With Kearny's Division at Second Bull Run: Voice from the 3rd Michigan Infantry

     John Pope’s Army of Virginia had been battering at Stonewall Jackson’s line all day of August 29th and while it had enjoyed some small successes, they had been unable to break the Confederate hold. John Pope turned to General Phil Kearny, one of the best fighters in the Army of the Potomac, and ordered him to punch through Jackson’s line. Kearny chose to make the attack with about 2,700 men from his division, among them the veteran 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. Going into action with 233 men under the command of Colonel Stephen G. Champlin, still recovering from a wound sustained at Fair Oaks a few months before, the Wolverines plunged into the woods, intent on besting Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolinians.

          “The enemy opened upon the little advancing band with a front and a flanking fire, while strange and unaccountable as it may seem yet it is no less true, that the 63rd Pennsylvania on the left of the railroad which should have supported our left flank, poured in for the space of ten minutes a galling fire,” noted Chaplain Joseph Anderson of the 3rd Michigan. “Thus, attacked in front and the two flanks, this heroic little band pushed on, drove the enemy from their position and could have retained it, but, having gained their object, they found themselves alone and isolated from those who should have sustained them. They were compelled to retire and it is believed that nothing but the dense smoke of battle preserved any of them alive.” When the regiment reformed ranks later that night, only 103 men remained with the colors, a loss rate of more than 55%.

          Chaplain Anderson’s account of the Second Battle of Bull Run was originally published in the September 10, 1862, edition of the Grand Haven News, copied from the Detroit Free Press.

 

The Kearny Cross, issued to officers and men who displayed extraordinary courage in battle, were unofficial medals first presented in 1862. General Kearny, often noted for his conspicuous bravery in battle, would be killed in action two days after Second Bull Run at the Battle of Chantilly. 


Alexandria, Virginia

September 1, 1862

          When I wrote you last, the Army of the Potomac had been under marching orders for some days, but the where and the when still remained a mystery to us. On Friday the 15th, the mystery began to be solved for before daylight our tents were all struck, a hasty breakfast taken, and the long column began its march. The army was divided into separate columns, took different routes, and departed on different days, and thus less obstructions would be met with on the march.

          Whoever has seen or conceived of an army on the march, with its immense column of baggage wagons, ambulances, and artillery, will easily conceive the necessity of punctuality in obedience to orders; when this punctuality is omitted, the column is delayed- wagons, ambulances, and artillery block up the passage and the whole mass is thrown into confusion. Of this we have had more than enough of experience; and the arrest of officers for neglect could not prevent the unpleasant consequences.

          Weary and overcome with fatigue, heat, dust, and exposed to the damps of night, we arrived at Yorktown on Tuesday where a part of the column embarked on Wednesday and another part at Newport News, and arrived at Alexandria on the Potomac on Thursday where Colonel Champlin of the 3rd Michigan, although not completely healed of his wounds received at the Battle of Fair Oaks, met his old companions in arms, and was received with enthusiastic demonstrations of joyful greeting. Such was the press of troops to join Pope’s army that only on Saturday could our brigade find a passage by the Warrenton railroad.

Colonel Stephen G. Champlin
3rd Michigan Infantry
Wounded in action May 31, 1862

          You will have seen ere this reaches you how Stuart’s Rebel cavalry, some 1,200 strong again as at White House on the Peninsula, got into our rear and surprised Pope’s headquarters at Catlett’s Station, seizing papers, money, and several prisoners. How he could have done this unaided by traitors in our own ranks remains a mystery. You will have seen, too, how while Pope retired across the Rappahannock and expected an attack from the enemy in front, Jackson stole a march upon him and taking a circuit around the Blue Ridge Mountains, marched his forces 62 miles in less than two days and without tents or baggage and but two days’ provisions in their haversacks, passed through Thoroughfare Gap and fell upon our communications, completely flanking us. Thus, while the enemy was looked for in front, he was in our rear, had seized upon our depot of provisions, clothing, supplies, etc. at Manassas Junction, and appropriated all that was needful to his naked and famished troops, and destroyed our railroad trains and all the stores which he could not appropriate.

          Thus was all communication between Washington and our army cut off for several days. I have it from good authority that before Longstreet’s division passed through Thoroughfare Gap, McDowell was ordered up to prevent his passage, and thus his junction with Jackson; but instead of that promptly obeying the order, he delayed until it was too late and thus Jackson’s force, which might have been taken prisoners or cut to pieces, was strengthened and Pope’s plan defeated. Whether this is perfectly correct or not, such is the current rumor and belief here, and founded upon respectable authority. Certain it is, that the movements of McDowell are held in suspicion by all the officers of the Army of the Potomac; and in the streets of Washington the exclamation from the lips of officers is often heard when his name is mentioned, denouncing him in good set terms and declaring that ‘he ought to be hanged.’ I only state to you the current opinion and belief and that upon authority worthy of credit.

