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Comedy of Errors,
Tragedy of Triumph
Even though James Thomas Petty had resided in Washington, D.C., for years, he always identified himself as a Virginian. When it came time to choose sides in the sectional crisis, Thomas, as his friends called him, had no difficulty. He left the Union for the Confederate States of America just as Virginia did.
Born in 1836 in Falmouth, Virginia, Thomas lived there and in Front Royal, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains during his youth. His father, James S. Petty, was a tailor by trade, and not a notably successful one at that. In 1860, at age fifty-three, James Petty owned no land and held personal property worth a meager $150.00. Although he never made much money, James and his wife, Margaret, emphasized schooling for their children. At fourteen, Thomas could have helped to ease the financial woes of the family by seeking employment. Instead, his family scrimped while Thomas secured a superior education, which reaped dividends for the rest of his life.
Avoiding his father's craft and, for that matter, other forms of manual labor, young Thomas gravitated toward the nation's capital in the early 1850s in search of employment. With support from his father's family, he found employment as a clerk, earning decent wages with the promise of economic mobility and financial security. A bright and pleasant lad, about medium height with hazel eyes and dark hair, Thomas carved out a strong network of friends and connections in and around Washington. He socialized broadly, forging relationships with other aspiring young men from modest backgrounds, and with quite a number of single young women.
On January 1, 1861, Petty called on President James Buchanan to offer him a happy New Year. "Poor Old Buck!" he jotted in his diary. "He looks careworn, and the effects of 'Secession' are visible in his countenance." Barely a week earlier, South Carolina had voted to withdraw from the Union, and rumblings from other slave states suggested that more would follow.
Along with other Washingtonians, Petty rejoiced when rumors circulated that Senator John Crittenden's committee had eked out a compromise. It would have overseen the adoption of perpetually binding constitutional amendments that would secure slavery forever and guarantee slavery in territories south of the Missouri Compromise line, 36°, 30'. "A mountain seemd removed from every heart," he exulted. But that, too, quickly unraveled.
Soon, the electricity of the times seized him, as it did hundreds of thousands of others. The thrill of momentous events, the culmination of decades of struggle over the legality and geography of slavery, was so exciting that it clouded his mind to solutions and consequences. "The South," he proclaimed joyously, "is in a blaze." On behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he argued with friends so vociferously that he had to avoid political discussions to preserve his bond with them. When Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor fell to Rebel gunners in mid-April, he erupted with joy. Soon thereafter, when Virginia seceded, he announced his decision: "All my friends nearly condemn me but believing I'm right I still cry hurrah for Old Virginia! Whither she goes I'll follow."
Although neither Petty nor his parents had slaves, many people he knew from days as a youth and an adult did -- his uncle in Front Royal owned a dozen. Slaveholding was a Southern right, and Petty detested "Black Republicans" for their goals of stripping Southerners of their civil liberties as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had reaffirmed. He took great pride in his standing as "Virginian & a Southerner."
By mid-April, Petty had written his parents to inform them where he stood on the national crisis. A week later, he arrived in Front Royal, determined to enlist in the army. Two of his cousins had already left for Harpers Ferry to serve in the Warren Rifles, and he decided to join them. Before the month was out, Thomas Petty drilled on the green in front of Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, where George Washington and Robert E. Lee had worshiped.
It did not take long before Petty's officers discovered the value of his clerking talents. After a stint as recorder for a court-martial, duty that earned him the praise of the judge advocate, his captain asked him to prepare the company rolls. Soon, the brigade commissary sought his labor, and a struggle for Petty's services ensued that went all the way to the brigade commander, Brig. Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet directed that Petty should remain with his regiment.
In mid-July, a Union army of 32,000 under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell marched southward toward the main Confederate body that guarded Manassas Junction, where the Manassas Gap Railroad from Front Royal intersected the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Advanced Rebel units fell back in the face of the large Union column, joining forces with other elements of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard's command behind a sluggish, fairly shallow stream with steep banks called Bull Run, about one and a half miles from Manassas Junction.
Petty's regiment, the 17th Virginia Infantry, had only pulled its component companies together in late June. Along with the rest of Longstreet's Brigade, it guarded Blackburn's Ford across Bull Run, on the right of Beauregard's line.
