The Cavalry Fight at the Lewis Ford, August 30, 1862
An Article Contributed by Eric J. Wittenburg
Brig. Gen. John Buford commanded a fine, veteran brigade of cavalry in Maj. Gen. John Pope's Army of Virginia. This veteran brigade consisted of the 1st Vermont, the 1st West Virginia, the 1st Michigan, and the 5st New York regiments. The unit had served together as a brigade during Jackson's Valley Campaign, and had done yeoman's service throughout the entire Second Manassas Campaign. Buford's brigade spent the first two days of the Battle of Second Manassas in the army's rear, scouting and screening. In that capacity, Buford detected and reported the passage of Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's Corps from Thoroughfare Gap toward the battlefield, but this intelligence was not passed on to Pope in a timely fashion. Buford's brigade was then ordered to come to the sound of the guns booming near the Brawner Farm.
On the 29th, the battle resumed along an unfinished railroad bed north of the Warrenton Turnpike, with Pope unleashing three major attacks upon Jackson's well-entrenched troops; Buford's Brigade, meanwhile, had been posted with Brig. Gen. James Ricketts' Division of McDowell's Corps at Warrenton, to protect the army's rear and to try to split the two halves of Lee's army. While on picket duty there, Buford's men heard the fight raging to the east; the reverberations from booming artillery and rolling volleys of musketry heightened their sense of purpose.
By this time, Pope's army was heavily engaged with Jackson. Jackson, dug in along the unfinished railroad cut north of the Warrenton Turnpike, was in a purely defensive posture, glad to allow Pope to launch frontal assault after frontal assault upon his position. Pope was completely blind to Longstreet's approach. Thus, the stage was set for the disaster that would befall Pope's force the next day. In the interim, Buford's Brigade marched toward the sound of the guns to rejoin the main body of the army. As Buford's men advanced toward the fighting, the sound of heavy artillery firing accompanied them. Buford's Brigade and Ricketts' Division passed through Manassas Junction from Gainesville around noon on the 29th, and then proceeded on to the battlefield.
At least some of Buford's men saw action on the way to the battlefield. Private Alfred G. Ryder of the 1st Michigan noted in his diary that "we had a severe fight with several of our men being severly wounded." They arrived between 3 and 4 p.m. that afternoon, and spent the next several hours picketing in the area of Pope's headquarters on Buck Hill north of the Stone House on the old Bull Run battlefield.
By noon of the 29th, Longstreet's Corps was linked up with Jackson. The Confederate line overlapped the Union flank to the south of the Warrenton Turnpike. Although Pope knew that Longstreet's Corps was on the field, his left was lightly defended, and was vulnerable to a flank attack. At approximately 2:00 p.m. on the 30th, Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, commanding the Pennsylvania Reserve Division, and a respected veteran of the Army of Potomac, realized the predicament of Pope's army. Reynolds mounted his horse and ran a gauntlet of three battalions of Confederate artillery to personally report the danger to Pope. Out of breath, Reynolds exclaimed to Pope, "The enemy is turning our left."
Unwilling to accept Reynolds's word, and still preoccupied with Jackson, Pope dismissed Reynolds nonchalantly; "Oh, I guess not."
Insistent and angry, Reynolds snapped, "I thought the information of sufficient importance to bring it to you myself and run the gauntlet of three rebel battalions."
Reynolds, a staunch McClellan man, was not one of Pope's favorites, and Pope refused to take his word. Trusting his hand-picked cavalry commander, Pope finally turned to Buford and told him, "You take your cavalry and see if the enemy is turning our left."
Buford promptly obeyed the order, taking the 1st Vermont, the 1st Michigan, and the 1st West Virginia to scout the Confederate positions. (8) Buford spent some time vainly searching for Longstreet's flank. As Capt. Wells of the 1st Vermont put it, "our brigade were sent about two miles to the left of our lines to look the property over." However, the Confederate attack on the Union left on the afternoon of the 30th cut short this mission, and prevented Buford from reporting his findings to Pope. Instead, he fell back toward the rear of the Union army. Buford finally stopped near Portici, a stately home which served as Joseph Johnston's headquarters in the First Battle of Manassas. He was there only a short time before a critical engagement occurred.
