A Virginia cavalryman’s evocative letter to his wife served as the initial portal for thousands of Southerners into the war’s first major battle.
Few men in those first heady days of 1861 exemplified the ideal of the Southern cavalier better than William Brockenbrough Newton. It was little more than two weeks after the Virginia State Convention had voted to secede from the Union that the 29-year-old lieutenant joined the rest of his prewar militia company of cavalry—Captain Williams C. Wickham’s Hanover Light Dragoons—in volunteering en masse for Confederate service. For Newton, related by blood and marriage to several of the Commonwealth’s oldest families, the strength of his pedigree was matched by his arresting countenance, superb horsemanship and keen intellect—he was a living image of the archetypal gentleman-warrior.
With characteristic humility, the Richmond-born Newton stated his occupation to the enrolling officer as “farmer,” but his accomplishments over the preceding decade belied that statement. As befitted a son of privilege in antebellum Virginia, he had been enrolled in a private school in Alexandria at age 16. Upon graduating with honors in 1850, he spent two additional years at the University of Virginia. At the completion of his time there, he was invited to deliver the valedictory address before its prestigious Washington Literary Society and Debating Union. After a few months of studying law privately under his father’s tutelage, he was admitted to the bar in February 1853—two months shy of his 21st birthday. That November he married Mary Mann Page, two years his junior, and spent the next several years building a successful legal practice and restoring the profitability of Summer Hill, the 1,800-acre Page family estate. His rising stature in Hanover County was rewarded in 1859 with an uncontested election to the Virginia House of Delegates. By the time of the 1860 census, the real and personal property of this “farmer” totaled nearly $100,000.
The Hanover Light Dragoons mustered in as a Confederate unit on May 17, 1861. They drilled in camp for only a fortnight before being ordered into the field, and the men spent the next two months learning the duties of cavalrymen as they picketed the countryside surrounding the railway junction at Manassas. When the great overland advance on Richmond by the Federals under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell finally got underway on July 16, Newton had the opportunity to see and record the drastic shift in momentum and initiative that had occurred over the campaign’s seven days. He began his week in the rear guard of a Confederate retreat; at its close he wrote to his wife amid the literal wreckage of the Union offensive. He made occasional errors of detail in regard to the fate of specific units on both sides—understandable amid the swirl and smoke of battle between two raw armies. Newton nevertheless penned a rich portrait.
Unknown to him at the time of his writing, the letter was destined to enjoy a wide readership. Shortly after delivery, it was forwarded to a newspaper for publication. Its appearance in the July 29, 1861, edition of the Richmond Daily Whig provided Virginians with one of their first eyewitness accounts of a victory that many Southerners naively believed to have all but secured their independence.
Spelling and punctuation have been preserved from the Whig version of the text. Paragraph breaks have been added for the convenience of the reader.
Centreville, July 22d 1861
My Dearest Wife:
For the last four days we have never been longer in one place than two hours—have slept every night upon the ground in good weather and bad, eaten nothing but hard crackers and fried bacon, and rested little at any time. For all of which privations, and a thousand others, we have been more than compensated—thanks to the just God who governs the courses of history, and decrees the destiny of nations—in the glorious results of yesterday. My last was from Fairfax Court House.
On the morning of the 17th we had received reliable information that the enemy were advancing, over 50,000 strong, and were not surprised at 5 o’clock in the morning to hear the fire of our pickets who were slowly retiring before the advancing foe. The order was given to pack—in ten minutes baggage was packed, tents struck, and the wagons driven to the rear, and the whole command formed in line of battle. In a few moments the glittering bayonets of the enemy lined the neighboring hills. From the heavy signal guns being fired at intervals along our line commencing at Germantown, and stretching along to Fairfax Court House, it was evident that the enemy were endeavoring to surround our little band. But our “little trump,” as the men call [Brig. Gen. Pierre G.T.] Beauregard, was not to be taken by any such game.
