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The Civil War in America

The Illustrated London News, vol. 39, no. 1102, p. 143-145.

August 10, 1861


The Federal army, under General M'Dowell, sustained a disastrous defeat at Bull's Run on the 21st ult. Bull's Run is a stream which intersects the railway from Alexandria to Manassas, and the road from Centreville south, running through a succession of gorges and hills, between steep wooded banks—a kind of Alma, which the Confederates have occupied strongly in advance of the main line of their defences. The most clear and detailed account of the battle which we have received is contained in the Washington correspondence of the New York Times of the 23rd ult. This is dated Washington, Monday morning, July 22, and is as follows:—

The attack was made in three columns, two of which, however, were mainly feints, intended to amuse and occupy the enemy, while the substantial work was done by the third. It has been known for a long time that the range of hills which border the small, swampy stream known as Bull's Run had been very thoroughly and extensively fortified by the rebels, that batteries had been planted at every available point, usually concealed in woods and bushes which abound in that vicinity, and covering every way of approach to the region beyond. These are the advanced defences of Manassas Junction, which is some three miles further off. Until these were carried no approach could be made to that place; and after they should be carried others of a similar character would have to be overcome at every point where they could be erected. The utmost

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Map of District of Columbia

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that military skill and ingenuity could accomplish for the defence of this point was done. General M'Dowell was unwilling to make an attack directly in face of these batteries, as they would be doubtful issue, and must inevitably result in a very serious loss of life. After an attack had been resolved upon, therefore, he endeavoured to find some way of turning the position. His first intention was to do this on the southern side—to throw a strong column into the place from that direction, while a feigned attack should be made in front. On Thursday, when the troops were advanced to Centreville, it was found that the roads on the south side of these positions was [sic] almost impracticable-that they were narrow, crooked, and stony, and that it would be almost impossible to bring up enough artillery to be effective in the time required. This original plan was, therefore, abandoned; and Friday was devoted to an examination by the topographical engineers of the northern side of the position. Major Barnard and Captain Whipple reconnoitred the place for miles around, and reported that the position could be entered by a path coming from the north, although it was somewhat long and circuitous. This was selected, therefore, as the mode and point of attack.

On Saturday the troops were all brought closely up to Centreville, and all needful preparations were made for the attack which was intended for the next day. Yesterday morning, therefore, the army marched—by two roads—Colonel Richardson with his command taking the southern, which leads to Bull's Run, and General Taylor the northern—running parallel to it at a distance of about a mile and a half. The movement commenced at about three o'clock. I got up at a little before four, and found the long line of troops extended far out on either road. I took the road by which Colonel Hunter with his command, and General M'Dowell and Staff, had gone, and pushed on directly for the front. After going out about two miles Colonel Hunter turned to the right, marching obliquely towards the Run, which he was to cross some four miles higher up, and then come down upon the intrenched positions of the enemy on the other side. Colonel Miles was left at Centerville and on the road, with reserves which he was to bring up whenever they might be needed. General Tyler went directly forward, to engage the enemy in front, and send reinforcements to Colonel Hunter whenever it should be seen that he was engaged.

I went out, as I have already stated, upon what is marked as the northern road. It is hilly, like all the surface of this section. After going out about three miles you come to a point down which the road, leading through a forest, descends; then it proceeds by a succession of rising and falling knolls for a quarter of a mile, when it crosses a stone bridge and then ascends by a steady slope to the heights beyond. At the top of that slope the rebels had planted heavy batteries, and the woods below were filled with their troops and with concealed cannon. We proceeded down the road to the first of the small knolls mentioned, when the whole column halted. The 30-pounder Parrott gun, which has a longer range than any other in the army, was planted directly in the road. Captain Ayres' battery was stationed in the woods a little to the right. The 1st Ohio and 2nd New York Regiments were thrown into the woods in advance on the left. The 69th New York and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Connecticut Regiments were ranged behind them, and the 2nd Wisconsin was thrown into the woods on the right. At about half past six o'clock the 30-pounder threw two shells directly into the battery at the summit of the slope, on the opposite height, one of which, as I learned afterwards, struck and exploded directly in the midst of the battery, and occasioned the utmost havoc and confusion. After about half an hour Captain Ayres threw ten or fifteen shot and shell from his battery into the same place. But both failed to elicit any reply. Men could be seen moving about the opposite slope, but the batteries were silent. An hour or so afterwards we heard three or four heavy guns from Colonel Richardson's column at Bull's Run, and these were continued at intervals for two or three hours, but they were not answered even by a single gun. It was very clear that the enemy intended to take his own time for paying his respects to us, and that he meant, moreover, to do it in his own way. Meantime we could hear in the distance the sound of Colonel Hunter's axemen clearing his way, and awaited with some impatience the sound of his cannon on the opposite heights. Time wore along with occasional shots from our guns, as well as those of Colonel Richardson's column, but without, in a single instance, receiving any reply.