In the interim, Longstreet unleashed his sledgehammer blow upon Pope's lightly defended left flank, and sent the Yankees reeling in full retreat back toward Washington. For the Union army, it was a repetition of the previous summer's disaster on the same field. Lee, sensing the opportunity for a decisive victory, dispatched Stuart's cavalry to cut off Pope's line of retreat. Stuart, in turn, ordered the cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. Beverly H. Robertson and the regiment of Col. Thomas Munford to push forward to the extreme right of the Confederate position. There, supported by four batteries of horse artillery, Robertson and Munford would block the anticipated Union route of retreat at a choke point along Bull Run called Lewis Ford. Stuart, however, was aware that Buford's Brigade was operating along Longstreet's right, later writing "...our right flank was at one time somewhat threatened by the enemy's cavalry." Stuart's aide Maj. Heros von Borcke later recalled that "the strong force of Federal cavalry which been" brought together "would otherwise have operated successfully on our exposed flank."
The Confederates approached Lewis Ford in column of regiments, in the following order: 2nd Virginia, 12th Virginia, 7th Virginia, and the 6th Virginia, bringing up the rear. Col. John Beardsley's Federal cavalry brigade was operating in the Union rear, trying to rally stragglers. The 4th New York Cavalry halted in a stand of woods to make coffee and to rest their horses. An officer of the 4th New York spotted the approach of a brigade of Confederate cavalry, and reported it to the regiment's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ferries Nazer. The approaching Rebels caused the New Yorkers to "get up and get," retreating for a half mile or so before they spotted Buford's Brigade drawn up in the Lewis farm fields. Nazer reported:
I had proceeded but a short distance when we came upon and passed two regiments of rebel cavalry, supported by infantry, and a battery drawn up in line, under cover of the crest of a hill, preparing to charge upon General Buford's brigade, stationed on the opposite side of the hill. I informed General Buford of the enemy's whereabouts and intentions, and at his request quickly reformed my command into line behind the 1st Michigan Cavalry...
Confederate artillery began popping away at the routed Yankees, and with the Union "lines...distinctly visible...every shot told upon them fearfully." One member of the 1st Vermont cavalry of Buford's Brigade later wrote "when nearing a piece of woods, like a thunderclap, came volley after volley of musketry and then a charge of the enemy on our infantry." Stuart was, however, unaware that Buford's Brigade was covering the retreat of the Army of Virginia, and he ordered his cavalry to charge. Buford, having formed his command in line of battle along the ford, was ready when the left wing of the Union army collapsed. Steadying his men he called out, "Boys, save our army, cover their retreat!" The men responded with three hearty cheers. The men of the 1st Michigan were deployed in a single line about 200 yards in front of the bulk of Buford's cavalry, which was concealed in a line of trees beyond the brow of the hill where Brodhead had deployed the 1st Michigan.
Col. Nazer described the following action as his 4th New York and the 1st Michigan:
- charged upon the enemy, scattering them in every direction. Reforming our lines, we engaged a fresh regiment hand-to-hand, but finding that we received no support from the rear and that we were greatly outnumbered by the enemy's cavalry, also being subject to heavy fire from their infantry, which was now advancing at the double-quick, we were compelled to retire...
One of Nazer's troopers recalled, "Both columns charged at the same time; our Regiment broke the Rebel's ranks and drove them back about 300 yards. As our regiment have no revolvers, only carbines, and those were ordered to be put up and not fired, the work of the jolly 4th was done with our sabers."
As this action unfolded, the command was then given for the Brigade to form into line of battle by fours, front into line, to prepare for the coming charge of Robertson's Brigade. Close enough to hear the command to the Union troopers, "Forward, trot", and believing that he faced only a squadron or two of Yankee cavalry, Munford ordered his command, the 2nd Virginia, to launch a saber charge. Caught forming into line of battle, the order was given to draw sabers, and Buford's men charged into the Rebel cavalry and batteries. One member of the 1st Michigan wrote, "Every blade flashed at the same instant...The boys rode splendidly, knee to knee, in perfect line....The rebs drew their revolvers, the Federal line started an instant first, and they rushed right together, each line passing through the other, except those who went down in the shock of collision." An officer of the 1st West Virginia recalled that this charge was "the boldest and most daring charge" the members of the brigade ever saw.
