July 1861 was hot and humid in Northern Virginia, and Sunday the 21st was sultry enough to be oppressively uncomfortable as the war’s first major battle unfolded along the swales surrounding Bull Run. Several hundred civilians living in and around Washington DC rented carriages or buggies to witness what many thought would be a resounding Union victory. Most of the civilians took up places along a ridge line about one mile north of the Stone Bridge that carried the Warrenton Pike across Bull Run.
Amongst the throng of gawkers were scores of U.S. congressmen. Little of the fighting could be seen through the summer haze and battlefield smoke, but all knew from the din of battle that a major clash was underway south of Bull Run.
Few ventured to the Stone Bridge, but those who did could see the flashes of muskets and belching artillery pieces through the white billows of smoke rolling across the ever becoming hallowed landscape a few miles west of the town of Manassas.
One congressman, Alfred Ely, of upstate New York, strolled down the Warrenton Pike across the bridge only to have a stray musket ball strike just in front of his feet. Rattled, the lawmaker dodged behind a tree by the bridge too scared to venture from cover as fleeing Yankees and Rebel musket fire began ripping into the stream’s gentle rapids. Soon, two Confederate officers emerged, and asked Ely,
“What state are you from?
“New York,” came Ely’s reply.
“Are you connected with the government?” the officers asked amidst the raging chaos.
“I am a Representative of the Government,” Ely told them.
The two officers took Ely’s pistol and grabbed him by the arm whisking him away to see Colonel E. B. Cash of the 8th South Carolina – a cantankerous old farmer who was in full battlefield froth by this time.
“You are a damn white livered soul,” Colonel Cash yelled at Ely. “I’ll blow your brains out on the spot!” he barked as he pointed the gun at Ely’s head. The New Yorker closed his eyes knowing this was his end.
But his doom sparred, as the two officers stopped Colonel Cash from killing Ely in cold blood and took him away.
Ely was most likely the first civilian prisoner of the Civil War. Alfred Ely would spend nearly six months in Richmond’s Libby Prison before he was exchanged in early 1862. That same year, D. Appleton and Co. of New York published his newly written Journal of Alfred Ely, which chronicled his experience at Bull Run and his time as a prisoner of war.