At a little before eleven o'clock the 1st Ohio and 2nd New York, which were lying in the wood on the left, were ordered to advance. They did so—passing out of the road and climbing a fence into a wood opposite, which they had barely approached, however, when they were met by a tremendous discharge of a four-gun battery, planted at the left in the woods, mainly for the purpose of sweeping the road perpendicularly and the open field on its right, by which alone troops could pass forward to the opposite bank. They were staggered for a moment, and received orders to retire. Captain Ayres' battery (formerly Sherman's) was advanced a little, so as to command this battery, and by twenty minutes of vigorous play upon it silenced it completely.

At half-past eleven we heard Hunter's guns on the opposite height, over a mile to the right. He was answered by batteries there, and then followed the sharp, rattling, volleys of musketry, as their infantry became engaged. The firing was now incessant. Hunter had come upon them suddenly, and formed his line of battle in an open field, at the right of the road. The enemy drew up to oppose him, but he speedily drove them to retreat, and followed them up with the greatest vigour and rapidity. Meantime, for some three hours previous, we had seen long lines of dense dust rising from the roads leaving from Manassas, and, with the glass, we could very clearly perceive that they were raised by the constant and steady stream of reinforcements, which continued to pour in nearly the whole day. The 69th, 79th, 2nd and 8th New York—the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Connecticut, and the 2nd Wisconsin—were brought forward in advance of the wood and marched across the field to the right, to go to Colonel Hunter's support. They crossed the intervening stream and drew up in a small open field, separated from Colonel Hunter's column by a dense wood, which was filled with batteries and infantry. Our guns continued to play upon the woods which thus concealed the enemy, and aided materially in clearing them for the advance. [Only by] going down to the extreme front of the column, could I watch the progress of Colonel Hunter, marked by the constant roar of artillery and the roll of musketry, as he pushed the rebels back from point to point. At one o'clock he had driven them out of the woods and across the road which was the prolongation of that on which we stood. Here, by the side of their batteries, the rebels made a stand. They planted their flag directly in the road, and twice charged across it upon our men, but without moving them an inch. They were met by a destructive fire, and were compelled to fall still further back. Gradually the point of fire passed further away, until the dense clouds of smoke which marked the progress of the combat were at least half a mile to the left of what had been the central position of the rebels.

It was now half-past two o'clock. I was at the advanced point of the front of our column, some hundred rods beyond the woods, in which the few troops then there were drawn up, when I decided to drive back to the town, for the purpose of sending you my despatch. As I passed up the road the balls and shells from the enemy began to fall with more than usual rapidity. I did not see the point from which they came; but, meeting Captain Ayres, he said he was about to bring up his battery, supported by the Ohio Brigade, under General Schenck, to repel a rumoured attempt of cavalry to outflank this column. As I went forward he passed down. General Schenck's brigade was at once drawn up across the road, and Captain Ayres' guns were planted in a knoll at the left, when a powerful body of rebels, with a heavy battery, came down from the direction of Bull's Run, and engaged this force with tremendous effect. I went to Centreville, sent off my despatch, and started with all speed to return—intending to go with our troops upon what had been the hotly-contested field, never doubting for a moment that it would remain in their hands. I had gone but a quarter of a mile when we met a great number of fugitives, and our carriage soon became entangled in a mass of baggage-waggons, the officer in charge of which told me it was useless to go in that direction, as our troops were retreating. Not crediting the story, which was utterly inconsistent with what I had seen but a little while before, I continued to push on. I soon met Quartermaster Stetson, of the Fire Zouaves, who told me, bursting into tears, that his regiment had been utterly cut to pieces, that the Colonel and Lieutenant-Colonel were both killed, and that our troops had actually been repulsed. I still tried to proceed, but the advancing columns rendered it impossible, and I turned about. Leaving my carriage, I went to a high point of ground and saw, by the dense cloud of dust which rose over each of the three roads by which the three columns of the army had advanced, that they were all on the retreat. Sharp discharges of cannon in their rear indicated that they were being pursued. I waited half an hour or so to observe the troops and batteries as they arrived, and then started for Washington to send my despatch and write this letter. As I came past the hill on which the Secessionists had their intrenchments less than a week ago I saw our forces taking up positions for a defence if they should be assailed.


