Lt. William Mack Robbins, Co. G, 4th Alabama Infantry, On the Battle

25 11 2018

With Generals Bee and Jackson at the First Battle of Manassas

On the afternoon of July 18, 1861, the army of [Brigadier General Joseph E.] Johnston – about ten-thousand strong – which had been for some weeks manoeuvering up and down the [Shenandoah] Valley in front of [Major General Robert] Patterson and was then lying around Winchester, was hastily put in motion and marched off southeastwardly, going we knew not whither. Most of the men belonged to the class which may be described as “young bloods,” sons of planters, reared in ease and affluence – intelligent, merry hearted, high spirited, full of romance and enthusiasm. They had volunteered at the first call, not only from devotion to the cause, but love of adventure, and there was nothing they were so eager for as to get into battle, being somewhat tinctured with the idea that they “could whip at least three Yankees apiece,” and were rather afraid that the war might come to an end before they got the chance to prove it. In spite of their confidence in their general, they had been a good deal chagrined and disgusted at what they deemed his overwary strategy in not delivering battle to the enemy under Patterson. They were therefore greatly delighted to hear the general order which General Johnston caused to be read to each regiment as soon as we got well out of Winchester that summer evening. That order was about in these words: “Beauregard is attacked by overwhelming odds at Manassas. Your commanding general has full confidence in your zeal and devotion and asks every man to step out lively. You are going on a forced march over the mountains to reinforce your companions in arms and save the country.” Loud cheers welcomed the tidings. The prospect of an early encounter with the enemy loomed up ahead and stimulated the impatient spirits of the men to their best exertions. Heat, dust, and night-fall soon made the rapid march disagreeable enough, but it was pushed without a check till we reached the Shenandoah. This river, about waist deep, was waded at dawn of July 19, amidst songs, jokes, and general hilarity. The Blue Ridge was passed at Ashby’s Gap, and at evening of the same day the head of the column arrived at Piedmont Station on the Manassas Gap Railroad, whence Johnston’s forces were sent forward in detachments by rail as fast as transportation could be furnished.

So much has been said about Johnston’s troops appearing on the field in the nick of time after the battle had been long ranging that the impression extensively prevails that none of them were there at its beginning. This is a great mistake. Three brigades – [Brigadier General Thomas J.] Jackson’s, [Col.] F. S. Bartow’s and nearly all of [Brigadier General Barnard E.] Bee’s – were at hand when the battle opened and bore an important part in it all day. The Fourth Alabama and other regiments of Bee’s Brigade reached the Junction at noon of the twentieth and were among the very earliest in the conflict the next day. It was only the comparatively minor number of Johnston’s men under [Brigadier General Edmund] Kirby Smith and [Colonel Arnold] Elzey that leaped from the train when they heard the battle in progress, and, hastening down the Warrenton Pike, came in so luckily on the right rear of the Federals and caused the panic which gave the victory to the Confederates.

I have spoken of the eagerness of our inexperienced but enthusiastic soldiers to see and participate in the battle. The feeling did not diminish, but rather grew in intensity on this occasion, up to the time of actual engagement, and how much longer I cannot say; but one thing is certain – all of us by the time the day was over felt sufficiently amused. Thousands of soldiers on both sides know all about the experience of a first battle, and anything said on the subject would be but an old tale to them; but those who never took a hand, and especially young who have come up since the war would no doubt like to know how a battle looks and seems to a new soldier – its thrill, its thunder, its grandeur, its horror, and no lees its odd, absurd, and even grotesque features. I do not feel competent to paint an adequate picture and description of these things. I doubt if any pen can fitly paint them. A few hints about how this battle opened and proceeded – as the writer saw it – must suffice. The Fourth Alabama were busy with breakfast near the junction when the sudden boom of a gun in the direction of the railroad bridge over Bull Run drew our eyes that way and we saw for the first time the little dense round sphere of white vapor, high up in the air, produced by the bursting of a shell. This was quickly followed by others, the design of the Federals being to draw all attention to that part of the line while they were executing their shrewd flanking movement on our left. However, our regiment, with others of Bee’s Brigade, was at once moved at double-quick towards the Confederate left, to a position that had been allotted to us at one of the upper fords. But we had scarcely reached the designated point when we were again ordered to go at a rapid run for about two miles still further up the stream to meet the Federals – our commanders having just at that moment discovered that they had crossed the stream at Sudley’s Ford, entirely beyond the Confederate left, and were pouring down in heavy force on that flank. All depended on presenting a quick front to this unexpected movement. So we went  – a few battalions only – across the fields at out highest speed, and soon reached the plateau of the Henry House, around which the battle was afterward mainly fought. But Bee did not permit us to stop there. He marked that as the most favorable position for the Confederate line to form its new front on, but he knew his brigade alone could not hold it and he also saw that the enemy would reach it, unless checked and delayed by some means before an adequate force of Confederates could get there to oppose them. To gain the needed time it was necessary to risk the sacrifice of the two and a half regiments then with him by a bold movement still further to the front. He could not hesitate. So he ordered the Fourth Alabama, Second Mississippi, and Eleventh Mississippi (two companies) to move half a mile further forward to the next ridge to engage the enemy and delay them as long as possible. Down the slope we rushed, panting, breathless, but still eager because ignorant of the desperate crisis which had doomed us to probably destruction to save the whole army. As we passed the little rivulet below the Stone House, the duel of the artillery began and the shells of friend and foe shrieked wildly above our heads. Mounting the hill and entering the copse of timber north of the Stone House, we began to hear a sharp cracking of musketry ahead of us – a collision  between the Federals and some small bodies of Confederates we had not known were there before, among them [Major C. R.] Wheat’s Louisiana Tigers, wearing the zouave uniform.

