July 17. McClellan seems to have crushed treason in Western Virginia. And McDowell’s column is in advance on Fairfax and Manassas Junction. I fear this move is premature, forced on General Scott by the newspapers. A serious check on this line would be a great disaster.
July 19. Dined with Charley Strong and George Allen at the “Maison Doree,” a new and very nice restaurant established in Penniman’s house on Union Square. Called on Dr. Peters, as a private sanitary agent on my own account, also at Mr. Ruggles’s. We are all waiting breathlessly for news from the Army of Virginia. Batteries were encountered by the advance yesterday at Bull’s Run, three miles this side of Manassas Junction, and there was a sharp skirmish, our advance falling back on its supports at last with a loss of some sixty men. Today, there have been diverse stories of additional fight, stories both good and bad; bu the last report is that all are fictions and that things are in status quo. This lack of authentic official reports is no sign of success. We seem on the eve of a general action, but perhaps the enemy is holding Bull’s Run to secure a comfortable retreat toward Richmond. He certainly ran away from Fairfax with great precipitation, but I suppose the chivalry will fight pretty well behind entrenchments.
July 22, Monday. Good news – certainly good, though it may not prove sufficient to justify the crowding and capitals in the Tribune. It’s rather sketchy and vague, and no doubt exaggerated, but there has been fighting on a large scale at Bull’s Run. Our men have been steady under fire and the enemy has fallen back on Manassas. This last important fact seems beyond question.
General Johnston seems to have joined Beauregard, given him numerical preponderance. Patterson does not seem to have followed Johnston up. We attacked yesterday morning, and there was hard fighting till about half past five. Our right, under Hunter, turned the rebel entrenchments and seems to have repulsed the enemy, where they came out of their cover, and tried to use the bayonet. Hunter is killed or severely wounded. Ellsworth’s Fire Zouaves and Corcoran’s Irishmen are said to have fought specially well, and to have suffered much. It is rumored that an advance was shelling the batteries at Manassas last night. Not likely.
Thank God for the good news. We shall probably receive a cold-water douche, however, before night in the shape of less comfortable intelligence.
Seven P.M. My prediction about the douche verified indeed! Today will be known as BLACK MONDAY. We are utterly and disgracefully routed, beaten, whipped by secessionists. Perhaps not disgracefully, for they say Beauregard has 90,000 men in the field, and if so, we were outnumbered two to one. But our men are disorganized and demoralized and have fled to the shelter of their trenches at Arlington and Alexandria as rabbits to their burrows. All our field artillery is lost (twenty-five guns out of forty-nine!), and if the secessionists have any dash in them, they will drive McDowell into the Potomac.
How it happened is still uncertain. It doesn’t appear whether the stampede came of a sudden unaccountable panic, or from the advent of General Johnston on our flank. In this latter case, it was a revival of the legitimate Napoleonic drama: Blucher, General Johnston; Grouchy, General Patterson. But our reports are all a muddle. Only one great fact stands out unmistakably: total defeat and national disaster on the largest scale. Only one thing remains to make the situation worse, and I shall not be surprised if tomorrow’s papers announce it, That is, the surrender of our army across the Potomac and the occupation of Washington by the rebels. We could never retreat across the Long Bridge if successfully assailed, even were our men not cut up and crestfallen and disheartened.
Who will be the popular scapegoat? Probably Patterson, perhaps Secretary Cameron, or even General Scott!
July 23. We feel a little better today. The army is by no means annihilated. Only a small part of it seems to have been stricken with panic. A gallant fight has been made against enormous odds and at every disadvantage. An attack failed and we fell back. Voila tout. Only there is the lamentable loss of guns, some say eighteen, others nearly a hundred. That cannot be explained away. It’s said tonight that Tyler is at Centreville, entrenching himself, so all the ground occupied by our advance is not abandoned. The rebels show no disposition to follow up their advantage or venture outside their woods and masked batteries. The first reports of our loss in killed and wounded are said to be greatly exaggerated.
Why we delivered battle is a mystery. I suppose the Tribune and other newspapers teased and scolded General Scott into premature action. Thought him too strong and self-sustained to be forced to do anything against his own judgment by outside pressure and popular clamor.
July 25. These Southern scoundrels! How they will brag over the repulse at Bull’s Run, though, to be sure, it’s not nearly so bad as our first reports. And is there not good reason to fear that their omission to follow up their advantage by a march on Washington indicates a movement in overwhelming force on the column of General Banks (lat Patterson’s) or Rosecrans’s (late McClellan’s)? May we not have another disaster to lament within the next forty-eight hours?
How the inherent barbarism of the chivalry crops out whenever it can safely kill or torture a defenseless enemy! Scrape the “Southern Gentleman’s” skin, and you will find a second-rate Comanche underneath it. These felons solaced themselves by murdering our wounded men in cold blood when they found us retiring from the field last Sunday afternoon – and did so with an elaboration of artistic fertility in forms of homicide (setting them up against trees to be fired at, cutting their throats, and so on), that proves them of higher grade in ruffianism and cowardly atrocity than anything our Five points can show. We must soon begin treating the enemy with the hempen penalties of treason.
