating enemy, whose pace was rapidly hastening to a run by the balls from Walker and the other batteries. The exultation of the moment reached the utmost limit of human endurance. Our men yelled and cheered as they galloped and the horses shared in the enthusiasm of their riders. As we came to the Warrenton pike a few scattering enemy were seen scampering about, and our men began to fire their shotguns, some at random into the air and some taking aim. The men so nearly beside themselves that I had to watch those behind me, to prevent being shot myself. Many men left the ranks to ride down those who were trying to escape. While I gazed on the confusion around me, I asked myself mentally, “Why all of our drilling and study of the ‘Manual’ if we were to do this way in battle?” Suddenly before I could make reply, in clear and clarion tones, the command was given by our Colonel, to “form and charge that battery.” About thirty men promptly took their position in line – the rest were too much occupied in chasing the fugitives. They did not hear the command. I looked up the road toward Stone Bridge and saw several pieces unlimbered. One or two were pointed toward us; the others down the pike toward Centerville. We were within a hundred yards, and they overshot our little knot of men. A terrific report like the noise of a train of cars passing over our heads almost deafened us and we left in full gallop. A run of half a mile brought me to the squadrons under our Lieutenant Colonel Munford, who was to strike the pike farther east. I took my place at the rear of his column and we advanced but the enemy finding that our cavalry had cut them off became panic-stricken and were scattered to the four winds [?] so we did not find any more of them in ranks. I captured a tall, lean and lank Irishman of a New York regiment and ended the day escorting him back to the provost guard. It was raining as I went back to camp the next morning. My “mess” were glad to see me for I had been reported killed. I learned with sorrow, that our noble captain Winston Radford, and our Color Sergeant the manly Edley Irvine were among the slain. Painful, indeed, was the loss of those princely spirits which went out with our first triumphant shouts of victory. But, “Their glory dies not and the grief is past.”
St. Louis Sunday Republic, 1900
Contributed by John Hennessy
* Unit designation determined by the narrative, which identifies the colonel as Radford, and the captain as Winston Radford. The 2nd Virginia Cavalry, while formed in May of 1861, was known as the 30th Regiment Virginia Volunteers until the end of October, 1861.
** Linstocks are rods, the ends of which can be fitted with lighted fuses, used to fire a cannon when friction primers were not available or otherwise not used. While we imagine their use in artillery of an earlier time, linstocks were part of standard U. S. artillery equipage as late as 1890. Hat tip to Craig Swain.