California University of PA CWRT Recap

17 07 2016

Photo courtesy of Mike Pellegrini

Last Thursday evening, July 14, I gave a presentation on Irvin McDowell’s plan(s) for the campaign on Manassas to the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable in California, PA. This built on the presentation I gave to the Central Ohio CWRT back in 2014 (see recap here). The evening before, I sat down and wrote a few things out – I don’t usually like to read prepared statements, but I was glad I did as it cut down on annoying umms and ahhs on my part and helped keep me on track. It also added to the length of the program, which I think clocked in at something like 1:30 to 1:45. But I didn’t see too many of the 55-60 in attendance nod off, and didn’t notice any getting up and bugging out before the meeting was over. This program continues to develop and change as my thoughts on McD’s plans evolve, but in essence it’s pretty much nailed down.

There were some good questions afterward, but not too many as we did run long and my programs typically have give and take while in process. The room in the Kara Alumni house was very nice and worked well. It was also very cool meeting Roland Maust, author of one of my top ten favorite books on Gettysburg“Grappling with Death”: The Union Second Corps Hospital at Gettysburg, who was in attendance.

Thanks to president Walter Klorczyk who heads up a very fine group. They meet on the 2nd Thursday each month on campus.

My next speaking engagement will be October 18, 2016, when I’ll present Kilpatrick’s Family Ties for the Lunch With Books series at the Ohio County Public Library in Wheeling, West Virginia. Stop by if you’re in the area – it’s a fun program.

4/23/2016 Battlefield Tour Recap Part III

4 05 2016

Sharing the Stage with John Hennessy Was a Treat, But Yellow Was a Bad Idea (Photo by Tom Leupold)


Again, all-in-all, I thought the things over which I had control came off alright for the tour. As of now, I have no control over the weather, but never say never.

I really like the fact that no one had to put out any cash, including me, other than for travel, meals, and lodging. Sure, a bus may have been nice, but that comes with a certain lack of flexibility (some folks left early or came late), and the added risk of someone backing out at the last minute and wanting their money back. I think if we do something like this again (and that will depend a lot on you folks), we’ll try to keep a similar format. That is, caravans and no expenses.

I also was pleased to see that most attendees had the handouts I provided here. Some made up nice binders with artwork, and a good number had everything on their phones or tablets. Plus there was no copying or paper expense, and it would have been a real mess to hand those things out in the rain.

I had a lot of material that we just couldn’t get too. Yes, some of it was hardcore military stuff, and a lot of it was “cool stuff.” This time John Hennessy was the guiding force, which was only appropriate given the fact that most in attendance were there to listen to him, not me. I just angled in when I saw and opening. It’s better to have too much stuff than too little.

I was really happy with the give and take along the way. We had a number of very knowledgeable people in the group (at one point, someone came up to me and excitedly, gleefully said, “These guys are all hardcore!”), and many of them chimed in to add to the experience. Thanks to all of you who spoke up. I felt bad after I singled some of you out in the opening remarks, because I know there were accomplished names I left out. My apologies to you.

There were things about McDowell’s plan and how he did and didn’t diverge from it that I wish I had said. Sometimes I get so geared up I forget to say everything. But then, we were covering a lot of ground and a lot of material.

That back door of the Stone House opening apparently all by itself right when John mentioned ghosts was classic. I don’t think I can count on a repeat.

John and a few others prodded me several times about when or whether I am going to write “a book or something,” and by “something” I assume they all meant something other than this blog. I’ve thought a lot about that. As I said before, I think John has written the definitive study of the campaign. There are several possible outcomes when one writes a book:

  1. The result is well written, well researched, and adds to the literature. (This is something rare in Civil War publishing. Very rare.)
  2. The result is well written, marginally researched, and adds nothing to the literature. (This is the stuff that wins Pulitzer Prizes sometimes.)
  3. The result is well written, well researched, and adds nothing to the literature. (So, why bother?)
  4. The result is poorly written, poorly researched, and adds nothing to the literature. (Lots of this out there.)
  5. OK, I think you catch the drift…(We often hear it said, and we may say it ourselves that “we really need a book on fillintheblank.” I think often that’s just not true, and Paul Taylor, Mike Pellegrini, and I had an interesting discussion about that the night before the tour.)

The point is, I’d only want to put something out there if it qualifies as a #1.  I do have ideas for a Bull Run project, more of a reference work I guess, but not like any you’ve seen before. That’s problematic when describing it to publishers. My thoughts along the lines of a narrative history would produce something very similar to John Hennessy’s book. I don’t know if it would be as well written. We differ not so much in our thoughts of McDowell’s plan, mostly in the psychology at the root of it. I suspect it’s more firmly based on military principles/doctrine than John thinks. That alone, I don’t think, justifies a new campaign study – but perhaps an essay/article. However, there’s always the possibility of telling the whole story in a different, compelling way, and I’m always exploring that.

Short answer – who knows?

