A poor workman blames his tools. That pretty much sums up Civil War Gen. Irvin McDowell and the local residents who believed him. McDowell blamed his 1861 loss at the First Battle of Bull Run on a Norristown regiment.
“When the army moved forward into battle,” wrote McDowell in his official report, “these troops moved to the rear to the sound of the enemy cannon.”
Publicly branded as cowards, the 600 returning veterans of the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers were ridiculed in Norristown. The borough had seen them off with flags and cheers just three months earlier.
The truth was more complicated. The 4th was a three-month regiment whose enlistment expired before the battle. (Political leaders at the time thought 90 days would be plenty of time to put down the rebellion.) The men were entitled to leave. They were also exhausted, unfed for days, and had lost members to disease, suicide and official incompetence, not to mention the rebels. Because Bull Run was a surprise attack, they didn’t know they were walking away from a battle.
The Army eventually took McDowell’s measure. By 1864, after further disasters, he was reassigned to San Francisco, where he commanded all troops west of the Rockies, which was almost no one at all.
The reputation of the 4th, however, never fully recovered. As recently as 1995, in a biography of Col. John F. Hartranft—who commanded the 4th and remained to serve at Bull Run as a volunteer—historian A.M. Gambone heaped additional scorn on the regiment. “Their decision to leave could only cast a terrible shadow upon their reputation,” wrote Gambone. “No justification, no matter how well founded and qualified, could excuse their refusal to follow the example set by the colonel.”
Originally part of the state militia, the 4th offered its services to the Union on Tuesday, April 16, 1861—two days after the fall of Fort Sumter and one day after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers. The regiment was told to be in Harrisburg on Saturday. Donations were collected to relieve the financial impact on volunteers’ families.
“The excitement and gloom incident to their departure can only be felt by a people unused to war,” wrote Frederick H. Dyer, author of A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion. “All business was suspended, and the whole population appeared upon the streets. Flags were provided by the ladies of Norristown, which were presented with appropriate ceremonies.”
In April 1861, Washington, D.C., was nearly undefended. Maryland secessionists had raised military companies and were awaiting a Confederate army to help seize the capital. On Friday, as the 4th prepared to leave Norristown, Union troops were attacked in Baltimore. Washington was desperate. No sooner had the 4th arrived in Harrisburg than it was shipped in the direction of the capital under the command of Col. Charles P. Dare of the 23rd Pennsylvania. It would not be fully outfitted until June.
“It was expected that the men would be fully clothed, armed and equipped at Harrisburg,” wrote Dyer. “But when the urgent appeals came from Washington for troops, it was not the time for the patriotic citizen-soldier to hesitate, and the regiment marched without uniforms or equipment. The men were armed with muskets and provided with ammunition, which they were obliged to carry in their pockets.”
The regiment was shipped by train to Perryville, Md., then by steamer to Annapolis and Washington, as secessionists had closed the route through Baltimore. At Perryville, Pvt. William Rapine was killed by Dare while Rapine was on guard duty. Dare approached Rapine’s post in the dark and ignored a call for the password. Rapine fired, and Dare fired back, killing Rapine. Another soldier, William Biggs, committed suicide the following day.
“We all hold that Dare was not justifiable in doing what he did,” wrote William J. Bolton, captain of Company A. “Rapine was a good soldier and was only doing his duty. ”
In Washington, the 4th was housed in a church and public buildings. Its members spent the following two months drilling. They also went on sightseeing trips to the Capitol and the Smithsonian.
Born in Ohio, Gen. Irvin McDowell spent much of his early life in France before attending West Point. He served gallantly in the Mexican War, earning a battlefield promotion at the Battle of Buena Vista.
McDowell later found a desk job at the War Department, where he remained until the Civil War. While there, he befriended Salmon P. Chase, an Ohio senator who, in 1861, became Lincoln’s treasury secretary. Partly through Chase’s influence, McDowell was promoted to brigadier general, though he’d never commanded troops in battle.
After the fall of Fort Sumter, there was a lull as both sides raised and organized their armies. That lull soon became annoying to a public that wanted action. “Northern enthusiasm was unbounded,” James B. Fry, a McDowell staffer, recalled in 1884. “‘On to Richmond’ was the war cry. Public sentiment was irresistible, and in response to it, the army advanced.”
McDowell’s plan was to move west and make a diversionary attack on the Confederate line at Manassas, while simultaneously moving around the rebel army to threaten its rear and cut the railroad to Richmond. He assumed that the Confederates would abandon Manassas and fall back, thus relieving pressure on the U.S. capital.
