"All was Complete Chaos"

By Lt. Thomas Evans

Reprinted with the permission of Cowles Enthusiast Media, Civil War Times Illustrated magazine and TheHistoryNet.com.
Copyright 1967/1968, Civil War Times Illustrated
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This is the third installment of the memoirs of Lieut. Thomas Evans, a Welsh immigrant who entered the Regular Army as an enlisted man in 1850 then became a sergeant in the newly organized 12th U.S. Infantry in 1861. Parts I and II describe his experiences in the Battles of Gaines's Mill and Malvern Hill. He received a commission for valorous conduct. The manuscript from which these excerpts are taken was furnished by Evans' granddaughter, Mrs. Angela Evans Todd, of Indian Head, Maryland. - Editor

Early in the second week of August it was rumored that the Army of the Potomac was again in motion, and on the 14th at 9 p.m. (knapsacks, tents, and stores having been sent on board transports at Harrison's Landing) we left camp with our fires still burning. It was quite dark and we went noiselessly along, occasionally challenged by our own pickets. At 2 in the morning we halted for two hours to let our train pass, and threw ourselves down to rest. The moon was now up and shining in unclouded splendor, making the fir needles glisten like points of crystal.

I heard the words "Fall in!" It did not seem five minutes since I lay down, and I did not think I had been asleep at all, but our two hours were up, the trains had passed, and we went on again.

We crossed the Chickahominy in the forenoon, now become a deep and respectable river, on an excellently constructed pontoon bridge, over 600 yards in length and containing 95 pontoons, guarded by a gunboat. We passed again through Williamsburg and Yorktown, and then recrossed the peninsula to Newport News, arriving there before noon of the 18th; but as on the last night we had a long rest and an early start, we did not suffer so much by the heat and choking sand as on the previous day, the distance covered being between sixty and seventy miles. The men were fresh and at inspection that night they looked clean and soldierly, and the army was in good order.

The waking up in the morning was the most delicious change I ever felt; after sweltering for months in swamps and on sand barrens, inhaling miasma at every breath, no wonder we felt exhilarated. The cool sea breeze was fanning us, our lungs seemed to take in pure oxygen with a mixture of laughing gas. It was like being in another world. I hurried to the bank to look at the beautiful river as it widens out to sea, hoping to get a swim before breakfast, but the river flowed a hundred feet below me, and the cliff was perpendicular. There was a calm over everything. An occasional bird song broke out from among the tree tops, and no other sound was audible. Turning my eyes to the left they rested on the frigate Cumberland, lying just where she sank after being struck by the Merrimac, her top masts and upper yards being all that were visible.

On the 20th we went on board a steamer and remained lying off Fort Monroe all night; in the morning we went to Aquia Creek, our general, our good fortune, and good management having all left us.

We arrived at Aquia Creek on the 22d, and went by railroad to Falmouth, and thence were marching day and night to form a junction with Pope. On the 23d we halted for the night on the Warrenton road. We heard that Pope had fallen back to Warrenton Junction, and that the enemy's columns had been pushed between him and us. The line of road was wretchedly supplied with water and we were getting short provisions. We formed a line of battle at every halt, expecting an attack, and lay down behind our arms stacks when we halted for the night. On the 27th we halted near Warrenton Junction. Here was read an order of General Porter's forbidding any man to fall out of the ranks for any purpose whatsoever, without a written pass from his company commander. It authorized the use of the bayonet on any who disobeyed, and threatened to place the officers in irons if they did not stop the straggling. I do not know if this was aimed at any particular regiment, but I know the Regulars took it very hard, and it was severely commented on, as was natural. General Porter was never popular with his corps thereafter, and it was remembered against him when he left the Army under those charges which dishonorably dismissed him from the service, incapacitated for ever holding a commission or any office of trust under the government again.

On the 28th we were under arms at 2 a.m. but did not start until daybreak. We passed the scene of Hooker's battle of the 27th. Railroad bridges had been destroyed, tracks torn up, the sleepers burned, engine and cars blown up and destroyed in every possible way. Rebel knapsacks and rags were strewn about and a series of hospitals had been extemporised, but many of the wounded lay under the fences covered with boughs, and a few dead were lying about.