Most of all it was great meeting everyone, putting faces to names, moving many of you from e-quaintance to friend, and of course seeing old friends again. I’m really sorry if I didn’t get to speak to each one of you – next time, I hope. And I hope there’s a next time. With that…


Please take a little time to leave feedback in the comments section if you attended (or even if you didn’t). What did you like? What did you not like? If we do something like this again, what particular aspect of the battle or what particular sites on the field would you like to see covered?

I have a few ideas, including following letters around the field, annotating them as we go. Perhaps touring a Confederate letter and then a corresponding Union letter, covering the same action from a different perspective. Also, among Bull Runnings’s readers I know there are some with extensive expertise to share.

Let me know – fire away. Maybe we’ll do something like this again.

Part I

Part II

4/23/2016 Battlefield Tour Recap Part I

27 04 2016

The Bull Runnings Battlefield Tour with guide John Hennessy, held this past Saturday, was, I think, a success. Officially we had 62 attendees who signed in, and suspect we had a few who chose to not sign in. In addition, a few folks dropped out during the day, and I think we even picked up one or two others along the way. I’ll break the tour into two posts, then follow up with some conclusions and requests for input from attendees.

Tour Synopsis – Morning

We met at the picnic area off Groveton Road at 9:00 am. The pavilion came in handy as it was raining pretty steadily – this kept up all morning. After introductions and a review of the itinerary, we set off.


Assembling at the Picnic Grove

We consolidated into fewer cars (we had left a few at the Visitor’s Center), and headed for our first stop at Sudley Church. From there, we hiked the original Sudley Road trace to Sudley Springs Ford on Catharpin Run, where John set the stage, discussed the crossing of McDowell’s army, and dispelled the notion that anyone was going to services at Sudley Church on the morning of July 21, 1861.


Sudley Church


Sudley Springs Ford

Next we moved south to the Thornberry House, where many things were discussed, including the photos of March 1862, the Thornberry children, and Sullivan Ballou and his death, burial, and desecration. For the record, yes, I do believe his letter was real, even though the original’s whereabouts are unknown.


Thornberry House

From there, John showed us the site of the graves of twelve Union soldiers, and also the site of the post-war home of the Benson’s of Sudley Church. See here for some disturbing inconsistencies in the wartime event.


Union burial sites (no, I’m not giving out GPS coordinates)

Then it was back to the cars (we managed two crossings of Sudley Road without an incident, no small feat) and south to the Matthews Hill parking lot. There we received water and snacks from Debra Kathman and the good people at the Manassas Battlefield Trust, and made our way to Reynolds’s Rhode Island Battery, where John described the opening of the battle by Burnside’s Brigade and Evans’s men. Craig Swain laid some artillery jargon on us, discussing the range of various pieces North and South.


Reynolds’s Rhode Island Battery

Next we marched south on Matthews Hill to Buck Hill, above the Stone House, and discussed what McDowell’s vision of victory may have been, the afternoon “lull,” and “the plan.” As it happens, John and I agree on what McDowell’s expectations were regarding what he could expect from the enemy in terms of numbers. We also agree on what McDowell planned and, most important, where those plans ended. We may differ a bit regarding the psychology, if you will, behind those plans, but we’re much closer than we are far apart. The plans pretty much end with the establishment of McDowell’s line along the Warrenton Turnpike, and across the Stone Bridge. After that, the next move depended on how the rebels would react.


Panorama from Buck Hill

Down in the Stone House’s back yard (the Stone House was owned by a family named Matthews, which was a different family from that which occupied the Matthews House on Matthews Hill), John described what was taking place in what has been traditionally called a  relatively quiet “no man’s land.” That is to say, it was far from quiet. Sorry, for some reason I took no photos there. But John Cummings got this shot, spoiled only by my presence in it.


Stone House Yard (John Cummings)

From there we crossed the Warrenton Pike (today’s Lee Highway) and proceeded up Henry Hill.


Up Henry Hill!

We stopped to recount the movements of Imboden’s Staunton Artillery (while it didn’t happen here, with the help of artillery buff Jim Rosebrock we determined that Imboden was most likely serving as the number four man on the piece when he crouched too near a gun he was working and went deaf in his left ear when it fired).


Imboden’s Position

Our last stops before breaking for lunch was at the “boggy area” just off the paved Visitior’s Center parking lot, which has been traditionally described as the site where several post battle photos of Union graves were recorded (I perpetuated the legend here). John Cummings teased us about the proof he has assembled that the photos were not recorded here, nor were they recorded at the spot other photo buffs have identified. He promises more in the future. The most compelling evidence was presented by John Hennessy, who informed us that prior to the mid-1980s, the site was not damp at all – it became that way after changes were made to the topography.


Site Where Famous Photos Were Not Taken

OK, I’ll end this part where we took our lunch break. Highlights of that included shuttling drivers back to Matthews Hill to fetch cars for the afternoon portion of the hike.

