|Unit History Project|
Gainesville Groveton and Bull Run
Paper Prepared and Read
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
Probably no battle that has been fought anywhere on the face of the earth up to and including the present time, with the possible exception of Waterloo, has been written about so voluminously as that which was begun on the Warrenton turnpike near Gainesville on the 28th day of August, 1862, and was concluded five miles easterly, on the same highway, near the banks of Bull Run, on the night of the 30th. And perhaps there was never another fight which influenced more evidently the futures of so many of those of its participants who survived. It fixed in an enduring place the fame of Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet and Lee among the southern generals, and it brought dire disaster upon Pope, McDowell and Fitz-John Porter immediately, in the northern army, besides incidentally bringing about the downfall of Burnside and Hooker, by forcing them into positions beyond their ability to sustain, and of McClellan, by adding to the critical judgments which he had otherwise to bear, the stigma of doubt as to his faithfulness to the Union cause, at a time when that cause rested upon the shoulders of one who was not his friend.
For the purpose of rendering justice of one kind or another to all these soldiers, tens of thousands of pages have been printed and weeks of eloquent denunciation and advocacy have filled the halls of Congress. Every hill and wooded lot, every road, pathway, every house and barn, and almost every other isolated obstacle to the free movements of troops upon that field of slaughter, have been reproduced in myriads of maps and charts, published by the government, by historians, and by advocates of this and that theory, and scattered broadcast throughout the country for the information of all, so that it would be a work of the merest supererogation for me to attempt to make an addition to this class of literature by a paper no more extended than should serve to fulfill the requirements of such an occasion as this. So, instead of history, I propose to give you, as impartially and as faithfully as I can, the impressions of a lad who carried a musket through that struggle, and to refrain from critical comment upon the conduct of our general officers, either in the way of laudation or in that of condemnation.
Centerville, where General Pope had his headquarters at the beginning of this battle, was a straggling, measly-looking hamlet on a hill, about twenty miles west of Alexandria. From Centerville to Manassas Junction, nearly south, the distance is six miles, and from Centerville to Gainesville, a station on the Manassas Gap railroad, with a general air of disreputability (and also a small village), there is a good highway running a few degrees south of west in a line almost exactly straight for the whole distance of nine miles. In traversing this section of road the first notable object that one sees is the old stone bridge across Bull Run, where the first battle of that ilk began, and where the later one was ended. This is three miles from Centerville; and a mile farther on is the crossing of the Sudley road, in the near vicinity of which a good deal of the fighting of both battles was done, while still another mile brings one to the cross-roads with three or four houses, collectively known as Groveton, though no one would suspect, unless he were familiar with Virginian usages, that the location had any name at all. Indeed, the appellation of cross-roads is rather more dignified than the appearance of the place would seem to warrant, since the so-called road which crosses the Warrenton pike there is really nothing more than a narrow lane leading from a point on an old east and west road, a mile south, to the church at Sudley Springs, two miles northerly.
Half a mile westerly from Groveton the turnpike passed through a piece of woods for about eighty rods, the road being otherwise well exposed to view from the numerous hills on both sides of it from the stone bridge to Gainesville. Its course was comparatively level as it followed the valley of a creek which has its source between Groveton and Gainesville, and empties into Bull Run near the stone bridge. This stream was locally known as “Young’s Branch,” and is a very crooked branch, crossing the turnpike half a dozen times in the course of its brief career among foot hills, which, in some instances, rise more than 200 feet above the level of the stream. Another important feature of the locality, as was proved within a day or two, was a line of about a mile of isolated railway grade, lying some 200 rods northerly from the turnpike at Groveton, and diverging farther away in going towards Centerville. This grading comprised a cut through a considerable distance of high ground, and also the excavations from the cut, which had been used to continue the level of the proposed railroad across the low land at each end of the excavated portion of the line, thus presenting an admirable defensive fortification, almost complete for military use.
