The Great Conspiracy

Charge after charge, is made by our gallant regiments, and counter-
charge after counter-charge, is made by the fresh troops of the Enemy.
For almost half an hour, has the contest over the batteries rolled
backward and forward. Three several times have the batteries been
taken, and re-taken,–much of the determined and desperate struggle
going on, over the prostrate and bleeding bodies of the brave Union
artillerists,–but without avail. Regiment after regiment, has been
thrown back, by the deadly fusillade of the Enemy’s musketry from the
skirt of woods at his front and left, and the canister, case, and
bursting shells, of his rapidly-served Artillery.

It is now near upon 4 o’clock. Our last effort to recapture the
batteries has failed. The Union line of advance has been seriously
checked. Some of our own guns in those batteries are turned on us. The
Enemy’s Infantry make a rush over the blood-soaked brow of the fatal
plateau, pouring into our men a deadly fire, as they advance,–while
over to our right and rear, at the same moment, are seen the fresh
regiments of Early’s Brigade coming out of the woods–deploying rapidly
in several lines–with Stuart’s handful of Rebel Cavalry, while
Beckham’s guns, in the same quarter, open an oblique enfilading reverse
fire upon us, in a lively manner.

At once the minds of the fagged-out Union troops become filled with the
dispiriting idea that the exhausting fight which they have made all day
long, has been simply with Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac, and that
these fresh Rebel troops, on the Union right and rear, are the vanguard
of Johnston’s Army of the Shenandoah! After all the hard marching and
fighting they have done during the last thirteen hours,–with empty
stomachs, and parched lips, under a scorching sun that still, as it
descends in the West, glowers down upon them, through the murky air,
like a great, red, glaring eye,–the very thought is terrible!

Without fear, yet equally without hope, the Union troops crumble to
groups, and then to individuals. The attempt of McDowell to turn the
left of the Enemy’s Bull Run line, has failed.

McDowell and his officers heroically but vainly strive, at great
personal risk to themselves, to stem the tide of confusion, and
disorder. Sykes’s battalion of regulars, which has been at our left,
now steadily moves obliquely across the field of battle toward our
right, to a hill in the midground, which it occupies, and, with the aid
of Arnold’s Battery and Palmer’s Cavalry, holds, while the exhausted and
disorganized troops of the Union Army doggedly and slowly retire toward
Sudley Ford, their rear covered by an irregular square of Infantry,
which, mainly by the exertions of Colonel Corcoran, has been formed to
resist a threatened charge of Stuart’s Cavalry.

[At the rate of “not more than two, or two and a half, miles an
hour,” and not “helter-skelter,” as some narrators state.]

It is not fear, that has got the better of our Union troops. It is
physical exhaustion for one thing; it is thirst for another. Men must
drink,–even if they have foolishly thrown away their canteens,–and
many have retired to get water. It is the moral effect also–the
terrible disappointment–of seeing what they suppose are Johnston’s
fresh troops from the Shenandoah Valley, without Patterson “on their
heels,” suddenly appear on their flank and rear. It is not fear; though
some of them are panic-stricken, and, as they catch sight of Stuart’s
mounted men,–no black horse or uniform among them,–raise the cry of
“The Black Horse Cavalry!–The Black Horse Cavalry!”

The Union attack has been repulsed, it is true; but the Union soldiers,
though disorganized, discouraged, and disappointed, are not dismayed.
Their officers not yet having learned how to fight, and themselves
lacking the cohesion of discipline, the men have lost their regimental
organizations, and owing to the causes mentioned, slowly retire across
Sudley Ford of Bull Run, in a condition of disintegration, their retreat
being bravely covered by the 27th and 69th New York, (which have rallied
and formed there), Sykes’s Infantry battalion, Arnold’s Battery, and
Palmer’s Cavalry.

[In his report to Major Barnard, Capt. D. P. Woodbury, of the
corps of Engineers, says: “It is not for me to give a history of
the battle. The Enemy was driven on our left, from cover to cover,
a mile and a half. Our position for renewing the action the next
morning was excellent; whence, then, our failure? It will not be
out of place, I hope, for me to give my own opinion of the cause of
this failure. An old soldier feels safe in the ranks, unsafe out
of the ranks, and the greater the danger the more pertinaciously he
clings to his place. The volunteer of three months never attains
this instinct of discipline. Under danger, and even under mere
excitement, he flies away from his ranks, and looks for safety in
dispersion. At four o’clock in the afternoon of the 21st, there
were more than twelve thousand volunteers on the battle-field of
Bull Run, who had entirely lost their regimental organizations.
They could no longer be handled as troops, for the officers and men
were not together. Men and officers mingled together
promiscuously; and it is worthy of remark that this disorganization
did not result from defeat or fear, for up to four o’clock we had
been uniformly successful. The instinct of discipline, which keeps
every man in his place, had not been acquired. We cannot suppose
that the troops of the Enemy had attained a higher degree of
discipline than our own, but they acted on the defensive, and were
not equally exposed to disorganization.”]