Part II

Part III

Notes on “Early Morning of War” – Part 1

7 04 2016

downloadI know, it’s been a while. But, just like writing, maybe examining a reading can benefit with the passage of time. Here’s how this is going to work: as I read Edward Longacre’s study of the First Battle of Bull Run, The Early Morning of War, I put little Post-Its where I saw something with which I agreed or disagreed, or which I didn’t know, or which I did know and was really glad to see; essentially, anything that made me say “hmm…” So I’ll go through the book and cover in these updates where I put the Post-It and why. Some of these will be nit-picky for sure. Some of them will be issues that can’t have a right or wrong position. Some of them are, I think, cut and dry. So, here we go:

Prologue: Page 4 – Here we have Abraham Lincoln, three months after the attack on Fort Sumter (July, then), fretting over a recurring dream (you know, the one in the boat) and “the coming passage of arms” between “the forces fated to meet at Manassas.” But he also mentions a “presumed superior strength of the Union forces” in that coming fight. I have to wonder, what presumed superior strength is the author talking about here? Plans submitted to AL in June assumed meeting an enemy of at best equal numbers.

This idea of an expectation of outnumbering and overwhelming the rebels at Manassas is a recurring assumption in First Bull Run literature. But the facts just don’t back it up, as I’ve discussed before. See, for example, this post.

The author also notes earlier in the same paragraph that AL was hoping for a “complete victory at minimal cost in Northern and Southern lives” [emphasis mine]. This is tantalizing and something I’ve considered in trying to understand just what Irvin McDowell wanted to accomplish in the campaign (another assumption typically pulled from the air). That is, how did AL’s hopes for a “soft war” and a quick reconciliation, if indeed he hoped those hopes, impact McDowell’s game plan? Unfortunately, the author really didn’t examine this in much detail, even later (see this post for more thoughts on this).

Wow, that was just one Post-It. This could take some time. I have no schedule for this – guess you’ll have to check back here every…single…day.

Interview: John J. Hennessy – The First Battle of Manassas: “An End to Innocence,” July 18-21, 1861

4 12 2015

!cid_2CF4249F-126F-4782-8A7B-1674CF1815FE@hsd1_va_comcast_netBy now you’ve read enough here to know that John J. Hennessy’s anticipated reworking of his 1989 H. E. Howard Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series book, The First Battle of Manassas: “An End to Innocence,” July 18-21, 1861, is available from Stackpole Books. Mr. Hennessy has graciously answered a few questions to provide a little more information about the book and himself. Please feel free to make observations or ask questions in the comment section. Also pay close attention to Mr. H’s closing paragraph. UPDATE: If you’d like a signed copy of the book for your collection (and who wouldn’t?) drop John a note at


BR: I’m pretty sure most Bull Runnings readers are familiar with your work, and many to some extent with you, but for those who aren’t, what’s the thumbnail sketch of John Hennessy up to this point?

JH: My career might constitute the most successful and enduring adolescent delaying tactic in history. When I got out of college (I studied both history and management), I wanted to get a job I liked for a summer before I entered the slog of the real world (thinking I would ultimately pursue finance or some such lucrative-but-un-thrilling path). So, I got a job at Manassas Battlefield, hired by Mike Andrus and Dave Ruth (now the superintendent at Richmond NB). That whirlwind summer changed my life. One summer turned into most of a year, then another….and finally a career. I haven’t entered the real world yet.

Since those happy Manassas days, I have worked for the New York State Historic Preservation Office, the NPS Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry (doing interpretive and exhibit planning for parks throughout the NPS), and finally at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. I arrived there in 1995 as Assistant Superintendent and in 2001 transitioned to the Chief Historian’s position. There I still reside, challenged every day and the beneficiary of a truly outstanding staff of history professionals.

Along the way I have written a few books, most notably Return to Bull Run, which came out in 1993. Most years my professional duties with the NPS have been so consuming that I have had little time for writing of my own. I still punch out a few articles and essays each year, but not nearly as much as I would like.

BR: So, why history, and why the Manassas?

JH: Rainy days inspired my interest in history as a kid. Rainy days gave me the chance to read, and I found I loved biographies and history. I am not alone in pointing to two books as inspiration for an interest in the Civil War: McKinlay Kantor’s Gettysburg and the American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. I still remember vividly the trill of reading Kantor’s book on a dark, drippy afternoon with my bedside light on. And I do believe I came to know every one of those tiny men in the great landscape portrayals in American Heritage. Every one.

Transforming an interest in history to a career in history honestly never occurred to me until I arrived at Manassas. My determination that first summer was to leave behind at the park some piece of research that mattered—something that told us things we didn’t already know. As I dug deeper, I realized that a great deal remained to be understood about the battles and field–especially Second Manassas. At that time, for me, one thing drove me more than any other: the desire to accord significance to the ground—to be able to give visitors the experience of understanding what happened RIGHT HERE at a given moment more than a century ago.

That rather narrow quest spun up into efforts to better understand the battles in a larger sense. In 1983, I floated the idea to the park of using the research I was then doing as the basis for a set of troop movement maps for Second Manassas. I can see now that that was my great career break. That work got the attention and support of Ed Bearss, who was then the Chief Historian of the NPS, and it gave me a chance to do a level of research that quite honestly has been the foundation for everything I have done since. For me, those were exciting days that few historians will ever have a chance to match.

I left the NPS for a time in 1986, and only then did I decide to write books about Manassas. For most of five years I worked on both An End to Innocence and what would become Return to Bull Run.