Every preparation was made to deceive the enemy by inducing him to believe that we meditated a vigorous resistance—meantime our column defiled through a densely wooded road, and was far on the road to Centreville when the enemy discovered his mistake. He followed on very cautiously. Our troop, with [Captain Delaware] Kemper’s battery [the Alexandria (Va.) Light Artillery], was assigned the post of honour, and charged with the duty of covering the retreat. We were the last to leave the village, and as we went out at one end of the street, his column appeared at the other. We halted at this place (Centreville) about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, again made show of battle, slept until 12 o’clock at the heads of our horses, and silently left the place, the enemy’s pickets being within talking distance of ours.
At daybreak [July 18] we were across Bull Run, having marched very slowly to keep pace with the infantry. We found beds of leaves in the woods, wrapped ourselves in our blankets, and slept for an hour or two, until roused by the roar of the enemy’s guns, as he opened his batteries upon our lines. For two mortal hours, shot and shell flew thick along our whole line. This day’s work was evidently intended only to draw the fire of our artillery and show where our batteries were. In consequence of which, our gunners were ordered not to fire a single shot until within point blank range. After thus opening the ball, two dense masses of infantry were seen to defile to the right and left, to make two separate attacks. It was indeed a beautiful sight, as they came down in perfect order, and with the steady step of veterans. They came nearer and yet nearer, and yet no shot from our guns. Men began to mutter and say that we were preparing for another retreat. But, in a few moments, the appointed time arrived, a single shot from the Washington [La.] Artillery gave the signal of death, and for half an hour there was nothing but a continuous sheet of flame along the right of our line. The enemy fell back, rallied and charged again with a like result; again they rested and rushed forward; but old Virginia was true to herself, and the gallant 1st and 17th regiments met them, though twice their numbers, charged them with the bayonet, and drove them back in utter confusion.
The cavalry were held in reserve, and although within range of the artillery and continually experiencing the sensations which men may be supposed to indulge, who know there is a hidden danger hovering in the air, without knowing where it is to light, took no part in the action. Our time came yesterday [July 21], however. Our troop was for four hours in the hottest of the fight, and every man in it won the applause and approbation of the whole camp.
The action commenced at 8 o’clock of a sweet Sabbath morning. The enemy commenced with quite a heavy cannonade upon our right, which proved to be a mere feint to distract our attention, as his main attack was directed to our left wing. At ten o’clock the enemy had crossed the river on our left, and the fight commenced in earnest. From the hill on which we stood, we could see the smoke and dust, although at the distance of several miles from the fight waged on our left. Some thought our men had fallen back; others, that the enemy were retreating. It was an hour of painful interest.
At eleven o’clock, an aid-de-camp rode up in a gallop, and said our men were retiring, and the cavalry was ordered to the left. We were temporarily attached to [Colonel Richard C.W.] Radford’s regiment [30th (later, 2nd) Virginia Cavalry]. Ours was the first company, and mine the front platoon. On we dashed at a gallop. As we passed within range of a battery of rifled cannon, a ball was fired at us, and passed just between W—and myself, knocking up clouds of dust. Without wavering in their ranks, the men and horses dashed forward at a gallop. As we reached the scene of action, the sight was discouraging in the extreme. The enemy had at first the advantage of every attacking party. He had concentrated all his forces for an attack upon one point. The 1st Louisiana regiment and the 4th Alabama were assailed in flank and centre by 30,000 men, and literally cut to pieces. They refused to surrender but retired slowly, disputing every inch of the ground. As we rode up, we met parts of companies which had literally been overwhelmed, the men wounded, their arms broken, while some of them were carrying off their dead in blankets. Every thing looked like retreat.
We were ordered up to within 500 yards of the enemies artillery, behind a hill which afforded some protection against their destructive fire. For an hour the firing raged with incessant fury, a ball passed over the hill and through our ranks, grazing one of our men; a shell exploded right under Radford’s horse, and every moment shot and shell were continually whistling by us. I can give you no conception of that awful hour. Not a man shrank from his post; two of our men were taken deadly sick, one fainting from heat and excitement; such calmness and composure I never witnessed. To make the matter worse, despondency, if not despair was fast writing itself on every face. The fire was evidently approaching us, and our friends were retiring, and the whispered rumour passed from lip to lip that our artillery ammunition was running low.