The position of King’s Division, on the Warrenton turnpike, as it was moving toward Centerville late in the afternoon of August 28, 1862, was, beginning at the head of the column, first Hatch’s brigade, with is right touching Groveton; then Doubleday’s following closely; then Gibbon’s, with Patrick’s barely out of Gainesville; the whole division just about completely filling the highway for the whole three and a half miles between Groveton and Gainesville, with as fine a body of young men, physically, intellectually and morally, as was ever found together in equal number in the history of warfare. The line officers averaged but very little older than the youths who made up the bulk of the rank and file, and few of the field officers, even, had reached middle age. The different brigades of the division were united by innumerable acquaintanceships of individuals with each other, and all were anxious to test their mettle as an aggregate in a hotter fight than they had yet seen. In a fair contest, with equal advantages, I doubt whether any body of men of like number could have been found in the southern army that could have stood up before us to the end. But of this splendid organization at least two brigades were destined to be led to slaughter on that field with hardly a chance of striking an effective blow at the enemy. The first so to suffer was Gibbon’s “Iron Brigade,” comprising three regiments of the best blood of Wisconsin, as well as one Indiana regiment, and the usual contingent of artillery. I was in Hatch’s Brigade of New York troops, near the head of the column, and consequently, more than a mile away from the men who were to bear the brunt of the evening’s fight. Between five and six o’clock our brigade was entirely clear of the patch of woods through which the division was passing, about 7,000 strong, in full view of Jackson’s 20,000 troops, posted along the abandoned railway grade and on the wooded ridge just beyond it. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of a rebel battery rushing into place three-quarters of a mile away, and our own “Battery B,” of the 4th U. S. Artillery, swung in upon a knoll by the side of the road and planted a shell among the rebels before they had time to fire. A yell of laughter from our lines at the way the enemy fell on the faces and scattered themselves about, was hardly heard before they had recovered themselves, and we heard the clang of a shell bursting directly over our heads, followed almost immediately by the report of the cannon that sent it, mixed in with the screech of the lacerated air, and succeeded by the humming whir of the fragments of cast iron driven far past us by the momentum attained before the explosion of the missile. Within two or three minutes this exchange of metallic compliments had become very profuse indeed; a thin skirmish line had been advanced into the fields at our front, and the main lines of infantry had been ordered to lie down in the hollow roadside between the traveled track and the fence, an order with which we complied without any unnecessary delay. I often wonder whether others can have felt that exquisite peacefulness of mind and calm serenity of soul which always possessed me when occupying a hollow spot of ground in front of one of our own batteries in action. So far as I am able to remember, such a situation was the only one in which I felt that there was absolutely nothing further to be desired, and that a soldier’s heaven might appropriately comprise a comfortable excavation with artillery pealing overhead. In the course of the firing one shell cut off the leg of a mounted artilleryman, and another man at one of the guns was killed outright, as were a few horses, but these events made little impression on my mind.
Soon, however, came the rattling of a volley of musketry at our left, followed by a continuous clatter, like that of hailstones upon an empty barn. The woods were between us and the unseen combatants, and I could not then realize that bright young lives were going out at every instant like tapers in a wind, and that the passing moments were carrying sorrow and gloom to hundreds of northern and southern homes. Gibbon’s Brigade and two regiments of Doubleday’s were engaged in a death grapple with two brigades of Talliaferro’s and two brigades of Ewell’s Division of Jackson’s army, and we could only lie there and listen so long as daylight lasted, not venturing to withdraw ourselves so as to visibly uncover the flank of our line. But when darkness was over us, and we could change position without attracting the attention of the enemy, we were called to our feet, and moved back to that part of the road directly in the rear of the field where the fighting had been going on, but had now subsided, the surgeons’ knives being busy by the flickering light of candles in the old orchard in our front. There O’Connor had died at the head of the 2d Wisconsin, and both Ewell and Talliaferro on the other side had been desperately wounded, while the Colonels of the 2d and 33d Virginia were among the more than 200 killed in Ewell’s two brigades, and as many, perhaps, in Talliaferro’s command. Gibbon had lost 133 killed and 539 wounded, with 79 missing (of whom presumably the majority were killed) out of his brigade, which must have numbered less than 2000 men in line of battle. It is not extravagant to assume, in the absence of figures in detail, that the four rebel brigades and the Union brigade and a half actively engaged in that evening’s battle lost in killed and wounded nearly, if not quite, one-third of their combined forces, the rebel casualties having been more than twice as great as our own.
