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“Bull Run” Russell
The first modern war correspondent won a nickname, much Northern ill will, and a lasting reputation out of his account of a famous battle
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
This was no rout. Men on both sides, exhausted by the long and arduous struggle, were simply leaving the field by twos and threes, discussing among themselves the fortunes of the day. Jefferson Davis, arriving very late in the afternoon, was appalled at the number of Southern stragglers coming to the rear. But the men paid no attention whatsoever to the tall civilian on horseback who attempted to rally them. There was little chance of pursuing the Federal army. His Confederate force, Joe Johnston would one day sadly recall, “was more disorganized by victory than that of the United States by defeat.”
McDowell’s order to withdraw, when it came, was utterly superfluous. The decision, he noted in his official report of the battle, “had been anticipated by the troops.” Back they came, splashing across the now uncontested fords of Bull Run and crowding onto the Warrenton Turnpike that led to Centreville. In the process, unit organization broke down completely; and McDowell’s army became just so many individuals scrambling to save themselves. A New York boy complained of the sporadic Southern artillery that harassed the retrograde movement: “Captain,” he asked, “why do the rebels keep shelling us when we’re doing our best to leave them alone?”
The correspondent of the London Times had meanwhile traveled on horseback some distance beyond the hill at Centreville and toward the fighting at Bull Run. Suddenly he perceived several wagons coming toward him at a reckless speed. At first he thought they must be returning from the field for fresh supplies of ammunition. But, as the traffic grew thicker, he began to realize that something was wrong.
“What is all this about?” Russell politely inquired of an officer. “Why it means we are pretty badly whipped, that’s the truth,” the man gasped before rushing off. Displaying righteous indignation, Russell attempted to interfere with a driver going so fast that he was losing all his baggage. A loaded musket was pointed at his head, and the Britisher gracefully withdrew his protest. “My attempts to save Uncle Sam’s property were then and there discontinued,” he later wrote.
The road now was choked with carts, wagons, straggling foot soldiers, and mounted officers. Those returning from the field had pushed up against those still en route to the battle, and there was a hopeless, inextricable snarl. A stray burst of Rebel artillery upset a wagon on the Cub Run bridge between Bull Run and Centreville, and the traffic jam became complete.
To men who repeatedly asked him where the army would halt, Russell calmly replied “Centreville”—it seemed a logical rallying point to this veteran observer, as long as anyone was interested in his opinion. Although his personal sympathies were undoubtedly with the Union, the correspondent was here motivated by a dislike of military incompetence and a very strong conviction that the mounting panic was completely uncalled for. His military judgment was quite correct, at Centreville; it would have been possible for him to at Centreville; it would have been possible for him to hold this place and regroup his forces but for the senseless panic that swept through his retreating army.
Contributing greatly to this panic was the fear among the Union stragglers that they were about to be charged by the enemy’s Black Horse Cavalry, a Rebel bogeyman that had received a good deal of publicity. Russell pooh-poohed the notion of cavalry operating in this broken and crowded terrain. “There’s no enemy to pursue you,” he told a frightened group. “All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But there was little room for logic in this confusing situation. Seeing that he could accomplish nothing, Russell finally joined the irresistible tide flowing back to Centreville.
As yet, the epic proportions of the retreat were not apparent to him, and, beyond Centreville, he was thoroughly surprised to see the movement continuing unabated. Again assuming a knowledgeable air, he approached an officer. “I venture to suggest that these men should be stopped, sir,” he said. “If not, they will alarm the whole of the post and pickets on to Washington. They will fly next, and the consequences will be most disastrous.” The officer dashed forward to act on Russell’s proposal. Satisfied that a rout had been avoided, the reporter continued on to Washington. To a road companion ready to acknowledge defeat, he sharply retorted: “Oh, don’t say that … it’s not quite so bad, it’s only a drawn battle and the troops will occupy Centreville.”
Still exuding confidence, Russell passed over the Long Bridge and entered Washington by moonlight at 11 P.M.
Toward evening Lincoln had returned from his carriage ride to learn the bad news. At the War Department telegraph office he read the latest dispatch: “The day is lost. Save Washington and the remnants of this army. The routed troops will not re-form.” The President spent a sleepless night on a sofa in the White House Cabinet room. “If there were nothing else of Abraham Lincoln for history to stamp him with,” Walt Whitman later wrote, “it is enough … that he endured that hour, that day, bitterer than gall—indeed a crucifixion day—that it did not conquer him—that he unflinchingly stemm’d it, and resolv’d to lift himself and the Union out of it.”