While the divisions of Hunter and Heintzelman, which came down in the
morning across Sudley Ford, are now, with one brigade (Sherman’s) of
Tyler’s Division, retiring again, in this disordered condition, by that
ford; two other brigades of Tyler’s Division, viz., that of Schenck–
which, at 4 o’clock, was just in the act of advancing upon, and across,
the Stone Bridge, to join in the Union attack, and of Keyes, which was,
at the same time, just succeeding in its effort to turn the right flank
of the Enemy’s third new line,–are withdrawing from the field, across
Bull Run stream, by the Warrenton Pike, and other roads leading them
directly toward Centreville. The brigades of both Keyes and Schenck are
retiring in good order; that of Keyes, at “an ordinary pace,” following
close after McDowell, who, with his staff, has ridden across the
battlefield and Bull Run; while part of that of Schenck, united with the
2nd Maine (of Keyes’ Brigade) and Ayres’s Battery, “promptly and
effectively” repulses a charge of the Enemy’s Cavalry, and covers the
rear of Tyler’s Division. Both of these brigades reach Centreville,
hungry and weary, but otherwise, for the most part, in good shape.

But during this grand all-day attack, by two of McDowell’s divisions,
directly aided by part of a third, upon the left of the Enemy’s original
Bull Run line of defense–which attack, while it has failed in its
purpose, has also utterly upset and defeated the Enemy’s purpose to
carry out Beauregard’s plan of attacking Centreville that same morning–
what has the Left Wing of McDowell’s Army been doing? Let us go back to
Sunday morning, and ascertain:

All the Army of McDowell, save his Left Wing–which, comprising the two
brigades (Blenker’s and Davies’s) of Miles’s Division, and Richardson’s
Brigade of Tyler’s Division that fought the preliminary battle of
Blackburn’s Ford, is now under the command of Miles,–moved away from
Centreville, down the Warrenton Pike, as we have seen, very early in the

Blenker remains with his brigade as a reserve, on the heights a little
East of Centreville, to throw up intrenchments; which, however, he does
not do, for lack of trenching implements. Richardson and Davies are to
make a feint, at Blackburn’s Ford, so as to draw the Enemy’s troops
there, while the heavy blow of McDowell’s Right Wing and Centre falls
upon the left flank and rear of the Enemy’s Bull Run line.

Richardson’s Brigade is already down the ridge, in his old position at
Blackburn’s Ford, when Davies with his brigade reaches it, from
Centreville, and, by virtue of seniority, takes command of the two
brigades. Leaving Richardson’s Brigade and Greene’s Battery exactly on
the battle-ground of the 18th July, Davies posts two regiments (the 18th
and 32nd New York) of his own brigade, with Hunt’s Battery, on the brow
of a hill, in an open wheat field, some eighty yards to the South-
Eastward of Richardson, distant some 1,500 yards from Longstreet’s
batteries on the Western side of Bull Run,–and commences a rapid fire,
upon the Enemy’s position at Blackburn’s Ford, from both of the Union

At 10 o’clock, there is a lull in this Union fire. The Artillery
ammunition is running short. The demonstration, however, seems, thus
far, to be successful–judging by the movement of Rebel troops toward
Blackburn’s Ford. The lull continues until 11 o’clock. At that time
Miles arrives at his front, in a towering rage.

On his way down the ridge, that morning, early, Davies had made a
discovery. While passing a roadway, his guide had casually remarked:
“There is a road that leads around to the Enemy’s camp, direct.” “Ah!”
–said Davies–“and can they get through that road?” “Oh, yes,” replied
the guide. Davies had at once halted, and, after posting his 16th and
31st New York Regiments, with two guns of Hunt’s Battery, near this
road, at its junction with the ridge road running up to Centreville and
Black burn’s Ford, had proceeded, with the rest of his regiments and
guns, to the position where Miles finds him.