Captain Israel Canton Smith, Co. E, 3rd Michigan Infantry


          No sooner had Pope knowledge of the fact that he was outflanked and his communications cut off, than he broke up his camp at Warrenton and with his whole force marched on Manassas Junction which he found Jackson had evacuated a short time before and retired to the old battleground of Bull Run. Pope pursued and on Friday morning the 29th ultimo came up with his enemy who had been reinforced by Longstreet. A tremendous battle from morning until night succeeded, the results of which, though upon the whole favorable to us, yet were by no means decisive. We pushed the enemy from his position but were unable to pursue our advantage. It would be impossible in the brief outline which I send to you to note the varied incidents of success, defeat, valor, or blunder as the case may be which that eventful and hard-fought day disclosed. Let me simply mention the part with the 3rd Michigan acted, which while it adds to their dear-earned laurels, adds also to the number of their heroes who bravely fell upon that fatal field.

Brigadier General Philip Kearny

          The enemy lay to the right of an unfinished railroad track and ours to the left. The road being elevated served as a breastwork to each party. The enemy moved a column down with the purpose of outflanking us. Perceiving this, General Kearny ordered up the 3rd Michigan, the 105th Pennsylvania, and the 20th Indiana, ordering us to cross the railroad and attack the advancing column which had extended its left wing for the purpose of flanking. The three regiments crossed the track and the 3rd Michigan advanced in obedience to the order, but either from misconceiving the order or neglecting it or from whatever cause cannot now be ascertained, these two regiments designed to support the 3rd Michigan in their adventurous yet all-important movement, failed to perform their part and remained stationary.

Meanwhile the 3rd Michigan, with that courage and daring which has ever marked them in the hour of danger, advanced under the guidance of their brave commander whose wounds were not yet entirely healed, or his body invigored since the battle of Fair Oaks. How frequently we have seen mind triumph over the decays and weaknesses of the body, and the nerves strung to tension, and the whole inner man elevated in the presence of some grand or interesting object which absorbs the whole faculties of the soul. The body is borne along by the impelling power of the current within. Thus, our brave little Colonel, forgetful of bodily defects and weaknesses, was carried along by the ardor of heroic enthusiasm. [The 3rd Michigan attacked a portion of Jackson’s line held by the South Carolinians of General Maxcy Gregg’s brigade.]

          The enemy opened upon the little advancing band with a front and a flanking fire, while strange and unaccountable as it may seem yet it is no less true, that the 63rd Pennsylvania on the left of the railroad which should have supported our left flank, poured in for the space of ten minutes a galling fire. Thus, attacked in front and the two flanks, this heroic little band pushed on, drove the enemy from their position and could have retained it but, having gained their object, they found themselves alone and isolated from those who should have sustained them. They were compelled to retire and it is believed that nothing but the dense smoke of battle preserved any of them alive.

          Their loss, however, was fearful. They went into battle with only 233 men, for the fatigues of the march had caused many to fall out of the ranks, and they lost in killed 24 and wounded 105. Thus, out of 233, there remained but 103. The stragglers who have since come in may increase the regiment to 200. Thus, a regiment which about 15 months ago numbered 1,040 is now reduced to a mere skeleton. Our brave little colonel, having to command on foot, fell and was carried off the field. The muscles, newly knit and unable to bear the strain, were again lacerated and the wound pained him afresh; he is now laid up in Alexandria.

          On Saturday the 30th, the Rebels concentrated their whole force and attacked our lines and we fell back to the strong position at Centreville with our right extending to Fairfax. No fighting on Sunday the 31st and no news which can be relied on from the field, Monday or today, although cannonading has been heard briskly. No Washington papers published last night. No telegraphic dispatches. We are all in the dark. No man can leave for Washington without a pass and the passport system is stringent.

          Major Byron Root Pierce, with that coolness and courage for which he is remarkable, did himself great credit and sustained his former name as a brave and fearless officer, and the whole of the officers and men maintained the fame so dearly earned on the battlefield of Fair Oaks.

 

Sources:

Letter from Chaplain Joseph Anderson, 3rd Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Grand Haven News (Michigan), September 10, 1862, pg. 2

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