A funny thing about An End to Innocence: when I worked at the park, I wasn’t much intrigued by First Manassas. Only after I left the NPS did I start to think seriously about the battle, its significance, and the conventional wisdom that governs it. I wrote the book over about a six-month period in 1988-89. Its scope is fairly narrow–closely focused on the battle itself. There is a reason for that: at the time, the best book on First Manassas was William C. Davis’s Battle at Bull Run. Davis is a beautiful writer and a thoughtful historian. He did a tremendous job on the campaign at large and the battle’s context. But at the park, we always felt like he didn’t quite get right the battle itself. And so I wrote my book to fill that gap, and to avoid treading on subject matter he had already handled so well.

BR: Are there any writers/historians who influence your writing?

JH: When I get stuck in my writing, I pull out Freeman or Furgurson to get my literary mind working again. As for inspiration, there’s no question that Sears’s Landscape Turned Red helped shape my vision of what a battle or campaign study should be. Beautifully written and organized.

BR: An End to Innocence has been out, what? over 25 years now, and it’s recognized as a standard (to me, THE standard) tactical study of the First Battle of Bull Run. What prompted you to do a new edit?

JH: Stackpole Books inquired about reprinting the book at about the same time I had started thinking that I should do something new with it. At that point I envisioned only small edits and additions—nothing major.

But then I started reading it again. I doubt most authors spend much time reading their own books, and I honestly hadn’t read anything but pieces of the book in years (mostly to prepare for tours). I had always liked it fairly well, but now…. Didn’t like the opening. Rewrote that. Found a good deal of passive voice and some awkward constructions. Slayed those. And as I went, I increasingly felt the narrative lacked richness, power. In some places a vagueness betrayed my uncertainty; in other places I knew I had, since 1989, gathered more powerful source material that could be woven in.

Pretty quickly a two-week edit turned into a three-month rewrite. I didn’t rewrite the whole book, but probably 80% of it.

BR: So, what IS new in this edition? Was there anything that really surprised you along the way? And how much was that affected by the availability of material, or by a maturation in your own thought processes?

JH: I shudder when I think how little I really knew about the Civil War and American history when I wrote this book in the late ‘80s. Then, my (and many others’) focus was on the accumulation of knowledge—adding detail, incorporating new sources. Today, I think we prize understanding to a far greater degree, and we demand that knowledge and understanding be interwoven.

I think I understand the First Battle of Manassas far better today than I did then—its fabric, its nature, and why it mattered.

Back then, I saw the battlefield landscape as mere tableau—a playing field for armies. Today, and in this edition, I pay a good deal more attention to the people who lived there, recognizing that this was a living space whose residents were deeply affected by what happened there. This is a general trend in Civil War historiography, and it’s a good one.

Since 1989, we have accumulated probably 150-200 new sources on the battle, many of which are now posted on Bull Runnings (more on that later). We are at a point in the historiography of the Civil War that most of the new sources that emerge simply reinforce things we already know. But sometimes they prompt some re-thinking, and a re-examination of sources one might not have given a thought to in years. An example: we have always presumed that the 11th New York and 1st Minnesota were the only two Union regiments atop Henry Hill at the first exchange of infantry fire. But we now know that the 38th NY was there too—farther off to the left, but without question engaged with Jackson’s line at the same time the Fire Zouaves were suffering their fall from fame and grace. Similarly, we have always presumed, as Burnside asserted, that Sykes’s Regulars played a major role in averting Union disaster at the height of the fighting on Matthews Hill. A closer look makes clear that’s all wrong, and there is little question about it. The Hampton Legion, the Mississippians with Bee, Barnard’s reconnaissance on July 19-20—all emerge with a slightly different hue thanks to new sources and a forced reconsideration.

By far the biggest challenge in the rewrite revolved around Irvin McDowell. In the original, I treated McDowell as something of a caricature –embracing conventional wisdom and the relentless cascade of simplicities that seem to revolve around him. This time around I took more time and, I think, a more thoughtful approach.

You had something to do with that. Your writings on the blog about McDowell, elusive though they may yet be, helped push me to take a close, second look at this much maligned man (I was really hard on him in my Second Manassas book) and, especially, his plan for battle. I wait anxiously to learn if you agree with my conclusions about McDowell (all of us of course want to stay on Harry’s good side), but in any event, my treatment of McDowell, the circumstances he faced, and his response as the battle progressed amount to probably the most important substantive revision of the book—less simplistic, more nuanced, more intent on understanding rather than simply narrating.

Some other new things: I include a good deal about the civilian spectators, both Union and (yes) Confederate. If Americans know one thing about Manassas, it’s that civilians came out to watch. I look closely at their experience, their role in affecting the Union retreat, and the important legacy produced by their bearing witness to Union disaster.

I also take a much closer look at the aftermath of battle. The combat itself shocked the soldiers. The aftermath shocked the nation. On this field were the first major field hospitals of the Civil War. Here were buried the first great numbers of dead. To this place came hundreds of curious onlookers and souvenir seekers. All these things tell us a great deal about how this battle reverberated across the nation, North and South.