About noon on July 18, the lead column of the Union command approached, placing the entire regiment under fire for the first time. To open the contest, Union artillery hurled projectiles to the left of the brigade. Soon, the fire drifted on top of the 17th. As the soldiers hugged the ground for protection, Federal infantrymen deployed and delivered volleys at the Rebel line. Some soldiers panicked and began withdrawing to the rear. Suddenly, Longstreet rode among them. A large and powerful man who appeared like a giant on horseback, Longstreet's imperturbability amid enemy gunfire reassured the raw troops and restored order. Others held their ground but nervously fidgeted with their firing hammers, itching for a chance to respond in kind. Once Confederates countered with volleys of their own, many of them regained composure. The mere act of defending themselves, and the physical activity of loading and firing, dissipated skittishness among the inexperienced volunteers.
In haste, soldiers loaded and fired, but not in accordance with the procedures officers had taught the men. Perspiration streamed down on the warm day, combining with gunpowder to form a black batter on their faces. Hands, too, took on a charcoal hue from careless pouring of gunpowder into musket barrels. Most men were soon barely recognizable. Hours passed in what appeared to be only seconds. One soldier recalled little of the fight, except his captain parading behind them directing their fire, and his shooting a Yankee some seventy yards out. For that act of killing, he shed no tears of remorse. "Well, I was fighting, for my house, and he had no business there," he wrote.
Three times the Yankees tried to drive off the Rebel defenders, and three times they fought them back. Finally, Rebel volleys suppressed Federal rifle fire enough to allow three companies from the 17th Virginia to rush across Bull Run. Popping up on the Union flank, they delivered withering blasts that forced the attackers into retreat.
Despite some shaky moments, Longstreet's Brigade, and the 17th Virginia Infantry, acquitted themselves well in their first firefight. All told, Longstreet's command suffered seventy casualties while inflicting eighty-three on the attackers. One member of the 17th was killed, with another eighteen wounded. Petty gazed on the corpse of the only fatality, Tom Sangster, of Alexandria. "A triumphant smile rested like a ray of sunshine upon his marble-like features," he commented. At least some of those casualties, Petty complained, were victims of friendly fire. Frightened men shot first and identified targets later. "Just say boo!" grumbled Petty the day after, "& pop goes a gun at whoever is before them."
Petty himself witnessed no action that day. Off on an errand for his regimental commander, he returned after the fighting was done. Chagrined by his own absence, and perhaps a bit embarrassed, Petty extracted a promise from his colonel two days later that he could return to his company for the remainder of the campaign. Next time, he would not miss the fight.
Yet the next time, the true Battle of First Manassas on July 21, was even more embarrassing for Petty. Deployed as skirmishers in advance of the Rebel army, Petty and his captain were nearly captured. While running back to Rebel lines, they both stumbled and fell into Bull Run. As Petty plunged into the water, his musket slipped from his grasp. His body crashed into a rock just below the surface, bruising him badly, and as he rolled away, he knocked his captain back under. Completely saturated, the two struggled with each other and the current to stand once more. Hastily, Petty felt around for his weapon, without success. He was suddenly unarmed and in the midst of the largest battle yet fought on the North American continent. Petty limped back to Confederate trenches to secure another rifled musket. By the time he returned to the company, his captain had realized that Petty's bruise was severe enough to prevent him from moving quickly. He ordered the private back to camp. Petty hobbled off to a commanding hill, and from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., watched the battle from safety. The simultaneous roar of musketry and artillery from both sides must have stunned the green soldier. One eyewitness described it to his father by writing, "It was one continual thunder upon thunder until the Earth seemed to shake its very foundations." By very late afternoon, eruptions of gunfire slowly dissipated, and as darkness settled on the field, Petty returned to the trenches.
For Thomas Petty and many others, the start of the war was a comedy of errors, more slapstick than drama. His story is a useful reminder that any single narrative of the war, any story of one united army defeating another, obscures as much as it clarifies. War is the sum total of its individual stories, from comedy to romance to drama to tragedy.
The only way to develop the full story of a war is to tell a number of its individual stories, while keeping them in balance. The Confederacy had some Thomas Pettys, but it had many more Jesse Jordans. Jordan and his comrades in the 4th Alabama Infantry experienced the harsh realities of war at First Manassas. A twenty-one-year-old from Huntsville, Alabama, Jordan had grown up in a very wealthy slaveholding family. His father, a planter, held personal property and real estate worth $50,000, a staggering sum in 1860. With all the opportunities that opulence often offers, Jesse received excellent academic preparation, which culminated in the study of law at the University of Virginia. When the secession crisis erupted, he had just hung his shingle in his hometown.
