Fight at Blackburn's Ford by Jubal A. Early
ON the night of the 16th information was sent from General Beauregard's headquarters that the enemy was advancing, and orders were given for moving early next morning in accordance with previous instructions.
At daylight on the morning of the 17th, I commenced the movement of my brigade to its assigned position in rear of the ford at Union Mills, and on my arrival there I found General Ewell's force falling back to the same point. Under previous instructions four companies of the 24th Virginia Regiment had been left under Major Hambrick to guard the camp of the regiment and picket on the right of our line, and the two companies of cavalry under (captain Scott had also been left to watch our right. Three pieces of artillery, under Lieutenant Squires of the Washington Artillery, were attached to my brigade and joined it at the position near Union Mills. I remained there inactive during the rest of the day after my arrival, but on the morning of the 18th 1 was ordered further to the left, to Camp Walker on the railroad. On falling back, Ewell had burned the bridges on the railroad between Fairfax Station and Union Mills, and on this morning the bridge over Bull Run, at the latter place, was likewise burned.
After remaining for some time at Camp Walker, I was ordered by General Beauregard to move my brigade to the gate in rear of McLean's farm on the road from Blackburn's Ford to the Junction, keeping it in the woods out of view. The General had now established his headquarters at McLean's house between my position and those of Generals Longstreet and Jones. From his last position taken by me, the open fields on the heights beyond Blackburn's Ford were visible, being between two and three miles distant. A little before 12 AM. we discovered clouds of dust from the direction of Centreville and bodies of troops moving into the fields beyond the ford, and while we were speculating as to whether this was the enemy, we saw the smoke arise from his first gun, the fire from which was directed towards Bonham's position at Mitchell's Ford.
After the firing had continued for a short time, I received an order from General Beauregard to move my command to the rear of a pine thicket between McLean's house and Blackburn's Ford, so as to be in supporting distance of Bonham, Longstreet or Jones. In order to do this I had to run through open fields in view of the enemy and this attracted his fire in our direction, but I reached the cover of the pines without any casualty, and I was here joined by Lieutenant Richardson, of the Washington Artillery, with two more pieces. The enemy's fire was continued for some time, and one or two shells passed through an out-house near General Beauregard's headquarters.
In the afternoon the General rode towards Mitchell's Ford, and after he had been gone a short time a very brisk musketry fire opened at Blackburn's Ford. The enemy had attacked Longstreet at that point, and after the firing had continued for some time, I received a message from General Longstreet, through one of his aides, requesting reinforcements. I immediately put my whole command in motion towards the ford, but before arriving there, I received an order from General Beauregard to carry two regiments and two pieces of artillery to Longstreet's assistance. My command was then moving with the 7th Louisiana in front, followed immediately by the 7th Virginia, and I ordered the six companies of the 24th Virginia, which were bringing up the rear under Lieutenant Colonel Hairston, to halt, and directed Lieutenant Squires to move two pieces of artillery to the front and halt the rest. I found that General Longstreet 's command had been hotly engaged and bad just repulsed an attempt to force a crossing of the stream.
The position occupied by our troops was a narrow strip of woods on low ground along the bank of the stream, with an open field in rear, while the enemy occupied higher and better ground on the opposite bank. Immediately on its arrival, the 7th Louisiana, Colonel Hays, was put in position in the strip of woods on the left of the ford, relieving the 17th Virginia Regiment and some companies of the 11th Virginia which had been actively engaged; and the 7th Virginia Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Williams commanding, was formed on the right of the ford, in rear of the strip of woods, and advanced to the bank of the stream, relieving the 1st Virginia Regiment.
These movements were made under fire from the enemy on the opposite bluffs, and while the 7th Virginia was being formed in line, two volleys were fired at it by the enemy, throwing it into some confusion and causing it to begin firing without orders, while there were some of our troops in front of it. It, however, soon recovered from the momentary confusion and advanced with firmness to the front. Lieutenant Squires moved his pieces into the open field in rear of our line and to the right of the road leading to the ford, and opened fire without any guide except the sound of the enemy's musketry, as he was concealed from our view by the woods on the bluffs occupied by him. The six companies of the 24th Virginia Regiment and the remaining pieces of the Washington Artillery, including two pieces under Lieutenant Garnett which were attached to Longstreet's brigade, were sent for, and the companies of the 24th were put in position along the banks of the stream on Hay's' left, while the rest of the artillery was brought into action on the same ground with Squires.