As Buford's men charged, "the lines crashed together, and men and horses went down and rolled over in the dust. We broke and routed the rebel cavalry and the battery pulled up and left." In a "terrible" hand to hand fight, with the "two commands...thoroughly intermingled", the superior numbers of Buford's Brigade began driving the stunned Confederates back. Private Thornton R. Baxter of the 2nd Virginia wrote, "Our regiment charged four regiments of yankee cavalry and they charging at the same time. We had a regular hand to hand sabre fight" Baxter's horse was killed in the melee, and his leg injured when the animal fell atop him. Another Federal noted, "I was in the thickest of it and while many who went in side by side with me whole hearted, brave soldiers, who had stood by me in many dangers, were left bleeding and mangled on the ground."
The momentum of the Union charge carried the two lines together, intermingled in a wild melee of swinging sabers. One member of the 12th Virginia, which joined the fray, noted, "They absorbed us." Another participant later wrote "The shooting and running, cursing and cutting that followed cannot be understood except by an eyewitness." Private Alfred G. Ryder of the 1st Michigan was captured during the melee. He later recorded in his diary, " I was taken prisoner in the terrific charge made by our regiment on the rebel hosts. 2 of my comrades are with me." Munford's horse was slain in the melee and Munford sent sprawling by a saber lick. Thus, the initial Confederate charge, by the 2nd Virginia, was broken and sent reeling back from Lewis Ford. This was the first occasion of the war where blue cavalry had dared to charge Stuart's cavalry, and its first success. Unfortunately, that success was very short-lived.
As the initial clash took place, the 12th Virginia of Robertson's Brigade was near Henry House Hill. There, they met routed elements of Munford's command, fleeing from the fight. Meeting the injured and dismounted Munford, Col. Asher W. Harman of the 12th Virginia was told by Munford that his men had made a most gallant charge in line, had been overlapped on both sides, and retreated. Harman wrote, "From the sabre cuts I saw on the faces and over the heads of his men, it was gallant charge and had been bravely met. Col. Munford had been severely thrashed over the back with a sabre...." Harman quickly marched the two miles to the scene of fight. Harman wrote, "I did not have time to even form my regiment in platoons, for Col. (Thornton) Broadhead (sic) (commander of ) the 1st Michigan Cavalry was in perfect order on the brow of the hill...to the right of the Lewis House." Harman ordered his men to form into line of battle on the first set of fours, and to charge.
The 12th Virginia was joined by the understrength 7th Virginia, which was able to mount only 80 men that afternoon. Company F mustered only one officer and eight enlisted men, while Company E was down to an officer and four enlisted men. As the 7th Virginia crested the hill and prepared to charge, its men got their first view of the fight raging below between Buford's men and the 2nd Virginia. Even though the 7th Virginia was next in line, the 6th Virginia attempted to pass in an effort to charge headlong into the melee. An officer of the 7th Virginia halted the 6th Virginia, shouting "No, no; the 7th is next in line and will be next in the charge."
As one member of the 7th Virginia described it, the scene was not pretty: "There was an old abandoned field to the right on where the road went over the hill, and there the combat had taken place. The dead and wounded of both sides lay scattered about, riderless horses were dashing here and there, and the deep gullies which frequent rains had cut into the hillside were filled at places with men and horses, struggling to extricate themselves. It had evidently been a fierce and bloody encounter, though of brief duration."
Buford's 1st West Virginia formed an initial line of battle on a knoll, with the 5th New York and the 1st Michigan approximately 200 yards behind. For reasons that are as yet unclear, Buford did not deploy his entire force or engage his entire command in this battle. The 1st Vermont was never brought into line of battle. Thus, the initial numerical advantage enjoyed by the Union troopers evaporated once Robertson threw his entire brigade into the fray. Harman wrote, "My regiment responded to the order [to charge] with such spirit and vim that I pierced Broadhead's (sic) center, shivered his regiment, and drove him back on his supports in such confusion that I had them all on the run..."