Like many other wealthy individuals, Jesse felt a great sense of obligation, too. Thoughtful and sensitive by nature, he never questioned the moral legitimacy of the "peculiar institution." Jesse had grown up in a slave-owning environment, and his family had prospered in it. The Jordans had enjoyed all the rights and benefits of a free white society in Alabama, and with those privileges came the responsibility to defend it. "My country desires my services & she must have it," he explained to his sister. "I am bound to her by a solemn oath." Duty demanded that he pick up the sword "for the defence of the rights of my injured country."
In the spring of 1861, Jordan enlisted as a private in a company of infantrymen that formed in his native Madison County. Ultimately called Company I, 4th Alabama Infantry, the "North Alabamians" assembled with the other prospective companies from around Alabama in Dalton, Georgia, in early May, where the men swore an oath to serve for a year. After a raucous election for field-grade officers and a rousing send-off by the neighboring Georgians, the men in the 4th Alabama entrained for Lynchburg, Virginia. To ease Private Jordan's military burden, his father sent along a young male family slave, who would act as his body servant, cooking his meals, washing his clothes, and running various errands for him. Three days of travel placed Jordan and his comrades in the Virginia Theater, and by mid-month they joined Brig. Gen. Barnard Bee's brigade of Johnston's army in Harpers Ferry, along the Potomac River.
Nagging Jordan was a premonition that he would never see his family again. "I am going to the tented field," he informed his sister, "going to leave Mother, Father, Sisters & Brothers with the expectation of never returning." The idea of dying did not haunt him. He accepted death as likely, but an unyielding sense of responsibility and honor overrode any uneasiness. Warfare, he noted, was a horrible thing, yet he could not dodge his duty. "What unhappiness to us, & devastation to the human race," he acknowledged. "Husbands obliged to leave their wives, & their dear children[,] Mothers to part with their sons, & sisters with their brothers." Still, he must serve "for the defence of the rights of my injured country; & if ever I forsake her in her hour of need may the God of my fathers forsake me in that Eternal day."
At Harpers Ferry, soldiers drilled in the warm Virginia sun, mastering the basic tactical formations that they must assume on the battlefield. The officers in the 4th Alabama marched and paraded their men anywhere from six to eight hours per day. They honed tactical maneuvers and instilled a sense of unity and e;lan, but drilling alienated troops from their colonels and major.
Nor were regimental officers the only targets of criticism. When Johnston deemed the occupation of Harpers Ferry too precarious and withdrew his command to the southwest, epithets against him gushed forth from the men in the 4th Alabama. "This thing of falling back as General Johnston calls it does not suit the temper of our men and you never heard any one 'cussed' as he was by the whole army when the orders came to retreat to Winchester," a private in Jordan's regiment noted. Several weeks later, as the Federals occupied Martinsburg, Virginia, a chorus of curses spewed forth once more, this time both at the Yankees for declining to give battle and at Johnston for refusing to attack the invaders. Thus, when Johnston removed his command from the area south of Winchester in mid-July, some soldiers interpreted the movement as another retreat, until he circulated an order informing them that they would march to Piedmont and board trains to reinforce Beauregard's columns at Manassas Junction. The men responded to the news with throaty cheers and a new spring in their step. The prospect of battle largely stifled dissent, except from those who feared they would not reach Bull Run in time for the fight.
Serving to the west in the Shenandoah Valley, Jordan's regiment was shuttled by train to reinforce Beauregard's command around Bull Run. By the late morning on July 20, the 4th Alabama had arrived at Manassas Junction, nearly 600 strong. A two-mile march positioned the regiment near Ball's Ford, to the west of the anticipated area of attack. Just how nervous Jordan felt that evening, just how restlessly he slept that night, he never recorded. By early morning, Jordan and his Alabama comrades had awakened and shifted quickly in a northwesterly direction to aid fellow Confederates in blocking the wide Union flank attack. They advanced into a cornfield just beyond Buck Hill. Within minutes, Yankee infantry columns appeared, and the men of the 4th Alabama began exchanging fire. As more and more Federals deployed, the regimental commander pulled his men back to a position behind the hill's crest. Using the terrain as protection, the troops would rise up, deliver a volley, and hug the earth again. For close to ninety minutes, the 4th Alabama held its ground, behaving calmly under heavy fire. The endless hours of drill and discipline reaped dividends. One private in the regiment thought his comrades were "the coolest men I ever saw we were all the time talking of the incidents of the fight even while the men were being wounded on every side." Some laughed at near misses.