As we emerged from the little wood we caught sight of these Tigers, utterly overwhelmed and flying pell-mell, most of them running off to our right and toward the stream (Bull Run). This and their zouave uniform, which we had never before seen, but had heard some of the enemy wore, for a minute caused us to mistake these “Tigers” for Federals and as they were flying in disorder, some of our men set up a loud yell and shout of victory, supposing the enemy were already routed and retreating, whereupon one ardent fellow of the Fourth Alabama, with his finger on the trigger and anxious to pull down on somebody before they all got away, burst out with: “Stop your darned hollerin’ or we won’t get a shot!” But the mistake was discovered just in time to prevent our firing on friends. A little way further up the hill beyond the timber and we struck the enemy and no mistake. Their long advancing line, with the Stars and Stripes waving above it (which made some of us feel sorry), began to peer over the crest, eighty yards in our front, and opened a terrific fire, which at first went mostly over us. It is proper to mention that the Mississippians, who had come with us, were halted at the edge of the wood behind us, and so did not get into the hot conflict that ensued, the whole brunt of which thus fell on the Fourth Alabama alone. On receiving the enemy’s first fire we lay down and waited till we could see their bodies to the waist, when we gave them a volley which was very effective, firing uphill. The Federals fell back and disappeared behind the crest. After some interval they advanced another and longer line; but the result was the same as before, only they held on longer this time and their fire hurt us badly. A third time they came on in a line which extended both our flanks, and now the conflict became bloody and terrible to us, their balls coming not only from the front but from the right and left oblique, cutting down our colonel (Egbert Jones) and stretching lifeless many a familiar form so recently full of hope and gayety. Then war began to show us his wrinkled front. But we thought of what they would say at home if we flinched and how ashamed we should feel if after all the big talk about whipping the enemy we let them whip us at the first chance. We could see, too, that they were as awkward at the business and enjoyed it as little as ourselves. Besides, it looked like they could hardly help killing every one of us if we got up and tried to run away. It seemed our safest chance to hug the ground and pepper away at them; and so from sheer desperation, as much as anything, we kept to it, until after awhile, to our great joy, the enemy fell back once more behind the crest, and their fire lulled. Our general, seeing we would be certainly overwhelmed at the next onslaught, gave us the order to retire, which we did before another attack. We had been at it for over an hour and had really rendered great service in gaining time for the Confederate army to change front and form the new line. But nearly one third of the Fourth Alabama had gone down in the effort and were left on the ground, including the colonel, mortally wounded. I should not omit to mention that the Seventh and Eight Georgia, of Bartow’s brigade, also came into our advanced position far to our right during our contest, and had a bloody collision with another column of the Federals, and though these Georgians were recalled some time before we were, they contributed materially to the delay of the Federal advance.

The two Mississippi regiments of our (Bee’s) brigade had also retired before us, so that the Fourth Alabama was going back alone. In this movement a bloody episode occurred to us. Retiring by the same route along which we had come, when we reached the little rivulet running near the stone house, we saw a regiment, in column by companies, marching down the rivulet toward us. Their flag was furled on the staff and so was ours. By the quarter we had just come from they thought us probably Federals, but were not sure. As for us, we felt the enemy had got so far around in rear of the place of our recent fight; their uniform also resembled that of the Sixth North Carolina, belonging to our brigade, and we hastily took them for that regiment coming to our aid. Thus encouraged we halted, faced about and reformed our line, intending with this supposed reinforcement to take another tilt with the enemy we had been fighting if they should pursue us as we expected. The unknown regiment also halted and deployed into line of battle at right angles with ours and less than 100 yards from our left flank. Their colonel signaled us with his handkerchief for the purpose of communicating  and learning who we were as it afterward appeared; but we never dreamed this was his purpose and made no haste to respond, feeling confident we knew him, and thinking of course he knew us. All this took place in a few moments. Having quickly rearranged our line, our flag was than unfurled and displayed – the Stars and Bars! Instantly a blaze of fire flashed along the line of our supposed friends (a New York regiment it really was), and an enfilading hailstorm of bullets tore through the Fourth Alabama from left to right, killing many and disabling more, among the rest Lieutenant Colonel [Evander M.] Law and Major Scott, leaving our regiment without field officers.

What does the reader suppose we did? We did not stay there. The position was too bad and the surprise too sudden. True, the enemy’s fire was once returned with considerable effect; but it is only frank to say that we resumed, without delay, our movement back to the main Confederate line, whither Bee had intended us to go when he first ordered us to retire. Having arrived there, even after all they had suffered, the Fourth Alabama still had pride enough left to rally again, and under the command of a captain fell in on the right of the line and fought to the end of the terrible day. I will not now attempt to detail all the incidents that befell the regiment in these later hours of the battle. I will give one, however, which will always be of special historic interest.

The position of our regiment being now on the right of the Confederate line as drawn on the plateau of the Henry House, and the leading design of the Federals during the entire day being to turn the Confederate left, the heaviest fighting gradually veered toward that flank. No one who was there can ever forget how the Federal musketry crashed and rolled in fresh outbursts as new troops poured in against the center and left. Farther and farther round its awful thunder seemed to encroach, as if it would never be stayed till it should rend and tear that part of our line to atoms. Our brigade comrades of the Sixth North Carolina, separated from us in the manouevres of the day, had rushed in single-handed and attempted to check it, but had been smitten as with fire by its overwhelming power and their gallant Colonel [C. F.] Fisher, with many of his men, were no more. Jackson, with brigade, was struggling desperately, and at length successfully, to arrest the Federal columns; but immovable as Jackson and his men stood, the surging tides of the enemy beating upon him with such a mighty momentum that it seemed as if he must give way. Just then the battle had entirely lulled in our front on the right. Our Brigadier, General Barnard E. Bee, at this moment came galloping to the Fourth Alabama and said: “My brigade is scattered over the field and you are all of it I can now find. Men, can you make a charge of bayonets?” Those poor battered and bloody-nosed fellows, inspired by the lion-like bearing of that historic officer, responded promptly: “Yes, general, we will go wherever you lead and do whatever you say.” Be then said, pointing toward where Jackson and his brigade were so desperately battling: “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall! Let us go to his assistance.” Saying that Bee dismounted and led the Fourth Alabama (what remained of them) to Jackson’s position and joined them on the right of his brigade. Some other reinforcements coming up a vigorous charge was made, pressing the Federals back. In this charge Bee fell mortally wounded. Bartow fell nearly at the same time and within a stone’s throw of the same spot. Before the Federals recovered from the impression made by this partial repulse they saw Kirby Smith’s men advancing down the Warrenton Pike upon their right rear, as before stated, and his unexpected appearance in that quarter struck them with an overpowering panic and caused their precipitate retreat from the field. The battle ended so suddenly that the Confederates could not understand and could scarcely believe it. When afterwards the doings of the day were recounted among is the above expression, uttered General Bee concerning Jackson, was repeated from mouth to mouth throughout the Confederate army, and that is how he came to be known everywhere as Stonewall Jackson.

