A Chat with Stonewall


          The Second Battle of Bull Run was still underway when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton put out the call for civilian volunteers to cross the Potomac River into Virginia and assist the army with the thousands of wounded soldiers. “There is a pressing need for the services of surgeons and nurses (males) to attend to the wounded of the great battles recently,” the Washington Evening Star reported in their August 30, 1862 edition. “We are requested by the War Department to call for such volunteers from this point to repair at once to Alexandria, prepared to stay near the scene of action for some days present. On reaching Alexandria, they will find at the railroad depot provision made for their prompt transmission to points where their services may be needed.”

          About 500 civilians, most of them clerks and employees of the Federal government, responded to Secretary Stanton’s appeal. One of them, a Vermont native who signed his letter as H.H.T. (hereafter referred to as T), left a remarkable account of his adventures in the subsequent days. “I left Washington Saturday evening on a train of freight cars via the Orange & Alexandria Railroad for the battlefield,” he wrote. “Through much tribulation we reached Fairfax Station some 15-20 miles from Alexandria about 2 a.m. on Sunday [August 31]. No means of transportation being furnished from there, but few of us went to Centreville. Your correspondent was fortunate enough with three young surgeons to charter one of the two ambulances which had brought in some wounded and we immediately left for Centreville.” Over the next few days, not only did T get to witness the ghastly sights of the battlefield, but due to a mix-up in orders, he also had the opportunity to meet both Generals Stonewall Jackson and Fitzhugh Lee.

          T’s account of Second Bull Run originally appeared in the September 11, 1862 edition of the Rutland Weekly Herald, a digested version of which appears below.

 

Hundreds of civilian volunteers from Washington arrived on the battlefield near Manassas on Monday September 1, 1862 with a mission of treating the 2,500 Federal wounded that had been left behind. The volunteers set up their headquarters near the stone house, also known as the Matthews' House, pictured above, broke up into groups of eight men armed with stretchers, and plunged into the countryside to find the soldiers. 

Washington, D.C.

September 6, 1862

 Mr. Editor,

          On reaching the battlefield we began to witness all of the sights incident to the proximity of an army after a great battle. Ambulances with their bloody freight, stragglers, paroled prisoners, wagon trains miles in length, going and coming on seeming inextricable confusion. As we came in sight of Centreville a magnificent sight greeted our eyes. Our army was drawn up in line of battle across the slope which ascends gently for half a mile to the village which crossed the eminence and descends with a corresponding slope towards Bull Run. Far as the eye could reach the long lines of infantry with their gleaming arms and the old flag gaily streaming, officers and aides galloping hither and thither, and regiments moving to their support, regiments of cavalry hovering around the distant flanks. Altogether they had a tendency to quicken the pace of us civilians who have hitherto seen nothing of war but the fuss and frothing, while the nonchalance of our driver as he coolly assured us, we were within beautiful shelling distance of the enemy’s batteries was by no means calculated to quiet our apprehensions.

          Our driver landed us right where the Vermont brigade was drawn up and I was soon among friends listening with eager ears to the explanations of the grand collapse of the great victory to which General Pope and Secretary Stanton had invited us. We spent the day gathering the opinions of men and officers, the gist of which was curses both loud and deep upon McDowell, an utter lack of confidence in Pope, and one universal petition for McClellan to be placed in command. There was no use talking to a member of the Army of the Potomac, and the Army of Virginia had nobody to divide their allegiance. Sigel was the only other in whom they had a particle of confidence.

          On Monday morning at 8 a.m. [September 1] we started with an ambulance train and a large medical staff under the direction of Dr. McFarlin, Pope’s medical director, for the battlefield. Soon after leaving Centreville we began to encounter the vestiges of a retreating army- broken muskets and bayonets, cartridge boxes, broken army wagons, caissons, boxes with ammunition and without, dead horses, and mules strewed the road and adjacent fields in dire confusion. Directly we came to a picket of Confederate cavalry, and I knew we were within the enemy’s lines. Soon after crossing Bull Run, we found a brigade of cavalry drawn up on either side of the road to receive us, and never can I forget the complacent expression which the faces of the butternuts-colored gentry wore, and yet not a taunt escaped their lips though they scrutinized us closely as we passed. Our headquarters were established at a house in the immediate vicinity of the famous stone house which figured so conspicuously in the reports after the first battle of Bull Run.

The doctors divided us civilians into details of eight each who with a stretcher were sent to bring the wounded in out of the woods to points accessible to the ambulances. How it made our heart bleed to see our noble born boys, many of whom had lain where they fell on Thursday night without food or drink and then to know but a small force could make but a beginning towards alleviating the suffering of those 2,500 sufferers. We had brought barely rations for ourselves for a couple of days supposing that that those whose business it was to see that these poor wounded men were fed. Out upon the incompetency and imbecility which characterized the whole proceeding, somebody should be held to a stern account. The faces of our unburied dead who strewed the ground so thickly in so many places where the fire raged hottest turned black and scowling towards heaven as if protesting against the barbarity which had stripped them and left them so offensive to the sight.

The Federal dead remained spread across the field two to three days after they had been killed in battle. "The faces of our unburied dead who strewed the ground so thickly in so many places where the fire raged hottest turned black and scowling towards heaven," our correspondent observed "as if protesting against the barbarity which had stripped them and left them so offensive to the sight." 