But Miles has discovered what Davies has done, in this matter of the
flanking roadway; and–without knowing, or apparently caring to know,
the reason underlying the posting of the two regiments and two guns in
its vicinity,–flies into “a terrible passion” because of it; in “no
very measured language,” gives Davies “a severe dressing down;” and
orders him to bring both regiments and guns down to the front. Davies
complies, and says nothing. Miles also orders him to continue the
firing from his batteries, without regard to the quantity of ammunition.
This order, also, Davies obeys–and the firing proceeds, for two solid
hours, until another order comes, about 1 o’clock P.M., to stop firing.

The fact is, that Miles is not at all himself–but is suffering under
such a strain of mental excitement, he afterward claims, that he is not

Miles, however, returns to Centreville about noon; and no sooner is he
gone, than Davies at once sends back pioneers to obstruct that road
which would bring the Enemy around his left flank and rear, to
Centreville. These, work so industriously, that they cut down a quarter
of a mile of trees, and block the road up completely. Davies also posts
a few pickets there, in case of accidents. It is well he does so. It
is not long before the Enemy makes an attempt to get around to his rear,
by that road; but, finding it both obstructed and picketed, retires
again. Davies does not see the Rebels making that attempt, but catches
sight of them on their return, and gives them a severe shelling for
their pains.

Davies keeps up his firing, more or less-according to the condition of
the Enemy and of his own ammunition–until 4 o’clock, when the firing
occasioned by the Union flanking movement, six miles to his right,
ceases. Then there reaches him a note from Richardson, so badly
penciled that he can only make out the one word “beaten,”–but cannot,
for the life of him, make out, whether the beaten one is our Right Wing,
or the Enemy!

Of what followed, he tells the story himself,–under oath, before the
Committee on the Conduct of the War–so graphically, that the temptation
to give it, in his own words, is irresistible. “I saw unmistakable
evidence,” said he, “that we were going to be attacked on our Left Wing.
I got all ready for the attack, but did not change my front.

“About 5 o’clock, I think, the Rebels made their appearance back upon
this very road up which they had gone before; but instead of keeping up
the road, they turned past a farm-house, went through the farm-yard, and
came down and formed right in front of me, in a hollow, out of my sight.
Well, I let them all come down there, keeping a watch upon their
movements. I told the Artillery not to fire any shot at them until they
saw the rear column go down, so as to get them all down in the little
hollow or basin, there. There was a little basin there, probably a
quarter of a mile every way. I should think that, maybe, 3,000 men
filed down, before I changed front.

“We lay there, with two regiments back, and the Artillery in front,
facing Bull Run. As soon as about 3,000 of the Enemy got down in this
basin, I changed the front of the Artillery around to the left, in face
of the Enemy, and put a company of Infantry between each of the pieces
of Artillery, and then deployed the balance of the regiments right and
left, and made my line-of-battle.

“I gave directions to the Infantry not to fire a shot, under any
circumstances, until they got the word of command from me. I
furthermore said I would shoot the first man that fired a shot before I
gave the command to do so.

“I gave them orders all to lie down on their faces. They, (the Rebels)
were just over the brow of the hill, so that, if they came up in front
of us, they could not hit a man.

“As soon as I saw the rear column, I told * * * Lieutenant Benjamin to
fire. * * * He fired the first shot when the rear column presented
itself. It just went over their heads, and hit a horse and rider in
their rear. As soon as the first shot was fired, I gave the order for
the whole six pieces of Artillery to open with grape and canister. The
effect was terrible. They were all there, right before us, about 450
yards off, and had not suspected that we were going to fire at all,
though they did not know what the reason was. Hunt’s Battery (belonging
to Richardson–who had by mistake got Greene’s) performed so well, that,
in thirty minutes, we dispersed every one of them!

“I do not know how many were killed, but we so crippled their entire
force that they never came after us an inch. A man, who saw the effect
of the firing, in the valley, said it was just like firing into a wheat
field; the column gave way at once, before the grape and canister; they
were just within available distance. I knew very well that if they but
got into that basin, the first fire would cut them all to pieces; and it
did. We continued to fire for thirty minutes, when there was nothing
more to fire at, and no more shots were returned.”

At a later hour–while remaining victorious at their well defended
position, with the Enemy at their front, dispersed and silenced,–these
two brigades of the Left Wing, receive orders to fall back on
Centreville, and encamp. With the brigade of Richardson, and Greene’s
Battery in advance, Davies’s own brigade and Hunt’s Battery following,
they fall back on the heights of Centreville “without the least
confusion and in perfect order”–reaching them at 7 P.M.

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