But we lay down there and slept with our muskets beside us until told to fall in for another march. This was about two o’clock in the morning, as nearly as I could judge, and from that time until the middle of the forenoon we moved along the lanes running southerly towards Manassas Junction, at the rate of a mile an hour. When we reached a point near the station we found beef, salt, port, hard bread, coffee and sugar, of which we were sorely in need, and replenished our haversacks as well as our stomachs. While we were eating, Fitz-John Porter passed by us with his troops, going up the railroad towards Gainesville, and after an hour or two of rest we were formed in line again, and hastened forward, with the occasional sound of cannon in our ears, towards the crossing of Sudley Springs road and Warrenton pike., half way between Groveton and the Bull Run bridge, as noted before. When we reached the top of the hill south of that crossing and about a mile from it, our march was deflected to the left, where we were drawn up in line of battle parallel to the turnpike, and afterwards directed to rest at ease. The view from this point was magnificent. The hot, blue sky shone over and around us, while beyond the turnpike the smoke of occasional musketry volleys, of cannon and bursting shell, lazily dissipated itself into the shimmering atmosphere over the brown fields and the green trees. There was no indication of hard fighting, and we watched the intermittent evidence of battle with no great interest. We did not know, of course, that General Longstreet’s Corps had occupied the position beyond Groveton vacated by us fourteen hours previously, and that he had prolonged Jackson’s line away to the southwest of the pike, along one of the lanes which we had followed that morning on our way to Manassas Junction. It rather looked as though our forces in the valley were feeling for rebels and unable to find them. By and by there came an interval of complete quiet. The infantry, which had been gliding about the fields like blue serpents, subsided into favorable positions near hills or clumps of woods, and the sound of artillery ceased. We wondered if Jackson had finally disappeared, and on receiving orders to fall in and to march towards the turnpike crossing, we rejoiced at the idea of being on the way to find our where he was. McDowell and a crowd of officers on horseback greeted us as we crossed Young’s Branch, at the entrance upon the pike, and filed to the left towards Groveton, telling us that we must make haste if we wanted to overtake the rear of the retreating rebel army. So we actually made the next half mile at double quick, notwithstanding the intense heat, but after accomplishing that, many of us were unable to resist the temptation of a fine roadside spring, where we hastily filled our tin cups and drank as we pushed forward. A few rods short of the Groveton crossing our column was turned towards the left, into a valley which formed the hypothenuse of a triangle, the other two sides being the pike and the Groveton lane. The head of the column was therefore a few hundred feet away from the turnpike, and but a very few rods from the lane, behind which, and stretching away for a long distance to the south, was the unexpected corps of Longstreet. It was now sunset, and as our line was being rectified, the crack of musketry in front of us, and almost in our faces, informed us that we had been mistaken in the nature of the work to be performed. Instead of pursuing a flying enemy, we had been brought into a place where we must act on the defensive, against troops who know just where we were, but whose own whereabouts we could do little more than guess at. Our brigade immediately returned the fire, however, and the two cannon which accompanied us lent their effective assistance. Almost instantly, it seemed to me, the darkness gathered around us, and we could plainly see the fire-flashes that were accompaniments of the musketry. Men were falling on all sides, and our line formation was practically lost. We were a mob, whose only unity was in blazing away at the line of fire at our front.
Suddenly a body of troops was seen moving towards us from among the trees along the lane at our left, and we were in doubt whether they were enemies or friends. They shouted, “Don’t fire at us boys, we’re coming to help you;” and some of us felt reassured, while others incredulously cried, “Don’t believe them, they’re rebels,” and ran towards the rear. I was among those who remained until the light of their blazing volley across our part of the field revealed the gray of their uniforms, on which I stood no longer upon the order of my going, but rushed back across the little stream behind us, only stopping long enough to scoop up a few handfuls of water, from among dead horses and men lying between its banks, as I went over. Perhaps a hundred rods to the rear I found the nucleus of my regiment, and sank to the ground into a sound sleep. I had been through a focus of carnage, only to be exceeded, in my experience, by that of the next day. I had heard the chug, chug, chug, of bullets plunging through human flesh, and had been imbued with the tigerish insanity of a fight to the death, while oppressed with the instinctive feeling that neither myself nor any of our officers had any clear conception of what was wanted to be done. On awakening late the next morning I felt that I was much older than on the previous morning as well as far wiser; that I had, in fact, outgrown my boyhood, and become a man, by virtue of standing up in the midst of slaughter like a conflict of wild beasts. We ate our breakfasts at our leisure, and during the forenoon had ample opportunity to consider the general situation. A good many of our men were missing, and which of them were wounded and prisoners, and which of them were dead, was a question at that time incapable of solution. Our shattered brigade was marched down and across the pike with the rest of the division at about noon, and we ate our midday lunch of hard tack and cold, boiled salt port, with such water as we could get, in the open field north of the Warrenton road. There had been no firing of noticeable effect up to this time, and until still later on. It must have been between two and three o’clock when Porter’s Corps of 8.000 or 9,000 men marched down and formed in a column of a dozen lines or so at our left, we having been massed into a similar column ourselves. The two forces were then ordered on, and our portion of the column found a piece of woods in our front and went right along through it, moving slowly as we heard the whirring and whistling of bullets about our heads, and discovered a line of skirmishers lying on the ground and pegging away at something beyond the further edge of the woods, which we were unable to make out. As we passed the skirmishers they withdrew to the rear, and the sound of shrieking and exploding shells which we had heard during the preceding few minutes suddenly ceased. Once more our line, the foremost one then of King’s Division, was ordered forward, and directly left of it emerged at the farther extremity of the wood.