Squires had soon silenced the enemy's infantry, which retired precipitately before his fire, but the artillery from the heights beyond the stream had opened on ours, which now responded to that of the enemy. An artillery duel was thus commenced which lasted for a considerable time. The opposing batteries were concealed from each other's view by the intervening woods, and they were therefore compelled to regulate their fire by the sound of the guns. The enemy had the decided advantage of position, as he was on high ground, while our guns were located in a fiat nearly on a level with the stream, thus giving them the benefit of a plunging fire. This duel finally ceased and the enemy retired, baffled in his effort to force our position.
In his reports of this affair, the enemy represented our troops as being protected by rifle pits with masked batteries; whereas the fact was that we had nothing in the shape of rifle pits or breastworks, and our guns were in the open field, though concealed from the enemy's view by the intervening woods. These guns had been brought on the field along with my brigade, but were so brought as to elude observation. Before their arrival not an artillery shot had been fired by us from this quarter, and there had been only a few shots earlier in the day from the guns, with Bonham, at Mitchell's Ford above.
As soon as it was ascertained that the enemy had retired, General Longstreet moved to the rear with his two regiments that had borne the brunt of the fight, and I was left to occupy his former position with my brigade and the 11th Virginia Regiment of his brigade. A few were wounded in my command, but I believe none killed. General Longstreet's loss was not heavy, but an examination of the ground on the opposite bank of the Run, next morning, showed that the enemy had suffered severely, quite a number of dead bodies being found abandoned. At one point, where it was apparent a regiment had been in line, over one hundred muskets and hats were -found in a row, showing evidently that they had been abandoned in a panic, produced probably by the fire -from Squires' guns. Many knapsacks, canteens, blankets and India rubber cloths were found scattered on the ground, proving that the enemy had retired in confusion.
This fight was preliminary to the approaching battle, and its result had a very inspiring effect upon our troops generally. It was subsequently ascertained that the force engaged, on the part of the enemy, was Tyler's division of McDowell's army, which had been sent to the front for the purpose of making a demonstration, while McDowell himself was engaged in reconnoitering on our right, for the purpose of ascertaining whether that flank could be turned by the way of Wolf Run Shoals, just below the junction of Bull Run and the Occoquon. Tyler exceeded his instructions, it appears, and endeavored to gain some glory for himself by forcing our position at Blackburn's Ford, but he paid dearly for the experiment.
During the 19th I continued to occupy the position at Blackburn's Ford, and occasionally small bodies of the enemy could be seen by scouts sent to the opposite side of Bull Run, on the heights where he had taken his position on the 18th, previous to the advance against Long-street. During the day my troops, with a few rough tools and their bayonets, succeeded in making very tolerable rifle pits on the banks of the stream, and they were not molested by the enemy.
About dark the brigade commanders were summoned to a council at McLean's house by general Beauregard, and he proceeded to inform us of his plans for the next day. He told us that, at his instance, the Government at Richmond had ordered General Johnston to move from the Shenandoah Valley with his whole force to co-operate with ours; and that the General was then on his march directly across the Blue Ridge, and would probably attack the enemy's right flank very early the next morning, while we were to fall upon his left flank. Before he finished the statement of his plans, Brigadier General Thomas J. Jackson, subsequently famous as "Stonewall Jackson," entered the room and reported to General Beauregard that he had just arrived from General Johnston's army, by the way of the Manassas Gap Railroad, with his brigade, about 2500 strong.
This information took General Beauregard by surprise, and he inquired of General Jackson if General Johnston would not march the rest of his command on the direct road so as to get on the enemy's right flank. General Jackson replied that he thought not, that he thought the purpose was to transport the whole force on the railroad from Piedmont station on the east of the Blue Ridge. After General Jackson had given all the information he possessed, and received instructions as to the disposition of his brigade, he retired, and General Beauregard proceeded to develop his plans fully. The information received from General Jackson was most unexpected, but General Beauregard stated that he thought Jackson was mistaken, and that he was satisfied General Johnston was marching with the rest of his troops and would attack the enemy's right flank as before stated.
Upon this hypothesis, he then decided that, when General Johnston's attack began and he had become fully engaged, of which we were to judge from the character of the musketry fire, we would cross Bull Run from our several positions and move to the attack of the enemy's left flank and rear. He stated that he had no doubt Johnston's attack would be a surprise to the enemy, that the latter would not know what to think of it, and when he turned to meet that attack and found himself assailed on the other side, he would be still more surprised and would not know what to do, that the effect would be a complete rout, a perfect Waterloo, and that we would pursue, cross the Potomac and arouse Maryland.
