a terrible hand-to-hand fight ensued

Maj. Gen. John Pope, commanding the Army of Virginia, certainly thought the gods of war were smiling on him as the sun broke over the horizon on the morning of August 30, 1862. Most of the intelligence Pope was receiving indicated the Army of Northern Virginia was retreating. Overly confident, Pope not only made little effort to confirm the accuracy of the rosy reports, he chose to ignore all reports to the contrary. In fact, the reports were wrong. General Robert E. Lee was shifting troops and consolidating his battle line, but he was not retreating.

Across the fields, bloodied the previous day during a series of determined but uncoordinated Union assaults against Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s position along an uncompleted and abandoned railroad cut, Robert E. Lee held a council of war. Lee, certain that Pope would renew the battle, was puzzled by the lack of activity observed along the Federal lines. The Southern commander would wait, but he planned to carry the fight to the Federals if Pope dithered too long. Until such time as Lee launched an attack, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart was ordered to protect the army’s flanks with his cavalry; Brig. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee secured the left or northern flank of the army while Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson held the southern or right flank.

About noon Pope ordered his army to pursue, what he maintained was, a retreating army. Within minutes, however, the rising intensity of the fighting along the line finally convinced Pope that the Army of Northern Virginia had not surrendered the field. Further, Pope began receiving reports that Maj. Gen. James Longstreet was massing his wing of the army against the southern end of the Union line.

Brig. Gen. John Buford, commanding the cavalry brigade attached to Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Banks’ II Corps, Army of Virginia, was at Pope’s headquarters as these reports arrived. Seeking confirmation, Pope directed Buford to “take your cavalry and see if the enemy is turning our left.” Buford was soon heading south at the head of three of his four regiments, the 1st Michigan, 1st Vermont and 1st West Virginia Cavalry. His fourth regiment, the 5th New York, was detached on escort duty.

On his own initiative, Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, commanding the I Corps, Army of Virginia, sent the 4th New York Cavalry to scout the left flank as well. Riding at the head of just 130 men, Lt. Col. Ferries Nazer pulled his depleted regiment out of the line and turned it south, toward the rising din of battle. He was to push his reconnaissance “a mile or more,” beyond the end of the Union line.

About 4 p.m., and on the heels of several valiant but unsuccessful Union assaults, Longstreet launched one of the most crushing counterattacks of the war, sealing the fate of John Pope and his Army of Virginia. Jeb Stuart was to support Longstreet’s assault by advancing along his right flank. Calling in Robertson’s regiments, Stuart moved out shortly after Longstreet’s men stepped off.

Beverly Robertson was neither a friend nor confidant of Stuart. Robertson was remembered as “a splendid man; gentle, firm, persistent, never seeming to lose patience,” and also a first rate drillmaster, yet when he was transferred to North Carolina on September 5, 1862, Stuart crowed, “Robertson has been relieved & sent to N.C. “Joys mine.” My command is now OK.” The move did not come as a disappointment to Robertson’s men either, as they “found his performance in action less than inspiring.” His lack of aggressiveness did not suit the combative Stuart, but Robertson was about to instigate one of the largest cavalry combats of the war to date. Supporting the cavalry was Lt. Joseph Norcom’s section of Capt. Benjamin Eshleman’s Fourth Company, Washington Artillery.

Colonel Nazer’s command was resting near the Ball’s Ford Road, when Capt. William Hardt, standing on the roof of a shanty, observed Robertson’s brigade trotting toward them along the road. The Yankees dropped their coffee, mounted and fell back, closely pursued by the 2nd Virginia Cavalry for several miles.