Just in front of ourselves was an old-fashioned rail fence, such as I had been familiar with in northern New York. On the other side of the fence was an open field, and beyond that, forty or fifty rods from us, was the railroad embankment, of which I have spoken before, apparently twelve or fifteen feet high, directly in front of the place where I should think, from the right of our brigade. Above it, at the rear, was a rather abrupt hill. Between us and the grading were a few dead bodies in blue uniforms, but otherwise there were no signs of war immediately visible. More careful scrutiny, however, revealed things entirely at variance with this first aspect. Along the top of that railroad embankment there was a gleam of musket barrels, as they were aimed towards us and resting upon it. Behind each musket was a slouch wool hat, and a pair of eyes under its brim. That was all we could see of the enemy, but it was enough to afford us reasonably correct information of what we were to encounter. Quick as a flash every one appeared to comprehend what it was necessary for him to do, as well as the general object of the impending charge. The embankment of broken stone and gravel had been reconstructed into a most formidable work of defense by cutting the other side of it down straight for about five feet, leaving a ledge there for standing room, so that those aiming over the top of the grade exposed nothing of their persons below their shoulders. We were to rush across the open field through the fire of the enemy, drive them from their lodgment, and capture the position.
We leaned hard against the fence and pushed it down sufficiently to enable us to jump over, and leaped into the open meadow. For half a mile or move to the left of us a long line of men in blue was marching forward with the same object. Now the bullets began to fly about our ears, and men to pitch forwards or backwards, out of the line, to the earth. Artillery from unseen locations back of the enemy’s infantry line opened upon us, and the shouts and yells from both sides were indescribably savage. It seemed like the popular idea of pandemonium made real, and indeed it is scarcely too much to say that we were really transformed for the time, from a lot of good-natured boys to the most bloody of demoniacs. Without my being in the east degree conscious of any such thing, the bottom of my haversack had been torn away by a fragment of shell, and a bullet had pierced my canteen, relieving me of the weight of all my provision and drink, and my hat had somehow been knocked off my head on my way from the woods to the railroad grade, while a comrade at my side had been shot through the sole of his foot by a bullet which cut the flesh clear across just above the lower cuticle (a very sensitive place as everybody knows), and was surprised, after we had reached the embankment, to see blood flowing from the bullet hole in his shoe.
I mention these things as tending to convey a slight impression of the intense eagerness for slaughter that is apt to possess a soldier in the fury of a battle. Since that day I have had no difficulty in understanding the feeling of a fighting bull-dog, which would rather die than let go his grip on his antagonist.
There was some firing on our part on our way across the field, because the line did not move fast enough (on account of the diagonal fence) to keep us busy otherwise. Undoubtedly we would have been able to get across with much less disaster to ourselves, and with practically as much damage to the other side, if we had rushed right on, without stopping to fire at all. But all battles are made up of blunders is usually the one that comes out with the ultimate advantage. The man who, like Commander Cushing in his attack on the Albemarle, can preserve a perfectly level head, with imminent death threatening him on every side, is so rare as to seem almost like a lusus naturae, and it is never to be expected that he will appear just where and when he is needed, and therefore a little unexpected fence to be pushed down may turn the tide of battle. Comparatively few of our number arrived at the embankment--- probably not a dozen of my own company. Some of those who had been shot less seriously than the young man of who I just spoke, were not endowed with his fighting enthusiasm, and had run back to the woods on the feeling the sting of bullet or of broken iron. But many, very many, were lying on the ground behind us, dead, or yielding up their young lives with the blood that was oozing from their gaping wounds. Those of us who were on the embankment were too few to even attempt to drive out the troops on the other side of it, and accordingly lay as flat to the slope as we could, crawling occasionally to the top, and discharging our muskets, held horizontally over our heads, in the direction which seemed to afford a chance of hitting somebody on the other side of the grade. In the meantime a second line of troops attempted to come across the field from our side, and the din instantly became so infernal that I desisted from the feeble efforts I had been making against the enemy, in order to see what was happening in our rear.