The Times of Tuesday contains an account of the retreat of the Federal forces from Bull's Run by its Special Correspondent. Mr. Russell started, with another English gentleman, for the scene of action early on Sunday morning, the 21st of July, in a small carriage, with a led horse behind to provide for emergencies. Having got to a hill which commanded a partial view of the battle-field they were giving their horses a brief rest before pushing on to the front. Here they were joined by the Special Artist of this Journal. The remainder of the narrative, as far as we can afford space for it, we give in Mr. Russell's own words:—

In the midst of our little reconnaissance Mr. Vizetelly, who has been living and, indeed, marching with one of the regiments as artist of the Illustrated London News, came up and told us the action had been commenced in splendid style by the Federalists, who had advanced steadily, driving the Confederates before them—a part of them, as I firmly believe, to bring them under the range of their guns. He believed the advantages on the Federalist side were decided, though won with hard fighting, and he had just come up to Centreville to look after something to eat and drink, and to procure little necessaries, in case of need, for his comrades. His walk, very probably, saved his life. Having seen all that could be discerned through our glasses, my friend and myself had made a feast on our sandwiches in the shade of the buggy; my horse was eating and resting, and I was forced to give him half an hour or more before I mounted, and meantime tried to make out the plan of battle, but all was obscure and dark. Suddenly up rode an officer, with a crowd of soldiers after him, from the village. "We've whipped them on all points!" he shouted, "We've taken their batteries, and they're all retreating!" Such an uproar as followed. The spectators and the men cheered again and again, amid cries of "Bravo!" "Bully for us!" "Didn't I tell you so?" and guttural "hochs" from the Deutschland folk and loud "hurroos" from the Irish. Soon afterwards my horse was brought up to the hill, and my friend and the gentlemen I have already mentioned set out to walk towards the front—the latter to rejoin his regiment if possible, the former to get a closer view of the proceedings. As I turned down into the narrow road or lane, already mentioned, there was a forward movement among the four-wheeled tilt-waggons, which raised a good deal of dust. My attention was particularly called to this by the occurrence of a few minutes afterwards. I had met my friends on the road, and after a few words rode forward at a long trot as well as I could past the waggons and through the dust, when suddenly there arose a tumult in front of me at a small bridge across the road, and then I perceived the drivers of a set of waggons with the horses turned towards me, who were endeavouring to force their way against the stream of vehicles setting in the other direction. By the side of the new set of waggons there were a number of commissariat men and soldiers, whom at first sight I took to be the baggage guard. They looked excited and alarmed, and were running by the side of the horses—in front the dust quite obscured the view. At the bridge the currents met in wild disorder. "Turn back! Retreat!" shouted the men from the front. "We're whipped, we're whipped!" They cursed and tugged at the horses' heads, and struggled with frenzy to get past. Running by me on foot was a man with the shoulder-straps of an officer. "Pray what is the matter, Sir?" "It means we're pretty badly whipped, and that's a fact," he blurted out in puffs, and continued his career. I observed that he carried no sword. The teamsters of the advancing waggons now caught up the cry. "Turn back-turn your horses!" was the shout up the whole line, and, backing, plunging, rearing, and kicking, the horses which had been proceeding down the road reversed front and went off towards Centreville. Those behind them went madly rushing on, the drivers being quite indifferent whether glory or disgrace led the way, provided they could find it. In the midst of this extraordinary spectacle an officer, escorted by some dragoons, rode through the ruck with a light cart in charge. Another officer on foot, with his sword under his arm, ran up against me. "What is all this about?" "Why, we're pretty badly whipped! We're all in retreat! There's General Tyler there badly wounded!" And on he ran. There came yet another, who said, "We're beaten on all points! The whole army is in retreat!" Still there was no flight of troops, no retreat of an army, no reason for all this precipitation. True, there were many men in uniform flying towards the rear, but it did not appear as if they were beyond the proportions of a large baggage escort. I got my horse up into the field out of the road, and went on rapidly towards the front. Soon I met soldiers who were coming through the corn, mostly without arms; and presently I saw firelocks, cooking-tins, knapsacks, and great-coats on the ground, and observed that the confusion and speed of the baggage-carts became greater, and that many of them were crowded with men, or were followed by others who clung to them. The ambulances were crowded with soldiers, but it did not look as if there were many wounded. Negro servants on led horses dashed frantically past; men in uniform whom it were a disgrace to the profession of arms to call "soldiers" swarmed by on mules, chargers, and even draught horses, which had been cut out of carts or waggons, and went on with harness clinging to their heels, as frightened as their riders. Men literally screamed with rage and fright when their way was blocked up. On I rode, asking all "What is all this about?" and now and then, but rarely, receiving the answer, "We're whipped!" or "We're repulsed!" Faces black and dusty, tongues out in the heat, eyes staring-it was a most wonderful sight. . . The road was now literally covered with baggage. It seemed to me as if the men inside were throwing the things our purposely. "Stop!" cried I to the driver of one of the carts, "everything is falling out." "— you!" shouted a fellow inside,