In conclusion, as I have set down with an endeavor at entire frankness the achievements, the mistake and the misfortunes that day of the regiment to which I myself belonged (the Fourth Alabama), I may be pardoned for adding a word about how we looked back upon our experience after it was over as a curious illustration of the absurd notions of inexperienced soldiers. Our ideal was that we were to whip whatever we came across – no matter about numbers; many or few, we must put them to flight. To turn the back before any enemy would be disgraceful. Having, therefore, turned our backs to the enemy twice that day, as I have narrated, once under orders and once without, we of the Fourth Alabama, upon the whole, felt humiliated and rather ashamed of ourselves on reviewing what had occurred. It was some days after the battle that to our surprise we began to hear from our comrades if the army and to read in the papers that our regiment was thought to have distinguished itself greatly. Then we began to hold up our heads again and to recall the fact that we had lost more than any other regiment in the army. Finally, we go hold of the Northern newspapers and found where our gallant and generous adversary, [Brigadier General Samuel P.] Heintzelman, giving an account of what he termed our stubborn resistance in that opening conflict, which I have described, had praised us extravagantly, saying: “That Alabama regiment was composed of the most gallant fellows the world ever saw.” This restored our equanimity, and we concluded that if we had not come up to our previous ideas of our invincibility, maybe we had not done so badly after all, and perhaps our sweethearts at home would not scorn us as poltroons. One other profound inpression, however, was left on the minds, at least of some of us, by the events of that day, and especially when we came to gather up the mangled remains of so many of our late merry-hearted and beloved comrades – an impression which was not changed by all we saw in the succeeding four years, or by the lapse of time since, and that was – talk as men about great war-like deeds, heap plaudits on heroes and worship military glory how they will – war is from hell!

Transcribed from Peter Cozzens (ed.), Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 5, pp. 41-49. Brackets above are the editor’s. Per note therein, the original article first appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly Times, 2/26/1881, under the title First Battle of Bull Run.

William Mack Robbins at Ancestry

William Mack Robbins at Fold3

Interesting article on William Mack Robbins





“M”, 2nd South Carolina Infantry, On the Retreat from Fairfax Court House, Blackburn’s Ford and the Battle

7 11 2016

Virginia Correspondence.

The Retreat from Fairfax C. H. – The Battle of the 18th – The Great Battle – The Killed and Wounded – The Captured Arms and Munitions – Our Wounded.

Virginia University, July 24.

Mr. Editor: On Wednesday last the Federal forces made their appearance in sight of Fairfax Village, upon which information Gen. Bonham made hasty preparations to five tem a warm reception, though as soon as the rifle companies of the 2d Regiment had reached the position they were to occupy as skirmishers, it was ascertained that the enemy were attempting to flank and cut off the Regiments at the Village, the order to retreat was given which was reluctantly obeyed by 4 Regiments of Carolinians. It seems that the enemy were marching to Fairfax in four or five columns of ten or fifteen thousand troops in each, and the arduous task of covering a retreat devolved upon the 2d Regiment. The retreat was conducted in an orderly, military and masterly manner, with only one or two missing and one to die en route. Though many weary limbs had given way to the hot and fatiguing double quick march, and on reaching Centreville our company mustered only forty-five men; among the absent was your correspondent who completely exhausted had been taken up behind our gallant and kind Commissary, Vellipigue. At Centreville our forces halted until midnight, when they again took up the line of march for Bull Run, on reaching which place our boys quickly repaired to the entrenchments which had cost them such hard labor a few weeks previous.

About 7 o’clock Thursday morning it was ascertained that the enemy were approaching, our company and the Palmetto Guards were sent out about one mile with Capt. Kemper’s battery to five our foe the breakfast welcome at Bull Run, and here our boys were first taught to quickly embrace the earth on the sound of a shell or cannon ball. Their balls passed harmlessly by while a dozen well directed volleys from Capt. Kemper’s battery mowed down their columns like so many pond weeds and caused them to change their plan of attack. The cannonading was soon stopped at this point and about 11 o’clock an exchange of musket shots began about a mile below our position accompanied by heavy cannonading, which was vigorously and actively continued for four consecutive hours, after which the enemy were put to flight with much loss of life and with three pieces of artillery left upon the field. Our loss was small, about six killed and forty odd wounded, while that of the enemy is variously estimated at from five hundred to three thousand in killed and wounded. The troops engaged in this battle were about three thousand on our part, the Washington Artillery, and Gen. Longstreets Brigade, the enemy are supposed to have had about ten thousand in the engagement. This ended the first battle at Bull Run with victory perched upon the Southern standard.