As I looked back, I saw our line making a grand rush in our direction, many of the men holding their arms before their faces, as though to keep off a storm. Bullets were pouring into them from the infantry beyond us, but worst of all, Longstreet’s batteries, freshly posted on a rise of ground a mile or so to our left, were enfilading the approaching troops with solid shot, shell, and sections a foot long or more, of railroad iron, which tore up the earth frightfully, and was death to any living thing that they might touch on their passage. Our second line gave way before this terrible storm, and ran back to the cover of the woods, leaving us on the embankment to our fate. As for ourselves, we still kept up the desultory fire that I have described with no serious effect, I presume, after the brief intermission mentioned. But shortly there came an unlooked-for variation in the proceedings. Huge stones began to fall about us, and now and then one of them would happen to strike one or another of us with very unpleasant effect. By this time all my friends were on the rebel work at my side were badly wounded, and I had received a few scratches and bruises for my own part. The enemy kept up the showers of stones, and we were returning the favors to such extent as we were able, and bullets intended for the rebels from our soldiers back in the woods were striking the ground about us, and at least one of them struck a comrade at my elbow, wounding him in the back, and fatally. Young Oliver Ayer, whose injury in the foot was mentioned before, now received an additional bullet wound, disabling his right arm, from which he subsequently died in one of the general hospitals in Washington. Both of these disabled companions of mine entreated me to do something for their relief, in the helpless and dangerous position which they occupied.
It was a puzzle to decide upon any course of action, and I took time to cut away Cotter’s shirt, find that his hurt was one that I could not relieve, and replace the garment with my own, and also to place a bandage about Ayer’s arm, before finally deciding to try running over the embankment in the hope of obtaining a cessation of hostilities at that point, in case getting over alive. I was fortunate enough to be permitted to jump down from the top into the rebel line before anybody got a successful shot at me, and made bold to ask the further favor of being allowed to bring my wounded friends over the work. This request was not granted, and I probably owe my life to the refusal. The stone-throwing ceased there, however, and I helped bandage up the wounded arms of a few of their soldiers who had been retired into the ditch at the foot of the grade. Shortly afterwards an officer seized me by the collar, drew me to my feet, and bade me look at the greatest soldier, he said, that ever lived. It was Stonewall Jackson, who was riding down the line, a stalwart figure, in rusty uniform, his slouch hat in his hand, and accompanied, of course, by a retinue of mounted officers. He was greeted with hearty cheers, but his own aspect was rather pre-occupied, as though he was thinking of something out of the range of present vision.
Soon afterwards a soldier was detailed to accompany me to the rear, at Cross’ farm, on the bank of Catharpin Run, near its junction with Bull Run, at Sudley Spring. My wounded friends were brought along on stretchers somewhat later, and by nightfall there were more than a thousand prisoners, mostly wounded, gathered together at the same place, something more than a mile north of the field where the hard fighting had occurred. At my own request, I was adorned with a white strip, tied about my arm, and ordered to help attend to the wounded who were coming in, and about a dozen of whom were from my company, and assumed as my especial charge. One of them had been shot eleven times, but he eventually recovered. A minute description of the wounds observed while at this place would be horrible beyond the belief of the inexperienced in such matters. Bullet and shell had no regard to consequences or to appearances. Eyes were gouged out by them, the brain laid open, or hideous holes made in the neck or abdomen, with the same ease and celerity as legs or arms were torn off, or mangled into shapeless pulp. I stayed among these horrors for a week, and until the refuse pile of amputated limbs near the bank of the stream had grown to the height of my shoulders, and had become of such suffocating putridity as to permeate the whole vicinity with its odors. Then, having seen the last of our men started on towards Washington by ambulance, and having been paroled myself, I held on to the final ambulance and went through the field where the great battle had been fought. Our dead were still unburied. The meadow that we had crossed on our way to the embankment was covered with corpses of those who had been dashing and gallant soldiers only a short before, but whose bodies were swollen, blistered, discolored to the blackness of Ethiopians in most instances, and emitting odors so thick and powerful that it seemed that they might have been felt by the naked hand. There was little of the semblance of humanity about these corpses, except the uniforms in which some of them were clad. Many were naked, their clothes having been taken from them by neighboring farmers, or perhaps by the less comfortably clad of the opposing army. The faces of the dead were so black that my first thought on seeing them was that there had been a slaughter of negroes there since my departure from the field, and the abdomens of all were distended to the point of bursting, if they had not already passed that point. Maggots were wriggling in their eyes, noses, and mouths, and filled the original wounds, in whatever portion of the body they might have been. I held my breath as much as possible in passing through the battlefield, and on approaching Centerville met a regiment coming from the direction of Alexandria, with pick-axes, shovels and other implements for burial of the dead.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History