Lt. George Armstrong Custer, Co. G, 2nd U. S. Cavalry, On Travelling to the Field and the Battle (Part1)

20 09 2017

I left West Point on the 18th of July for Washington, delaying a few hours that afternoon on my arrival in New York to enable me to purchase, of the well-known military firm of Horstman’s, my lieutenant’s outfit of sabre, revolver, sash, spurs, etc. Taking the evening train for Washington, I found the cars crowded with troops, officers, and men hastening to the capital.

At each station we passed on the road at which a halt was made, crowds of citizens were assembled provided bountifully with refreshments, which they distributed in the most lavish manner among the troops. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds, they received us with cheers and cheered us in parting. It was no unusual sight, on leaving a station surrounded by these loyal people, to see matrons and maidens embracing and kissing with patriotic fervor the men, entire strangers to them, whom they saw hastening to the defense of the nation.

Arriving at Washington soon after daylight, Saturday morning, the 20th of July, I made my way to the Ebbit House, where I expected to meet some of my classmates domiciled. Among others I found there was Parker, appointed from Missouri, who had been my room- and tent-mate at West Point for years. He was one of the few members of my class who, while sympathizing with the south, had remained at the Academy long enough to graduate and secure a diploma. Proceeding to his room without going through the formality of announcing my arrival by sending a card, I found him at that early hour still in bed. Briefly he responded to my anxious inquiry for news, that McDowell’s army was confronting Beauregard’s, and a general engagement was expected hourly. My next inquiry was as to his future plans and intentions, remembering his Southern sympathies. To this he replied by asking me to take from a table near by and read an official order to which he pointed.

Upon opening the document referred to, I found it to be an order from the War Department dismissing from the roles of the army Second Lieutenant James P. Parker, for having tendered his resignation in the face of the enemy. The names of two others of my classmates appeared in the same order. After an hour or more of discussing the dark probabilities of the future as particularly affected by the clouds of impending war, I bade a fond farewell to my former friend and classmate, with whom I had lived on terms of closer intimacy than with any other being. We had eaten day by day at the same table, had struggled together in the effort to master the same problems of study; we had marched by each other’s side year after year, elbow to elbow, when engaged in the duties of drill, parade, etc., and had shared our blankets with each other when learning the requirements of camp life. Henceforth this was all to be thrust from our memory as far as possible, and our paths and aims in life were to run counter to each other in the future.

We separated; he to make his way, as he did immediately, to the seat of the Confederate Government, and accept a commission under a flag raised in rebellion against the government that had educated him, and that he had sworn to defend; I to proceed to the office of the Adjutant General of the Army and report for such duty as might be assigned me in the great work which was then dearest and uppermost in the mind of every loyal citizen of the country.

It was not until after two o’clock in the morning that I obtained an audience with the Adjutant General of the Army and reported to him formally for orders, as my instructions directed me to do. I was greatly impressed by the number of officials I saw and the numerous messengers to be seen flitting from room to room, bearing immense numbers of huge-looking envelopes. The entire department had an air of busy occupation which, taken in connection with the important military events then daily transpiring and hourly expected, and contrasted with the humdrum life I had but lately led as a cadet, added to the bewilderment I naturally felt.

Presenting my order of instructions to the officer who seemed to be in charge of the office, he glanced at it, and was about to give some directions to a subordinate nearby to write out an order assigning me to some duty when, turning to me, he said, “Perhaps you would like to be presented to General Scott, Mr. Custer?” To which I of course joyfully assented.

I had often beheld the towering form of the venerable chieftain during his summer visits to West Point, but that was the extent of my personal acquaintance with him. So strict was the discipline at that Academy that the gulf which separated cadets from commissioned officers seemed greater in practice thant that which separated enlisted men from them. Hence it was rare indeed that a cadet ever had an opportunity to address or be addressed by officers, and it was still more rare to be brought into personal conversation with an officer above the grade of lieutenant or captain, if we except the superintendent of the Academy and the commandant of the corps of cadets. The sight of a general officer, let alone the privilege of speaking to one, was an event to be recounted to one’s friends. In those days the title of general was not so familiar as to be encountered on every hotel register. Besides, the renown of a long lifetime of gallantry in his country’s service had gradually but justly placed General Scott far above all contemporary chieftains in the admiration and hero worship of his fellow countrymen; and in the youthful minds of the West Point cadets of those days Scott was looked up to as a leader whose military abilities were scarcely second to those of a Napoleon, and whose patriotism rivaled that of Washington.

