The great battle which is to arrest rebellion, or to make it a power in the land, is no longer distant or doubtful. McDowell has completed his reconnoissance of the country in front of the enemy, and General Scott anticipates that he will be in possession of Manassas to-morrow night. All the statements of officers concur in describing the Confederates as strongly intrenched along the line of Bull Run covering the railroad. The New York papers, indeed, audaciously declare that the enemy have fallen back in disorder. In the main thoroughfares of the city there is still a scattered army of idle soldiers moving through the civil crowd, though how they come here no one knows. The officers clustering round the hotels, and running in and out of the bar-rooms and eating-houses, are still more numerous. When I inquired at the head-quarters who these were, the answer was that the majority were skulkers, but that there was no power at such a moment to send them back to their regiments or punish them. In fact, deducting the reserves, the rear-guards, and the scanty garrisons at the earth-works, McDowell will not have 25,000 men to undertake his seven days' march through a hostile country to the Confederate capital; and yet, strange to say, in the pride and passion of the politicians, no doubt is permitted to rise for a moment respecting his complete success.
I was desirous of seeing what impression was produced upon the Congress of the United States by the crisis which was approaching, and drove down to the Senate at noon. There was no appearance of popular enthusiasm, excitement, or emotion among the people in the passages. They drank their iced water, ate cakes or lozenges, chewed and chatted, or dashed at their acquaintances amongst the members, as though nothing more important than a railway bill or a postal concession was being debated inside. I entered the Senate, and found the House engaged in not listening to Mr. Latham, the Senator for California, who was delivering an elaborate lecture on the aspect of political affairs from a Republican point of view. The senators were, as usual, engaged in reading newspapers, writing letters, or in whispered conversation, whilst the Senator received his applause from the people in the galleries, who were scarcely restrained from stamping their feet at the most highly-flown passages. Whilst I was listening to what is by courtesy called the debate, a messenger from Centreville, sent in a letter to me, stating that General McDowell would advance early in the morning, and expected to engage the enemy before noon. At the same moment a Senator who had received a despatch left his seat and read it to a brother legislator, and the news it contained was speedily diffused from one seat to another, and groups formed on the edge of the floor eagerly discussing the welcome intelligence.
The President's hammer again and again called them to order; and from out of this knot, Senator Sumner, his face lighted with pleasure, came to tell me the good news. “McDowell has carried Bull Run without firing a shot. Seven regiments attacked it at the point of the bayonet, and the enemy immediately fled. General Scott only gives McDowell till mid-day to-morrow to be in possession of Manassas.” Soon afterwards, Mr. Hay, the President's Secretary, appeared on the floor to communicate a message to the Senate. I asked him if the news was true. “All I can tell you,” said he, “is that the President has heard nothing at all about it, and that General Scott, from whom we have just received a communication, is equally ignorant of the reported success.”
Some senators and many congressmen have already gone to join McDowell's army, or to follow in its wake, in the hope of seeing the Lord deliver the Philistines into his hands. As I was leaving the Chamber with Mr. Sumner, a dust-stained, toil-worn man, caught the Senator by the arm, and said, “Senator, I am one of your constituents. I come from ——town, in Massachusetts, and here are letters from people you know, to certify who I am. My poor brother was killed yesterday, and I want to go out and get his body to send back to the old people; but they won't let me pass without an order.” And so Mr. Sumner wrote a note to General Scott, and an other to General Mansfield, recommending that poor Gordon Frazer should be permitted to go through the Federal lines on his labor of love; and the honest Scotchman seemed as grateful as if he had already found his brother's body.
Every carriage, gig, wagon, and hack has been engaged by people going out to see the fight. The price is enhanced by mysterious communications respecting the horrible slaughter in the skirmishes at Bull's Run. The French cooks and hotelkeepers, by some occult process of reasoning, have arrived at the conclusion that they must treble the prices of their wines and of the hampers of provisions which the Washington people are ordering to comfort themselves at their bloody Derby, “There was not less than 18,000 men, sir, killed and destroyed. I don't care what General Scott says to the contrary, he was not there. I saw a reliable gentleman, ten minutes ago, as cum [sic] straight from the place, and he swore there was a string of wagons three miles long with the wounded. While these Yankees lie so, I should not be surprised to hear they said they did not lose 1000 men in that big fight the day before yesterday.”
When the newspapers came in from New York, I read flaming accounts of the ill-conducted reconnoissance against orders, which was terminated by a most dastardly and ignominious retreat, “due,” say the New York papers, “to the inefficiency and cowardice of some of the officers.” Far different was the behavior of the modest chroniclers of these scenes, who, as they tell us, “stood their ground as well as any of them, in spite of the shot, shell, and rifle-balls that whizzed past them for many hours.: General Tyler alone, perhaps, did more, for “he was exposed to the enemy's fire for nearly four hours;” and when we consider that this fire came from masked batteries, and that the wind of round shot is unusually destructive (in America), we can better appreciate the danger to which he was so gallantly indifferent. It is obvious that in this first encounter the Federal troops gained no advantage; and as they were the assailants, their repulse, which cannot be kept secret from the rest of the army, will have a very damaging effect on their morale.