After dusk on the same evening it being believed that the enemy would not make an attack at the direct ford our Regiment was ordered to a weak point on the creek towards the left wing, where we remained upon arms during the following day. On Friday night an attack was momentarily expected and our men still retained their position in rank, while our company was ordered to the defence of Kemper’s battery, but the night passed in quietude save the interchange of a few picket guard shot; Saturday and night glided by in the same state of peace and quietude, but the harmony was broken s Sunday morning by a heavy fire of artillery on the center of our forces and on the extreme left wing. Our company was again sent out a mile and a half to ascertain in what direction the enemy were moving, but our mission was too late, the great body of their troops had been removed to the extreme left the night previous and the cannonading in the centre was only to deceive us as to the point of attack. While on the scout we were greeted with a goodly quantity of shell, balls and grape, thought they passed harmlessly over our heads. On returning to our camp we found that the regiment had been hastily despatched to the scene of battle and in haste we followed after them, though we were unable to find our Regiment, not knowing their position on the battle ground, so we attached ourselves to a Louisiana Regiment and went into the scene of action a the enemy only rallied twice after our arrival. – While going to our position in battle three hundred yards we were warmly peppered with Minnie musket balls, wounding Mr. Harrison of our company and killing several of the Regiment to which we were attached. on approaching near the enemy and preparing to charge bayonets a few volleys from one of batteries dispersed them to rally no more. After the flight of the enemy we were dispatched by our Captain to look after Mr. Harrison whom we found severely wounded in forearm and knee. Our troops pursued the enemy for miles, slaughtering and capturing them, and we understand that the Secession Guards took a respectable number of prisoners. The battle was terrific and strongly contested during the whole day, though the entire and complete route of the enemy somewhat alleviates the cost of so many gallant sons. The enemy attacked the wing of Gen. Johnson who had just completed his brilliant movement from Winchester to Manassas and for seven hours his wearied soldiers gallantly struggled with the heavy columns of the enemy when Gen. Beauregard came to his relief and after a few hours of hard struggling gained a signal and brilliant victory.

The heavy odds against whom Johnson had been contending were soon scattered and chased by the gallant hero of Sumter, who would dash before the thickest and hottest of the fire – leading our men to a bayonet charge and then directing the enemy’s cannon upon their own columns. The victory though decisive was a costly one; Carolina has to mourn the loss of the brave Johnson of Hampton’s Legion, and of Bernard Bee. Other distinguished officers fell in the field. The whole Confederate loss may be estimated at 450 dead, 250 mortally wounded and 1200 wounded more or less severely. This is the best estimate I can make by rough guess – it may be too large. In my own Regiment only 6 were killed and 15 or 20 wounded; though we were not in the hottest of the fight. Among those who suffered most severely was the 4th Alabama Regiment, the 7th and 8th Georgia Regiments, Hampton’s Legion and Col. Sloan’s Regiment of our own State, they having to oppose heavy columns of the enemy four hours until reinforcements could be brought to their relief. Among the wounded in our Regiment may be mentioned the gallant Capt. Hoke of Greenville.

[?????] their final retreat the panic became so great that the whole army was completely disorganized. Gen. McDowell undertook to make a stand near Centreville though it was impossible to make a rally of them either at that place or Fairfax. The whole road from Bull Run to Fairfax was covered with dead, wounded and exhausted soldiers, it was also strewn with knapsacks and small arms, which were discarded by the Federals in order to facilitate their retreat. I have only heard of about 1200 prisoners among whom are several field officers, though none of them of higher rank than Colonel.

It is said that we captured over two million dollars worth of property. Over one hundred baggage wagons loaded with army stores fell into our position. Sherman’s, Carlisle’s, Griffin’s and the West Point Batteries numbering from 50 to 100 pieces, all fell into our possession. Also the 32 pounders rifled cannon and several thousand stand of small arms, also the Rhode Island battery. It was a mistake about the Yankees not fighting; they fought manfully and gallantly, and some of their regiments were literally destroyed. The Fire Zouaves, the 69th, 71st, 14th and 28th New York Regiments, and the Michigan Regiments suffered frightfully. The outfit of the enemy was splendid and extravagant. The knapsacks and haversacks of the soldiers were filled with eatables and comforts. The wagons and ambulances were stored with luxuries for the officers that would astonish any frugal, warfaring people, fighting for liberty. Notwithstanding the complete route of the enemy they are still in strong force and much hard fighting is yet before us.

Our wounded suffered greatly for the first day or two after the battle as there are no accommodations at Manassas, in fact only two or three houses were there which could not contain them. Though they have all been sent to this place, Culpepper, Orange, Richmond, &c., where they will receive every attention at the hands of surgeons, nurses and ladies – of the kindness to the wounded by the ladies I cannot speak too much in praise – they supply them with every luxury, comfort, and conceivable necessity. So all persons who have wounded friends at the hospital at this place need not feel the least anxiety as to their treatment, as they are better provided for than they possibly could be in the most comfortable home. Having deposited Mr. Harrison in the most desirable quarters, I hasten back to rejoin my company this morning, though I shall not soon forget to contrast one night’s comfort at this place to the privations of camp.

This letter is written in great haste and hurry though I think the accounts of the battle are generally acurate. However your readers will receive the official reports before this reaches you.

M

The Abbeville Press, 8/2/1861

Clipping image

Contributed by John J. Hennessy





Corporal Felix G. Butler, Co. G, 4th Alabama

23 07 2014

Per friend and 4th Alabama expert Rick Allen:

Butler, Felix G.–2nd Corporal April 24, 1861. Enlisted at Marion, Ala., age 19, occupation clerk. Wounded at Manassas, Va., July 21, 1861. Discharged, disability, September 3, 1861.

So it would appear that Butler died after discharge, which may explain why he is not listed in Robert E. Smith’s Confederate Casualties at First and Second Manassas.





