The 11th New York Fire Zouaves: Seeing the Elephant, Part 2

The following excerpt is taken from Groeling’s forthcoming book First Fallen: The Life of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth, the North’s First Civil War Hero. It will be released by Savas Beatie and can be preordered here: https://www.savasbeatie.com/contact-us/

Colonel Elmer Ellsworth’s regiment was active during the last half of the battle and have been the subject of much speculation concerning their performance. This series of posts should, I hope, clear up that concern.

When General Heintzelman caught a glimpse of the southerners, he made the mistake of assuming they were Federals by their uniforms.  The soldiers primarily wore civilian clothing, and they were just as confused as the Union troops.  It was not until Heintzelman rode out between the lines to ask questions that the confusion was cleared up–he was quickly fired upon, although not injured. Heintzelman ordered the Zouaves to charge, but before they could respond, the first volley from the muskets of the 33rd VA mowed down most of the 11th NY’s front line.  Upon reaching the summit of the hill, concealed troops in the wood line ahead also opened fire. “Down, every one of you!” shouted Farnham, and the regiment hugged the ground just as the Virginians unleashed another volley.[1] Some of the Zouaves began to rise and fire shots at the concealed enemy, yelling “Remember Ellsworth,” as they worked. Others attempted to crawl closer to the wood line to deliver the peculiar “whizz” of the bullets, and that he experienced a sensation similar to that experienced when entering an old-time fireman’s brawl.[2]

Lt. Col Noah Farnham of the 11th New York

The remaining soldiers, including those of the 1st Minnesota, hit the ground and began to return fire from a defensive position. The artillery duel began, shaking the rolling, open terrain in front of the Henry House. Confederate Colonel Thomas Jackson, not yet a general or “Stonewall,” calmly rode the rebel lines, reassuring his men.  Federal captains Ricketts and Griffin, however, were less than calm.  When the artillery duel had been long range, the Union held the upper hand due to their rifled guns, which had a much greater range than Jackson’s smoothbores.  Now, with the Confederates only three hundred yards away, much of the Federal ordnance harmlessly sailed over the heads of the men in the rebel lines.  The reverse of this was that the Confederate ordnance was now within range, and the combination of rebel infantry and artillery began to take a severe toll on the horses and men of the Union batteries.

As the 1st Minnesota and the 11th New York advanced to the top of the western slope of Henry Hill, the 33rd Virginia, the leftmost regiment of Jackson’s line of battle and commanded by Colonel Arthur Cummings, had them in their sites. Remnants of Confederate Colonel Francis Bartow’s units were still on the field after losing Matthews Hill.  These men had joined the 33rd and, as the Confederates sighted the Federal advance, one of the soldiers later wrote:

            What a beautiful sight they were, as with well-preserved line they moved across the undulating field!  I knew they were Yankees and my heart sank as I saw them move along in such a beautiful line.[3]

 The regiment rose and advanced, to the cry of “Ellsworth! Remember Ellsworth!” Some shouted the cheer of their old fire companies. With his sleeves rolled up and sword in hand, Lieutenant Daniel Divver led Company G’s veterans of Eagle Engine Co. 13 with the shout of “Get down, Old Hague!”[4]

Colonel Orlando Willcox wrote later:

            The enemy opened a heavy . . . fire, the Zouaves returned the fire, but immediately fell back, bewildered and broken. The weight of metal against us was as of ten shots to one, of every class of projectiles . . . the whole regiment was swept back as by a tornado.[5]

Ricketts had lost both gunners and horses to the deadly fire of the Virginians, and ran among the retreating soldiers crying, “For God’s sake, boys, save my battery!” The Zouaves who were within earshot and a scattering of men from the 1st Minnesota returned to the guns, charging forward once more to defend the exposed cannon.[6]  The Zouaves were nearly surrounded but continued to fight. The National Flag and the large, white Fire Department flag, gifted to them as they left New York, were the only colors the 11th New York carried that day. The Zouaves had to take fire not only from the front but were exposed to friendly fire from the rear in their attempt to recover the flags after they were briefly captured. When the flags were again with the 11th, the men tore both banners from their staffs and folded them up to hide them under their shirts for safekeeping.[7]

