Rocks or Bullets? Causes of Casualties at Second Manassas

(Don Troiani)

The Confederates threw rocks when they ran out of ammunition at Second Manassas. It’s one of those famous stories associated with the Second Battle of Manassas/Bull Run. But did it really happen? Short answer: yes. How effective was it? That’s another question…

On the afternoon of August 30, 1862, Union troops assaulted Jackson’s Confederate line. Jackson’s infantry brigades formed along or settled into a railroad cut which was both a protection and a hindrance for the fight. As the Union troops attacked, they came under flanking artillery fire as Longstreet’s corps rolled into position from the west, beginning to form the trap that would force the Federals to retreat from the battlefield.

Confederate infantrymen in Stafford and Johnson’s brigades did run out of ammunition after firing at the advancing Union lines. According to one account, an Irishman in Stafford’s brigade called to his comrades, “Boys, give them rocks.” In the post-battle memory, some Confederates claimed that they repulsed the attack with rocks alone, an exaggerated claim that doesn’t hold up with their enemy’s accounts. In the words of historian John Hennessey: “While this stone-pitching reflected the intensity of the fighting, it in fact had no bearing on the outcome of the attack. By the time Stafford’s and Johnson’s men resorted these desperate tactics, the Federal attack was spent and Confederate reinforcements had arrived.”

Last week I wondered if I could find some accounts of medical injuries from the rock-throwing. Did it really cause any significant casualties or was it more the surprise and the uniqueness of the flying projectiles? By no means can I claim to have made a comprehensive search, but I did go through keyword searches of the Medical Records of the War of the Rebellion and some primary source accounts…without success in finding rock injuries from Manassas.

However, in a post-war paper, First Lieutenant Theron W. Haight who fought in the 24th New York Infantry recalled the attack on the railroad cut. While he mentions the stone hurling, he clearly observed more wounds and injuries from metal projectiles. Note that the stone throwing helped him to conclude that the Confederates were out of ammunition and even prompted him to jump into the railroad cut to surrender and ask for aid for his wounded comrades!

This graphic account follows the conclusion that the stone throwing happened, but probably did not injure a significant number of Union soldiers. Certainly, some were hit and hurt, but the majority of casualties along the railroad cut still fell with bullet or artillery wounds.

Here are excerpts from Haight’s account. The emphasis added is mine for points relevant to the stone throwing casualties or lack thereof.

Now the bullets began to fly about our ears, and men to pitch forwards or backwards, out of the line, to the earth. Artillery from unseen locations back of the enemy’s infantry line opened upon us, and the shouts and yells from both sides were indescribably savage. It seemed like the popular idea of pandemonium made real, and indeed it is scarcely too much to say that we were really transformed for the time, from a lot of good-natured boys to the most bloody of demoniacs. Without my being in the least degree conscious of any such thing, the bottom of my haversack had been torn away by a fragment of shell, and a bullet had pierced my canteen, relieving me of the weight of all my provision and drink, and my hat had somehow been knocked off my head on my way from the woods to the railroad grade, while a comrade at my side had been shot through the sole of his foot by a bullet which cut the flesh clear across just above the lower cuticle (a very sensitive place as everybody knows), and was surprised, after we had reached the embankment, to see blood flowing from the bullet hole in his shoe….

There was some firing on our part on our way across the field, because the line did not move fast enough (on account of the diagonal fence) to keep us busy otherwise. Undoubtedly we would have been able to get across with much less disaster to ourselves, and with practically as much damage to the other side, if we had rushed right on, without stopping to fire at all. But all battles are made up of blunders is usually the one that comes out with the ultimate advantage….

Comparatively few of our number arrived at the embankment— probably not a dozen of my own company. Some of those who had been shot less seriously than the young man of who I just spoke, were not endowed with his fighting enthusiasm, and had run back to the woods on the feeling the sting of bullet or of broken iron. But many, very many, were lying on the ground behind us, dead, or yielding up their young lives with the blood that was oozing from their gaping wounds. Those of us who were on the embankment were too few to even attempt to drive out the troops on the other side of it, and accordingly lay as flat to the slope as we could, crawling occasionally to the top, and discharging our muskets, held horizontally over our heads, in the direction which seemed to afford a chance of hitting somebody on the other side of the grade. In the meantime a second line of troops attempted to come across the field from our side, and the din instantly became so infernal that I desisted from the feeble efforts I had been making against the enemy, in order to see what was happening in our rear.

