- Historic Sites
The Tour Of Prince Napoleon
A FRENCH VISIT TO CIVIL WAR AMERICA Selections from the letters of Lieutenant Colonel Camille Ferri Pisani, who accompanied Prince Napoleon on his state visit, touring the fronts, both North and South, visiting the West and meeting Lincoln and the men around him during the Union’s darkest days
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
In this connection I must tell you that the life of American Generals, in the North as well as in the South, is extremely simple, too simple perhaps when compared to the salaries attached to their high positions. Their surroundings are most unlike the hospitable luxuries which our Generals like to have around them, despite their meager salaries. A few metal dishes compose all their military houseware, and I suspect that usually (except for extraordinary circumstances such as the Prince’s visit) their menu is not much different from that of the soldiers. This frugality and roughness in taste are part of American manners. Furthermore, from a military point of view, much can be said to defend them.
What I found unforgivable was the lack of any prestige accorded General Officers in the exercise of the command. The functions of aide-de-camp are limited essentially to military duty and preclude any personal service to the General. It seemed strange to us to see a Commander in Chief deprived of any intermediary between himself and the world of subordinates, soldiers or domestics, attached to his quarters.
American Generals live in their tents in a kind of isolation, contrasting singularly with the lively animation which surrounds our higher Officers. Furthermore, nothing except imperceptible insignia and slight differences in dress differentiates them from other officers. A General walks amidst his troop without escort, except on special occasions. To rise above such simplicity requires a high degree of moral ascendancy and personal prestige found in few men. Democratic habits, and the lack of military traditions in the United States, color the relationships between officers and their superiors in a manner that continually shocked us. There is hardly a shade of difference in the salute between lower and higher ranks. The lower officer unhesitatingly offers a vigorous handshake to his superior, and we often saw a lieutenant or a captain present his General to his colonel!
A seven we left for the battlefield. The Prince rode with General Beauregard in a small carriage; I followed in another carriage with General Johnston. Baron Mercier and de Geoffroy rode horses at our sides with many Generals and a brilliant escort of more than a hundred officers. As for Ragon and Sand, they refused to leave their carriages and left to wait for us on the road to Alexandria.
After a fast ride across the fields we arrived on the bare plateau rising above the Bull Run, at the very center of the action, amidst corpses, dead horses and freshly-dug graves. After the Prince mounted his horse, General Beauregard told him, with both eloquence and lucidity, all the phases of this military drama. Three days earlier, in his tent, McDowell had related to us the same events, viewed this time from a diametrically opposed point of view. We were quite fortunate, indeed, to hear the story of the battle, three days apart, from the mouth of the General who lost it and from the mouth of the General who won. We were equally fortunate to be able to visit the battlefield even before the bloody traces of struggle had been removed.
The Bull Run is a creek which empties in the bay formed by the mouth of the Potomac. Its course is parallel to the upper section of the Potomac, on the banks of which the Federal troops established their positions. Thus, the lines of defense of the two armies, separated by an average distance of twelve leagues, turn their backs to the sea, one on the left, the other on the right.
The Confederates chose Bull Run for their line of defense because its banks are more rugged than those of the other creeks scattered throughout the countryside, and also because of the many woods covering the river. Furthermore, the line of Bull Run protects Manassas, a center of capital importance since it is the junction of two railroad lines, one going south to Richmond, the other west through the Alleghenies. As you know, Richmond is the present residence of the President, the Government and the Congress of the Confederacy. The main road linking the two Armies crosses Fairfax—seven leagues from Alexandria—Centerville, and reaches Bull Run a few leagues beyond this village. A stone bridge over the river extends the road to Warrenton.
On July 15, the Southern Army had its extreme left outpost on this bridge. From this point the Southern positions extended about three leagues alongside the right bank of the river. There were also two advanced groups, one in Fairfax, the other in Centerville. Abatis had been erected along the Bull Run wherever the enemy might have crossed easily. [Abatis was a wooden entanglement which served then as barbed wire obstructions serve today.]
On July 16, in the morning, the Federal troops left Alexandria and Arlington in several columns. The next day they established contact with the Confederates near Fairfax. The latter, threatened on several fronts, withdrew to Centerville. Continuing their retreat beyond the Bull Run, they abandoned the whole left bank of the river. On July 18, McDowell marched on Centerville, dispatching on his left a strong reconnoitering party whose mission was to feel out the center of the enemy forces at a place on Bull Run known as Blackburn’s Ford. The 8,000 men entrusted with this operation met considerable resistance and withdrew after heavy losses. No new developments took place the following day. The Union Army, gathered in Centerville, waited for a favorable time and place to attack the enemy lines. On the evening of July 20, McDowell thought he had found it at the extreme left of the Confederate lines.