Unknown, 4th Alabama, On the Battle

14 09 2012

Fourth Alabama Regiment at Manassas. – We have been favored with the perusal of a letter from a young gentleman engaged in the battle, to his brother in New Orleans, from which we have been permitted to take the following extracts, As they contain some facts which we have not previously seen published, we present them to our readers. The letter was written on the 23rd of July, from Culpeper Courthouse, whither the writer retired with some of his wounded relatives:

Our regiment, (the 4th Alabama,) not more than seven hundred strong, alone and unsupported, fought and kept in check for more than one hour, not less than ten thousand of the enemy’s forces. At least one-third of the regiment were killed and wounded in the battle. We held our position manfully, until about one thousand of the enemy, concealed in a patch of woods, flanked us on the right, and exposed us to double fire. Col. Jones was informed of this movement, but refused to retreat, because not commanded to do so from headquarters.

After stating that they were at last compelled to retire, the letter proceeds:

We had retreated some three or four hundred yards in great disorder and confusion, when in our rear to the right, we saw a regiment drawn up in column. They waved a Confederate flag over their heads, and we took them for friends. They acted very strangely, allowing us to pass them, and get upon a hill-side about one hundred and fifty yards distant. Here the regiment began to rally, and the companies to reform. All of a sudden, a perfect shower of bullets went through our lines. We fired back at them, and every man then took care of himself. The men were dispersed about in squads all over the field, and as they had no field officers left to rally them, joined whatever regiment they happened to meet with.

Some of our men afterwards distinguished themselves. One of them made a Yankee Colonel dismount from his horse, and march before him as a prisoner. He presented the horse to Gen. Beauregard, who had his horse shot under him during the action. In return, Gen. B. made him (a mere boy at that) captain over sixty prisoners. If the Yankees had been smart they could have taken our regiment every one prisoners. We were surrounded in the front, back and rear, and wonderful to say, we made the attack in the face of all the enemy. They were most exceedingly cautious, and I believe badly scared. Not more than forty of our men were left dead on the field, and something like 200 wounded, some mortally. The Yankees took our wounded left on the ground, dressed their wounds, gave them water, and placed them in the shade. They treated them very kindly in every respect. In the rest of the field, however, the tide of battle changed. On the left the Yankees had been attacked and repulsed in every quarter, and were rapidly giving way. Gen. Jackson arrived with reinforcements, and the rout of the enemy was completed. They drew off in such a hurry as to leave a great number of their sick and wounded on the field.

The 4th Alabama regiment suffered more than any other on the field. President Davis told us we should have a better chance next time. He complimented us by saying that we were chiefly instrumental in gaining the battle. He said we kept the whole left wing of the Northern army in check until Gen. Jackson arrived with his reinforcements. We lost all the field officers we had: General, colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major. Gen Bee has since died, and the rest are quite low. We secured all our wounded, the enemy not being able to take them off in their hot haste.

I was present from morning till night on the battle field, and saw the whole battle as it raged in different quarters. About 4 o’clock in the evening the firing ceased suddenly, and it would have made a departed saint laugh to see the enemy scampering away.

The letter further states that our wounded soldiers are taken into private families and are well taken care of.

New Orleans Times-Picayune, 8/4/1861

Clipping Image contributed by John Hennessy





Comments?

19 04 2009

It was the hope of Mr. Hennessy and myself that this post would generate some conversation about the circumstances surrounding the origin of the “Stonewall” nickname.  I don’t know if it is the length of the article or the timing – just before the weekend – but the response has been, well, less than we anticipated, or at least less than we hoped for.  So here’s an appeal – what do you think?  Has the article convinced you?  Does it jive with your impressions, has it changed them, are you still convinced of an alternative?  How did you come to know what you know?  Please leave any comments on the original article.





Hennessy on the Naming of “Stonewall”

16 04 2009

The following appeared in Vol. VIII, No. 2 of Civil War: The Magazine of the Civil War Society, March-April 1990, and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.  My notes in {brackets}.

Stonewall Jackson’s Nickname

What did General Bee really say at First Manassas?  And what did he mean?

By John Hennessy

This is the way the story goes: At noontime on July 21, 1861, a bright, warm summer day, the brash young Confederacy seemed on the brink of woeful disaster.  The brushy fields behind widow Judith Henry’s house were crowded with fugitives, gray-clad and blue-clad Confederates milling about, sweat-soaked, bleeding, confused, and dazed.  Officers rushed among them trying to restore formations shattered in the morning fight, but their yelling, cursing, and speechmaking did little good.

The tangled, frightened mob refused organization.  On the hills a mile to the north were 17,000 Federals, ready to advance, their muskets and bayonets glinting in the mid-day sun and their cannon steadily lobbing shells toward the Confederates.  The battle — the War itself — was only two hours old.  Could all be lost already?

So it seemed.  But then, suddenly, a column of men appeared, marching four abreast up a rutted road on the rear slope of Mrs. Henry’s hill.  Emerging from the timber, the column filed right, then left, the men lying down in the tall grass and pine thickets lining the eastern edge of Henry’s farm.  It consisted of five regiments, nearly 2500 men, all Virginians.  The man at their head was an obscure brigadier, no long ago a professor at the Virginia Military Institute, named Thomas J. Jackson.

Jackson’s arrival did not go unnoticed by those thousands of Confederates milling about in widow Henry’s meadow.  One of them, South Carolinian Barnard Bee, whose commission as Brigadier General carried the same date as Jackson’s, frantically rode up to the Virginian.  “General, they are beating us back”, Bee exclaimed, as if he were appealing to a superior officer.  Jackson, his eyes flashing in that soon-to-be-familiar way, coolly intoned his reply: “Sir, we will give them the bayonet.”  Reassured, Bee wheeled his horse and galloped back to the sorry mob behind Henry’s house.  To the north, the Federals prepared to attack.

Bee dashed among his troops, finding the remnants of the 4th Alabama, and beseeched them to fall in.  But the men, tired and scared, would have none of it.  Then Bee, in desperation, rose in his saddle, drew his sword and pointed through the roiling smoke toward Jackson.  “There stands Jackson like a stone wall!” he bellowed.  “Rally around the Virginians!”

