William T. Sherman’s Report on His Brigade’s Action at the First Battle of Bull Run
William T. Sherman is best known as a Union general in the western theatre of the Civil War, especially for his Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea. But before he was promoted to Brigadier General and sent west, Sherman was a Colonel in charge of a brigade in the 1st Division of Brigadier General Irvin McDowell’s Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run on July 21st, 1861.
Sherman’s brigade at First Bull Run consisted of the 13th and 79th New York Infantry Regiments, the 69th New York Militia, the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, and Company E of the 3rd U.S. Artillery. The brigade was in action at Henry Hill, the scene of intense back and forth fighting. Sherman ordered his regiments to attack one at a time instead of sending in his entire brigade or multiple regiments, and although the men fought bravely and about as well as can be expected for inexperienced troops, they could not carry the position. Complicating matters was the fact that uniforms had not been standardized at this early stage of the war, and some Union regiments were clad in gray state militia uniforms, including Sherman’s 2nd Wisconsin, which took casualties from both friendly and hostile fire.
Sherman filed this after action report:
HDQRS. THIRD BRIGADE, FIRST DIVISION,
Fort Corcoran, July 25, 1861.
SIR: I have the honor to submit this my report of the operations of my brigade during the action of the 21st instant. The brigade is composed of the Thirteenth New York Volunteers,
Colonel Quinby; Sixty-ninth New York, Colonel Corcoran; Seventy-ninth New York, Colonel Cameron; Second Wisconsin, Lieutenant-Colonel Peck, and Company E, Third Artillery, under command of Capt. R. B. Ayres, Fifth Artillery. We left our camp near Centreville, pursuant to orders, at 2.30 a.m., taking place in your column next to the brigade of General Schenck, and proceeded as far as the halt before the enemy’s position near the stone bridge at Bull Run. Here the brigade was deployed in line along the skirt of timber, and remained quietly in position till after 10 a.m. The enemy remained very quiet, but about that time we saw a regiment leave its cover in our front and proceed in double-quick time on the road toward Sudley Springs, by which we knew the columns of Colonels Hunter and Heintzelman were approaching. About the same time we observed in motion a large force of the enemy below the stone bridge. I directed Captain Ayres to take position with his battery near our right and open fire on this mass, but you had previously detached the two rifled guns belonging to this battery, and finding the smoothbore guns did not reach the enemy’s position we ceased firing, and I sent a request that you should send to me the 30-pounder rifled gun attached to Captain Carlisle’s battery. At the same time I shifted the New York Sixty-ninth to the extreme right of the brigade.
Thus we remained till we heard the musketry fire across Bull Run, showing that the head of Colonel Hunter’s column was engaged. This firing was brisk, and showed that Hunter was driving before him the enemy till about noon, when it became certain the enemy had come to a stand, and that our forces on the other side of Bull Run were all engaged—-artillery and infantry. Here you sent me the order to cross over with the whole brigade to the assistance of Colonel Hunter. Early in the day, when reconnoitering the ground, I had seen a horseman descend from a bluff in our front, cross the stream, and show himself in the open field, and, inferring we could cross over at the same point, I sent for ward a company as skirmishers, and followed with the whole brigade, the New York Sixty-ninth leading. We found no difficulty in crossing over, and met no opposition in ascending the steep bluff opposite with our infantry, but it was impassable to the artillery, and I sent word back to Captain Ayres to follow if possible, otherwise to use his discretion. Captain Ayres did not cross Bull Run, but remained with the remainder of your division. His report, herewith, [No. 27], describes his operations during the remainder of the day.