In a moment, however, a cloud of dust in our rear showed the approach of our wagons coming up at a dashing rate with a fresh supply. Our reinforcements now commenced pouring in. Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi swept by in their glittering array with the calm light of battle on their faces, and their bayonets gleaming in the quiet Sabbath sunshine. No man faltered, no man lagged behind. Neither the groans of the dying, nor the shrieks of the wounded, as they passed to the rear in crowded ambulances, seemed to produce any impression, except to fix the determination upon the countenance of all—to win or die upon the field.
The tide now seemed to ebb just enough to keep us from despair. The firing did not advance, although the explosion of their shell[s] was terrific in the extreme. A gleam of hope, too, gradually broke in upon us when Kemper’s battery, which had been posted in our centre, galloped up and opened a destructive fire upon our extreme left. The advance was evidently checked, when a loud cheer in the front told us that something unusual had happened. What was it? Was it the triumph of our enemies over our stricken friends, or was it some advantage gained by courage in defence of right? The suspense was awful. Men stood straight in their stirrups and stretched their eyes as if they would pierce the rugged bosom of the barren hill which raised its sc[a]rred front before them.
An Aid passes up—his message is written on his face, and, before he speaks a word, a wild shout breaks from the throats of thousands. When he speaks, another, and another, and another round of cheers told the story of our hitherto sinking hearts. The 4th Virginia regiment had taken [Governor William] Sprague’s Rhode Island battery of six pieces at the point of the bayonet. Scarcely had the echo of our cheers died upon the air, when again the noise of shouting broke upon us. What was it? Had the enemy rallied and retaken the guns? Fear struggled with hope. But, no! the gallant 27th, envious of the glorious achievement of the 4th, at a sing[l]e dash, had charged a regiment of regulars, swept them from the field, and taken every gun in [Colonel William T.] Sherman’s battery. The firing of musketry and the rattling of bayonets was now terrific beyond description. For an hour there was an incessant crackling of rifles, without a single moment’s pause. The enemy were evidently retiring, and, unless reinforced from their left and centre, the day was ours.
To prevent this, our field telegraph had already given the signal for movement upon our own right, and a heavy fire of musketry and artillery told us that [Brig. Gen. Milledge L.] Bonham’s brigade, to which we had been attached in the morning, had crossed the run and were pouring it into the enemy’s centre. The South Carolina boys dashed up the hill, in the face of a murderous fire, bayonetted the gunners, and took quiet possession of their centre battery. It was now 3 o’clock, and the day was ours. The Washington Artillery galloped up to the hill on which we were posted and opened a perfect Vesuvius of shot and shell upon the receding foe.
Colonel [George W.] Lay [Bonham’s assistant adjutant general] now galloped up and told us the time for us to act had arrived—our whole force of cavalry— now rushed like the wind to the front. It was indeed a brilliant spectacle, as with slackened reins and sabres drawn, the whole command dashed past. The whole line resounded with continued cheering. The force was divided into different detachments. Col. Radford, with six companies, was ordered to cross a short distance below the enemy’s extreme right, and intercept his column; our company was in front, and I was riding in front of my platoon—when after crossing the swamp we came suddenly upon a detachment of the enemy concealed in the bushes, with their pieces levelled. The Colonel ordered the charge, and our boys dashed on.
Poor E.F. [Sgt. Maj. Edmond Fontaine Jr.] was at my side when we rode over two of them, and they grounded their arms to E.W. just in our rear. We galloped on in pursuit of the rest, who retreated across a field toward the road on which the enemy were retreating. F. was just behind me; [Private Richard W.] Saunders, a fine young fellow, just 24, and splendidly mounted, rushed past us. The enemy had concealed themselves behind a fence. We rode up and I demanded their surrender. They made no reply. I ordered Saunders to fire. Before he levelled his carbine, the whole [Union] squad poured in a volley. Saunders fell dead at my feet, and Fontaine reeled in his saddle, and exclaimed, “save me, boys, I am killed.” He was caught in the arms of his cousin, who was in the rear. Three of my platoon fired, and the two who had shot Saunders and Fontaine fell dead in their tracks.