Drummers beat the rally.  Tangled knots of soldiers shook themselves out into ragged lines.  In a short time the dazed mob of Alabamians had formed up into steady ranks, anchored on Jackson’s rock solid regiments.  The Confederates gripped their rifles tightly and peered down their barrels.  After what seemed like an interminable wait, the enemy appeared, stepping ever closer.  At the last possible moment, the Confederate line exploded in a blaze of fire that drove the Federals back.

Again the attack came on, and again Jackson’s men, assisted by Bee’s reformed mob, drove them back.  This time the Confederates rose and dashed headlong in pursuit, toward the Federal cannon.  The enemy troops began to flee in wanton panic.

Teetering on the edge of disaster at mid-day, the Confederates had by late afternoon won a stunning victory on the Plains of Manassas.  And it was largely thanks to a man who, because of his performance that day, would soon be known to the world as “Stonewall” Jackson.  At least, so the story goes.

***

This account of how Jackson received his nickname is one of the enduring legends of the War.  With its high drama and cool heroism, it has thrilled countless school children and battlefield visitors, inspired generations of writers, sculptors, orators and soldiers.

But a century of enthusiastic retellings and embellishments — along with some festering skepticism — have taken their toll.  Fact and fiction have been melded into the story until they are indistinguishable.  And trying to separate them is not merely difficult; it is construed by worshipers of Jackson as a kind of historical blasphemy.  Yet his detractors persist, telling us that the story is overblown or misconstrued — that only the faintest strands of truth remain.

Clearly, it is time for a re-examination.  We must see whether we can find out what, exactly, Bee said — if indeed he said anything.  We must inquire into when he said it, and why.

The story gained notoriety quickly.  Only four days after the battle, a correspondent of the Charleston Mercury informed his readers of Jackson’s stoic retort to Bee, and Bee’s comparison of Jackson to a stone wall.  The story, and the inevitable nickname, spread quickly through the army, and within a few months General Jackson had become simply “Stonewall.”  And as such, by the end of the War, he had become one of the most famous men in the world.

As a foremost martyr to the Lost Cause, Jackson became after the War a subject of veneration, as did the legend of his christening at First Manassas.  Alleged eyewitnesses to the event (most of them members of the Stonewall Brigade) stepped forward by the dozens to reiterate and embroider the now-unshakeable myth.   Sanitized and polished, the story became a treasured piece of Virginiana, a staple of Southern lore.

Lurking in the shadows of the rosy glow, however, was a small but growing army of skeptics who, with considerable vigor, questioned the basic circumstances and meaning of the events of July 21, 1861.  Some, claiming that no reliable eyewitnesses ever emerged, went so far as to insist the Bee-Jackson incident never occurred.  North Carolinian D. H. Hill, for example, probably motivated as much by the age-old Carolinian resentment of Virginia gentility as by the absence of verifiable sources, labeled the entire episode “sheer fabrication.”

Others chose to re-interpret the legend, perhaps to reflect their own regional loyalties.  Bee’s fellow South Carolinian, Colonel John Cheves Haskell, said that according to sources he deemed reliable, Bee was actually denouncing Jackson by calling him a “stone wall,” because Jackson had refused to come to the aid of Bee’s “hard pressed” troops.  Virginians, on the other hand, put special emphasis on the postscript to the stone-wall reference – the part that went “rally around the Virginians.”  It is not surprising that the impressive statue of Jackson that today commands Henry Hill bears those very words.  It was erected by the State of Virginia.

Historians picking their way through this minefield of sectional and personal partisanship had to step carefully.  Most referred to the incident vaguely enough to avoid error; as R. M. Johnston put it in 1913, “something was said by somebody, during or immediately after the battle, that likened Jackson or his men or both to a stone wall.”  What these writers lacked was not the will to tackle the issue, but rather two essentials: reliable eyewitness accounts of the Jackson-Bee exchange, and comprehensive details of the events on Henry Hill that Sunday.

For some time, in fact, there was available only one primary account of what Jackson said to Bee, and vice versa.  It was written long after the war, in the 1890s, by Lieutenant William Robbins of Bee’s 4th Alabama Infantry.  By the time it appeared, the legend was already in place, and historians tended either to interpret the Robbins account to fit the legend, or in the case of a lack of fit, to discount Robbins’s account altogether.

Recently, however, three new eyewitness accounts have come to light, all written by members of the 4th Alabama, that confirm and expand upon Robbins’s account.  Two of them, a diary kept by Chaplain James G. Hudson {James G. Hudson, A Story of Company D, 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment, C.S.A., edited by Alma H. Pate, Alabama Historical Quarterly, (Spring 1961), XXIII} and the official report of Captain Thomas Goldsby, were in all probability written within a week of the battle.  The other account is an unpublished history of the 4th Alabama, by Robert T. Coles, written in 1909 {since published: Robert T. Coles, From Huntsville to Appomattox: R. T. Coles’s History of 4th Regiment, Alabama Volunteer Infantry, C.S.A., Army of Northern Virginia, edited by Jeffrey D. Stocker, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996}.  Together, these four memoirs provide a clear and consistent picture of a very trying day for the 4th Alabama Infantry.

That July Sunday began full of hope and excitement for the men of the 4th Alabama, poised as they were near the center of the Confederate line at Blackburn’s Ford, certain they would be in the thick of the day’s fighting.  At 7 a.m., however, anticipation turned to disappointment.  The 4th was ordered into column and marched several miles north to the Stone Bridge — away, the grumbling men were sure, from the combat and the glory they craved.

As they neared the Stone Bridge, however, their mood changed yet again.  In front they could hear the rattle of musketry, and word came down the line of a potential crisis.  The Federals were trying to outflank the Confederates by crossing Bull Run two miles to above the Southerner’s left.  Eager for what one man called, “a chance to get a dab at the Yankees”, Bee’s men hurried over narrow roads and fence-studded farmland and, after only the briefest halt, threw themselves into the desperate fight on Matthew’s Hill.