And finally, really, how did the battle affect the people of the North and the Confederacy? Is the conventional wisdom that it shocked the nation to action true? Did Southerners really believe victory meant independence? I touched on these things only slightly in the original. These questions get more rigorous treatment in the new edition.

BR: What types of sources did you rely on most, and how did that change between the first edition and this one?

JH: For the new edition, I did only a bit of targeted research (most of that when I was preparing for the 150th in 2011). Instead, over the years I accumulated First Manassas things as I found them, throwing them into my files or, more recently, turning them into digital files (about half my research is now in digital form, and I hope eventually to phase out my 15 or so boxes of 5 x 8 cards entirely). I regularly check sites online for new material, and I have always been a bit of a maniac about wartime newspapers. The number of wartime papers online increases all the time, and many of them include primary sources worth looking at. (In fact, since I sent off the manuscript just four months ago, another dozen or so new sources have tumbled onto my desk).

Of course by far the best website for new material on First Manassas is Bull Runnings. In fact, it’s the best compilation of online material related to a specific Civil War engagement ANYWHERE (you can quote me on that).

One thing I surely noticed: Back in the 1980s, it was simply impossible to lay hands on some published sources. Today, many of those elusive sources are available digitally. As an example, my treatment of Extra Billy Smith and the 49th VA benefitted greatly from access to his writings, which I could not get in 1988. The digital age is a boon.

As I worked through the rewrite, I went back and re-examined literally every source I used or quoted in the original. Often I found I had overlooked a good passage or an important point my first time through. This process of reassessing sources prompted a good deal of the rewriting I did.

BR: Can you describe your writing process?

JH: I just write. I suppose I have in my brain an outline of what I am going to do, but I am not usually conscious of it, and I never put it on paper in outline form. My life is pretty busy, so I often got only small snatches of time for writing each day—often only 30 or 40 minutes. Once was, that would have been a disaster. But my writing “voice” has developed enough that I can fairly easily jump in and out of writing as circumstances command.

When I did get blocks of time to write, on a typical night I might get in 800 words. If I had a day, maybe 2,000. Writing is like building a brick wall. If you imagine the whole thing, it’s daunting. All you can do is the little bit in front of you—put the thoughts and sentences and passages together one-by-one.

BR: What’s next for you?

JH: My writing career has always been an inverse indicator of the fulsomeness of my career: when I have been challenged greatly at work, I hardly have the energy to write at home. But when those periods come along when 9-5 work is less stimulating (remember, I work for the government, so it happens), I look to get my intellectual jollies by writing. For the moment, my NPS work is pretty demanding. I will do occasional articles or essays, but likely not much more in the near term.

But, I am only a few years from retirement, and writing is what I plan to do when it comes. My great interest is the Army of the Potomac, and especially its relationship with the government and people it served. I am also much interested in its subordinate command. I expect I will write about both those topics. I also have an emerging itch to write a book about the artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia. I’ll also someday write about the town of Fredericksburg during the war, slavery and freedom hereabouts, and perhaps a few things well outside the well-trod intellectual and literary terrain of the Civil War period.

One last thing: sometime, perhaps in the spring, we ought to convene a Bull Runnings outing at Manassas for you, your readers, or anyone else who wants to come along–walk the ground, and hash through some of the mysteries and conundrums that remain. It’d be fun. I’m game if you and your people are.

BR: What do you think, Bull Runners? Does that sound like fun? Something you’d be interested in? Maybe the first ever Bull Runnings muster! We’ll see how it plays out, but your feedback is key.

Lieut. Benjamin Rush Smith, Co. G, 6th North Carolina Infantry, On the Battle

3 09 2015

A Letter.

The following letter we copy from the Daily Bulletin, by request, and we think it worthy of a perusal:

Headquarters 6th Regt, N.C.
State Troops, Camp Bulls Run,
July 24th, 1861.