In one letter from an unknown member of Company K, 2nd Vermont Infantry, a young soldier who fought next to the 11th New York wrote:

            We know something of the little scenes exacted just around us in battle–the truth is no one sees a battle–we hear the roar and see the smoke and know when the death struggle is going on. The Generals get a little wider view, but they depend mostly on the reports of their aides and couriers. ‘Tis true no one sees except Him who sees all things. It must have been the direct agency of Providence to save so many of us from that fiery tempest that rained over us. As we came up among the whistling balls I took one long look at the sky and the smoking hills, then fixed my eyes on the enemy’s lines, looked at my gun, and rushed in.[8]

 He spoke for so many soldiers, in all wars, when he wrote that one soldier has a limited view. Views were limited for civilian observers as well. Edward S. Barrett, who accompanied the 5th Massachusetts at Manassas, shared his view of the action on Henry House Hill:

            General McDowell now ordered a battery forward to take a position near a house on our right; the Fire Zouaves were ordered to support it. The position appeared to me, from my lookout, like a strong one, as it was on a hill on a level with the rebel batteries. –Our battery started, the horses running at the top of their speed, and shortly began to ascend the eminence, the Zouaves following closely; but scarcely had the battery halted and fired, before the enemy opened fire upon them from new masked batteries, and a terrific fire of musketry from the woods, and our artillery was driven back, many of the men and horses being killed. The Zouaves stood their ground manfully, firing in lines and then falling on their faces to load. Their ranks were becoming dreadfully thinned, yet they would not yield an inch . . .[9]

On the grounds of the Henry House, nearer the woods, the rest of the Minnesota troops gave ground, running to the west.  Within moments, parts of each unit, New York and Minnesota, also fell back, some running to the woods, but most to Sudley Road.  Colonel Farnham tried to keep his frightened and confused men in check, but the U. S. Marines, seeing the retreating Zouaves, immediately broke and fled back down Henry Hill.  When the first ranks of the 11th New York reached Sudley Road, they turned, trying desperately to reorganize under Farnham.  There, not one hundred yards south, was the 1st Virginia “Black Horse” Cavalry, one hundred fifty mounted Confederates under the command of J. E. B. Stuart.  Stuart almost compounded the mistaken uniform error–he saw the uniforms were those of Zouaves, and since Zouave soldiers were popular on both sides of the conflict, he shouted to the retreating men, “Don’t run, boys!  We are here.” An errant breeze, noticeably absent from the battle all day, unfurled enough of the Stars and Stripes for Stuart to see his mistake, and he quickly followed his former words with the order to “Charge!” Private Samuel S. Hershey, Jr., Co. K, 4th Maine Infantry wrote to a friend, telling him what he was able to see:

            A body of cavalry, charged on the Ellsworth Zouaves. The Zouaves opened their ranks and “took ’em in.” Some went out alive. There cannot be anything imagined half so full of fight as a Zouave. They charged again and again and piled up the rebels in heaps.[10]

Civilian observer Edward S. Burnett added what he saw, and thought, as well:

            . . . suddenly out dashed the Black Horse Cavalry, and charged furiously, with uplifted sabres upon them.–The Zouaves gallantly resisted this furious onset without flinching, and after firing their muskets–too sorely pressed to load–would fight furiously with the bayonet or any weapons they could seize, and in some instances drag the riders from their saddles, stabbing them with their knives . . .. Never, since the famous charge of the Light Brigade, was a cavalry corps more cut to pieces. There is a bitter animosity existing between the Black Horse cavalry and Ellsworth’s Zouaves. A great many of the cavalry are citizens of Alexandria and Fairfax county and they resolved to kill every Zouave they could lay their hands upon to avenge the death of Jackson, and the Zouaves were equally determined to avenge the murder of Ellsworth; so no quarter      was expected . . . [11]*

After only a few minutes of fighting, the New Yorkers and the Minnesotans fled to the woods, west beyond Sudley Road. In less than twenty minutes, the 11th New York Fire Zouaves lost thirty-eight men.  By the end of the day, the 11th lost the fourth largest number of any other Federal regiment engaged at First Bull Run, and 51% of the total losses of the Second Brigade. [12]