Bee’s bloody attempt to drive back the Federal flanking column failed miserably.  By 11:30 a.m., the wreck of the 4th Alabama, along with two or three thousand other overwhelmed Confederates, was streaming back across the Warrenton Turnpike and up the slope of Mrs. Henry’s hill.

Once there, as the legend correctly holds, the Confederates milled about in disorganized mobs, edging toward the rear.  Then Jackson and his five regiments arrived.  Bee saw him, rode to him and, as related by a correspondent of the Mercury, told him of his plight.  “Sir, we will give them the bayonet”, Jackson told him.  Jackson in his after-action report confirmed the meeting with Bee: “Before arriving within cannon range of the enemy I met General Bee’s forces falling back.  I continued to advance with the understanding he would form in my rear.”

Here the legend and the eyewitness accounts begin to differ dramatically.  In the legendary version of the story it was at this time, about noon, that Bee returned to his troops and launched Jackson toward immortality.  But according to all four eyewitness accounts, Bee’s famous words were not spoken until two or three hours later.  By that time the tactical situation, and hence the meaning of what Bee said, were fundamentally changed.

The eyewitnesses recalled that Bee’s men, in serious trouble, continued rearward and formed 400 yards behind the right of Jackson’s line.  Captain Goldsby, on command of the 4th Alabama, wrote in his report, “Without any field officers, and almost surrounded by the enemy, we again fell back through a pine woods to an open field where we halted and awaited orders.  The thirst of the men was intense and almost intolerable.”

Meanwhile, one-quarter of a mile away, Jackson hurried to patch together a line of artillery in front of his now-prone infantrymen along the eastern edge of Henry Hill.  Benefitted greatly by a propitious lull granted him by the Federals, by 2 p.m. he had between 13 and 16 guns (no one knows for sure precisely how many) blazing away, including Alburtis’s Battery (the Wise Artillery), commanded by young Lieutenant John Pelham.

At about 2:30 p.m., 11 Union guns unexpectedly wheeled into position abreast of Widow Henry’s house, not 500 yards from Jackson’s line, and opened fire.  They were soon followed by Federal infantry.  The blueclad troops slowly closed with Jackson’s line, but hesitated, unsure of what they were facing.  Jackson’s men — at least a good number of them — rose and fired the first volley.

It was a savage firefight for a few minutes, but soon the Federals beat a hasty retreat to the cover of Sudley Road.  Jackson’s men, well satisfied by the apparent ease of their success, did not pursue.  In a few minutes yet another line of Unionists appeared, and again the Yankees approached Jackson’s line.  The Virginians’ task would not be so simple this time.

Meanwhile, Captain Goldsby and his tired band of Alabamians lay in the fields to Jackson’s right rear, waiting for someone to tell them what to do.  Soon General Bee galloped up to the regiment.  He had apparently been lost for some time, unable to find any familiar troops, and was anxious to get back into the fight.

All four eyewitnesses noted Bee’s bewildered arrival.  According to Goldsby, “At this place, a half mile behind our original position amid the bursting shells and the rattling storm of musketry, our heroic General Bee rode up to the regiment and inquired what troops we were.  Being told that ‘it was what remained of the 4th Alabama,’ he replied with an expressive gesture, ‘This is all of my brigade that I can find — will you follow me back to where the firing is going on?’  ‘To the death’ was the response.”

Regimental Chaplain Hudson, writing in his diary soon after the battle, recalled Bee’s arrival similarly: “While the 4th Regiment was recovering, General Bee rode up and asked who would follow him to the conflict.  Every man rose up, raised a shout and replied, ‘We will follow you to the death.'”

Lieutenant Robbins, writing in the 1890s, left yet another description that helps fix the position of the 4th Alabama and clearly indicates that by now Jackson’s men had become heavily engaged.  General Bee, wrote Robbins, ‘galloped up to the remnant of the 4th Alabama Regiment, which was so cut to pieces that Bee seemed not to recognize us at first, and he asked the question, ‘What regiment is this?’  We answered him, ‘The Fourth Alabama.’  At that time the heaviest masses of the Federals had so inclined to the left as to leave us comparatively unengaged, with little more than a skirmish line in our immediate front; but Jackson and his brigade, who were in position on high ground about 500 yards to our left, were being assailed by mighty masses of the enemy.  It was plainly the crisis of the day.  Bee then said to us, ‘Men can you make a charge of the bayonet?’ to which our poor battered regiment still had the pluck to respond, ‘Yes General; we’ll go wherever you lead and do whatever you say.'”

Private Robert Coles wrote in 1909 that at 2 p.m. “General Bee, very much depressed at the unfortunate turn of affairs, then proceeded to collect his forces.  Riding up to the 4th Alabama, he inquired what regiment is this; Captain Richard Clark and Captain Porter King quickly replied, ‘Why General, don’t you know your own men — this is what is left of the 4th Alabama.'”

These four accounts, remarkably consistent, point out two important facts that belie the legendery version of the story.  First, it is clear that at the time Bee spoke to the 4th, it was the general, not the regiment, who was discombobulated.  The regiment was simply lying still, waiting for orders.  There was, contrary to the legend, no rallying to be done (a point stressed by Lieutenant Robbins in another of his descriptions published in the Southern Historical Society Papers).

Bee, on the other hand, had been separated from his command for quite some time and was frantically trying to hunt up troops to bring back into the battle.  Which leads to the next point.  As Robbins explicitly states and the rest of the chroniclers imply, Jackson’s men were mightily engaged at the time of the incident.  It was Jackson, not Bee, who needed help.

Of Bee’s famous words, interestingly (and perhaps revealingly), the two men who wrote their recollections soon after the event said nothing, although clearly they were describing the same event as the post-war chroniclers.  Captain Goldsby wrote that after Bee spoke to the regiment, “he put himself on the left of our line and marched us by the left flank to where the fight was ranging around Sherman’s Battery.”  (Ricketts’s and Griffin’s batteries, the two Union batteries engaged on Henry Hill, were erroneously referred to by the Confederates as “Sherman’s Battery.”)  Parson Hudson remembered in his diary, “General Bee then led off in the direction of the house where the old lady [Mrs. Henry] was killed, and near where Sherman’s Battery was taken.”