I don't know who was in command of the army after we reached Aquia Creek. It seemed as if it had no responsible head, as if every general was acting on his own hook, and was wondering what he meant to do or what he should do or could do, and being unable to decide, left the matter to chance. It is on the movement, or rather the failure to move on one of these three days, that the charges against Fitz John Porter were preferred, whether justly or not I cannot in my own mind decide, or whether witnesses all told the truth, the whole truth. I do know that the nights at this time were pitch dark, and the roads were encumbered with wagons, and that there was not even tolerable marching ground off the road. That our corps commander was a traitor I will not believe. If so, had he not a better opportunity at Gaines's Mill? And if he had been minded he could have lost his corps there, and imperiled the whole army by being cut off from all supplies. That there was some pique between General Pope and him, is more likely, and being a thorough McClellan man, he chafed under the orders of the man who superseded him [McClellan] and perhaps did not act as promptly as he might have done.

On the 29th we were marching and countermarching all day without apparent object. The scene on the road presented for miles more the character of the movements of a beaten and dispersed army than of one advancing in the hope of gaining a victory. Enough generals were hunting for brigades, to have formed a brigade of generals. Regiments hunting for brigades, companies for regiments, and straggling men and officers, singly, by twos and threes, and squads of from six to a dozen, on one grand hunt all day long. It was confusion worse confounded, and it seemed as if our brigade was posted purposely on this road to give directions (only we did not know where) to all stragglers, loafers, and unfortunates of the army. It made things look rather blue and hazy ahead that we had not yet "bagged Jackson." Indeed it was reported more than once that we had him bagged; that all we had to do was pull the string. If that were so, either the string was never drawn, or there was a large hole in the bottom of the bag, and instead of bagging him he thrashed and nearly bagged us.

Solomon said that "In a multitude of counsellors there is wisdom." The converse of this is true of generals. A multitude of generals seems to induce jealousy, indecision, and contrariness. Who commanded the army next day? Was it Pope or was it McDowell? I was close to them both several times during the battle, and both seemed to be equally great in hesitancy; one could not give the order, the other would not. Pope, I suppose, was the ranking officer, but he seemed to defer to McDowell, and McDowell would decide nothing. Yes, once he rode in front of the brigade during the action and ordered us to shout, that the enemy might suppose we had received reinforcements!! These are his own precise words. I wonder if he thought we should topple down Secesh by shouting, as the sound of the rams' horns toppled down the walls of Jerico. However, shout we did and were rewarded for our obedience as might have been expected by a shower of spherical case and grape from the Rebel batteries. But I am getting ahead of my story. At night, after finding where the enemy was posted, by them sending a few shells into us, we lay down in the road and rested.

Early on the morning of August 30 we took position in line of battle in a cornfield. We were "left in front," the 14th being ahead of us, the 4th in our rear, and the 3d and Duryea's Zouaves deployed as skirmishers on our left flank. Hatch's brigade was on our right.

The fields of the former Bull Run battlefield had no pleasant associations, and the dead that were scattered here and there, unburied from the day before's fight, and the other events of the last few days, did not fill us with exultation.

Yet it was a lovely morning and as we were going into position we passed a volunteer regiment getting ready to breakfast, with tempting steaks toasting at fires. We had a little hardtack and must go on, but it is unpleasant going to fight on an empty stomach, after being used up with night and day marching. However, our intended junction was made, and for miles we could see our troops, thousands upon thousands, either in, or taking up positions. Well handled, it seemed impossible that so fine an army could be defeated on the old battleground of 1861.

We had not been long in position (on the left center) when the ball opened with a brisk artillery fire on the center and left. About noon our batteries pressed up, the enemy being concealed in the woods as usual. The 14th was still ahead of us, our regiment halting on the edge of the woods ready to take their place. General Sykes dismounted, and walked past the front of our battalion, cautioning the men to keep cool, and giving a word of encouragement in season, his own imperturbable bearing having more influence than his words. I believe we were cool enough; I know I had just waked up my first sergeant who had been snoring away for two hours under fire.

Up to this time I had not seen a single soldier of the enemy. The woods and the smoke hid them entirely. To me this brings always a most disagreeable feeling, akin to awe, at this fighting the unseen. We know that there are 100,000 men in front of us, probably half as many more. We know they are close on us, by the force with which the minie bullets strike. We know that they intend to have a hard fight by the dispositions they have made, their point of attack, and the large force of artillery they have in play. But by feeling and hearing alone are we judges of this.