Advancing slowly and cautiously with the head of the column, to give time for the regiments in succession to close up their ranks, we first encountered a party of the enemy retreating along a cluster of pines. Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty, of the Sixty-ninth, without orders, rode out and endeavored to intercept their retreat. One of the enemy, in full view, at short range, shot Haggerty, and he fell dead from his horse. The Sixty-ninth opened fire upon this party, which was returned; but, determined to effect our junction with Hunter’s division, I ordered this fire to cease, and we proceeded with caution toward the field, where we then plainly saw our forces engaged. Displaying our colors conspicuously at the head of our column, we succeeded in attracting the attention of our friends, and soon formed the brigade in rear of Colonel Porter’s. Here I learned that Colonel Hunter was disabled by a severe wound, and that General McDowell was on the field. I sought him out, and received his orders to join in the pursuit of the enemy, who was falling back to the left of the road by which the Army had approached from Sudley Springs. Placing Colonel Quinby’s regiment of rifles in front, in column by divisions, I directed the other regiments to follow in line of battle, in the order of the Wisconsin Second, New York Seventy-ninth, and New York Sixty-ninth.
Quinby’s regiment advanced steadily down the hill and up the ridge, from which he opened fire upon the enemy, who had made another stand on ground very favorable to him, and the regiment continued advancing as the enemy gave way, till the head of the column reached the point near which Ricketts’ battery was so severely cut up. The other regiments descended the hill in line of battle under a severe cannonade; and the ground affording comparative shelter against the enemy’s artillery, they changed direction by the right flank and followed the road before mentioned. At the point where this road crossed the ridge to our left front, the ground was swept by a most severe fire of artillery, rifles, and musketry, and we saw in succession several regiments driven from it, among them the zouaves and battalion of marines.
Before reaching the crest of this hill the roadway was worn deep enough to afford shelter, and I kept the several regiments in it as long as possible; but when the Wisconsin Second was abreast of the enemy, by order of Major Wadsworth, of General McDowell’s staff, I ordered it to leave the roadway by the left flank, and to attack the enemy. This regiment ascended to the brow of the hill steadily, received the severe fire of the enemy, returned it with spirit, and advanced delivering its fire. This regiment is uniformed in gray cloth, almost identical with that of the great bulk of the secession army, and when the regiment fell into confusion and retreated toward the road there was an universal cry that they were being fired on by our own men. The regiment rallied again, passed the brow of the hill a second time, but was again repulsed in disorder.
By this time the New York Seventy-ninth had closed up, and in like manner it was ordered to cross the brow of the hill and drive the enemy from cover. It was impossible to get a good view of this ground. In it there was one battery of artillery, which poured an incessant fire upon our advancing columns, and the ground was very irregular, with small clusters of pines, affording shelter, of which the enemy took good advantage. The fire of rifles and musketry was very severe. The Seventy-ninth, headed by its colonel (Cameron), charged across the hill, and for a short time the contest was severe. They rallied several times under fire, but finally broke and gained the cover of the hill.
This left the field open to the New York Sixty-ninth, Colonel Corcoran, who in his turn led his regiment over the crest, and had in full open view the ground so severely contested. The firing was very severe, and the roar of cannon, muskets, and rifles incessant. It was manifest the enemy was here in great force, far superior to us at that point. The Sixty-ninth held the ground for some time, but finally fell back in disorder.
All this time Quinby’s regiment occupied another ridge to our left, overlooking the same field of action and similarly engaged.
Here, about 3.30 p.m. began the scene of confusion and disorder that characterized the remainder of the day. Up to that time all had kept their places, and seemed perfectly cool and used to the shells and shot that fell comparatively harmless all around us; but the short exposure to an intense fire of small-arms at close range had killed many, wounded more, and had produced disorder in all the battalions that had attempted to destroy it. Men fell away talking and in great confusion. Colonel Cameron had been mortally wounded, carried to an ambulance, and reported dying. Many other officers were reported dead or missing, and many of the wounded were making their way, with more or less assistance, to the buildings used as hospitals.