But both of the post-war writers remembered that before Bee led the regiment into the fight he had something else to say.  Private Coles wrote: “After stating that this was the only part of his command he could find, he then said, “Come with me and go yonder where Jackson stands like a stone wall.”  Lieutenant Robbins described the moment more precisely, and only slightly differently: “Bee then pointed to the conflict going on upon the elevated ground to our left and said: ‘Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall; Let’s go to his assistance.’  I, myself, was there and heard the words.”

These descriptions, the only eyewitness accounts available, put a distinctly different light on the entire incident.  Rather than the Virginians helping the Alabamians, as the legend generally holds, Bee’s men were instead going to help the Virginians.  This rather revolutionary perspective — guaranteed to raise a Virginians hackles and warm the heart of a Carolinian or Alabamian — is borne out further by the descriptions of Bee’s and his men’s subsequent activities.

Following Bee’s words the 4th Alabama rose, fell into column, and marched to Jackson’s assistance.  En route the regiment became confused when Alburtis’s battery of artillery left Jackson’s line and split the Alabama regiment.  Bee rallied them, and with 100 men joined Jackson in the counterattack that captured much of the Federal artillery on Henry Hill.  In this attack Bee was mortally wounded.

It is the descriptions of Bee’s march to Jackson’s aid that remove virtually all question of the timing of the “stone wall” incident, placing it at nearly 3 p.m., several hours later than the legend holds.  The key event that times Bee’s move, witnessed by all four writers, is the withdrawal of Jackson’s artillery, led by Alburtis’s battery, from Henry Hill.  That artillery, as related to William Nelson Pendleton’s after-action report, pulled out only when Jackson’s men became heavily involved with Yankee infantry.

Goldsby wrote of the 4th’s march to aid Jackson’s counterattack, “[Bee] put himself on the left of our line and marched us by the flank to where the fight was going on around Sherman’s Battery.  As we were nearing the scene, a train of artillery that was falling back cut our line, thus separating the left company from the rest of the regiment.  This company, with our general at its head, obliqued to the right, upon the open plain, and proceeded about 100 yards, when our gallant and beloved commander fell mortally wounded.”

Chaplain Hudson’s diary reads, “As the regiment was moving up a narrow road, through a pine thicket, Alburtis’s battery, which had been driven from the position, came dashing down the road under full headway.  The men were compelled to file right and left into the thicket to prevent being run over.”  Hudson goes on to add, supporting Goldsby, that Bee then gathered about a company and led them to “where the battle was raging hottest,” where he was very soon mortally wounded.

Robbins also describes the advance: “General Bee at once placed himself at our left and led the 4th Alabamians towards Jackson’s position.  During this movement Alburtis’s Battery was compelled to fall back and galloped right through our ranks, producing considerable confusion.”  And Robbins also says that Bee was wounded shortly thereafter.

Finally, Private Coles remembered the incident briefly, his account varying only to the extent that he claimed Alburtis’s battery was then going into position rather than leaving it, as is so clearly stated by the others.

This then is the evidence.  The four accounts – two wartime and two post-war — are convincingly consistent.  They lack even a hint of the speculation, fabrication, or embellishment so apparent in most descriptions of the affair, most of which were written by Virginians who were nowhere near Bee that day.  Moreover, the Alabamian’s descriptions dovetail precisely with the terrain (including the monument marking the spot of Bee’s mortal wounding) and the known sequence of events.  In short, there is no reason to doubt their veracity.  They make sense.  Where does all this leave the legend?

Clearly the circumstances surrounding Bee’s words were not nearly as dramatic as depicted in the legend.  The event took place about three hours later than is commonly believed.  The crisis of the day — the mayhem following the retreat from Matthew’s Hill — had long since passed.  There were no disorganized mobs, and the Confederacy was not gasping its last.  Instead, the 4th Alabama, with only a captain in command, lay quietly waiting for orders, hundreds of yards behind the main battle lines.  If anyone needed rallying at that moment it was Bee, not the 4th.  The general had been separated from his battered command for at least an hour and by all accounts was confused and discouraged.

The general’s language, and its impact on the battle, is perhaps disappointing to those fond of the more dramatic tradition.  “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall: let’s go to his assistance,” is hardly the stuff novelists, movie-makers, or sculptors would wish for, or would have you believe.  And while tradition tells us the image of Jackson standing like a stone wall electrified thousands of retreating Confederates and helped turn the battle’s tide, the evidence suggests that instead Bee’s words — some of the most famous uttered by any American — were probably heard by no more than 50 men and had not the slightest impact on the outcome of the battle.

On the other hand the circumstance of Jackson’s command at the time, according to the Alabamians, was significantly more trying than is commonly portrayed.  The Virginians were not lying quietly while the fight raged in front of them.  (There is no support for the Carolinians’ charge that Bee was damning Jackson’s inactivity by referring to him as a “stone wall”.)  Rather, they were heavily engaged in driving back a Union attack; even more literally than in the traditional versions, they were indeed standing like a stone wall.  And following the Federal repulse, Jackson’s men, joined by the ill-fated Bee, launched a counterattack that was in fact one of the day’s decisive moments.

So while this legend, like most, is not entirely accurate, devotees of Jackson and of romantic legend need not be disappointed, for neither is it apocryphal.  When Bee turned in his saddle, pointed through the billowing smoke toward Jackson’s battling men and yelled, “Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall,” he established Jackson and his men as a standard of excellence, objects for emulation.  To this day their conduct, at First Manassas and on a dozen other fields, remains the soldier’s benchmark for excellence.  Even when stripped of hyperbole and bias to the bare-bones eyewitness accounts, the sentiment of the legend, if not its details, survives intact.