Fighting with General Bee: The 4th Alabama at Manassas
A week after the victory at Bull Run, General Joseph Johnston and Pierre G.T. Beauregard published an address to the soldiers of the Southern army. "It is with the profoundest emotions of gratitude to an overruling God, whose hand is manifest in protecting our homes and our liberties, that we, your Generals commanding, are enabled in the name of the whole country to thank you for that patriotic courage, that heroic gallantry, and that devoted daring exhibited by you in the actions of the 18th and 21st of July, by which the host of the enemy was scattered and a signal and glorious victory achieved. They left upon the field nearly every piece of the artillery, a large portion of their arms, equipment, baggage, stores, and almost every one of their dead and wounded amounting together with the prisoners to many thousands, and thus the Northern hosts were driven by you from Virginia."
Behind the high words of praise were men who knew intimately how difficult the battle had been, and how hefty the sacrifice was that had secured the victory. Captain Robert McFarland of the Lauderdale Guards, a company in the 4th Alabama, wrote home that "it was a glorious day for the South, but it has brought mourning and sorrow into many a happy circle. Every man fought like a hero though his comrades were falling fast on every side." His regiment had played an important role in the battle as part of General Bernard Bee's brigade where it sustained a loss of 197 men; McFarland's company H had suffered the most of any company in the 4th Alabama, losing 10 men killed and 23 wounded. Captain McFarland's letter to the editor of the Florence Gazette describing the Battle of Manassas was published in their August 14, 1861 issue.
|Catherine Winston Armistead McFarland, the wife of Captain Robert McFarland|
Image courtesy of Stan Hutson
Camp Bee, near Manassas, Virginia
July 29, 1861
On the 18th instant, the force of General Joseph Johnston left Winchester. Every street was filled with soldiers, wagons, and munitions of war. It was about 1 p.m. when our regiment marched from camp to Winchester when, owing to the length of the column it was sunset before the suburbs of the town were reached. The soldiers were much dissatisfied, thinking they were retreating and leaving the place to its fate. General Johnston, observing this, as soon as the forces were a mile outside of the town on the way to Manassas made it known that he was marching to the aid of General Beauregard who was attacked by overwhelming forces. Everyone was elated on hearing this and set forward with renewed vigor in order to reach the scene of action.
The march was kept up all night. The Shenandoah River was reached about 6 a.m. on the following morning. A few hours of rest were given here and then the column crossed the river, some in boats, some on artillery horses, while others forded. The road leading over the Blue Ridge mountains was very narrow, hilly, and rough, which very much impeded the march as the wagons were continually stopping. On reaching the highest point of the pass, a beautiful view of the country was afforded to the wearied soldiers. Piedmont was reached ay daybreak; the troops were weary and hungry having marched 30 miles over a bad road in 24 hours. A council of officers of our regiment was immediately called; General Barnard Bee, having expressed the wish that it be go on to Manassas by the first train. It was decided, notwithstanding the fact that the men had nothing to eat since morning and nothing to cook as the baggage wagons had not arrived, that the regiment would go forward without delay. This being made known all were much pleased.
|General Barnard Bee|
The rain now fell in torrents, completely drenching the troops who were without coats or blankets. At 3 a.m., the regiment was on board the cars and reached Manassas about 10 a.m. So soon as it was formed, it was marched into a grove more remarkable for filth than anything else, being a general rendezvous for wagons and teams. Having rested about an hour, the line of march was taken for Camp Walker two miles from Bull Run and two from the field of battle. Here some crackers and middling bacon was distributed, a very welcome supper to the men who had nothing to eat for 12 hours. Having no cooking utensils, the officers and privates broiled the bacon on the end of a forked stick.
On the following morning Sunday July 21, 1861, the same kind of fare was served up. Shortly after breakfast, the enemy commenced firing on our center. In two minutes, the regiment was formed and the soldiers with baggage on their backs marched in quick and double-quick time to the scene of action. The enemy, whose lines extended from Union Mills to Stone bridge, commenced a cannonade on our center for the purpose of drawing out our forces- showing our strength, and make us believe that here he would make his grand attack. It soon became evident to our generals that he was making a feint on the center and was concentrating forces on the left flank. General Evans was posted on Stone bridge which is on the road leading from Centreville to the Junction to prevent the enemy from turning our flank. The enemy, however, marched dense masses of infantry two miles above the bridge and completely turned General Evans’ flank. He sent for reinforcements and General Bee with his brigade consisting of the 4th Alabama, 2nd Mississippi, and two companies of the 11th Mississippi was sent to Evans’ aid to hold the enemy in check until more reinforcements could be sent to that point.