Following the lead of the officers to whom I had reported, I was conducted to the room in which General Scott received his official visitors. I found him seated at a table over which were spread maps and other documents which plainly showed their military character. In the room, and seated near the table, were several members of Congress, of whom I remember Senator Grimes of Iowa.

The topic of conversation was the approaching battle in which General McDowell’s forces were about to engage. General Scott seemed to be explaining to the congressmen the position, as shown by the map, of the contending armies. The adjutant general called General Scott’s attention to me by saying, “General, this is Lieutenant Custer of the Second Cavalry; he has just reported from West Point and I did not know but that you might have some special orders for him.”

Looking at me for a moment, the general shook me cordially by the hand, saying, “Well, my young friend, I am glad to welcome you to the service at this critical time. Our country has need of the strong arms of all her loyal sons in this emergency.” Then, turning to the adjutant general, he inquired to what company I had been assigned. “To Company G, Second Cavalry, now under Major Innis Palmer, with General McDowell,” was the reply. Then, addressing me, the general said, “We have had the assistance of quite a number of you young men from the Academy, drilling volunteers, etc. Now what can I do for you? Would you prefer to be ordered to report to General Mansfield to aid in this work, or is your desire for something more active?”

Although overwhelmed by such condescension upon the part of one so superior in rank to any officer with whom I had been brought in immediate contact, I ventured to stammer out that I earnestly desired to be ordered to at once join my company, then with General McDowell, as I was anxious to see active service. “A very commendable resolution, young man,” was the reply; then, turning to the adjutant general, he added, “Make out ;lieutenant Custer’s orders directing him to proceed to his company at once”; then, as if a different project had presented itself, he inquired of me if I had been able to provided myself with a mount for the field. I relpied that I had not, but would set myself about doing so at once.

“I fear you have a difficult task before you, because, if rumor is correct, every serviceable horse in the city has been bought, borrowed, or begged by citizens who have gone or are going as spectators to witness the battle. Beauregard may capture some of them and teach them a lesson. However, I what I desire to say to you is, go and provide yourself with a horse if possible, and call here at seven o’clock this evening. I desire to send some dispatches to General McDowell, and you can be the bearer of them. You are not afraid of a night ride, are you?”

Exchanging salutations, I left the presence of the general-in-chief, delighted at the prospect of being at once thrown into active service, perhaps participating in the great battle which everyone there knew was on the eve of occurring; but more than this my pride as a soldier was not a little heightened by the fact that almost upon my first entering the service I was to be the bearer of important official dispatches from the general-in-chief to the general commanding the principal army in the field.

I had yet a difficult task before me in procuring a mount. I visited all the prominent livery stables, but received almost the same answer from each, the substance of which was that I was too late; all the serviceable horses had been let or engaged. I was almost in despair of the idea that I was not to be able to take advantage of the splendid opportunity for distinction opened before me, and was at a loss what to do, or to whom to apply for advice, when I met on Pennsylvania Avenue a soldier in uniform, whom I at once recognizes as one of the detachment formerly stationed at West Point, who left with those ordered suddenly to the defense of Washington at the time of Mr. Lincoln’s inauguration, when it was feared attempts would be made to assassinate the president-elect.

Glad to encounter anyone I had ever seen before, I approached and asked him what he was doing in Washington. He answered that he belonged to Griffin’s battery, which was then with McDowell’s forces at the front, and had returned to Washington by Captain Griffin’s order, to obtain and take back with him an extra horse left by the battery on its departure from the capital. Here then was my opportunity, and I at once availed myself of it. It was the intention of this man to set out on his return at once; but at my earnest solicitation he consented to defer his departure until after seven o’clock, agreeing also to have the extra horse saddled and in readiness for me.