The New Yorkers found Buford’s three regiments near Portici, the home of Frank and Fanny Lewis. From there, Buford was in a position, to cover the southern flank of the army, and to hold both Lewis Ford and Ball’s Ford on Bull Run. As his men reined up behind him, Nazer informed Buford that a large cavalry force was fast approaching, supported by both infantry and artillery. At the general’s request Nazer directed his men into position behind Col. Thornton Brodhead’s 1st Michigan. Moving into line behind them were the men of the 1st West Virginia. The brigade immediately drew artillery fire, from Lieutenant Norcom’s section of guns posted on high ground west of Portici and, “The boys [clamored] to charge the battery.” The officers, realizing the guns were supported by infantry, directed the regiment to a safer position behind the hillcrest. The Southern gunners “stuck to them like leeches,” however, forcing the Yankees to shift position several times.

Seeking to make up for his late start, Robertson raced south to stay on Longstreet’s right flank, with Col. Tom Munford’s 2nd Virginia leading the column. Following Munford were six companies of the 12th Virginia, led by Col. Asher Harman, with Capt. Samuel Myers’ 85 man detachment of the 7th Virginia trailing. Colonel Thomas Flournoy’s 6th Virginia remained in reserve. Seeing only the company-sized contingent of the 4th New York fleeing ahead of him, Munford, at Robertson’s direction, ordered Lt. Col. James Watts to take the lead squadron and capture the Yankees. This squadron was led by Capt. Ridgely Brown and included his company of Maryland cavalry, serving as Company B, 2nd Virginia, along with Capt. Henry Dickinson’s Company A.

Cresting a rise, Brown’s men reined to an abrupt halt, as they observed Buford’s three regiments a short distance below, formed and ready to charge. In response to an urgent appeal for help from Brown, Robertson sent Munford with his entire regiment. The “excitement was intense,” remembered Pvt. John Gill, as the two lines glared at each other only a few hundred yards apart. Munford, who was still maneuvering for position as the Federals advanced, heard an aide bring Buford’s orders to Colonel Brodhead. Maj. Charles Town then bellowed “First Michigan Cavalry fall in on my left,” followed shortly thereafter by the command “Forward, trot.” Not waiting to receive the attack, Munford wheeled his troopers into line, gave the order to draw sabers and crashed into the Federals at a gallop. “Here a terrible hand-to-hand fight ensued.”

Several Federals recalled being hit by a shower of buckshot from double-barreled shotguns just before the Virginians met them “in full charge.” Sabers flashed as they caught the late afternoon sun just before the combatants disappeared in a swirling cloud of “dust and confusion.” Private Gill, armed with “a poor specimen of Confederate iron,” found himself surrounded by three Yankees and his saber “was soon bent and quite useless.” Edward Watson, one of Brodhead’s Wolverines, charged into the midst of the rebels, his identity briefly concealed by the thick dust cloud. A moment later a Virginian fired a revolver at his head but missed. Watson retaliated, striking the Rebel in the mouth with his saber. Amidst cries of “Kill that darned Yankee,” Watson shifted his saber to his weak hand, drew his revolver and started firing into the crowd until a saber blow across his shoulders knocked him out of the saddle. As he staggered to his feet, bleeding from wounds in one leg and with a thumb nearly severed, a Virginian thrust a pistol thrust in his face and marched him to the rear.

The 4th New York followed Brodhead’s Wolverines into the melee. Armed only with carbines and sabers, “the work of the jolly 4th was handsomely done with our sabres,” one soldier proudly recalled. Nazer’s 130 men turned the tide in favor of the Yankees, and drove the outnumbered Rebels from the field.

Munford complained he had not been “promptly reinforced.” General Robertson countered, accusing Munford of attacking too soon. Lt. Col. William Blackford, a member of Stuart’s staff, agreed. “Munford made a mistake in beginning his charge too soon and got his ranks opened too much before the shock came, while the enemy…only took the charge pace when within a hundred yards of the meeting; his ranks were then solid and Munford’s opened, strung-out force was dashed aside.” Maj. Henry B. McClellan, who was not on the field, disagreed, arguing Munford was actually retiring to a stronger position when the attack came and that he then wheeled about and met the Yankees at “full gallop.”