The brigade was marched by the left flank in quick and double-quick time until it arrived within a mile of the enemy’s line. Here it was halted as the men were much fatigued and very thirsty, having marched about seven miles and allowed time only to throw down their baggage. The enemy’s position was a most excellent one on the Centreville road, commanding the country before them in every direction. We were marched forwarded to a road running parallel with the enemy’s line and about 700 yards from them. Here the order was given to load. Between the enemy and us lay a piece of woods on the top of a rising ground, and a small stream and meadow between us and the wood. The regiment was now formed in line and moved forward, part passing through the wood and part through an open field. On reaching the other side next to the enemy, the regiment was formed behind a fence, the 2nd Mississippi regiment being on our left.
[The original newspaper here is torn and about ten lines of text are missing. It picks up as follows:]
Imboden’s company, which was sent to our aid. We were not long halted until ordered forward. Everyone thought we were going to charge Sherman’s battery and brought his piece to a charge bayonet. When we had advanced within 75 yards of the enemy, the order was given to lie down. It so happened that the ground my company halted on was more exposed than any other position in the line. The Yankees kept close behind a hill. The first one that showed himself seemed to be an officer. I ordered one or two to shoot him. This commenced the fight. The Yankees advanced to the brow of the hill, took aim, fired, and retreated to load so that we had to shoot them while aiming at us. My men were cool and fired with great deliberation. Whenever a Yankee was killed by anyone, you could hear him tell his neighbor, “I got him.” The first one killed of the Lauderdale volunteers was Jesse Zills. He was shot through the breast early in the engagement. The next one was young Bourland who was shot through the neck. The firing was kept up briskly on both sides.
|The 4th Alabama is shown in position between Buck and Matthews Hills.|
An impression seemed to have seized Major Scott that we were firing on friends, and he told some of the companies to cease firing. I left my position and went to Major Scott and told him that the enemy’s flag could be seen from where we were, and that they had killed several of my men already. On passing to Major Scott’s position, I told Lieutenant Simpson where I was going and why. This was the last conversation I had with him. He was quite cool and did not apprehend danger. He had received a slight wound in the arm but did not quit his position. Shortly afterwards I was looking along the line towards the left of the company and saw him the moment the fatal ball struck him. He never moved; he was shot dead instantly as was Lucius Lorance about the same time. They were only a short distance apart stretched at full length upon the corn row. Lieutenant Simpson was much beloved by all who knew him in the regiment- he was a good officer, a true soldier, and died like a man with his face to the foe.
Part of the first platoon took shelter while loading in the corners of a fence. The enemy, discovering this, commenced to fire on our flank as well as front so that no protection was offered by the fence. We had now kept back the enemy for the space of an hour and a quarter although they were ten times our number and we were unsupported. While looking to the right, I saw the first battalion in full retreat towards the woods. Not hearing the command to retreat, I ordered the company to retreat, having then near one half of our number killed and wounded on the field. Thomas Stone was killed on the retreat and three or four others wounded before we reached the woods. The Mississippi regiment, though not exposed to the fire, had retreated before we did, as also had a Georgia regiment on our right. Thus, we were left unaided and alone.
On reaching the wood, the enemy opened on us with grape while the regiments in our rear fired incessant volleys of musketry. It is a miracle that a single one escaped. The balls flew around as thick as hail. The grape cut the limbs of the trees. Having passed through the woods, two regiments were seen on our right flank as we descended into the meadow; we supposed them to be Mississippians. They were, however, two New York regiments that had completely outflanked us and in a few minutes would have cut off our retreat. They saluted us with a volley of musketry which did considerable execution in our ranks, wounding Lieutenant Colonel Law and killing a number of others. We crossed the branch, found the regiment, and returned their salute not without effect. Here we again were obliged to retreat; the ammunition of several companies being nearly expended, mine among the number.