The idea almost everyone forms of a battle is something like a vast chessboard (at least that was always my inexperienced idea) on which the masses of infantry are pawns, the cavalry, light artillery, and commanding officers the pieces, and the com-manding generals the players. Such may be the case in the Old World, but a new system was inaugurated in the New World. Cavalry, always playing such a conspicuous part in European battles, was here a dead letter. Even "flying" artillery was next to useless. The ground was so impracticable for evolutions, and the foe is wherever he is least expected, till he comes on with a mad rush in column that nothing can resist, if he is near enough to defy our artillery.

A great number of our troops were heavily massed on the right where there had been no fighting. It was said 40,000 men left that portion of the field without firing a shot. I myself saw more than one regiment march down to the edge of the woods to support Hatch, as beautifully as if on parade, look over the fence, and then as deliberately march back again.

Suddenly a little column of smoke arises from the woods on our right. In a few seconds a similar column rises to our left. There is a breathless lull. We all know what it precedes: "Look out boys, we shall get it now!" Yes, here it comes, shell, round shot, spherical case, minie-shot, strong, heavy, and close. It tears through the trees, lopping branches and making the bark fly. That is Stonewall beyond all doubt. [Actually Longstreet.] We know his rush just as well as if we saw him heading his men. General Hatch is overpowered on our right, he passes us wounded, his brigade breaks, and his officers in vain try to rally the men; that is, some of the officers, for others we have seen dodging behind trees away from their companies, and falling to the rear for the last half hour.

On our left the 3d and the Zouaves are said to be nearly cut to pieces. Both our flank supports are gone, and the order comes to "Fall back." Our artillery has taken a strong position to cover the movement and hold the road to Centerville. We face by the rear flank and pass up the slope, our artillery blazing over us and making us wink again. The enemy is blazing into us, but we go on in perfect order to the rear of our batteries, come to our proper front and "Place rest."

Here another ludicrous incident occurred. As we passed to the rear of the batteries by a little log shanty, a round shot struck a stand on which beehives had been placed, and up started a new army of by no means despicable warriors. Muskets were passed from one hand to the other almost as quickly as could be done by a prestidigitateur, to drive off this new foe, who ungratefully attacked us, instead of the disturbing party. Such a joke was far too good for us to share alone, so someone gave the hive a vigorous kick and sent it spinning down the whole line for the benefit of others. There was some hard swearing, but the men kept their places.

Our little division of Regulars and Regular batteries now held the enemy in check. The Federal right was already in full retreat. The left was completely turned, and nothing but the bold front of those batteries on the crest and our little division of Regulars prevented another stampede, and the carnage of a victorious pursuit. We could not have been more than 4,000 men, and I feel prouder of being in the last three hours of fighting of the 2d Bull Run than of all the other battles of the Army of the Potomac, not excepting even Gaines's Mill.

The particular fight of our brigade came about thus: Generals Pope, McDowell, Porter, and Sykes were in a group, just in front of us, watching the movements of the enemy, when General Milroy - may his shadow never be greater - rode up, brandishing his sword in a state of high excitement, begging assistance, and stating that his brigade was being cut to pieces.

Milroy kept on talking and prancing around, and reiterating his request, and that he wanted but a "few more men and the day is our own." McDowell pointed with his finger and exclaimed, "Hell and chickens, your men are running like the devil, like the very devil, sir!"

Milroy couldn't see it, and as he found his own claim not overpoweringly acknowledged, he said that Meade was there and wanted help. Sykes directly turned in his saddle, sharp as a needle, and to the point at once said:

"If General Meade wants reinforcements he shall have them," and gave us the order.

We wheeled by brigade steadily under fire and went down, the 4th taking post in line on our right, the 14th passing on to our left. Going down we passed about two companies of Volunteers in a lane hidden by a high bank, where they were taking things comfortable, half a dozen climbing up the bank and firing, and coming down again, and half a dozen more replacing them. They pointed to the left as the place where the fighting was going on, and assured us it was as "Hot as hell down there!" We thought it probable, but I don't remember thanking them for the information.

