Speeches, Lectures, and Letters

Author: William Howard Russell  | Date: August 6, 1861

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Battle of Bull Run (1861)


[July 22, 1861.] I SIT down to give an account—not of the action yesterday, but of what I saw with my own eyes, hitherto not often deceived, and of what I heard with my own ears, which in this country are not so much to be trusted. Let me, however, express an opinion as to the affair of yesterday. In the first place, the repulse of the Federalists, decided as it was, might have had no serious effects whatever beyond the mere failure—which politically was of greater consequence than it was in a military sense—but for the disgraceful conduct of the troops. The retreat on their lines at Centreville seems to have ended in a cowardly route—a miserable, causeless panic.

Such scandalous behaviour on the part of soldiers I should have considered impossible, as with sore e experience of camps and armies I have never even in alarms among camp followers seen the like of it. . . .

The North will, no doubt, recover the shock. Hitherto she has only said, "Go and fight for the Union." The South has exclaimed, "Let us fight for our rights." The North must put its best men into the battle, or she will inevitably fail before the energy, the personal hatred, and the superior fighting powers of her antagonist. In my letters, as in my conversation, I have endeavoured to show that the task which the Unionists have set themselves is one of no ordinary difficulty, but in the state of arrogance and supercilious confidence, either real or affected to conceal a sense of weakness, one might as well have preached to the Pyramid of Cheops. Indeed, one may form some notion of the condition of the public mind by observing that journals conducted avowedly by men of disgraceful personal character—the be-whipped and be-kicked and unrecognized pariahs of society in New York—are, nevertheless, in the very midst of repulse and defeat, permitted to indulge in ridiculous rhodomontade towards the nations of Europe, and to move our laughter by impotently malignant attacks on "our rotten old monarchy," while the stones of their bran new republic are tumbling about their ears. It will be amusing to observe the change of tone, for we can afford to observe and to be amused at the same time. . . .

. . . At last Centreville appeared in sight—a few houses on our front, beyond which rose a bald hill, the slopes covered with bivouac huts, commissariat carts, and horses, and the top crested with spectators of the fight. . . .

. . . The scene was so peaceful a man might well doubt the evidence of one sense that a great contest was being played out below in bloodshed. . . . But the cannon spoke out loudly from the green bushes, and the plains below were mottled, so to speak, by puffs of smoke and by white rings from bursting shells and capricious howitzers. . . . With the glass I could detect now and then the flash of arms through the dust clouds in the open, but no one could tell to which side the troops who were moving belonged, and I could only judge from the smoke whether the guns were fired towards or away from the hill. . . . In the midst of our little reconnaissance Mr. Vizetelty, who has been living and, indeed, marching with one of the regiments as artist of the Illustrated London News, came up and told us the action had been commenced in splendid style by the Federalists, who had advanced steadily, driving the

Confederates before them—a part of the plan, as I firmly believe, to bring them under the range of their guns. He believed the advantages on the Federalist side were decided, though won with hard fighting. . . . As I turned down into the narrow road, or lane . . . there was a forward movement among the large four-wheeled tilt waggons . . . when suddenly there arose a tumult in front of me at a small bridge across the road, and then I perceived the drivers of a set of waggons with the horses turned towards me, who were endeavouring to force their way against the stream of vehicles setting in the other direction. By the side of the new set of waggons there were a number of commissariat men and soldiers, whom at first sight I took to be the baggage guard. They looked excited and alarmed, and were running by the side of the horses in front the dust quite obscured the view. At the bridge the currents met in wild disorder. "Turn back! Retreat!" shouted the men from the front, "We’re whipped, we’re whipped!" They cursed and tugged at the horses’ heads, and struggled with frenzy to get past. . . . I got my horse up into the field out of the road, and went on rapidly towards the front. Soon I met soldiers who were coming through the corn, mostly without arms; and presently I saw firelocks, cooking tins, knapsacks, and greatcoats on the ground, and observed that the confusion and speed of the baggage-carts became greater, and that many of them were crowded with men, or were followed by others, who clung to them. The ambulances were crowded with soldiers, but it did not look as if there were many wounded. Negro servants on led horses dashed frantically past; men in uniform, whom it were a disgrace to the profession of arms to call "soldiers," swarmed by on mules, chargers, and even draught horses, which had been cut out of carts or waggons, and went on with harness clinging to their heels, as frightened as their riders. Men literally screamed with rage and fright when their way was blocked up. On I rode, asking all "What is all this about?" and now and then, but rarely, receiving the answer, "We’re whipped;" or, "We’re repulsed." Faces black and dusty, tongues out in the heat, eyes staring—it was a most wonderful sight. On they came like him—

"—who having once turned round goes on, And turns no more his head, For he knoweth that a fearful fiend Doth close behind him tread."