General Johnston, who has been for some days with a considerable force in an entrenched position at Winchester, in the valley of the Shenandoah, had occupied General Scott's attention, in consequence of the facility which he possessed to move into Maryland by Harper's Ferry, or to fall on the Federals by the Manassas Gap Railway, which was available by a long march from the town he occupied. General Patterson, with a Federal corps of equal strength, had accordingly been despatched to attack him, or, at all events, to prevent his leaving Winchester without an action; but the news to-night is that Patterson, who was an officer of some reputation, has allowed Johnston to evacuate Winchester, and has not pursued him; so that it is impossible to predict where the latter will appear.
Having failed utterly in my attempts to get a horse, I was obliged to negotiate with a livery stable-keeper, who had a hooded gig, or tilbury, left on his hands, to which he proposed to add a splinter-bar and pole, so as to make it available for two horses, on condition that I paid him the assessed value of the vehicle and horses, in case they were destroyed by the enemy. Of what particular value my executors might have regarded the guarantee in question, the worthy man did not inquire, nor did he stipulate for any value to be put upon the driver; but it struck me that, if these were in any way seriously damaged, the occupants of the vehicle were not likely to escape. The driver, indeed, seemed by no means willing to undertake the job; and again and again it was proposed to me that I should drive, but I persistently refused.
On completing my bargain with the stable-keeper, in which it was arranged with Mr. Wroe that I was to start on the following morning early, and return at night before twelve o'clock, or pay a double day, I went over to the Legation, and found Lord Lyons in the garden. I went to request that he would permit Mr. Warre, one of the attachés, to accompany me, as he had expressed a desire to that effect. His Lordship hesitated at first, thinking perhaps that the American papers would turn the circumstance to some base uses, if they were made aware of it; but finally he consented, on the distinct assurance that I was to be back the following night, and would not, under any event, proceed onwards with General McDowell's army till after I had returned to Washington. On talking the matter over with Mr. Warre, I resolved, that the best plan would be to start that night if possible, and proceed over the Long Bridge, so as to overtake the army before it advanced in the early morning.
It was a lovely moonlight night. As we walked through the street to General Scott's quarters, for the purpose of procuring a pass, there was scarcely a soul abroad; and the silence which reigned contrasted strongly with the tumult prevailing in the daytime. A light glimmered in the General’s parlor; his aides were seated in the veranda outside smoking in silence, and one of them handed us the passes which he had promised to procure; but when I told them that we intended to cross the Long Bridge that night, an unforeseen obstacle arose. The guards had been specially ordered to permit no person to cross between tattoo and daybreak who was not provided with the countersign; and without the express order of the General, no subordinate officer can communicate that countersign to a stranger. “Can you not ask the General?” “He is lying down asleep, and I dare not venture to disturb him.”
As I had all along intended to start before daybreak, this contretemps promised to be very embarrassing, and I ventured to suggest that General Scott would authorize the countersign to be given when he awoke. But the aide-de-camp shook his head, and I began to suspect from his manner and from that of his comrades that my visit to the army was not regarded with much favor — a view which was confirmed by one of them, who, by the way, was a civilian, for in a few minutes he said, “In fact, I would not advise Warre and you to go out there at all; they are a lot of volunteers and recruits, and we can't say how they will behave. They may probably have to retreat. If I were you I would not be near them.” Of the five or six officers who sat in the veranda, not one spoke confidently or with the briskness which is usual when there is a chance of a brush with an enemy.
As it was impossible to force the point, we had to retire, and I went once more to the horse dealer's where I inspected the vehicle and the quadrupeds destined to draw it. I had spied in a stalk a likely-looking Kentuckian nag, nearly black, light, but strong, and full of fire, with an undertaker's tail and something of a mane to match, which the groom assured me I could not even look at, as it was bespoke by an officer; but after a little strategy I prevailed on the proprietor to hire it to me for the day, as well as a boy, who was to ride it after the gig till we came to Centreville. My little experience in such scenes decided me to secure a saddle horse. I knew it would be impossible to see anything of the action from a gig; that the roads would be blocked up by commissariat wagons, ammunition reserves, and that in case of anything serious taking place, I should be deprived of the chance of participating after the manner of my vocation in the engagement and of witnessing its incidents. As it was not incumbent on my companion to approach so closely to the scene of action, he could proceed in the vehicle to the most convenient point, and then walk as far as he liked, and return when he pleased; but from the injuries I had sustained in the Indian campaign, I could not walk very far. It was finally settled that the gig, with two horses and the saddle horse ridden by a negro boy, should be at my door as soon after daybreak as We could pass the Long Bridge.
I returned to my lodgings, laid out an old pair of Indian boots, cords, a Himalayan suit, an old felt hat, a flask, revolver, and belt. It was very late when I got in, and I relied on my German landlady to procure some commissariat stores; but she declared the whole extent of her means would only furnish some slices of bread, with intercostal layers of stale ham and mouldy Bologna sausage. I was forced to be content, and got to bed after midnight, and slept, having first arranged that in case of my being very late next night a trustworthy Englishman should be sent for, who would carry my letters from Washington to Boston in time for the mail which leaves on Wednesday. My mind had been so much occupied with the coming event that I slept uneasily, and once or twice I started up, fancying I was called. The moon shone full through the mosquito curtains of my bed, and just ere daybreak I was aroused by some noise in the adjoining room, and looking out, in a half dreamy state, imagined I saw General McDowell standing at the table, on which a candle was burning low, so distinctly that I woke up with the words, "General, is that you?" Nor did I convince myself it was a dream till I had walked into the room.
SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, Vol. 1, p. 434-9