Milroy had ridden on, shouting like a cattle drover. We saw no men to relieve, and none fighting, nor Milroy himself after he rode past us. The first three companies of the 12th were ordered into the advanced position in a dry ditch. (These companies were A, F, and H. I was commanding Co. A.) Captain Read was acting as Lt. Col. As we were going down the bank, the man next to me sprang up and fell on his back, stone dead, shot through the temple by a rifle ball. We replied by a random volley, and then fired as often as we saw anything to shoot at, and sometimes I believe we didn't. I should have liked to pepper those fellows in the lane who were a quarter of a mile in our rear and were shooting a good deal nearer to us than they were to the enemy.

We were in an awkward place, and Captain Sargeant got the order to let us join the line. As we were doing so, we overlapped the 4th, who were blazing away like good fellows. I broke files to the rear and brought my company into line. Then I saw poor Read on his back, dead, just fallen from his horse.

The 10th Georgia nearly caught us at a disadvantage. They had crept up through the underbrush and were forming when their flag was seen by Sergeant Lamonier, an old Indian fighter who was intently watching the woods, in time for us to pour in a volley. They returned a scattering fire, we another volley. They passed on to our left and tried the 14th, who were at a "Ready" when a shout came from the woods: "For God's sake don't fire - we are the 12th coming in with prisoners!" The 14th knew we were on their right and probably saw our three companies move to the front, but their commanding officer, Captain O'Connell, rode around his regiment to reconnoiter. The instant he was in front the enemy poured in a volley, cutting his clothes to shreds, bringing down his horse and wounding many men, but without touching the gallant captain seriously. The volley the 14th returned was quick and went home, as we could tell by the outcries. Our volleys followed promptly and the three regiments kept it up till we were no longer answered except by some sharpshooter who fired as he fell back.

It was getting dark as we reached the turnpike. The road was full of troops. Our right wing had been on the march for hours by another road, and there is no doubt but that the enemy was also pushing quickly forward around our right, and into Maryland. We kept marching, or rather creeping along all night, for such marching we had never seen before. During the seven days and nights of marching we never saw for five minutes a hundredth part of the confusion that lasted through this long, weary night. Companies and parts of companies belonging to regiments from every state in the Union were mixed together-artillery, cavalry, staff officers. All was complete chaos. Officers and non commissioned officers were by the roadside shouting the numbers of their regiments, and names of their states in a vain hope of getting their men together.

If there had been a pursuit it would have resulted in a massacre compared to which the first Bull Run would have been but a skirmish. The enemy must have been better acquainted with the roads than we were, and a handful of resolute men would have created such a panic in our disorderly, disorganized mass, that our men would have shot and beaten out each other's brains in the jam. Boxes of hard bread were found at intervals upon the road, and the men plunged at them like famished wolves, glad if they could get a handful. But water, which we wanted more, we could not get. Whoever left his comrades two steps was lost for that night, but it commenced raining and if we could not get water to drink, we got it into our systems by absorption from our clothes.

At various places by the roadside as we went on, fires were burning, left so by those who were earliest off the field. We could not stay, and faint and weary I remember seeing all through that night in the mist that gathered around the fires and in the occasional half-lit spaces in the gloom of the woods, strange pictures of houses and streets, processions of men with arms gleaming, colors flying, and bands playing - a pleasant sort of phantasmagoria compared with the grim reality.

We had to keep shoulder to shoulder and breast to back, or a rush would cut the line. Nevertheless after all the care we had taken, we found on halting at Centerville, that Company A was the only company with us. A Pennsylvania company, or part of it, was in the rear of that. When we woke up after a short rest it was daylight and our seven other companies were within 300 yards of us on the opposite side of the road. But the night was so dark we might have been side by side without knowing it.

In the morning (Sunday) we had fresh beef issued, but before it could be put into anything to cook, orders came to move, and we lost all our beef except such pieces as the men could hack off with their knives and carry in their hands. We occupied the interior of the fortifications at Centerville, and amused ourselves the principal part of the day in toasting thin slices of beef on sword and bayonet points, and eating it with a relish that hunger alone can give.