As they reached the ridge from where they had commenced their charge, Munford’s battered troopers encountered Colonel Harman’s 12th Virginia, followed by Captain Myers’s detachment of the 7th Virginia. As Myers crested the rise he saw Buford’s men 400 yards ahead. John Fay, 7th Virginia, had heard “the cracking of carbines and pistols and the yells and cheers of the combatants” during the initial clash, and now he and his comrades were eager for the fray and jostled for position. An attempt by Colonel Flournoy to maneuver his men into formation ahead of the 7th Virginia was rebuffed by Myers, who declared; “the Seventh is next in line and will be next in the charge.” Yet when Fay took his place along the ridge crest his “eyes beheld a terrible sight. There…in an old field were men and horses laying scattered about where they fell…on the hillside were struggling men and horses. We had little time for sightseeing for a little farther on and along the brow of a lower hill appeared a long line in blue facing us and halted as if on parade.”

An examination of the surviving accounts leaves the involvement of the 2nd Virginia in the second and deciding phase of the battle uncertain. Both Robertson and Munford are vague in their reports, while Myers credited all three regiments with making the second attack. Colonel Harman submitted an equally ambiguous one-paragraph account five weeks after the battle. He gave a more graphic description 23 years later, in which he recalled meeting “many of Munford’s men fleeing in great disorder.” Then “I met Col. [Munford] on foot and out of breath… From the sabre cuts I saw on the faces and over the heads of the men it was a gallant charge and bravely met. Col. [Munford] had been severely thrashed over the back with a sabre.” Munford, whose horse had been killed, admitted being “dismounted by a lick, but not seriously hurt,” while Lt. Colonel Watts had sustained eight saber wounds. Reaching the hillcrest Harman determined, “The emergency was so pressing…I did not have time to even form my regiment…for Col. [Brodhead]…was in perfect order on the brow of the hill.”

As the Confederates poured over the ridge in his front, Buford hurried his three regiments back into line. Historians have criticized Buford for not sending the 1st Vermont into the fight, and cite his inexperience as a brigade commander as a logical explanation for this lapse of judgment. If Buford submitted a report it has been lost, though several factors may account for his decision. The very nature of mounted combat demanded the presence of a reserve force as a rallying point. Unable to see over the ridge in his front, Buford had no way of knowing the actual strength of the enemy he faced, but his men were under artillery fire as they tried to reform, and several accounts credit Southern infantry with a late appearance in the fight. All of these factors suggest that Buford held the 1st Vermont back as his reserve. Some accounts credit Robertson with throwing his entire force into the final charge, when, in fact, he held the 6th Virginia as a reserve.

There are several other possible explanations for the absence of the Vermonters from the battle. Buford may have ordered the regiment to hold Lewis and Ball’s fords on Bull Run, as there is evidence he was aware the left flank of the army was already crumbling. Also, contrary to Southern accounts, Buford was not able to reform his brigade before the Southern counterattack. Thus he may have intended to commit the 1st Vermont, if they were available, but was not given the necessary time. Finally, the regiment had been crippled for several months by a power struggle among the senior officers following the suicide of Col. Jonas Holliday in April. Buford would have been aware of the internal strife and may simply have had no confidence in the command.

Not surprisingly, participants recalled the last moments of the fight differently. Captain Myers described defeating two separate bodies of Federal cavalry, in turn. Asher Harman claimed the Yankees were in “perfect order,” while Henry Delamater, 4th New York, remembered a Rebel charge upon “our broken ranks…caused us to retire.” By not waiting to form his men, or align with the 7th Virginia, Colonel Harman risked encountering a much larger force on his own, but by attacking immediately he caught the Yankees unprepared. Though Buford led the counter-charge in person the Federals were not able to bring the same momentum into this clash as they had in the first encounter. Moments after the 12th Virginia crashed into the Union line, Captain Myers drove his 80 men into their right flank, yelling in a manner to make “the very welkin ring.” This time the engagement was over quickly.