On Henry House Hill the Federals were losing the battle for possession of the high ground. Captain Griffin decided to move his two howitzers over to aid Ricketts, where several companies of the 11th New York and the 1st Minnesota had returned to reinforce the guns.  After firing two rounds, Griffin saw a large group of men in blue uniforms approaching from the woods to his right.  He prepared to fire, when Major Barry rode up, shouting, “Captain, don’t fire there; those are your battery support.”  Griffin argued briefly, but Barry held firm.  Griffin’s men held their fire.  Unfortunately, it was the uniform mistake again.  The men were not Union, they were Confederate General “Extra Billy” Smith’s Battalion, along with the 33rd Virginia.  They marched within seventy yards of Griffin’s position and opened fire.  The effect was devastating.  The remaining men of the 11th New York were driven back down Henry Hill to Sudley Road.  Farnham organized what he could of the Fire Zouaves, and at the behest of Captain Ricketts, who implored them for help, they charged forward once more. Seeing a troop of cavalry forming for an assault, the Zouaves turned and charged ahead at them, pursuing the cavalry to the Confederate entrenchments. Once there, they were nearly surrounded and had to fight their way out.[13] Griffin said later, in his address to the United States Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War: “That was the last of us. We were all cut down.” [14]

_____________________________________________

[1] Metcalfe, “So Eager Were We All.”

[2]Holice B. Young, History of the New York Fire Department, Ch. 42, Part 1-New York Roots. [online version available through https://www.newyorkroots.org/bookarchive/historyofnyfiredepartments/41-50/ch42pt1.html (accessed January 12, 2015)].

[3]John N. Opie, A Rebel Cavalryman with Lee, Stuart, and Jackson, (Chicago: 1899, reprinted by TheClassics.us, 2013), 31.

[4]Young, History of the New York Fire Department, (accessed June 2016).

[5]Robert Garth Scott, ed., Forgotten Valor: The Memoirs, Journals, & Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Wilcox (Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999), 291-292 and John O. Casler, Four Years in the Stonewall Brigade, (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Press, 2017), 27.

[6]Gottfried, Maps, 44.

[7]Pohanka, Hermann, Grenan, “Tiger!  Zouave!” (accessed June 2015).

[8]One of the Tigers, “Letter from the 2nd Regiment–The Late Battle,” The Caledonian (St. Johnsbury, Vermont), August 9, 1861, [online version available at https://bullrunnings.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/1861-8-9-the-caledonian-2nd-vt-first-manassas.pdf (accessed November 14, 2017)].

[9]Edward S. Barrett, “Scenes of the Battle Field–Personal Adventures at the Battle of Bull Run,” The Boston Traveller, (Boston, Massachusetts) August 1, 1861. [online version available at https://bullrunnings.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/edward-s-barrett-civilian-on-the-battle-1-2 (accessed August 4, 2017)].

[10]Samuel S. Hershey, Jr., “On the Battle,” Republican Journal (Belfast, Maine), August 9, 1861. [online version available at https://bullrunnings.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/1861-8-9-belfast-me-republican-jpurnal=4th-me-two-letters4952.pdf (accessed January 17, 2018)].

[11]Barrett, “Scenes of the Battle.” 1.

* A word about the Black Horse Cavalry: Sometimes referred to as the “Black Horse Troop,” it was actually one company of Confederate cavalry that eventually became Co. H of the 4th Virginia Cavalry. It was initially formed as a militia by the young scions of Fauquier County’s finest families. They formed part of the escort that escorted John Brown to the gallows in 1859. By the time of First Bull Run, the Northern press had written about them so often (along with “masked batteries,” and “Louisiana Tigers”) that the name “Black Horse Cavalry” became the name by which all Confederate cavalry was commonly if incorrectly, known. At First Bull Run, the company, under J. E. B. Stuart’s command, was attached to Lt. Col. T. T. Munford’s squadron of the 30th VA Cavalry. Even Confederate Brigadier General Edward Porter Alexander mentioned this great “bugbear” created by the press in his memoirs.

[12]Gottfried, Maps, 44.

[13]Pohanka, Hermann, Grenan, “Tiger!  Zouave!” (accessed June 2016).

[14]JCCW, “Testimony of Captain Charles Griffin,” 168-177.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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1 Response to The 11th New York Fire Zouaves: Seeing the Elephant, Part 2

  1. Gripping reading !

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