Letter from Lieutenant Colonel Robert McAllister, 1st New Jersey Volunteer Infantry
July 25, 1861
In writing to you yesterday, I had to stop short, as the cry was: “The enemy are coming.” But it turned out to be only a troop of horse. Fire was exchanged and they disappeared.
The right wing of our Regiment have since been engaged in throwing up breastworks at the Arlington Mills, some three miles out from the river at a road and railroad crossing, where we are planting a battery to sweep the road. We hope the North will pour down her troops so that before long we may take up our line of march to Centreville and Manassas Junction and regain what we have lost.
No retreat should have been ordered at Bull Run, for the day was ours. The enemy were whipped. The men fought brave enough, but we have too many cowardly officers. Yet we have very many brave ones who did credit to our arms.
Sabbath morning, July 21st, the 1st and 2nd New Jersey Volunteers were encamped at Vienna. Col. McLean commanded the 2nd New Jersey. Being Lieutenant Colonel of the 1st Regiment, I commanded that unit, as our Col. Montgomery outranked McLean and thus had command of the whole.
The roaring of artillery announced the opening of the battle of Bull Run. Three of our companies were absent on reconnaissance and had not returned when orders came from Headquarters for us to move up to Centreville. We were soon on our way and moving rapidly toward the scene of conflict. We passed Germantown, the artillery sounding louder and louder. Some miles on this side of Centreville, we met a gentleman who said all was right, the enemy were driven in toward Manassas Gap. On we went, feeling elated. After a while, the artillery ceased firing. We then knew that the battle was decided; but which way was the question.
Soon this sad story was told by the confused mass of the retreating army. We determined to do what we could to stop the panic. We threw our columns across the road, appealed to their patriotism, to their honor, to the Flag, and urged them to return and help us fight the battle. But the panic was so great that our appeals were for the time unheeded. We then charged bayonets and stopped the stampede, letting only the wounded pass on…
Cheer after cheer went up for us as we advanced, and solemn promises were made on the part of the stampeders that they would fall in our rear if we advanced through them and formed a line of battle. Others cried: “Go up yonder hill and you’ll get it! You will be cut to pieces!” Still others encouraged us with hopes that we would save their retreat and bear the brunt of the battle.
The stampede was now stopped and we were on the summit of a hill. Col. Montgomery had a conference with Genl. McDowell and urged the propriety of making a stand on the heights of Centreville–throwing up breastworks, holding the position, and not retreating to Washington. The General consented and ordered him to take his command to the other side of Centreville and form his lines for defense. We passed Centreville and took up a position on the hill with our right resting on the road along which the enemy would have to come. But when we had accomplished this and were ready for battle, we found that our 2nd New Jersey Regiment had retreated. Two regiments under the command of Col. Blenker were the only troops left besides…
After sitting some time on my horse in silence–the men having nearly all fallen asleep–I passed over to the left wing on the other side of the road in order to throw out additional pickets. One of our Captains asked me if I knew the danger we were in.
“Certainly,” I replied.
“Why don’t we retreat?” he then asked.
I told him my orders were to hold this position and that I was going to do it.
“We may as well surrender all at once,” he said, “as we will be cut to pieces.”
I told him we would never surrender and that we would give them a tremendous fight.
I then returned to my position and remained there until Maj. Hatfield returned and informed me that we had to retreat. Our orders were given in a low tone, almost a whisper…
I do contend that we–i.e., all the army–ought to have formed at Centreville, according to Montgomery’s idea. Had that plan been pursued, we would be in possession of it yet.
A great many claim the credit of protecting the retreat and being the last to leave the field. But it is all in the imagination, for we were the very last to leave Centreville. In confidence I tell you that when our Colonel called on Genl. McDowell, he could not be found. He had retreated without giving us order to retreat, and we would have been left to be cut to pieces had we not accidentally discovered that Col. Blenker was retreating. You see it stated that Blenker’s command saved the retreat, and yet we were in Centreville two hours after Col. Blenker left.
I have now given a fair, unvarnished statement of the whole matter, but have been so much interrupted that I fear it will be uninteresting…
Source: Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.