Who Knew Revisionist History Was So Easy?

29 06 2022

This past weekend I gave a “shakedown” tour of First Bull Run on the blazing hot Plains of Manassas to two very good friends, Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide Chris Army and battlefield tourist extraordinaire Mike Pellegrini. On Matthews Hill, Chris asked how many men were in Union Colonel David Hunter’s division, consisting of the brigades of Colonel’s Andrew Porter and Ambrose Burnside. I consulted my notes which include the table from The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 2, page 309, Abstract of the returns of the Department of Northeastern Virginia Commanded by Brigadier-General McDowell, U. S. A., for July 16 and 17, 1861. (View it here.) There it was, in black and white:

Aggregate present for duty for Hunter’s division = 2,648.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

But wait. That number made no sense to me. Hunter’s division consisted of seven volunteer regiments, one battalion each of regular infantry, cavalry, and marines, and two batteries of artillery. And this was the very beginning of the war. If we conservatively allow for the battalions and batteries to equate to just one regiment, that’s 8 regiments. Per regiment, just 331 men. Looking at casualties for the division, also from the ORs, of 829, that’s a pretty massive casualty rate of 31%.

And not only that, 2,648 flies in the face of the traditional narrative that the Confederates faced an overwhelming force on Matthews Hill.

I couldn’t figure it out, so I did what I often do – I asked a long-time Friend of Bull Runnings (FOBR), former NPS historian John Hennessy, about it, laying out the question much as I presented it above.

John took a deeper dive, and what follows are the fruits of his labor, not mine. All I did was ask a question.

Here’s what he came up with* (he also unknowingly contributed the title of this post): there is more in the ORs than meets – or has met, for the past 130 years – the eyes. Two revisions need to be made to McDowell’s estimate of 2,648 men for Hunter’s division, and by extension, to McDowell’s estimate of the strength of his army, 35,732 aggregate present for duty including Runyon’s reserve (from that same table on page 309).

The first adjustment comes from Porter’s report (see here) in Series I, Vol. 2, pp. 383-387, in which he states:

“I have the honor to submit the following account of the operations of the First Brigade, Second Division, of the Army, in the battle before Manassas, on the 21st instant.(*) The brigade was silently paraded in light marching order at 2 o’clock in the morning of that day, composed as follows, viz: Griffin’s battery; marines, Major Reynolds; Twenty-seventh New York Volunteers, Colonel Slocum; Fourteenth New York State Militia, Colonel Wood; Eighth New York State Militia, Colonel Lyons; battalion regulars, Major Sykes; one company Second Dragoons, two companies First Cavalry, four companies Second Cavalry, Major Palmer. Total strength, 3,700.”

I know, right? Porter says his brigade alone exceeded McDowell’s estimate of the strength of Hunter’s whole division.

But that’s not all.

There is a volume of the Official Records that’s pretty important, but often gets overlooked. It’s called the General Index and Additions and Corrections. On page 1,096 of that tome, we find this:

Page 309. Add foot-note to abstract from returns, etc., Burnside’s brigade, Hunter’s division, not accounted for. On July 12 it had present for duty 151 officers and 3,483 men. Total present, 3,692. Aggregate present 3,851.

Now, if we go back to McDowell’s estimate, the 2,648 estimate for Hunter’s division should be more like 3,700 for Porter and 3,692 for Burnside, a total of 7,392. John pointed out that for a total of 83 companies of men of all arms, that’s a more reasonable headcount (with these numbers, 89 per company). I’ll point out that it also makes more sense with the casualties, 829/7,392 = 11.2%

This alone conforms much more closely with the “outnumbered Confederates on Matthews Hill” narrative.

We need to do one more thing, though. McDowell’s estimate of the total strength of his army including Runyon’s reserve was 35,732. But that’s with only 2,648 for Hunter’s division. Take out that 2,648 (and 73 for Co. E, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, accounted for separately in McDowell’s estimate but attached to Porter) and replace it with 7,392 and we get a grand total aggregate present for duty of:

40,403.

So, for now, until someone convinces me otherwise, when asked how many men Hunter had, I’ll say “about 7,500” instead of “about 2,500.” And when someone asks how many men McDowell had, it will be “about 40,000” rather than “about 35,000,” both including Runyon’s reserve (or 35,000 rather than 30,000 without). This without ripping all of McDowell’s other numbers apart, which may also be in order.

Thoughts?

*A lot of the math above is mine. Keeping in mind that I scored much higher in verbal than math on my SATs, if there are any screw-ups in that regard, I alone made them.