About noon a long train of ambulances arrived from Washington with employees from the War Department to bring in our wounded, if the enemy would receive our flag of truce. Not an ambulance had been in the field and I saw but one stretcher in our division during the battle, and that belonged to the 3d Regiment. Our wounded were left where they fell. It sickens me now to think of it - numbers of them on the field that Saturday night, mangled, and with nerves and raw flesh exposed to the night air, in the burning sun the next day, and many through the horrors of another night - unable to crawl to water if it had been within a few yards of them. How many lives were thus cruelly lost, how much additional suffering incurred by this criminal neglect, can only be guessed at now, but it must have been fearful.

On Monday we made part of 1,200 men under General [Gouverneur K.] Warren, for outpost duty, on which I and my Company, while examining a piece of woods, fell in with an advance party of the enemy's cavalry who were reconnoitering, and we were fortunate in not being cut off. Things looked shaky for a few minutes, but we got back safely.

At night we could hear the enemy's columns moving away to our right, and the rumbling of wheels at a distance of a mile or two, and could see the reflections of their camp fires on the clouds. It had set in a rainy night, and the reserves lay damp and shivering till between 12 and 1 o'clock, when the order came to march. We withdrew our advanced pickets and moved out silently, glad of the exercise to warm us, but had to wait in the road full two hours with a bitter northwester blowing, to let other columns pass us. Our fires were still burning inside the fortifications at Centerville and threw a dark red glare on pale and weary faces.

We continued our march all that night, and all the next day, with a three hours' rest at Fairfax Court House - marching in the afternoon in double column with flankers, in common time, and prepared for a fight at short notice.

By daylight we could see the results of confusion and defeat of Saturday. The troops had passed on through Centerville in the same hurried manner as they had left the field, and for miles we passed wagons smashed and overturned, some uninjured but fast in ditches, with their loads still in them, the traces of the teams cut and the horses and mules gone. There were thousands of rounds of ball cartridges, many in boxes as yet unopened, thousands more lying in heaps and scattered over the road, fixed ammunition of all kinds and for every caliber of gun in perfect order. There were new rifles and accouterments enough to equip a small army, and the enemy's boast of the valuables we leave behind us on a retreat, was certainly true in this case, because they fought us with our own guns and ammunition at Antietam.

This was a wicked, wasteful, needless abandonment of munitions of war to the enemy. We did not leave the field of Bull Run until dark on Saturday, and this was Monday afternoon. There had been no pursuit, no harassing of our rear, and yet no attempt seemed to have been made to destroy the ammunition, if it could not have been brought off. There was no scarcity of men; there was bone and muscle enough and brains sufficient to have put and kept them to important work, if there had been foresight enough to have given the order.

We had learned from some of the men who had come in with the ambulances and whom we met walking back to Washington (there being no room for them with the wounded) that they had not been permitted to remove or bury any of the dead, or to touch anything on their persons. We all knew what that meant: First, stripping; and then throwing the bodies into a shallow trench, to be washed bare at the first heavy rain, and to appeal with rotting flesh and gleaming bones to Heaven against such barbarities and horrors of this war.

We pushed on rapidly toward Washington. It was a long, hard day's work, but the evening was brightened by an event that stirred the hearts and put new life into every man among us. We had not seen McClellan since we left Harrison's Landing, and when the word passed that he had again taken command of the army and would be with us in a few minutes, it did not seem possible. We were at a halt, and men jumped to their feet and formed a line as if by common impulse, and without waiting for orders, every cap was off, as he rode bareheaded in the moonlight past our line and on to Fairfax Court House. Then, too, rose such a shout as I have seldom heard equalled, never from the same number of throats, each man seemed to have lungs enough for ten men and in the still night it was taken up and re-echoed for miles till it died out like distant thunder among the arches of the woods.

We had to wade that night through a creek, knee deep, crossing a deep gorge, before we got to our halting place, but no one thought anything of that - McClellan was with us again and that seemed a happy omen.

After camping at Hall's Hill or Grasshopper Camp, as we called it, on September 6 we crossed the Chain Bridge and into Maryland, and rested for the night outside of Tenallytown.

Further adventures of Lieutenant Evans will appear in a later issue of this magazine. -Editor

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"There is No Use Trying to Dodge Shot"
At Malvern Hill, A First Person Account
"All was Complete Chaos"
"The Enemy Sullenly held on to the City"
"The Cries of the Wounded were Piercing and Horrible"

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