General Johnston's attack, according to General Beauregard's calculations, was to begin next morning about or very shortly after daybreak. Having received our instructions fully, we retired, and I returned to my position at Blackburn's Ford, where I assembled my colonels, and was proceeding to explain to them the plans for the next day and instruct them to have everything in readiness, when we were startled by a fierce volley of musketry on our immediate right. This of course put an end to the conference and every one rushed to his position in anticipation of a night attack.
The 11th Virginia Regiment, Colonel Samuel Garland, was moved promptly to the rear of the point where the firing occurred, which was repeated, and after a good deal of trouble we succeeded in ascertaining that it proceeded from two of my companies, which had been posted in the woods on the bank of the stream to the right of my position, in order to cover some points where a crossing might be effected. The officers of one of the companies declared that a body of the enemy could be seen, stealthily moving down the opposite bank, and that the firing had been at that body and had been returned. The firing by this time had ceased and no movement of the enemy could be heard. This affair, however, kept us on the alert all night, but I became satisfied that it resulted from some mistake, caused perhaps by the movement of some straggling persons of our own command, in the darkness, in the woods. Such alarms were not uncommon, subsequently, when two opposing forces were lying on their arms at night in front of each other. A very slight circumstance would sometimes produce a volley at night from the one or the other side, as it might be.
At light on the morning of the 20th, instead of our being required to advance to the attack of the enemy according to the program of the night before, General Longstreet came in a great hurry to relieve me, and with orders for my brigade to move as rapidly as possible to a point on our right on the road leading from Yates' Ford, below Union Mills, to Manassas Junction. As soon as relieved, I moved in the direction indicated, and the head of my column was just emerging into Camp Walker, from the woods in rear of McLean's farm, where I had been on the 18th, at the time the enemy opened his artillery fire beyond Blackburn's Ford, when I was met by a courier with orders to halt where I was, as the alarm, upon which the order to me had been founded, had proved false.
As this false alarm was rather singular in its nature, but of such a character that any general might have been deceived by it, I will state how it occurred. A captain of General Ewell's brigade, who had been posted with his company on picket at Yates' Ford not far below Union Mills, retired from his post and reported in the most positive manner that the enemy had appeared in heavy force on the opposite bank of Bull Run and commenced building two bridges. He further stated that he had seen General McDowell on a white horse superintending the construction of the bridges.
As there was no reason to doubt his veracity or courage, General Ewell, of course, sent at once the information to General Beauregard and hence the order for my movement. After the message was dispatched, something suggested a doubt as to the correctness of the report, and the officer making it was sent in charge of another to ascertain the facts. On arriving in sight of the ford he pointed triumphantly to the opposite bank and exclaimed, "There they are. Don't you see the two bridges, don't you see McDowell on his white horse " when the fact was there was nothing visible but the ford and the unoccupied banks of the stream, which were so obstructed as to render a crossing impracticable until the obstructions were removed.
It was then apparent that it was a clear case of hallucination, produced by a derangement of the nervous system, consequent on a loss of sleep and great anxiety of mind resulting from the nature of the duties in which he had been engaged. Neither his sincerity nor his courage was questioned, and this affair shows how the most careful commander may be misled when he has to rely on information furnished by others. It requires very great experience and a very discriminating judgement to enable a commanding general to sift the truth out of the great mass of exaggerated reports made to him, and hence he has often to rely on his own personal inspection.
I have known important movements to be suspended on the battlefield, on account of reports from very gallant officers that the enemy was on one flank or the other in heavy force, when a calm inspection proved the reported bodies of the enemy to be nothing more than stone or rail fences. Some officers, while exposing their lives with great daring, sometimes fail to preserve that clearness of judgment and calmness of the nerves which is so necessary to enable one to see things as they really are during an engagement; and hence it is that there are so many conflicting reports of the same matters. The capacity of preserving one's presence of mind in action is among the highest attributes of an efficient commander or subordinate officer, and it must be confessed that the excitement of battle, especially when the shells are bursting and the bullets whistling thick around, is wonderfully trying to the nerves of the bravest.
The false alarm out of which the above reflections have sprung, operated as a very great relief to my command, as it enabled my men, who had had very little to eat, and scarcely any rest or sleep for two nights and days, to cook provisions and get a good rest and sleep in the woods where they were halted, and thereby to be prepared to go through the extraordinary fatigues of the next day.
On this day, the 20th, General Johnston arrived at Manassas by the railroad, and an order was issued for his assuming command, as the ranking officer, of all the troops of the united armies. It was now ascertained beyond doubt that all of his troops were coming by the railroad.