As I looked back, I saw our line making a grand rush in our direction, many of the men holding their arms before their faces, as though to keep off a storm. Bullets were pouring into them from the infantry beyond us, but worst of all, Longstreet’s batteries, freshly posted on a rise of ground a mile or so to our left, were enfilading the approaching troops with solid shot, shell, and sections a foot long or more, of railroad iron, which tore up the earth frightfully, and was death to any living thing that they might touch on their passage. Our second line gave way before this terrible storm, and ran back to the cover of the woods, leaving us on the embankment to our fate. As for ourselves, we still kept up the desultory fire that I have described with no serious effect, I presume, after the brief intermission mentioned. But shortly there came an unlooked-for variation in the proceedings. Huge stones began to fall about us, and now and then one of them would happen to strike one or another of us with very unpleasant effect. By this time all my friends were on the rebel work at my side were badly wounded, and I had received a few scratches and bruises for my own part. The enemy kept up the showers of stones, and we were returning the favors to such extent as we were able, and bullets intended for the rebels from our soldiers back in the woods were striking the ground about us, and at least one of them struck a comrade at my elbow, wounding him in the back, and fatally. Young Oliver Ayer, whose injury in the foot was mentioned before, now received an additional bullet wound, disabling his right arm, from which he subsequently died in one of the general hospitals in Washington. Both of these disabled companions of mine entreated me to do something for their relief, in the helpless and dangerous position which they occupied.

It was a puzzle to decide upon any course of action, and I took time to cut away Cotter’s shirt, find that his hurt was one that I could not relieve, and replace the garment with my own, and also to place a bandage about Ayer’s arm, before finally deciding to try running over the embankment in the hope of obtaining a cessation of hostilities at that point, in case getting over alive. I was fortunate enough to be permitted to jump down from the top into the rebel line before anybody got a successful shot at me, and made bold to ask the further favor of being allowed to bring my wounded friends over the work. This request was not granted, and I probably owe my life to the refusal. The stone-throwing ceased there, however, and I helped bandage up the wounded arms of a few of their soldiers who had been retired into the ditch at the foot of the grade….

8 Responses to Rocks or Bullets? Causes of Casualties at Second Manassas

  1. Nice post. Yes, that was Michael Nolan, commander of the 1st La. Regt. who called for the men to throw rocks when they ran out of ammunition. Nolan was born in Co. Tipperary, who lived in New Orleans from the 1840’s on. In 1848, apparently aware the Young Ireland movement would rise up, he left New Orleans and went to Tipperary with a rifle, intending to participate. He missed the one and only actual fire fight of the 1848 rebellion – in Co. Tipperary – by just a few weeks. He arrived wearing a beard. After some days, he shaved the beard and about that time was arrested. He spent several months in a Tipperary jail. The authorities released him on the promise he would return to the US. He served in the two Irish militias for many years prior to the Civil War. He was also active in ministering to victims of the Yellow Fever epidemics.

  2. Very good post, most interesting, from the combat experience in general, to the experience of “incoming” stones. This really makes Troiani’s image even more impressive. The effect of Longstreet’s artillery, including ” . . . sections a foot long or more, of railroad iron,” is as intriguing. So am I to understand that Pete’s cannoneers were charging their Napoleons with twelve-inch pieces of railroad tracking? I am also reminded of events nearly three years hence, at Fort Gregg during the break-through at Petersburg, April 2, 1865, where the Confederate defenders took to tearing down chimneys of winter huts and hurling the bricks at the oncoming XXIV Corps troops as they appeared on the crest of the parapet.

  3. Well, there was a County Sheriff in West Texas famed for stopping a runaway criminal by throwing a rock…he was even in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for his adventure. Sheriff Willis, Crockett County, Texas 1930’s.

  4. The willingness to fight with rocks when nothing else is available says much about the success of the defenders.

  5. Thank you for this post, Sarah. I walked some of the Railroad Cut at Manassas earlier this year. Where approximately along the cut did the stone-throwing occur?

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