The 4th moved to Alexandria in late June and, on July 2, lost a member—23-year-old Norristown farmer Thomas Murray—in a skirmish with rebel pickets. On July 16, four days before its enlistment was up, the regiment joined the army’s march toward Centreville, Va., about 20 miles west of Washington.
“The campfires of the different regiments looked grand,” wrote Bolton at the end of the first day’s march. “As far as the eye could reach, they could be seen.”
What food the regiment had was mostly gone by the following day. There was nothing to eat on the 18th, 19th or 20th, and the night of the 18th was spent lying on the ground in the rain.
On Saturday, July 20, the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers’ enlistment expired. Hartranft received a letter from McDowell, requesting that it remain for an unspecified period, but no longer than two weeks.
McDowell poured on the flattery. “The services of the regiment have been so important, its good conduct so general, its patience under privation so constant, its state of efficiency so good, that the departure of the regiment at this time can only be considered an important loss to the army,” he wrote.
The captains of each company polled their men, whose refusal was nearly unanimous. Only Hartranft and a few others remained. The rest marched back to Alexandria where, on Sunday, June 21, they were swamped by McDowell’s army fleeing the failed attack at Bull Run.
“They resolved to remain to support the garrison at Fort Ellsworth and to assist the retreating army,” wrote Maj. Edwin Schall, publisher of the Norristown Defender newspaper.
The 4th was relieved on Tuesday. The next day, they arrived in Harrisburg to be discharged. In Harrisburg, the men learned that McDowell had blamed their regiment for his defeat and that his report had been circulated nationally in the newspapers. The citizens of Washington, it was reported, “with tears in their eyes, had importuned the regiment to remain.” The vehemence of public reaction became obvious on Friday, when Pvt. George Reiff was killed in a melee with civilians and soldiers from other units after he reacted to criticism of the 4th’s conduct. Verbal sniping continued when the men arrived back in Norristown.
“We confess we felt grieved when we heard, on our return, that some of our own citizens had stigmatized us as cowards and heaped all sorts of abuse upon us because, when our term of enlistment had expired, we dared to return to our homes,” wrote Schall in the Independent.
McDowell’s report, he insisted, was “base, vile and unfounded slanders.” First, wrote Schall, McDowell’s request that the regiment remain had made no reference to an impending battle. The general opinion of the officers and men was that there would be no battle, he said, and that opinion was echoed by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who was with the army.
“An enthusiastic and unanimous consent would have been given,” wrote Schall, if McDowell had told the regiment that a battle was coming and asked them to join it. Instead, many were looking forward to a brief break at home before they reenlisted.
The 1st Connecticut’s enlistment also expired July 20, but they’d agreed to remain when its colonel explained that a battle was coming. Another regiment, the 71st New York, had done likewise—except for a lone corporal who stepped forward when an officer asked if anyone wanted to leave. The man was stripped of his stripes and buttons before being allowed to depart.
Second, noted Schall, the regiment had not marched off “to the sound of the enemy cannon.” The 4th had left Centreville on Saturday and, by the time the battle began, was 25 miles away.
Third, the 4th had voluntarily joined the defense of Alexandria while McDowell’s defeated men streamed past them into Washington. “Cowardly troops,” wrote Schall, “would have taken the boat at Alexandria and hastened away as fast as possible from this dangerous post.”
Schall subsequently reenlisted and was killed in 1864 at the Battle of Cold Harbor. In his diary, Bolton agreed that McDowell’s criticism was “unjust” and that “the men had been badly used.”
Conspicuously silent was Hartranft, who was widely praised for remaining at Bull Run. A lawyer, he’d been politically active in Montgomery County before the war, serving as deputy sheriff. After the war, Hartranft was elected auditor general and, in 1872, governor.
Did he remain with McDowell in 1861 out of duty, or because he thought leaving might hurt his future political career? According to Gambone, Hartranft always considered the actions of the 4th a stain on his honor. But he seems never to have criticized the men directly.
Nor did he defend them. When Hartranft raised another regiment, the 51st Pennsylvania, many veterans of the 4th chose to reenlist elsewhere.
Pvt. George N. Corson probably spoke for many in the regiment when he vented on carping stay-at-homes.
“Our regiment did all it promised,” he wrote in the Norristown Herald & Free Press. “Because it declined to do more, it has been reviled and slandered by men who sat in their easy chairs, surrounded by comforts and luxuries while we were suffering the privations and dangers of a soldier’s life. If we did wrong, let our revilers do better.”