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"if you stop him I'll blow your brains out." My attempts to save Uncle Sam's property were then and there discontinued. . . . What occurred at the hill I cannot say, but all the road from Centreville for miles presented such a sight as can only be witnessed in the track of the runaways of an utterly demoralised army. Drivers flogged, lashed, spurred, and beat their horses, or leaped down and abandoned their teams, and ran by the side of the road; mounted men, servants, and men in uniform, vehicles of all sorts, commissariat-waggons thronged the narrow ways. At every shot a convulsion, as it were, seized upon the morbid mass of bone, sinew, wood, and iron, and thrilled through it, giving new energy and action to its desperate efforts to get free from itself. Again the cry of "Cavalry!" arose. "What are you afraid of?" said I to a man who was running beside me. "I'm not afraid of you," replied the ruffian, levelling his piece at me and pulling the trigger. It was not loaded or the cap was not on, for the gun did not go off. I was unarmed, and I did go off as fast as I could, resolved to keep my own counsel for the second time that day. And so the flight went on. At one time a whole mass of infantry, with fixed bayonets, ran down the bank of the road, and some, falling as they ran, must have killed and wounded those among whom they fell. As I knew the road would soon become impassable or blocked up, I put my horse to a gallop and passed on towards the front. But mounted men still rode faster, shouting out, "Cavalry are coming!" Again I ventured to speak to some officers whom I overtook, and said, "If these runaways are not stopped the whole of the posts and pickets into Washington will fly also!" One of them, without saying a word, spurred his horse and dashed on in front. I do not know whether he ordered the movement or not, but the van of the fugitives was now suddenly checked, and, pressing on through the wood at the roadside, I saw a regiment of infantry blocking up the way, with their front towards Centreville. A musket was levelled at my head as I pushed to the front:—"Stop, or I'll fire!" At the same time the officers were shouting out, "Don't let a soul pass!" I addressed one of them, and said, "Sir, I am a British subject. I am not, I assure you, running away. I have done my best to stop this disgraceful rout (as I had), and have been telling them there are no cavalry within miles of them." "I can't let you pass, Sir!" I bethought me of General Scott's pass. The Adjutant read it, and the word was given along the line, "Let that man pass!" and so I rode through, uncertain if I could now gain the Long-bridge in time to pass over without the counters gn [sic]. It was about this time I met a cart by the roadside surrounded by a group of soldiers, some of whom had "69" on their caps. The owner, as I took him to be, was in great distress, and cried out as I passed, "Can you tell me, Sir, where the 69th are? These men say they are cut to pieces." "I can't tell you." "I'm in charge of the mails, Sir, and I will deliver them if I die for it. You are a gentleman, and I can depend on your word. Is it safe for me to go on?" Not knowing the extent of the débâcle, I assured him it was, and asked the men of the regiment how they happened to be there? "Shure, the Colonel himself told us to go off every man on his own hook, and to fly for our lives," replied one of them. . . . After sunset the moon rose, and amid other acquaintances I jogged alongside an officer who was in charge of Colonel Hunter, the commander of a brigade, I believe, who was shot through the neck, and was inside a cart, escorted by a few troopers. This officer was, as I understood, the Major, or second in command of Colonel Hunter's regiment, yet he had considered it right to take charge of his chief, and leave his battalion. He said they had driven back the enemy with ease, but had not been supported, and blamed—as bad officers and good ones will do—the conduct of the General: "So mean a fight I never saw." . . . As I approached Washington, having left the Colonel and his escort at some seven miles on the south side of the Long-bridge, I found the grand guards, pickets' posts, and individual sentries burning for news, and the word used to pass along "What does that man say, Jack?" "Begorra, he tells me we're not het at all—only retraiting to the ould lines for convaniency of fighting to-morrow again. Oh, that's illigant!" On getting to the téte du pont, however, the countersign was demanded. Of course I had not got it. But the officer passed me