The first force that came to our aid was a Virginia regiment, part of General Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade. We again formed behind this regiment and in a skirt of woods in a very heavy fire of shell and ball. General Bee joined us here. Having inquired what forces we were, the reply was given that it was the 4th Alabama regiment. He said it was the only part of his forces that he could find and asked us if we would follow him. The answer was “to the death.” We had lost all of our field officers. General Bee then dismounted and faced the regiment by the left flank in order to reach the point where the battle was hottest. Some confusion being shown, as the regiment was entering a piece of wood behind Captain Albertes’ battery, General Bee called me by name and ordered me to halt the regiment and form it. This was his last command. He was fatally wounded by a musket ball and breathed forth his noble and manly spirit on the following morning. He was universally loved by his whole brigade as a brave and skillful officer.
“As we were nearing the scene of the fight at Sherman’s battery, a train of artillery that was falling back cut our line, thus separating the left company from the rest of the regiment. This company, with General Bee at its head, obliqued to the right upon the open plain and proceeded about 100 yards when our gallant and beloved commander fell mortally wounded. Deprived as we were then of our brigadier, of our colonel, lieutenant colonel, and major, and not knowing our friends from our enemies while exposed to a murderous fire with no opportunity of returning it, we marched back, reformed our line and awaited orders.” ~ Captain Thomas J. Goldsby, Co. A, 4th Alabama
The men were now worn out by thirst and fatigue, and the regiment retired to get water and take some rest. At no time during the whole fight was it from under a severe fire until the enemy was driven from the field. It kept the enemy back until reinforcements were brought up and saved the day. It was a glorious day for the South, but it has brought mourning and sorrow into many a happy circle. Many a wife now laments her husband who fell on that field in defense of liberty and justice. How many fond sisters will look in vain for the return of their beloved brothers? Mothers, oh what a sweet word, are weeping for their brave sons whom they shall see no more until that great day when all shall stand before God.
The cannons roar having ceased and the evening’s shade closing down, my little band would not allow themselves to rest until their wounded comrades were carried off the field. Lieutenant Kirkman, Dr. Armstead, and a few more from my company together with three men from each company in the regiment joined me to go after the wounded. I pressed three or four ammunition wagons to carry the wounded: what a contrast between wagons and the splendid ambulances of the enemy. It was now dark and took some searching to find the place where most of the wounded lay. They were picked up as soon as found and put into the wagons and sent to Manassas Junction about seven miles distant. The last wagon reached the Junction about 6 o’clock in the morning in charge of Dr. Armstead and myself. Some of the wounded were put on the cars and sent to Culpeper, others were put in tents and hospitals.
One or two of my men are still missing. Having drank a cup of coffee, the first food except a Yankee cracker I had tasted for 24 hours, I returned to the battlefield to search for these and also to send in the bodies of our brave dead to the Junction. The quartermaster, however, had attended to this last duty before any of the company reached the field. My search for the missing was of no avail. Christopher Rowell being slightly wounded was taken prisoner and effected his escape during the enemy’s retreat and was safe at the Junction.
The wounded having been provided for; our next duty was the burial of the dead. Their graves were dug in a retired corner of the wood a short distance from the fortifications. The rain fell in torrents during the whole time. Officers and privates worked together until the sad labor was performed. Every effort was made to procure coffins for all, but it could be done as there was no planks to make them. We wrapped them in their blankets and laid them side by side in their graves- a sad spectacle of the horrors of war and a confirmation of the Scripture that “all flesh is but as grass.”
The company and the regiment suffered terribly on Monday and Monday night for want of food and covering from the rain. We had no tents, and the mud was six inches deep. The victory was a glorious one. If the friends of any of those who have fallen wish any further information regarding them, it will be welcome. I have written to most of them, briefly, it is true. I have endeavored to give an impartial account of the part my company took in the late battle. Every man fought like a hero though his comrades were falling fast on every side.
Robert McFarland, Capt., Lauderdale Volunteers
Letter from Captain Robert McFarland, Co. H, 4th Alabama Infantry, Florence Gazette (Alabama), August 14, 1861, pg. 2