At Buck Hill, Jordan suffered a mild gunshot wound to the head. A minie ball creased his scalp and drew blood, but did not damage his skull, and he remained at his post. Under such heavy fire, sustaining only this "small wound," he considered himself very lucky. "God only knows how I escaped being killed," he elaborated to his sister, "for never did hail fall faster around me than did the balls & shells & upon my right, left & before me I could see my poor comrades fall as they were."
With vastly greater numbers, the Federal forces outflanked the Confederate troops there and forced them to retire to a new position, just north of the Warrenton Turnpike. They did not hold this ground for long. Once again, superior Union strength compelled the 4th Alabama to fall back. This time, they mistook attacking Yankees as friends, and allowed them to approach too closely to repulse their advance. "We had been there but a short time," Jordan described, "before we were flanked upon the right & left by an over whelming number of the enemy, supposed to [be] at first our friends." Their escape, he suggested, required divine interposition. "Nothing but Gods providence ever enabled us to escape without the destruction of every mans life."
Across the turnpike the 4th Alabama raced, regrouping with great difficulty east of the famous Henry House. There, General Bee called on them to rally and support Brig. Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson's forces. The men moved forward, some 250 strong, but an artillery battery sliced a part of the regiment off from the rest, and in its divided, worn-out state, it could do little more than help fortify the line. Fortunately, the Confederates rushed substantial numbers from the center and right of their line to strengthen the left, and invaluable reinforcements from Johnston's army arrived by train in the nick of time. Building upon Jackson's and Bee's position, they extended beyond the Union flank and launched a devastating counterattack. While these Confederates, flush with the thrill of victory and disordered from their effective assault, attempted to organize a pursuit from the jumbled units, the exhausted Alabamians finally retired.
In its first fight, the 4th Alabama had endured a terrible beating. Forty officers and men were killed, and another 157 suffered wounds. In one company alone, 58 entered the battle, and 33 were killed or wounded. Only 25 emerged unscathed, and "of these nearly every man was either struck by a spent ball [a round that lacked enough force to penetrate the skin] or had holes shot through his hat or clothes," wrote one of its members. Jordan, stunned by the magnitude of the losses and bewildered by his own survival, concluded that "the prayers of my mother & other loved ones at home must have protected me from all harm." Even though the 4th Alabama served throughout the war in what ultimately became the Army of Northern Virginia, the regiment never lost as many men in a single fight as it did that July day. One-third of the regiment were casualties that day. Only at the Battle of the Wilderness, in May 1864, would its percentage of casualties actually exceed that total.
Throughout the war, three of every four Confederates in Lee's army were either killed in action, died of disease, wounded, or captured. Petty would manage to survive the war. In the Seven Days' Campaign of June and July 1862, he was taken prisoner. Yankees shipped him to Fort Columbus in New York and then to Fort Warren in Boston, where locals gawked at him and his comrades. Barely a month after he fell into Union hands, Federals exchanged him for a Yankee prisoner of war. Petty returned to the 17th Virginia in time for the Maryland invasion that fall, and he remained with his regiment, except for an illness, until July 1863. For the next thirteen months, Petty served as a clerk for the brigade commissary. Those skills may have saved his life: They kept him out of the meat grinder known as the Overland Campaign of 1864. With the Confederacy desperate for manpower, Petty returned to the line later that year; during the remaining months of the Petersburg siege, he lived on meager rations, and trench warfare gradually broke him down, yet he completed his wartime service with the 17th, signing a parole at Lynchburg, Virginia, in April 1865.
In contrast, almost 30,000 officers and men were killed in action or mortally wounded, and Jesse Jordan was among them. As he had feared, on June 27, 1862, at Gaines's Mill, Virginia, in the same campaign where Petty was captured, Jordan sustained a mortal wound while assaulting a Federal battery. Comrades bore his body to a nearby church, which the Rebels had converted into a field hospital. He died with his body servant at his side. He was buried in a marked grave, before his mother, Mary, could travel from Huntsville to Richmond to retrieve her son's body. With the help of the family slave, she disinterred Jesse's remains and placed them in a casket. They escorted the body back to Huntsville, where she held a fitting burial for her son.
Thomas Petty and Jesse Jordan were two of 200,000-odd officers and men who served in Lee's army. These men comprised a substantial part of a great human canvas, on which was painted a tragic and terrible picture called the American Civil War.
Copyright © 2008 by Joseph T. Glatthaar