through on the production of General Scott's safeguard. The lights of the city were in sight, and reflected on the waters of the Potomac, just glistened by the clouded moon, shone the gay lamps of the White House, where the President was probably entertaining some friends. In silence I passed over the Long-bridge. Some few hours later it quivered under the steps of a rabble of unarmed men. At the Washington end a regiment with piled arms were waiting to cross over into Virginia, singing and cheering. Before the morning they received orders, I believe, to assist in keeping Maryland quiet. For the hundredth time I repeated the cautious account, which to the best of my knowledge was true. There were men, women, and soldiers to hear it. The clocks had just struck eleven p.m. as I passed Willard's. The pavement in front of the hall was crowded. The rumours of defeat had come in, but few of the many who had been fed upon lies and the reports of complete victory which prevailed could credit the intelligence. Seven hours had not elapsed before the streets told the story. The "Grand Army of the North," as it was called, had representatives in every thoroughfare, without arms, orders, or officers, standing out in the drenching rain. When all these most unaccountable phenomena were occurring I was fast asleep; but I could scarce credit my informant in the morning, when he told me that the Federalists, utterly routed, had fallen back upon Arlington to defend the capital, leaving nearly five batteries of artillery, 8000 mu[s]kets, immense quantity of stores and baggage, and their wounded and prisoners in the hands of the enemy! Let the American journals tell the story their own way. I have told mine as I know it. . . . There is much talk now (of "masked batteries," of course) of outflanking, and cavalry, and such matters. The truth seems to be that the men were overworked, kept out for twelve or fourteen hours in the sun exposed to long-range fire, badly officered, and of deficient regimental organisation. Then came a most difficult operation—to withdraw this army, so constituted, out of action in face of an energetic enemy who had repulsed it. The retirement of the baggage, which was without adequate guards, and was in the hands of ignorant drivers, was misunderstood and created alarm, and that alarm became a panic, which became frantic on the appearance of the enemy, and on the opening of their guns on the runaways. . . . Let me, however, express an opinion as to the affair of yesterday. In the first place, the repulse of the Federalists, decided as it was, might have had no serious effects whatever beyond the mere failure—which politically was of greater consequence than it was in a military sense—but for the disgraceful conduct of the troops. The retreat on their lines at Centreville seems to have ended in a cowardly rout—a miserable, causeless panic. Such scandalous behavior of the part of soldiers I should have considered impossible, as, with some experience of camps and armies, I have never even in alarms among camp-followers seen the like of it. How far the disorganisation of the troops extended I know not; but it was complete in the instance of more than one regiment. Washington this morning (the 22nd) is crowded with solders without officers, who have fled from Centreville, and with "three months' men," who are going home from the face of the enemy on the expiration of their term of enlistment.


In another letter by the Times Special Correspondent, written on the 19th ult., he estimates the effective strength of General M'Dowell's army at 30,000 infantry, with about sixty field guns, and ten squadrons of cavalry. He reckons General M'Clellan's corps in Western Virginia at 35,000 men, and General Patterson's division at 22,000. The reserve at Washington he estimates at 16,000 men, the troops in Maryland at 7400 men, and the corps lying at Fortress Monroe and Hampton at 11,000. The Southern army under General Beauregard at Manassas Junction was, he says, estimated at 60,000 men; "but that number must include the reserves, and a portion of the force in the intrenchments along the road to Richmond, in the immediate neighbourhood of which there is a corps of 15,000 men." The rest of the Southern army he reckons at 18,000 or 20,000 men at Norfolk, and 8000 to 9000 at Aquia Creek, besides General Johnson's corps of some 10,000 men.

Previous: Fight at Hainsville, on the Upper Potomac—Advance of the Wisconsin Men (Federalists) on the Secessionist Position.—See Page 145.IllustrationVolume 39, no. 1097, p. 2 (23 paragraphs)
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