Dear Parents: – Once more I have an opportunity of writing you all, and that after having been exposed for nine hours on a battle field, strongly contested on each side. we achieved a glorious but dear bought victory on last Sunday (July 21st) about 5 miles from the Junction on Bulls Run Creek. Our whole force on the field amounted to near 60,000, while that of the enemy was not less than 80,000, though we only had about 15,000 engaged – the enemy 35,000. The contest began at 6 A. M. and continued with unabated vigor until 4 1/2 P. M., when I saw the enemy flying across the hills with rapid strides. It was the most beautiful sight that one ever beheld to see them retreating with their banners unfurled, and to hear the cheers and huzzas that went up from our ranks. We pursued them for several miles, and that night I slept in the camp that the Yankees occupied Saturday night. Only four Companies in our Regiment were in the chase, (my Company one of them,) the rest being cut off in the early part of the engagement. – We were at Winchester when we received orders to come to Manassas. We arrived here Sunday morning about 6 A. M. I heard the cannonading as soon as I left the cars. A fellow told me that the “Ball” was open, and that we would “get there in time to dance at least one set.” I must say I felt a little queer at first, but fear left me as soon as I got into it. We were immediately marched to the “Ball Room,” and formed into line of battle at 7 1/2 A. M. When we had formed a rifled cannon ball came whistling through my company and passed in between me and the 3rd Serg’t of our company. It was a 12 pounder. We saw it before it got to us and dodged it. You ought to have seen us all squat. It was the first that had been fired at us. I have it now lying by me and will send it home if I can. We were placed in a position where two Regiments had been cut to pieces. The enemy had possession of a hill and we had to advance up a ravine with 2 pieces of Sherman’s battery placed at the mouth of it. We however advanced and silenced the battery in short time. Our Regiment there lost 18 killed and 47 wounded and one prisoner. My company lost of that number 7 killed and 6 wounded, (all privates,) being in the hottest of the fight. After taking possession of it, Col. Fisher advanced beyond the battery some 30 yards, and it was there that he fell pierced with a rifle ball through the head. All the other Officers escaped in our Regiment except Lieut. Mangum, who was wounded; Captain Avery, and Lieut. Col. Lightfoot, slightly. Our Brigadier General (Bee,) was killed. Just before going into battle I put up the most earnest prayer that I ever did, and I know that it was answered, for the balls came by ma as thick as hail stones and the bomb shells bursted all around me, and none but the hand of God could have saved me. I got several trophies off the battle field, and will send some home the first opportunity. It is impossible to give a description of the field after the battle. For 7 miles it was strewed with the dead and dying. You couldn’t advance a step without seeing them; many times I had to step over them. I never thought I could stand such scenes, but it has little effect on me now. I cut a button off a dead Lieutenant (Yankee) Hitchcock’s coat and took his likeness out of his pocket. I got a great many guns but could not carry them. The boy that waits on me got a splendid shot gun and sword off the battle field. This sheet of paper came out of a dead Yankees pocket; it came in very good time as I am almost out. Our cavalry chased them through Centreville and Fairfax also our artillery killing them all the way. I was told this morning that the road from here to Alexandria where they went is lined with those killed on the way, and the wounded and dead they attempted to take from the battle field. Their loss was about 3,000 killed and wounded, and ours was not more than 800. We have taken about 1,500 of them prisoners and they are still coming in. Since I have commenced this letter a Yankee Officer had been brought by, taken this morning a short distance from our camp. We are now encamped on the very spot where we formed our line of battle.

When we left Winchester (July 18th,) we were so hurried that we couldn’t bring our tents, and have been sleeping without them ever since, though last night I had a very good tend made of yankee blankets that they had left on the battle field. Besides the prisoners we took we captured 62 pieces of artillery, 300 wagons, and knapsacks and canteens by the thousand. Our Regiment has the honor of taking two pieces of Shermans battery, the pride of the North. The whole army went to Alexandria with only two pieces of Artillery, the rest being in our possession, and many of the pieces rifled. I think that peace will soon be made now since this important victory. I talked with some of the prisoners, most of them told me that it was not their will to fight against the South; that they had been forced into it, and that they had intended to go home as soon as their time was out. Some said that their time would have been out 1st of August, though I found many who were enlisted for 3 years. We had certainly the flower of the Northern army to contend against; many of them being of the regular U. S. Army, commanded by Generals Scott, McDowell and Patterson. Scott was not on the field himself the day of the battle, but one of the wounded Yankees told me that he reconnoitered the day before, and that he told the soldiers to fight like men and on next Tuesday he would insure them a dinner in Richmond; that he intended to make that place his headquarters. Well he told the truth, for 1,500 will eat there but only as prisoners. We are under orders to march this evening for parts unknown to myself, though I think it very probable it is towards Alexandria.

Jeff Davis now commands the army in person. I saw him the evening after the battle; he made us a short speech.

It was remarked in camp this morning that a flag of truce had been sent by Scott to Davis proposing to treat of peace although it may only be a rumor. I hope it is not for I never want to see such another slaughter as was on last Sunday.

Our Colonel being killed Lieut. Colonel Lightfoot will take his place.

We buried our dead Monday evening on the battle field. The Yankees have been lying there till to day when part of them were buried, though there are now hundreds of them lying where they fell, and a great many horses.

Your affectionate son,

B. Rush Smith

[Charlotte] North Carolina Whig, 8/6/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy

B. R. Smith in 6th NC Roster

B. R. Smith brief sketch here, and more detail here.

Research Assignment: Why Were Ricketts and Griffin on Henry Hill?

24 07 2015
"The Capture of Rickett's Battery" by Sidney King, 1964 (oil on plywood). On display in the Henry Hill Visitor Center at Manassas National Battlefield Park.

“The Capture of Rickett’s Battery” by Sidney King, 1964 (oil on plywood). On display in the Henry Hill Visitor Center at Manassas National Battlefield Park.

This will either be fun, or go over like a lead balloon. As you may or may not know, one of the things I find most interesting in researching the First Battle of Bull Run is the fact that contemporary documents do not always support the contentions – statements of fact, even – of historians of the battle. The other day, friend and artillery guy Craig Swain and I were discussing the move of Ricketts’s and Griffin’s batteries from their positions north of the pike to Henry Hill. This move has often been criticized over the years, sometimes even described as a turning point of the battle. But, why exactly did McDowell send his artillery there? What was he thinking? How did he want to uses them, as flying artillery, in place of infantry, as what?