Buford went down, struck in the knee by a ball. Colonel Brodhead was mortally wounded in a hand-to-hand duel with Lewis Harman of the 12th Virginia. The Wolverines lost at least ten officers in the deadly melee around their colonel. The 1st Michigan sustained the additional loss of 11 men killed, 14 wounded, six others wounded and captured and about 85 captured or missing for a total loss of about 130 officers and men – almost one-third of the men who had entered the battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Nazer noted the reliance of the Virginians on their revolvers in this second clash, an observation confirmed by Henry Delamater. “The Secesh used their revolvers with a determination to slaughter some of our lads, but did not kill a man; we cast some of the Rebels on their beam ends.” The 4th New York lost nearly fifty percent of their strength, with three men killed, seven wounded, three others wounded and captured and 46 men captured or missing. One year later a squadron from the regiment was captured in mass at Raccoon Ford, on the Rapidan River, after offering only minimal resistance and justifiably drew the ire of John Buford, who was then the division commander. Buford dammed the regiment for its lack of backbone at Raccoon Ford, and, in his anger, condemned it as the cause of his defeat at Lewis Ford. Nothing in the historical record justifies Buford’s scorn. The 4th New York was not a part of Buford’s command, and Nazer was under no obligation to stay and fight with him, but when Buford asked for his assistance it was freely given and Nazer and his men were pummeled for their trouble.

In this final encounter the 1st Michigan and the 4th New York were in Buford’s front line. Men from both of these regiments believed the battle was lost when they were not properly supported by the 1st West Virginia, coming up behind them. William Wilkens, one of the loyal Virginians, admitted that some of his comrades had indeed run from the fray, while “nearly all of our men that had the hardy hood to stay and fight…had been killed and wounded or taken prisoner.” Mourning lost comrades, Wilkens knew “the scenes of blood and horror that I there witnessed will always haunt my memory.”

“It is said here by old warriors to have been the boldest and most daring charge they ever saw,” Wilkens told his wife. Wilkens, who was not an old warrior, could only conclude, “it was daring and disastrous in its consequences.” Sgt. Amasa Matthews, 1st Michigan, thought “It was madness to make a charge on the enemy…so strongly supported by Infantry and Artillery, while we were Cavalry alone.” Other survivors believed it was “the absurdity and folly of pitting sabers against six-shooting revolvers,” that caused their defeat. Whatever the reason, the 1st West Virginia lost five dead, 22 wounded and 41 men captured or missing. The brigade lost 265 men. General Stuart reported a loss of five killed and 48 wounded, with all but six of the casualties sustained by the 2nd Virginia.

Most of the Union captives were quickly paroled and sent north to await exchange, but, on the very brink of freedom, Maj. William Atwood, 1st Michigan Cavalry, was arrested and taken back to Libby Prison. His story is the subject of the next post.


Sources include –


Munford-Ellis Papers

Myles Keogh Papers

Alfred Ryder Letters

Edward Watson Memoir

William Wells Papers

Detroit Advertiser and Tribune

Kinston People’s Press

National Tribune

Windsor Chronicle

Confederate Veteran

Maine Bugle

Patrick Bowmaster’s Thesis on Beverly Robertson

W.W. Blackford, War Years with Jeb Stuart

Bob Driver and Harold Howard, 2nd Virginia Cavalry

John Gill’s Reminiscences

John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run, and his Second Manassas Map Study

H. B. McClellan, Life and Campaigns of Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart

William McDonald, A History of the Laurel Brigade

Adele Mitchell, Letters of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart

Michael Musick, 6th Virginia Cavalry

2 thoughts on “a terrible hand-to-hand fight ensued

  1. Bob: This is what comes of bringing knives to a gun fight. Good old Bev Robertson. His boys put up a pretty fair fight against Sherman at John’s Island during the siege of Charleston.


    • Barry,

      Your comment ref knives to a gun fight is very much on point. The impact of Southern shotguns is, I believe, also very much ignored in accounts of early cavalry combat in the war. Cavalry combat was at close quarters, where shotguns would have been especially deadly. Regimental muster rolls for Southern units confirm the amount of shotgun ammunition received by cavalry regiments early in the war.


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