But where was the fiend? I looked in vain. There was, indeed, some cannonading in front of me and in their rear, but still the firing was comparatively distant, and the runaways were far out of range. As I advanced the number of carts diminished, but the mounted men increased, and the column of fugitives became denser. . . . I had ridden, I suppose, about three or three and a-half miles from the hill, though it is not possible to be sure of the distance; when . . . I came out on an open piece of ground, beyond and circling which was forest. Two field pieces were unlimbered and guarding the road; the panting and jaded horses in the rear looked as though they had been hard worked, and the gunners and drivers looked worn and dejected. Dropping shots sounded close in front through the woods; but the guns on the left no longer maintained their fire. I was just about to ask one of the men for a light, when a sputtering fire on my right attracted my attention, and out of the forest or along the road rushed a number of men. The gunners seized the trail of the nearest piece to wheel it round upon them; others made for the tumbrils and horses as if to fly, when a shout was raised, "Don’t fire; they’re our own men;" and in a few minutes on came pell-mell a whole regiment in disorder. I rode across one and stopped him. "We’re pursued by cavalry," he gasped; "They’ve cut us all to pieces." As he spoke a shell burst over the column; another dropped on the road, and out streamed another column of men, keeping together with their arms, and closing up the stragglers of the first regiment. I turned, and to my surprise saw the artillerymen had gone off, leaving one gun standing by itself. They had retreated with their horses. . . . it was now well established that the retreat had really commenced, though I saw but few wounded men, and the regiments which were falling back had not suffered much loss. No one seemed to know anything for certain. Even the cavalry charge was a rumour. Several officers said they had carried guns and lines, but then they drifted into the nonsense which one reads and hears everywhere about "masked batteries." One or two talked more sensibly about the strong positions of the enemy, the fatigue of their men, the want of a reserve, severe losses, and the bad conduct of certain regiments. Not one spoke as if he thought of retiring beyond Centreville. The clouds of dust rising above the woods marked the retreat of the whole army, and the crowds of fugitives continued to steal away along the road. . . . There was no choice for me but to resign any further researches. . . . On approaching Centreville . . . I turned up on the hill half a mile beyond. . . . I swept the field once more. The clouds of dust were denser and nearer. That was all. There was no firing—no musketry. I turned my horse’s head, and rode away through the village, and after I got out upon the road the same confusion seemed to prevail. Suddenly the guns on the hill opened, and at the same time came the thuds of artillery from the wood on the right rear. The stampede then became general. What occurred at the hill I cannot say, but all the road from Centreville for miles presented such a sight as can only be witnessed in the track of the runaways of an utterly demoralized army. Drivers flogged, lashed, spurred, and beat their horses, or leaped down and abandoned their teams, and ran by the side of the road; mounted men, servants, and men in uniform, vehicles of all sorts, commissariat waggons thronged the narrow ways. At every shot a convulsion as it were seized upon the morbid mass of bones, sinew, wood, and iron, and thrilled through it, giving new energy and action to its desperate efforts to get free from itself. Again the cry of "Cavalry" arose. . . . In silence I passed over the Long-bridge. Some few hours later it quivered under the steps of a rabble of unarmed men . . . the Federalists, utterly routed, had fallen back upon Arlington to defend the capital, leaving nearly five batteries of artillery, 8,000 muskets, immense quantity of stores and baggage, and their wounded and prisoners in the hands of the enemy!

The Times (London), August 6, 1861.


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Chicago: William Howard Russell, "Battle of Bull Run (1861)," Speeches, Lectures, and Letters in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed February 1, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TFMBFR6WABQ3H46.

MLA: Russell, William Howard. "Battle of Bull Run (1861)." Speeches, Lectures, and Letters, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 1 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TFMBFR6WABQ3H46.

Harvard: Russell, WH, 'Battle of Bull Run (1861)' in Speeches, Lectures, and Letters. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 1 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=TFMBFR6WABQ3H46.