July 26. The Eighth and Seventy-first Regiments (three-month volunteers) returned today, welcomed by crowds that blocked Broadway. They will be missed at Washington. We fell rather blue today, though without special reason. It seems clear that the loss of the rebels last Sunday was fully as severe as our own. Russell (London Times) writes Sam Ward that the Union army “ran away just as its victory had been secured by the superior cowardice of the South.” Pleasant. But Russell headed the race.
August 2, Friday. Exceeding sultry. Up before three this morning for the early train. But as the ticket office of that wickedly managed Baltimore & Washington Railroad was not opened till long after the hour for starting, our train got off near half an hour behind time, and missed its connection at Baltimore; so we were detained there till ten o’clock, and might just as well have postponed our arising till six. A most sultry ride. There were Dr. Bellows, Van Buren, George Gibbs, Wolcott Gibbs, and myself. Breakfasted at the Gilman House and dined at the Continental (Philadelphia). Saw Horace Binney at his house a moment. We have elected him and Bishop Clark of Rhode Island full members of the Commission, and I think both will serve. Home at half-past nine.
Washington hotter and more detestable than ever. Plague of flies and mosquitoes unabated.
Went on by night train Saturday. Spent the night filed away like a bundle of papers in one of the “sleeping” (!) car pigeonholes, where I perspired freely all night.
Sunday at the hospitals – two at Georgetown (“Seminary” and “Union Hotel”), and one at Alexandria. Much to write about both, were there time. Condition of the wounded thus far most satisfactory. Everything tends to heal kindly. But our professional colleagues say this is deceptive. The time for trouble has not yet come, and hospital disease is inevitable within sixty days. The medical men in charge are doing what they can, but radical changes are needed. The buildings are defective in many points. As at Fort Monroe, the cheerfulness and pluck of the men are most touching. I saw several hideous cases of laceration by Minie balls and fragments of shell, too hideous to describe; but all doing well. One poor fellow (a Glasgow man of the Seventy-ninth named Rutherford) was in articulo mortis with dysentery and consequent peritonitis. Another died while we were there, after undergoing amputation an hour or two before. One or two typhoid cases looked unpromising.
Visited “Fort Ellsworth,” in front of Alexandria. It is finished now and very formidable, easier to defend than to assault. But it seems to me (in my ignorance) insufficiently armed, and commanded, moreover, by the neighboring hills. The chivalry will never try to storm it, but I don’t see why they could not shell the defenders out. This seems true also of the most important works at the head of the Long Bridge.
Our session adjourned late last night, having sat, as before, morning and evening. It engrossed all of my time, except that we took two or three drives in what should have been the “cool” of the evening to visit certain regiments that are specially demoralized by the disaster of the 21st, the Seventy-ninth and others.
We did a deal of work. Among other things we recommended the Secretary of War to remove Dr. Kimball (General Butler’s amateur interloper) from Fort Monroe, a step which at once put us on intimate cordial and endearing relations with all of the Medical Bureau, Dr. Finley included. But we receive no sincere cooperation from our pretended Congressional allies. The President, with whom Professor Bache and Dr. Bellows had a conference Thursday night, is our friend. So is Meigs the Quartermaster-General, with whom I had an interview. He is an exceptional and refreshing specimen of sense and promptitude, unlike most of our high military officials. There’s not a fibre of red tape in his constitution. Miss Dix has plagued us a little. She is energetic, benevolent, unselfish, and a mild case of monomania. Working on her own hook, she does good, but no one can cooperate with her, for she belongs to the class of comets and can be subdued into relations with no system whatever.
Long talk with General McDowell. “He is sadly depressed and mortified, most unlike what he was a fortnight ago. Says he has nothing to reproach himself with, and that he did his best. He took 31,000 men into the field, and of these the reserve of 1,000 was not under fire at all. The enemy were twice his strength. Colonel Cullum tells me we lost twenty-five guns, just one more than half those that went into action. Though at the head of Scott’s staff, he cannot ascertain and does not know what produced this ruinous panic and stampede, or what regiment began it. Nor does he know whether or not the rebel force in Virginia is 70,000 or over 200,000. History is worth little.
From conversations and eye witnesses, I am satisfied that the rebels treated our wounded men with characteristic barbarity. Dr. Barnes found thirty officers and men whom he had collected in a shady place and left for a few moments (while he went for some surgical implement or assistance to the church that was used as a temporary hospital) bayonetted on his return. Two very intelligent privates of a Michigan regiment now in one of the Georgetown hospitals tell me with all minute details of time, place, and circumstance how they saw rebel soldiers deliberately cut the throats of wounded men.
I return from Washington depressed and despondent. Our volunteer system with its elected colonels and its political major-generals is very bad. We are fighting at sore disadvantage. The men have lost faith in their officers, and no wonder, when so many officers set the example of running away. Of the first three hundred fugitives that crossed the Long Bridge, two hundred had commissions. Two colonels were seen fleeing on the same horse. Several regiments were left without field officers and without a company officer that knew anything beyond company drill. The splendid material of the Scotch Seventy-ninth and the Fire Zouaves has been wasted. Both regiments are disheartened and demoralized. Neither would stand fire for five minutes – they are almost in a state of mutiny, their men deserting and the sick list enlarging itself daily. Why the rebels did not walk into Washington July 22 or 23 is a great mystery. They could have done so with trifling loss.
George Templeton Strong, Diary of the Civil War, 1860-1865 pp. 168-170, 172-174