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to take a look at the evidence. Were written orders issued? What did the actors say about the move later? What have historians said? I’ll even help you out. Below are the reports and testimonies of the four individuals who may or may not have known. Read them over. Look for the why. Check what they presented against what historians have written (you’ll have to use your own resources there.) How have the historians substantiated their assertions? Discuss in the comments section.

BG Irvin McDowell, who issued the order (Reports and Correspondence #1, and #2, and JCCW testimony #1, and #2.)

Maj. W. F. Barry, to whom McDowell issued the order, and who forwarded it to the battery commanders (Report, JCCW testimony)

Capt. Charles Griffin (Report, JCCW testimony)

Capt. James Ricketts (Report, JCCW testimony)



Pvt. E. Starke Law, Co. B, (Oglethorpe Light Infantry), 8th Georgia Infantry, On the Battle

23 07 2015

Letter from an Oglethorpe.

Stone Bridge, July 26th, 1861.

My Dear Father: – You have doubtless ere this received a brief note from me informing you of my safety. That was but a hurried line to relieve your anxiety. I now write to give you some idea of our action. On Thursday, the 18th inst., very much to our surprise, while waiting at the breast-works at Winchester, in hourly expectation of an attack from Patterson, we were ordered to prepare for a march without any information as to the cause or our destination. At 1 o’clock we commenced the march, and we were informed that Patterson was directing his column towards Manassas, intending to unite his force with McDowell’s in an attack upon Beauregard, and that it was necessary for us to make a forced march to Manassas. We arrived at the Shenandoah about dusk; having to ford it, we lost about four hours. – At 3 o’clock on Friday morning we reached a little town called Paris, here a halt was ordered, our guns were stacked in the street, the men threw themselves upon the side-walk, and in ten minutes all were asleep. At 5 o’clock the drums beat, and in five minutes we were again on the march. After marching six or seven miles, we arrived at the railroad; the wagons were ordered to the front, and we were allowed the very pleasant privilege of cooking; if ever you saw faces brighten and eyes sparkle, you ought to have seen our army just then, for we had marched about twenty five miles without any thing at all to eat. Arriving at Manassas we were marched out about three miles and waited until Sunday morning when we received orders to proceed to the battlefield. After going eight miles we came in sight of the enemy. – A halt was ordered, and our Lieut. Col. walked up to the brow of the hill to examine the position of the enemy; in a few moments he returned with the intelligence that Sherman’s celebrated Battery was stationed opposite, and would undoubtedly shell us. Scarcely had the words passed his lips, ‘ere the boom of the cannon was heard, and the next moment a bomb passed harmlessly over our heads. We were then ordered to lie upon our faces, in which position we remained about fifteen minutes. While lying here, the bombs came nearer and nearer, until one dropped about three feet in front of John Fleming and myself, covering us with dust, the next dropped on our left, in front of the Macon Guards, wounding two men, one of whom died to day. Just at this time Gen. Bee sent an aid over to Col. (then acting Brigadier General) Bartow, saying that he must have a Regiment to support his right. Bartow ordered Col. Gardner to take the 8th (our) Regiment. Though the shot and shell were falling thick and fast around us, when Gardner gave the order, “Eighth Regiment to your feet,” every man rose and stood erect, not one faltered, and we charged for at least one mile in the face of that battery, without firing a single gun. We then turned into a narrow strip of woods within about seventy yards of the enemy’s line, and opened fire upon them. Here our little band of five hundred and fifty-nine men, for thirty minutes, bore the fire of eight Regiments of the enemy, and it is my honest conviction that they would have stood there until the last man had fallen, had no order to retire been given; as it was, the order to retreat was repeated three of four times before it was obeyed. Col. Gardner, who was in the Mexican war, and who was wounded in this action, says that it was the heaviest fire to which men were ever exposed. We lost from our Regiment, in killed, wounded and missing, over two hundred men. To give you an idea of how thickly the bullets were showered upon us, I need only state that but sixteen out of the seventy-six men that the Oglethorpes carried into action, escaped being killed, wounded, or struck with spent balls or pieces of shell. I myself got two bullets through my pants, and was struck by a piece of shell upon the right knee, which lamed me for a day or two. I the little copse of woods in which we fought, there is not a tree or bush that hs not one or more bullets in it, and it is only surprising that any of us escaped. We can only account for it by remembering that there is an over-ruling Providence, whose protecting arm was doubtless thrown around us. Poor Ferrill was killed right at my side; little Frank Bevill, Lippman, and John Fleming, were shot down just around […]

Our wounded are all doing well and I trust they will all recover. Fleming is slightly wounded in the shoulder and not considered at all dangerous. A correct list of the killed and wounded has been sent to Savannah, so that it is not necessary for me to mention them. Poor Bartow felt and suffered all that a noble, generous, and brave heart could, when he saw his brave men falling fast around him. When Gardner was shot down, Bartow was heard asking him “In God’s name, what can I do to save my brave boys?” At this time the enemy were firing on our front, had flanked us upon our right, and were pouring in upon us a destructive fire from that quarter, when, to cap the climax, one of our own Regiments coming up, mistook us for the enemy and gave us a volley upon our left; under these circumstances Bartow seized the colors and called upon his men to rally around him, when a ball pierced his heart. He fell nobly struggling for our sacred rights, and long will his memory live fresh in the hearts of his soldiers.