Promptly at seven o’clock I reported at the adjutant general’s office, obtaining my dispatches, and with no baggage or extra clothing to weigh down my horse, save what I carried on my person, I repaired to the point at which I was to find my horse and companion for the night. Upon arriving there I was both surprised and delighted to discover that the horse which accident seemed to have provided for me was a favorite one ridden by me often when learning the cavalry exercises at West Point. Those who were cadets just before the war will probably recall him to mind when I give the name “Wellington,” by which he was then known.

Crossing Long Bridge about nightfall, and taking the Fairfax Court House road for Centreville, the hours of night flew quickly past, engrossed as my mind was with the excitement and serious novelty of the occasion as well as occasionally diverted by the conversation of my companion. I was particularly interested with his description, given as we rode in the silent darkness, of a skirmish days before at Blackburn’s Ford, between the forces of the enemy stationed there and a reconnoitering detachment sent from General McDowell’s army; especially when I learned that my company had borne an honorable part of the battle.

It was between two and three o’clock in the morning when we reached the army near Centreville. The men had already breakfasted, and many of the regiments had been formed in column in the roads ready to resume the march; but owing to delays in starting, most of the men were lying on the ground, endeavoring to catch a few minutes more of sleep; others were sitting or standing in small groups smoking and chatting.

So filled did I find the road with soldiers that it was with difficulty my horse could pick his way among the sleeping bodies without disturbing them. But for my companion I should have had considerable difficulty in finding my way to headquarters, but he seemed familiar with the localities even in the darkness, and soon conducted me to a group of tents near which a large log fire was blazing, throwing a bright light over the entire scene for some distance around.

As I approached, the sound of my horse’s hoofs brought an officer from one of the tents nearest to where I halted. Advancing toward me, he inquired who I wanted to see. I informed him I was the bearer of dispatches from General Scott to General McDowell. “I will relieve you of them,” was his reply, but seeing me hesitate to deliver them, he added, “I am Major Wadsworth of McDowell’s staff.”

While I had hoped from ambitious pride to have an opportunity to deliver the dispatches in person to General McDowell, I could not decline longer, so placed the documents in Major Wadsworth’s hands, who took them to a tent a few paces distant, where, through half-open folds, I saw him hand them to a large, portly officer, whom I at once recognized to be General McDowell. Then, returning to where I still sat my horse, Major Wadsworth…asked me of the latest news in the capital, and when I replied that every person at Washington was looking to the army for news, he added, “Well, I guess they will not have to wait much longer. The entire army is under arms, and moving to attack the enemy today.” After inquiring at what hour I left Washington, and remarking that I must be tired, Major Wadsworth asked me to dismount and have some breakfast, as it would be difficult to say when another opportunity would occur.

I was very hungry, and rest would not have been unacceptable, but in my inexperience I partly imagined, particularly while in the presence of the white-haired officer who gave the invitation, that hunger and fatigue were conditions of feeling which a soldier, especially a young one, should not acknowledge. Therefore, with an appetite almost craving, I declined the kind proffer of the major. But when he suggested that I dismount and allow my horse to be fed I gladly assented.

While Major Wadsworth was kindly interesting himself in the welfare of my horse, I had the good fortune to discover in an officer at headquarters one of my recent West Point friends, Lieutenant Kingsbury, aide-de-camp to General McDowell. He repeated the invitation just given by Major Wadsworth in regard to breakfast, but I did not have the perseverance to again refuse.

Near the log fire already mentioned were some servants busily engaged in removing the remains of breakfast. A word from Kingsbury, and they soon prepared me a cup of coffee, a steak, and some Virginia corn bread, to which I did ample justice. Had I known, however, that I was not to have an opportunity to taste food during the next thirty hours, I should have appreciated the opportunity I then enjoyed even more highly.

As I sat on the ground sipping my coffee, and heartily enjoying my first breakfast inn the field, Kingsbury (afterward Colonel Kingsbury, killed at the Battle of Antietam) informed me of the general movement then begun by the army, and of the attack which was to be made on Beauregard’s forces that day.