Mounted on a fleet horse I rode for miles over the field and did not see one pair of pants, boots, or a pair of shoes on any of our dead. I came across Rebel stragglers engaged in the act of rifling the pockets of decaying corpses. In one place on the brow of the hill where Hatch’s brigade had fought and where in the space of a quarter of an acre 50 of the dead must have lain, 20 or 30 planters and three fashionably dressed ladies sat for more than an hour upon their horses laughing and chatting while we plied our mournful task.

We saw large numbers of their troops and conversed freely with officers and men. They look much as you would suppose Falstaff’s recruits to have looked had they been universally clad in butternut. The privates invariably expressed themselves as tired of the war. No bitterness of feeling was perceptible in them. The officers expressed a great deal of bitterness against Pope. God pit him if he ever falls in their hands. The spoke sneeringly of Abraham Lincoln and his job of “subduing” the South. They are confident of their ability to take Washington. Generally and with few exceptions we were well treated while in their lines. They gave us nothing to eat but I am satisfied they had little or nothing for themselves to eat.

On Tuesday morning we started for Washington with some 41 ambulances full of wounded paroled prisoners and 25-30 citizens on foot who had come with the ambulances under the original flag of truce. We arrived at Centreville and found our forces had evacuated and the Rebels were in possession. Owing to the neglect of Dr. McFarlin and Dr. Guild, Lee’s medical director, we had not been furnished with a list of paroled prisoners nor with any evidence that citizens had come into their lines under a flag of truce. The provost marshal refused to allow us to pass but sent us under an escort of Ashby’s cavalry to General Jackson’s headquarters some six or seven miles on the Winchester turnpike. A miserably incompetent Dutch surgeon being sent in charge of the train, we civilians held a council of war while on the march and your correspondent was chosen to do the diplomacy.

General Jackson was remembered for his indifference to both his appearance and his horsemanship. One Georgia soldier noted that Jackson was a "very ordinary man of medium size, his uniform badly soiled as though it had seen hard service and he wore a cap pulled down nearly to his nose. He certainly made a poor figure on horseback with his stirrup leather six inches too short, putting his knees nearly level with the horse's back and his heels turned out with his toes sticking behind his horse's foreshoulder." Our correspondent learned to find Jackson by looking for the "dirtiest cap in the army."

We reached Stonewall’s headquarters early in the evening and his troops supposing us to be a captured train, received us much as you would suppose Choctaws would receive their captures. “How are you, Yanks? Onward to Richmond Yanks! We’ll be in Washington before you!” The lieutenant in charge of our train thereupon began to put on airs and shouted out “prisoners fall in by fours in front of the ambulances” and as we fell in grumblingly, he proceeded to curse us and assured us we would be shot if we straggled and if five of us happened to get in a row, he would damn us for trying to cheat him. At length I told him we might be prisoners of war, but we were not thieves and pickpockets and were not accustomed to that style of language. A young soldier standing near, who proved to be General Jackson’s assistant adjutant general, promptly put the lieutenant under arrest and apologized to us by saying that he had been drinking too much Yankee whiskey which he had captured at Centreville. One of Jackson’s staff received my statement with “an old story, sir. You came out here to see a big victory and find yourselves prisoners of war.” Decidedly cool I thought for dog days.

Old Stonewall had gone to Lee’s headquarters when we arrived, so his Adjutant General and Captain Randolph of the Black Horse Cavalry of Jackson’s staff entertained us very courteously until the General came back when I was immediately ushered into his presence.  I found the redoubtable Stonewall a very ordinary appearing personage, so ordinary that I should certainly have taken him for his orderly had not Captain Randolph pointed him out to me. Officers and men all wear the same gray uniform, the officers without shoulder straps, their only insignia of rank being worn on their coat collar and sleeves. Captain Randolph assured me I could identify the General from the fact that he was wearing the dirtiest cap in the army, and I thought him not far out of the way.

General Fitzhugh Lee

          Instead of being in the house where his headquarters were, he was around a campfire with a promiscuous crowd quietly seated on a board writing with a lead pencil what I presume were orders. He tipped his cap to me and heard me state my case and very quietly told me that we could go to Washington via Centreville at once or wait till 3 o’clock in the morning. We countermarched at once armed with Major General Jackson’s pass and reached Centreville at 2 a.m. We halted a couple of hours then resumed our weary march. We arrived at Fairfax Courthouse where we found Fitzhugh Lee with his cavalry brigade. He is a dashing Young America sort of fellow not apparently more than 20 years of age. He told me he understood we had some Negro drivers aboard and inquired if they were some we had stolen now or on some former occasion, nor would he let them pass until I had assured him that they came out from Washington with us. I give you his pass verbatim which is written in a bold, dashing hand on an old envelope which he pulled from his pocket:

Headquarters Second Cavalry Brigade

September 3, 1862

Pass these paroled prisoners and citizens who accompany them on their way rejoicing to Washington

Fitzhugh Lee, Brig. Gen. commanding

          General Lee told me to tell his friends to keep their eyes skinned, they would see him in Washington soon. He sent us via Falls Church and a guide through their lines. The chaplain who bore our flag of truce not being careful to keep ahead when we arrived in sight of our pickets, a friendly bullet whistled in the air admonished us to halt. After a little delay, we found ourselves once more in sight of the dear old flag and familiar blue coats, not unpleasant sights after a forced march of 30 miles which left a lasting impression upon those feet and limbs all unused to such exercise.

 

Sources:

Letter from H.H.T., Rutland Weekly Herald (Vermont), September 11, 1862, pg. 4

“Nurses and Surgeons Wanted,” Washington Evening Star (District of Columbia), August 30, 1862, pg. 3

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