Union Colonel Withstands Retreat at Bull Run
Union Colonel Robert McAllister participated in the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas, Virginia on July 21, 1861. McAllister and the 1st New Jersey volunteers were instructed to act as a rear guard at the town of Centreville for General Irvin McDowell’s routed force. The Battle of Bull Run was the first major battle of the Civil War. After the arrival of Confederate reinforcements, Union soldiers began fleeing back to Washington. McAllister recalled the retreat during the disorganized battle in a letter to a friend.
After the artillery ceased fire, McAllister saw masses of confused Union soldiers retreating past his position at Centreville. Part of the confusion was due to the fact that the Virginians were all wearing blue, so Union gunners did not fire on them. After ordering the retreating soldiers to turn around, he ordered his men to pull out their bayonets and march through the withdrawing columns of soldiers. “We drew our swords and pistols on men and officers who would not willingly turn back,” explained the General. Earlier, McAllister had received specific orders from McDowell to make a stand at his position at Centreville.
Suddenly, a pale civilian rode by his troops at a fast pace. McAllister ordered the civilian to halt and explained that his specific orders were to stop everybody fleeing. The frightened civilian said, “I am a bearer of dispatches to Washington and must pass.” McAllister denied examining his papers and directed him to his commander, Colonel James Montgomery. Montgomery allowed the civilian to pass after expressing his disgust to his cowardice. McAllister learned later that this man was actually the correspondent for the London Times.
McAllister continued to push his troops through the throng of retreating soldiers until he reached a hill past Centreville. As night set in, his orders remained unclear. His men had fallen asleep but eventually were awoken by the sounds of neighboring troops retreating. McAllister refused to leave until he was informed that he had to retreat.
After the battle, McAllister praised his regiment for providing security for those who were retreating. “We saved the Government a large amount of property,” he said after explaining that they provided time for the soldiers behind them to save wagons of supplies that were parked along the road. Although many claimed credit for protecting the retreat and being the last to leave the field, McAllister said, “We were the very last to leave Centreville.”
The Battle of Bull Run showed both the Union and the Confederacy that the Civil War was going to be far longer and bloodier than it was originally anticipated. Both Northerners and Southerners had romanticized the war before it began. McAllister’s letter is proof of the lack of training, communication, and organization that occurred during the battle. After the battle, new leadership and better training would help prepare Union troops for sustained action in the field.
- Robert McAllister, The Civil War Letters of General Robert McAllister (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 49-54.
- Russel F. Weigley, A Great Civil War (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), 61.
- James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 339-346.