The men of Robertson's brigade formed into line and, "in wedgelike form, dashed headlong toward the battle line of blue; and as the apex of this swiftly moving mass was about to pierce the center of their line, it wavered for an instant, then broke and fled in every direction." The charge of the 12th Virginia crashed into the West Virginians and drove them back upon their reserves. As one member of the 12th Virginia later wrote, the West Virginians "broke and ran and we were after them with pistol and saber." A member of the 4th New York noted, "The Secesh used their revolvers with a determination to slaughter some of our lads" Capt. William Porter Wilken of the 1st West Virginia was left to cut his way out, and only barely escaped capture when his horse bolted. He recorded, "I think nothing of charging against equal numbers, but to charge into a whole army of cavalry and infantry and artillery and see your comrades mowed down by by their sabres and the deadly fire of their musketry and cannon, is not particularly funny."
The savage onslaught of the 12th Virginia broke the Union line and drove it back toward Bull Run. The 4th New York, of Beardsley's Brigade, apparently did nothing to stem the Confederate tide, and earned Buford's eternal ire for their efforts. A year later, he wrote of the 4th New York, "It failed me awfully at Bull Run."
Col. Thornton F. Brodhead, commanding officer of the 1st Michigan, was apparently the last Federal on the battlefield. Brodhead tried to rally Buford's routed forces, and could have escaped with the rest of the command. However, he chose to stay and try to patch together a defensive line. Adjutant Lewis Harman of the 12th Virginia met Brodhead near the Lewis Ford. Harman demanded Brodhead's surrender and, when Brodhead refused, the Confederate shot and mortally wounded the Yankee officer. Harman rode off with Brodhead's horse, saddle, pistols, and sabre. Brodhead received a deathbed brevet to brigadier general for his vallant stand at the Lewis Ford. The 1st Michigan also lost its Major, Charles Town--down with two bullet wounds and a saber cut.
In the meantime, the 7th Virginia plowed into Buford's right. Capt. Samuel B. Myers, commanding the 7th Virginia that day, wrote, "I ordered the regiment to charge with drawn sabers on (Buford's) right flank, which the whole command obeyed with the greatest alacrity, charging upon them with shouts that made the very welkin ring and routing [the] entire line on our left." The 7th Virginia continued on, engaging "another force of them that had formed on our right in a woods about 800 yards from the first line." A member of the 7th Virginia engaged in one-on-one combat with a member of the 4th New York, temporarily attached to Buford's command. The Rebel won the encounter, and after claiming his prisoner, disarmed him. "After exchanging horses with him against his earnest protest that he would be shot if he went unguarded to the rear, I started my prisoner back and went on in the charge, when we found ourselves in the rear of the Union army, in full retreat." The 7th Virginia pursued Buford's routed troopers for approximately three-quarters of a mile, while the 12th Virgnia pursued as far as the Warrenton Turnpike. In his official report of the campaign, Stuart pointed out that the melee at the Lewis Ford "was of remarkably short duration."
Buford, driven back across Bull Run, cobbled together a makeshift line in an effort to make a stand. There he deployed an artillery piece, which fired a round of cannister at the pursuing Confederates. After slowing the Confederate pursuit, this piece of artillery was withdrawn. Under artillery fire and realizing that taking up a position in the rear of the Union army was not particularly wise, the Confederates elected to stop their pursuit at the Warrenton Turnpike, where the 1st Vermont was posted to supervise the retreat of the Union wagon trains across the Stone Bridge. Capt. William Wells of the 1st Vermont later wrote, "My Co. guarded a bridge across Cub Run to Keep off Cavalry & Infantry & let Artillery & teams accross (sic)" Thus ended the Second Battle of Bull Run.
At some point during the fight at the Lewis Ford, Buford was struck in the left knee by a spent minie ball. The severity of this wound has been debated for years--one Northern newspaper and several Southern newspapers reported the wound fatal, while other historians have described it as "nearly fatal". Buford, however, remained in the saddle for the Maryland Campaign, which immediately followed the conclusion of the Second Manassas Campaign, so it does not appear that his Lewis Ford wound was terribly serious. It likely was nothing more than a severe contusion. Nevertheless, given the unreliable nature of Civil War medicine, any wound was potentially fatal, so the seriousness of this injury cannot be understated. This wound does not seem to have slowed Buford down very much, for he remained in the saddle. This was the first of several close calls that Buford experienced over the course of his sixteen months in the field.