We were now in full view of the enemy’s line, passing in rapid and disordered retreat along the road, with two pieces of artillery, a large number of baggage wagons and some officers’ carriages.—Col. Radford, who is a soldier of experience, knew the strength of the enemy, and ordered a halt, commanding the men to form; but such a thing as forming was utterly impossible. The men seemed perfectly delirious with excitement, and with a wild shout of [“]the guns, the guns,” our whole company rushed on pell-mell upon the battery, which proved to be another detachment of the Rhode Island Artillery. Such a scene of wild excitement I never witnessed.
My platoon had become detached from the company, and the company from the regiment. There were two caissons and two guns; the guns behind the caissons. My platoon, which was furthest down the road, rushed upon the men who guarded them—one fellow, standing upon the caisson, whipping the horses to make them run. They had become so much alarmed that they stood perfectly still and trembled. I made a blow at him with my sabre, knocked him off the caisson, and he was shot twice by our men before he reached the ground.
Meantime W., (who, by the way, acted admirably,) with the main body, crossed the road higher up, and when the main body of the regiment came up, our company, with some of the Alexandria cavalry, had killed and wounded every man at the guns, and driven their infantry supports into rapid retreat. When we left, we expected to be supported by infantry and artillery, and you may imagine our astonishment when, with not quite 300 men, we found that we had merely cut into the enemy’s column, and upon looking one hundred yards down the road, we found them preparing to open upon us with two guns, supported by six regiments of infantry. The Colonel at once ordered a retreat, so we shot the horses to the caissons, so as to block up the road, and retreated, not, however, before they had poured in upon us four rounds of grape and canister at 150 yards distance. How we escaped a perfect massacre I cannot say. Had they not been so close to us, the slaughter would have been terrible. Four of our men were killed, and Captain [Edmund W.] Radford, brother of the Colonel, was literally blown to pieces. I escaped without a scratch (as did all of the rest of the officers), excepting quite a severe bruise, caused by my horse’s pressing my leg against the wheel to the gun carriage. We brought off several prisoners, a great many pistols, and several horses.
Just ahead of the guns was an open carriage, very handsome; as soon as they saw us—such a rush you never saw. It is suspected, or rather hoped, that [Senator Henry] Wilson, of Massachusetts (who was, it is known, on the field,) was in it; for one of our men, Lindsay by name, took it into his head that [Brevet Lt. Gen.] General [Winfield] Scott was in it, pursued and overtook it, and, at the distance of thirty steps, fired his musketoon, with eighteen buckshot, right into the back window.
As we returned to camp, a melancholy mistake occurred. B[oldman H. Bowles], (our Second Lieutenant,) who was carrying poor F. to the hospital, with one or two others, met with a detachment of four of the Appomattox Cavalry, who hailed him. It is said, that, instead of giving the signal agreed upon in our camp, by raising the hand to the top of the head, he took them for the enemy, and answered, Federal troops—they fired and he fell dead.
Our company received, upon its return, the congratulations of every officer in General Bonham’s staff, to whom Col. Radford had spoken of the conduct of our men.
To-day it has been raining all day. Our column pushed on this morning to this place. Our company was assigned the advance guard; and this morning at 10 o’clock, I had the honor, with eight mounted men, of “occupying” the city of Centreville. The citizens tell us, that about 12 o’clock last night, the cry passed through the camp that the d—d Virginia horsemen were upon them, when they left in utter confusion.
Our triumph has been complete. In two days our noble army has driven them back to Alexandria, captured 42 guns, many colors, and taken how many prisoners I will not venture to say. After we reached here we were ordered to explore the surrounding country in quest of fugitives. We took eighteen prisoners, and got back just at night, very wet. Such a collection of property left in their flight, you never saw. Hundreds of muskets, wagons, horses, gun carriages, thousands of knapsacks, oilcloths, blankets, hogsheads of sugar, barrels of pork, beans—in short everything you can conceive [of]. We found to-day over five hundred splendid army overcoats in one pile, at one of their deserted camps, besides many tents, not struck. I helped myself to a magnificent officer’s blanket and oil-cloth to fit over the head, and the men all got over-coats.
