The Marines at First Manassas
The American Battlefield Trust Conference this year was to have featured a tour of mine about the Marine Battalion at the First Battle of Manassas. It has been postponed until 2021. In the meantime, I wanted to share some of my research into the Marines of 1861. This is Part II of a three-part series.
At the request of Major General Irvin McDowell, on July 15 John Harris, Commandant of the Marine Corps, detailed four companies to join McDowell’s army for the advance to Manassas. Major John G. Reynolds took command, with Brevet Major Jacob Zeilin as his second-in-command and commanding one of the four companies. Both men were 35-year Marine veterans, but neither had commanded a unit this large. Indeed, the 350 officers and men of this battalion represented the largest single Marine unit assembled to date, and the largest fielded until the 20th Century.
After the campaign, Major Reynolds filed identical reports with the Army headquarters he fought under and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. His report reads as follows:
MARINE BARRACKS HEADQUARTERS,
Washington, July 24, 1861.
COLONEL: I have the honor to report the movements and operations of the battalion of marines under my command detailed to co-operate with the Army.
The battalion left the barracks at headquarters in time to reach the Virginia end of the Potomac Long Bridge at 3 p.m. July 16, and proceeded up the Columbia turnpike until an officer, purporting to be the assistant adjutant-general of Colonel Porter’s brigade, came up and assigned us position in the line of march, which placed us immediately in the rear of-Captain (Charles] Griffin’s battery of flying artillery. This assignment was continued up to the period of the battle at Bull Run.
On reaching the field, and for some hours previously, the battery’s accelerated march was such as to keep my command more or less in double-quick time; consequently the men became fatigued or exhausted in strength. Being obliged at this period to halt, in order to afford those in the rear an opportunity of closing up and taking their proper place in line, the battery was lost to protection from the force under my command. This I stated to Colonel Porter, who was ever present, watching the events, of the day. The position of the battery was pointed out, and I was directed to afford the necessary support. In taking this position the battalion was exposed to a galling fire. Whilst holding it General McDowell ordered the battalion to cover or support the Fourteenth New York Regiment [14th Brooklyn] which was about to be engaged. The battalion, in consequence, took the position indicated by the general, but was unable to hold it, owing to the heavy fire which was opened upon them. They broke three several times, but as frequently formed, and urged back to their position, where finally a general rout took place, in which the marines participated. No effort on the part of their officers could induce them to rally.
I am constrained to call your attention to the fact that, when taking into consideration the command was composed entirely of recruits–not one being in service over three weeks, and many had hardly learned their facings, the officers likewise being but a short time in the service–their conduct was such as to elicit only the highest commendation.
Of the three hundred and fifty officers and enlisted men under my command, there were but two staff officers, two captains, one first lieutenant, and nine non-commissioned officers and two musicians who were experienced from length of service. The remainder were, of course, raw recruits, which being considered, I am happy to report the good conduct of officers and men. The officers, although but little experienced, were zealous in their efforts to carry out my orders.
In the death of Lieutenant Hitchcock the corps has been deprived of a valuable acquisition. On the field he was ever present and zealous. He sought and won the approbation of his commanding and brother officers.
Inclosed please find a return of the battalion, showing its present strength, with casualties, &c.
The abrupt and hasty retreat from the field of battle presents a deplorable deficiency in both arms and equipments.
The rout being of such a general character, the men of all arms commingled, the only alternative left was to hasten to the ground occupied by the brigade to which we were attached on the morning of the day of the battle. On my way thither I had the good fortune to fall in with General Meigs, whose consternation at the disastrous retreat was depicted upon his countenance. He was of the opinion the Army should hasten to Arlington, fearing otherwise the enemy would follow up their successes and cut us off on the road. My men being weary and much exhausted, without blankets and other necessaries, I determined to strengthen such as should pass the wagons by hot coffee, and move on to headquarters at Washington City, where their wants could be supplied. But few came up; others continued on to the Long Bridge, where, on my arrival, I found some seventy or more, who, at my urgent solicitation, were permitted to accompany me to the barracks.
In assuming the responsibility of the return to headquarters, I trust my course will meet the approbation of authority.
Blankets were thrown aside by my order on entering the field, which from force of circumstances we were afterwards unable to recover.
All of which is respectfully submitted.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JNO. GEO. REYNOLDS,
Major, Commanding Battalion Marines.
The battalion lost 10 killed, 22 wounded, and 8 missing or captured – the bulk sustained on Henry House Hill fighting the Virginia brigade known ever after as “Stonewall.” Harris requested the unit return to its “more legitimate duties” and the battalion was dissolved and its members dispersed. Major Reynolds was promoted, and he, Zeilin (who was wounded in the battle and recovered), and other members of the battalion went on to further action in the Civil War and beyond.
However, Colonel Harris observed that First Manassas was “the first instance in Marine history where any portion of its members turned their backs to the enemy.” This unfortunate phrase has stuck to the battalion. As David Sullivan and others have experienced, including this author, in Marine circles today discussion of the Marines at Manassas is often greeted with awkward silence or worse.
In reality, these men did as well as they could under the circumstances. Indeed, they performed no worse, and in some cases better, than other Federal units on the field that day.
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