Our troops now began to come up to the scene of action and in a short time the enemy were put to flight and our victory was complete. Our loss, I think, is put down at 2,000 men, whilst the enemy acknowledge a loss of from 5,000 to 6,000. Prisoners are still being brought in. We took 61 pieces of cannon and a number of horses. The enemy were so confident of victory that large numbers of citizens, among whom were, I understand, a good many ladies, came out to Centreville, where they were waiting for a signal from the battle field, when the rebels should be routed, to come on and see the ruin they had wrought; but, much to their mortification, they beheld only their own troops flying like sheep before about one-fourth their own numbers. Such is the fortune of ward. I have given you but a poor account of the battle, the observations of one man engaged in fight are confined to a small space. We are now about six miles from Manassas and cannot tell how long we shall remain here.

We have no Colonel and our Lieut. Colonel is wounded, and will not probably be able to take the field for six months, so that it is impossible to say what will be done with us. As anything is decided I will inform you. In the meantime direct to Manassas, 8th Georgia Regiment.

Yours, &c.,

E. S. L. *

Savannah Republican, 8/6/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy

*Likely E. Starke Law, per roster here

E. Starke Law at 

Observer, U. S. Marine Battalion, On the Battle

8 06 2015

U. S. Marines at the Battle of Bull Run.

Correspondence of the Traveller.

Washington, August 9.

The battalion of United States Marines, commanded by Major John Geo. Reynolds, were in the action from the commencement until the retreat sounded. During the day they supported Griffin’s Battery, and in the charges that they made, fought with desperation; and throughout the entire battle behaved with all the coolness of veterans. The most of these men were raw recruits some of them never having been instructed in the drill prior to their departure for the field. All honor is due to our noble and gallant Major (Reynolds), who in so short a space of time raised them to such a state of efficiency, that they could favorably compare with the best men on the field. I think there are very few officers in the United States service who have the art of imparting knowledge to recruits to such a degree as Major Reynolds. On the field he behaved with coolness, and bravely led his battalion against the rebel hordes. When I saw how gallantly he acted, his long white locks streaming in the wind, I felt that I would freely sacrifice my life to have saved his. God has spared him while others have been stricken down. Lieut. Hitchcock was struck dead with a rifled cannon shot. Our officers have all shown, that although young (some of them smelling powder for the first time), they inherit the natural bravery of their ancestors. I think after this the Confederates will give the Marines a wide berth.

Major Leilin[*] was shot through the arm while leading his Company in the final charge. Among others who distinguished themselves was Lieutenant William H. Hale, who acted in a gallant and heroic manner, rallying our men by examples of bravery seldom surpassed. After Sherman’s Battery was taken by the enemy, Gen. McDowell ordered the Marines to advance and retake the guns. Lieut. Hale seized the Battalion Colors, and , while urging the men forward, was struck in the leg with a Minie Rifle Ball, inflicting a severe and dangerous wound. Paying but little attention to the wound, he continued at his post until the order of retreat was given. After having regained the other side, where our own forces were drawn up, he gave up the Colors to his commanding officer, and fell from exhaustion.

The Marines were the last to leave the field, covering the retreat of our retiring forces, and bravely contesting the ground with the rebels, inch by inch. Major Leilin, Major Nicholson, Captain Allan Ramsey, Lieutenants Monroe, Grimes, Baker, and Huntington, all behaved in a gallant and meritorious manner. Fifty-two of the Marines are killed and missing, and 22 wounded.

Major Reynolds is very active at present (having recovered from the fatigues of our long march,) in promoting the proficiency of our corps, drilling the men early and late. The Major is the able constructor and designer of the new Marine Barracks in Boston, said to be convenient, comfortable, and superior to any other Barracks in the United States.

Our men are now ready for the field, and eager for the fray. Gen. McDowell and staff gave our Battalion great credit for the manner in which they conducted themselves while under fire.



[*] Edit – Jacob Zeilin, commanding Co. A of the battalion, would later become the seventh commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps, its first non-brevet general officer, and approved the corps’ eagle, globe, and anchor emblem.

Based on the narrative, it is assumed the author is a member of the battalion.

Boston Daily Evening Traveller, 8/13/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy

Lil’ Help – Lincoln

25 03 2015

lincoln-sailorsI’ve determined to start a Resources category on soldier references to Abraham Lincoln. That is, references in the letters and diaries of officers and men of McDowell’s army written before and after First Bull Run, in an effort to examine how their views of POTUS evolved during this time. So, if you have or are aware of any soldier letters or diaries that reference the President from, say, June of 1861 through to the end of August 1861, please send me a note. The best way to do that is through the comments feature of this post. Thanks in advance for your help!