The fight at the ford, however, had been severe. Robertson's men suffered five men killed and 40 men wounded, including Munford. One member of the 12th Virginia, a Sergeant Leopold, was wounded in three places during the furious clash at Lewis Ford. Buford's losses were heavier, with approximately 300 casualties. All of his staff officers had their horses shot out from under them during the furious fight. A captain of the 1st West Virginia lamented, "One Co. in our brigade had only six men left after the fight. Our Co. lost only 9 men yet it was so much exposed, perhaps more exposed than any but O the destruction of life I witnessed on that awful day."
Stuart crowed in his official report of the campaign that at Lewis Ford, "... over 300 of the enemy's cavalry were put hors de combat, they, together with their horses and equipments, falling into our hands." Stuart bragged about his victory, stating "(n)othing could have equaled the splendor with which Robertson's regiments swept down upon a force greatly outnumbering them, thus successfully indicating a claim for courage and discipline to any cavalry in the world." In a letter to his wife Flora, Stuart crowed, "We knocked Buford's Brigade into Bull Run, capturing 220, killing a col."
The Southern newspapers also lauded Robertson's victory at Lewis Ford. For example, The Charleston Mercury reported with great hyperbole, "All organization was destroyed, and every man trusted for his safety only in the heels of his horses", and that over 300 Union troopers had been killed in the fight. The article further reported that the Union troopers were "utterly demoralized and disorganized. They hurried along in great droves like frightened cattle, officers and men being mingled indiscriminately and inextricably. Our men followed them up and slaughtered them at leisure. Had the rout taken place two hours earlier, the entire army would have been destroyed or taken prisoner."
While Buford could not claim victory as Stuart could, his troopers had done well. If nothing else, he could claim that his men had battled the superior forces of the enemy to a standstill before finally being defeated by the vastly more experienced Confederate troopers.
Further, the defeat at Second Manassas demoralized the Federals, and sapped their will to fight. Thornton Brodhead, shot through both lungs, found the strength to write a final letter to his wife from his deathbed on August 31. In it, Brodhead stated clearly a sentiment felt by many in the Army of Virginia: "Before I die let me implore you that in some way it be stated that General Pope has been outwitted and that McDowell is a traitor. Had they done their duty, as I did mine; and had [they], as I had, the dear old Flag would have waived in triumph our Generals--not the Enemy's have defeated us." Brodhead died that day.
After being relieved of command of the Army of Virginia on September 5, 1862, Pope was bitter for the rest of his life. However, he effusive in his praise of the cavalry in the campaign, and, in particular, of Buford and Bayard. When he wrote his official report of the campaign several months later, he wrote of Bayard and Buford:
Their duties were particularly arduous and hazardous, and it is not too much to say that throughout the operations, from the first to the last day of the campaign, scarcely a day passed that these officers did not render service which entitles them to the gratitude of the Government.
In later years, Pope wrote:
- Buford's coolness, his fine judgment, and his splendid courage were known of all men who had to do with him...His quiet dignity, covering a fiery spirit and a military sagacity as far-reaching as it was accurate, made him in the short period of his active service one of the most respected and trusted officers in the service.
At the same time, Lewis Ford was the first time that Buford commanded more than a company of men in a pitched battle, and the first time that he had led men in battle since the Battle of Ash Hollow, 7 years earlier. Inexperienced, Buford failed to commit his entire force to battle at Lewis Ford, and was defeated as a result. By committing his whole force, it is possible he could have repulsed the charge of Robertson's Brigade. Indeed, he might have turned the tables, exploiting the advantage his men had gained over Munford. Buford, nevertheless, seemed to have learned his lesson from this defeat--never again would he hold back reserves at a critical point of a fight. Never again would he fail to commit all of his men in battle. Thus, Buford demonstrated that he possessed the most important characteristic of a battlefield commander: the ability to learn from mistakes.
All things considered, Buford and his troopers did very well in their first major campaign. As Dr. G.K. Johnson, the Brigade's medical officer, later wrote, "The cavalry arm improved rapidly and continuously under his [Buford's] hands...I noted with pleasure its ever increasing efficiency under him." It was a portent of good things to come for the Federal cavalry. John Buford was not one to shy away from a fight, and this would be proven time and again in the coming months. Many of those fights would be with the same brigade of Confederate cavalry, Turner Ashby's Brigade, which would later become known as the Laurel Brigade, that he had tangled with at the Lewis Ford. These two forces would become very familiar with each other of the course of the next few months.