The men are amusing themselves tonight with reading their letters, of which there are thousands left on the road. Many of them were directed to Mr. So-and-so, expected at Manassas Junction. Some asked for a piece of the floor of the house on which [Colonel Elmer E.] Ellsworth was killed [in Alexandria, Va.], with blood on it; while others confidently express the belief that Beauregard’s scalp will be taken to Washington. When I tell you that we supped to-night on Yankee crackers— Yankee coffee, and nice beef tongue, actually left on the hearth of one of the officers quarters, in a kettle, ready to be set on the fire—that this is written with a pencil given me by one of the men, upon paper taken from their baggage wagons, that I am sitting on a Yankee camp stool, writing by a Yankee candle, you can form some idea of their utter route [sic].
I send K[ate, daughter, age 3] a pincushion, picked up on the field, and L[ucy, daughter, age 4] a needlecase. Tell W[illoughby, son, age 7] I have a nice sword for him, taken from one of the Vermont volunteers. I came very near taking a drum for him, of which we found six yesterday, but thought of the noise, and declined.
Our troops occupy Fairfax Court House, to-night.—Good night; God bless and protect you, as I feel he has protected me in the last few days, in answer to your prayers. I hope I feel sufficiently grateful for my preservation.
I had secured a beautiful Enfield rifle for uncle William, but it was placed in charge of one of the men, who has lost it. I will endeavor to procure another for him. [Lieutenant John] Bowyer Brockenbrough, in command of a part of [Colonel William N.] Pendleton’s battery [Rockbridge (Va.) Artillery], was knocked off his horse by a fragment of a shell, and slightly wounded. Raleigh Colston, who was a captain in one of the Berkel[e]y companies [Co. E, 2nd Virginia Infantry], had his pants perforated, and his leg grazed by a ball while advancing on Sherman’s battery. [Private] Willoughby [N.] Brockenbrough [Rockbridge Artillery] escaped untouched.
Despite the euphoria that rippled through the South after Manassas, the victory proved to be only the start of the Confederate struggle, not the climax so many had expected.
In September 1861, the Hanover Light Dragoons became Company G of the newly organized 4th Virginia Cavalry. Wickham was named lieutenant colonel of the regiment, and Newton was elected to the vacant captaincy. He discharged his duties as company commander most capably until the following May, when during the fighting at Williamsburg he mistook a body of Union horsemen carrying a captured Virginian flag for comrades. His error cost him three months in captivity.
Exchanged on August 5, 1862, Newton was back at the head of Company G within days. Over the next 12 months, he performed so well that Wickham recommended him for promotion to major. “The instances in which he has been conspicuous,” Wickham wrote, “are too numerous to cite. Suffice it to say that his coolness, his industry, his good temper, his understanding, his power of controlling men, and his excellent good habits, all combine to make him particularly fitted for the appointment.” At brigade, division and army headquarters the request met with approval, but Newton would not live long enough for the new rank to be conferred upon him. On October 11, 1863, as he was riding as acting commander of the regiment, he was killed by a bullet to the temple while leading a mounted charge against Union forces positioned in line of battle on the far side of the Rapidan River near Raccoon Ford.
An eternity had passed since that July day at Manassas, when war still held the charm of grand adventure and lives cut short on the battlefield were novel enough to give particular notice to each of the fallen. After more than two blood-soaked years, death was now something to be processed in wholesale lots in the Old Dominion, yet the loss of this one junior officer still drew attention. Virginia Governor John Letcher presented a formal communication to both houses of the legislature on October 13: “Another young and gifted son of Virginia has fallen in defending the honor of his native state, and in upholding the cause of the Confederacy. Prior to the opening of the war, Captain William B. Newton represented the county of Hanover in the house of delegates with distinguished ability, and his political career gave assurance of great future distinction. His conduct during the war has been marked by gallantry, courage and devotion to the cause. In private life he was amiable, courteous and gentlemanly. His character for honor, integrity and virtue, public and private, was irreproachable. When such men die, it is proper that their names and services be held in grateful remembrance; that their virtues should be held up before the rising generation for emulation, and that their memories should be enshrined in the hearts of their countrymen.”
Historian and freelance journalist Joseph Pierro, who writes from Hanover County, Va., is the editor of The Maryland Campaign of September 1862: Ezra A. Carman’s Definitive Account of the Union and Confederate Armies at Antietam, due for release this July from Routledge.
Originally published in the July 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.