Three days before, I had quitted school at West Point. I was about to witness the first grand struggle in open battle between the union and secession armies; a struggle which, fortunately for the nation, the Union forces were to suffer defeat, while the cause for which they fought was to derive from it renewed strength and encouragement.

From Civil War Times Illustrated (submitted there by Peter Cozzens), Custer’s First Stand, Vol. XXXVII, No. 6, December, 1998

Part 2
Part 3

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Victory at Bull Run – What Was McDowell’s Game Plan?

24 05 2015

51PK6Qew8sL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Hennessy is working on a new edition of his seminal tactical study, The First Battle of Manassas: An End to Innocence, July 18-21, 1861. I’ve corresponded with the author enough to learn that this will be one of the rare updated editions that owners of the original will consider a “must have.” Mr. Hennessy discussed the new book somewhat in a recent interview with Civil War Talk Radio, which you can listen to here.

During this interview, you’ll hear the author discuss one of the great mysteries of the campaign – what exactly was Irvin McDowell’s vision of victory for his army (which ex post facto became known as The Army of Northeastern Virginia)? Many authors/historians have made the assumption – and it can only be an assumption – that McDowell envisioned a swift flank attack which would overwhelm his opponent and result in a set-piece victory, rolling up and decisively defeating Beauregard in a classic clash of arms.

The definition of victory here is not just semantics. It is critical in assessing McDowell’s plans and actions, and in determining why they failed.

I believe victory in McDowell’s mind was something other than what almost all chroniclers and critics of the campaign have assumed. I won’t tell you what to think, but will make a suggestion that may help you think for yourself: the answer can perhaps be found in what McDowell wrote before the battle and in what he did during it. In order to discern that, I think you must cast aside assumptions of what he must have intended and take him at his word – and actions. If you do that, then the inexplicables of the campaign may become more explicable. What appears to be a complex plan (given the traditional assumption of intent) may become less so.

Read McDowell’s plans. Look at what he did. Does that jive with your assumptions regarding his intent? To use a sports analogy, would you as a reporter rely on a head football coach’s post-defeat comments about his game plan when you have the actual game plan and video to look at? Especially when the game plan and video don’t support those comments?

Post-defeat comments: “We really wanted to establish the running game, but that didn’t work out.” Game plan: we must exploit the opponent’s secondary. Game film: first three possessions each consisted of three incomplete down-field passes and a punt.

Get it?





McDowell and Franklin

8 07 2014

I was recently going through some older posts, and was reminded of a series of posts from over 4 years ago by Dmitri Rotov over at Civil War Bookshelf. They explore the relationship between Irvin McDowell and William Franklin, and shed some light on the duo prior to First Bull Run (and beyond). Check them out – good stuff.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV





The Long and the Short of My Columbus Presentation

14 03 2014

More to follow.





McDowell’s Plan Teaser

10 09 2013

DudeI’ve been hemming and hawing over one of the things I’ve been working on with regards to the “history” of the First Battle of Bull Run these past many months. “Working” is a relative term, and in this case it consists mostly of thinking. I’ve been firming up these thoughts, writing things down, pulling together sources, and most important bouncing them off a few people whose opinions I respect. So here’s the nutshell: I believe that the standard story of what Irvin McDowell was trying to do, and what he expected to confront, with regards to Beauregard’s force outside Manassas – which typically is covered within no more than a paragraph in most (maybe all) studies of the campaign written within the last, oh, say, 90 years – is not right. That is, it is not supported by the primary documents, and it is not supported by McDowell’s actions up to and including July 21st, 1861. Or, at least, there is an alternative interpretation.

Lots of factors play into this. As a wise man once said:

This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind limber.

OK, except for the drug regimen it applies (mine is not really all that strict.) Thankfully a few of the assumptions of the accepted line of thought are refuted so thoroughly by the documentary evidence that there’s little room for argument (at least, in my mind.) This weekend I was very encouraged by a knowledgeable and respected military historian who implied, or at least from whom I inferred, that I’m not completely nuts. More on this as we get closer to the big reveal in Columbus come March.