On the ridge to the west we succeeded in partially reforming the regiments, but it was manifest they would not stand, and I directed Colonel Corcoran to move along the ridge to the rear, near the position where we had first formed the brigade. General McDowell was there in person, and used all possible efforts to reassure the men. By the active exertions of Colonel Corcoran we formed an irregular square against the cavalry, which were then seen to issue from the position from which we had been driven, and we began our retreat towards that ford of Bull Run by which we had approached the field of battle. There was no positive order to retreat, although for an hour it had been going on by the operation of the men themselves. The ranks were thin and irregular, and we found a stream of people strung from the hospital, across Bull Run and far towards Centreville. After putting in motion the irregular square, I pushed forward to find Captain Ayres’ battery. Crossing Bull Run, I sought it at its last position before the brigade crossed over, but it was not there; then, passing through the woods where in the morning we had first formed line, we approached the blacksmith-shop, but there found a detachment of the secession cavalry, and thence made a circuit, avoiding Cub Run Bridge, into Centreville, where I found General McDowell. From him I understood it was his purpose to rally the forces, and make a stand at Centreville. But, about 9 o’clock at night, I received, from General Tyler in person the order to continue the retreat to the Potomac. This retreat was by night, and disorderly in the extreme. The men of different regiments mingled together, and some reached the river at Arlington, some at Long Bridge, and the greater part returned to their former camps at or near Fort Corcoran. I reached this point at noon the next day, and found a miscellaneous crowd crossing over the Aqueduct and ferries.
Conceiving this to be demoralizing, I at once commanded the guard to be increased, and all persons attempting to pass over to be stopped.
This soon produced its effect; men sought their proper companies and regiments, comparative order was restored, and all were posted to the best advantage.
I herewith inclose the official report of Captain Kelly, the commanding officer of the Sixty-ninth New York; also full lists of the killed, wounded, and missing. Our loss was heavy, and occurred chiefly at the point near where Ricketts’ battery was destroyed. Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty was killed about noon, before we effected a junction with Colonel Hunters division. Colonel Cameron was mortally wounded leading his regiment in the charge, and Colonel Corcoran has been missing since the cavalry charge near the building used as a hospital.
Lieutenants Piper and McQuesten, of my personal staff, were under fire all day, and carried orders to and fro with as much coolness as on parade. Lieutenant Bagley, of the Sixty-ninth New York, a volunteer aide, asked leave to serve with his company during the action, and is among those reported missing. I have intelligence that he is a prisoner and slightly wounded. Colonel Coon, of Wisconsin, a volunteer aide, also rendered good service during the day.
I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,
W. T. SHERMAN,
Colonel, Commanding Brigade.
Capt. A. BAIRD,
Assistant Adjutant-General, First Division.
Sherman’s brigade suffered the largest number of killed (109) and second highest total casualties (566) of all Union brigades engaged at First Bull Run. The battle was a wake up call to both sides that the war would not be won quickly, and
that high casualty numbers would occur. Colonel James Cameron, commanding the 79th New York and whom Sherman mentioned as mortally wounded, was the brother of Abraham Lincoln’s first Secretary of War, Simon Cameron.
Later in the summer of 1861, Sherman was sent west to Kentucky. The regiments in his brigade at Bull Run were also dispersed. The 13th New York served in the 3rd and 5th Corps, fighting in the Peninsula Campaign , Second Bull Run, and Fredericksburg. After some of the original two year recruits were mustered out in May of 1863, the remaining men were consolidated into the 140th New York. The 79th New York Infantry, known as the Highlanders, fought until the end of the war in South Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia, mostly as part of the 9th Corps.
The other two infantry regiments became part of arguably the two most famous brigades in the Army of the Potomac. The 2nd Wisconsin would be joined later in 1861 by the 6th and 7th Wisconsin Infantry Regiments, and the 19th Indiana Infantry. This brigade fought at Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam, earning the nickname “Iron Brigade”. The Iron Brigade would be joined by the 24th Michigan Infantry in the fall of 1862, fighting at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg.
The 69th New York Militia returned to New York after First Bull Run and was mustered out, but then was reconstituted as the 69th New York Infantry.
The 69th consisted of Irish immigrants and others of Irish descent, and they joined with the 63rd and 88th New York, the 116th Pennsylvania, and 28th Massachusetts, all Irish dominated, to form the Irish Brigade. This brigade fought in the Peninsula Campaign, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg.
A Single Grand Victory: The First Campaign and Battle of Manassas
by Ethan S. Rafuse
Compendium of the War of the Rebellion by Frederick Dyer
“McDowell’s Advance to Bull Run” by James B. Fry. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 2.
The Seventy-ninth Highlanders, New York Volunteers in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865 by William Todd