Civil War Trust “Hallowed Ground” Spring 2011

14 03 2011

The Spring 2011 issue of Hallowed Ground, the Civil War Trust’s members publication, is out. Happily it focuses on First Bull Run.

There’s plenty of good stuff inside on the battle and the battlefield – see here for the table of contents. NPS historians Greg Wolf and John Reid have pieces on some battlefield detective work and the Centennial reenactment; museum specialist Jim Burgess writes on civilian spectators at the battle, and superintendent Ray Brown has an interesting article on the owner of the Van Pelt house. The folks who work and have worked at the park are the real experts on the battles that were fought here. These articles should not be missed – and yes, they’re all available online for free. While I don’t see it listed, there is supposed to be an interview with yours truly in this issue as well. Perhaps I wound up on the cutting room floor? I’ll let you know once I see the magazine itself.

One article in particular caught my attention: An End to Innocence, The First Battle of Manassas by Bradley Gottfried. Here’s the passage that stuck out:

While Lincoln and his Cabinet members listened, McDowell laid out a plan to attack the 24,000-man Confederate Army under Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, deployed near the winding Bull Run creek about 25 miles southwest of Washington. The general intended to use about 30,000 troops in the effort, marching in three columns, while another 10,000 men were held in reserve. With such numerical superiority, it appeared McDowell would overwhelm his Southern counterpart.

OK, I’ve talked about this in the past and you’re probably sick of hearing it by now. I have met Mr. Gottfried – he’s a good guy. I worked closely with him in proofing his book, The Maps of First Bull Run. But what he has written here conflicts with my understanding of McDowell’s plan. Here’s the text of the portion of McDowell’s plan regarding the force he expected to meet at Manassas (emphasis and brackets mine; you can read the whole thing here):

The secession forces at Manassas Junction and its dependencies are supposed to amount at this time [June 24-25, 1861] to–

Infantry          23,000

Cavalry          1,500

Artillery           500

Total               25,000

We cannot count on keeping secret our intention to overthrow this force. Even if the many parties intrusted with the knowledge of the plan should not disclose or discover it, the necessary preliminary measures for such an expedition would betray it; and they are alive and well informed as to every movement, however slight, we make. They have, moreover, been expecting us to attack their position, and have been preparing for it. When it becomes known positively we are about to march, and they learn in what strength, they will be obliged to call in their disposable forces from all quarters, for they will not be able, if closely pressed, to get away by railroad before we can reach them. If General J. E. Johnston’s force is kept engaged by Major-General Patterson, and Major-General Butler occupies the force now in his vicinity, I think they will not be able to bring up more than ten thousand men. So we must calculate on having to do with about thirty-five thousand men.

And here’s where he described the size of the army with which he proposed to take the field:

Leaving small garrisons in the defensive works, I propose to move against Manassas with a force of thirty thousand of all arms, organized into three columns, with a reserve of ten thousand.

I’ve not yet found any evidence that McDowell expected he would have numerical superiority in his strike against Beauregard. I’ll have more to say on this in an upcoming article in America’s Civil War.

UPDATE 3/15/2011: Let me make this clear for everyone, if for some reason you got a different impression from this post: my problem is with the notion that McDowell’s plan assumed a numerical superiority for his army over that which he expected to face around Manassas. To quote Wilfred Brimley in Absence of Malice: “That’s a lot of horse-puckey. The First Amendment (in this case McDowell’s plan) doesn’t say that.”

McDowell’s plans regarding this are clear, as stated above.





Elsewhere in Blogsville

9 03 2011
 
This is the first in what promises to be an interesting series of posts over at Civil War Bookshelf. I’ve discussed before (see here and here, for example) the murky origins of Irvin McDowell’s (left) rise to power in 1861. Dmitri proposes to delve into it more deeply – I think – with the added attraction of William B. Franklin (right). Franklin was a brigade commander in Heintzelman’s division of McDowell’s army at First Bull Run, but was apparently associated with McDowell in other ways.

Check it out.