Academic journal article Civil War History

The View from the Top of the Knoll: Capt. John C. Tidball's Memoir of the First Battle at Bull Run

Academic journal article Civil War History

The View from the Top of the Knoll: Capt. John C. Tidball's Memoir of the First Battle at Bull Run

Article excerpt

John C. Tidball, an artilleryman for every day of his forty-one years in the Army, saw action in many of the great battles of the Civil War, first as a horse battery captain, and later as a brigade and corps commander of artillery. His attachment for the light artillery service began early in his West Point days, when he experienced the excitement of a cannonier at artillery drills, and grew as he became more experienced as an officer. He never abandoned his love of the big guns; when he retired he was commander of the artillery school at Fort Monroe and the army's premier artillerist. But the Civil War had hardly begun when he posted his battery on the high ground at Bull Run, dress rehearsal for the many bloody conflicts that lay ahead. His observations during that memorable week were recorded years later, when he wrote his memoirs.(1)

No one has improved on William Tecumseh Sherman's one-sentence description of the Union army's performance at that battle: "It is now generally admitted," he wrote more than twenty years after the event, "that it was one of the best-planned battles of the war, but one of the worst-fought." In July 1861 neither the Union nor the Confederacy had a coherent strategy for waging war, and neither side was militarily ready. But Union politicians were convinced that if the North made a bold appearance, the Rebels would run. While a strategic case could be made for attacking the Confederate army at Bull Run, it was a battle fought not for strategic reasons, but for political reasons. The northern press pushed an ill-prepared Union army into action, and the Confederate Army pushed it off the plains of Manassas back to Washington. The battle ended with the Army of the North, as Sherman put it, "in a state of disgraceful and causeless flight."(2)

Events of the spring of 1861 pulled the North and South relentlessly toward that first major battle of the War. On March 5, only one short day after his inauguration, Lincoln was greeted with the news that dwindling food supplies would force an evacuation of Fort Sumter within four to six weeks. Sumter was one of only two Southern forts of any significance still in federal possession at the end of the Buchanan presidency; the other was Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor. Lincoln, in one of the first major decisions of his new presidency, ordered a secret expedition to reinforce Fort Pickens, but on Fort Sumter decided to wait out Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Cautiously, a few weeks later, he notified the Confederacy that he intended to send provisions only--no men or arms--to Sumter. Incessant demands from South Carolina for action to redeem Southern honor provoked Davis into a decision that would forever cast him as the aggressor who started the Civil War; he ordered Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, the Confederate Commander at Charleston, to attack. Two days later, on April 14, Fort Sumter surrendered.(3)

By this time Lt. John C. Tidball was already on his way to Fort Pickens. In the absence of its captain, William Barry, Tidball was in charge of Battery A, 2d U.S. Artillery, and on April 17, he disembarked in the heavy surf off Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola Harbor. Bvt. Maj. Henry Hunt's Company M, 2d U.S. Artillery was also there, along with an assortment of regular army infantry and engineering personnel who were rushed to the scene to prevent the invasion of the island by Confederate forces at Pensacola. Barry and Hunt would rise to the very top of the Union artillery corps during the long conflict ahead; they would also, along with many other regular army artillerists, see action in the first battle at Bull Run. The Fort Pickens relief expedition arrived just in time to thwart the plans of Confederate brigadier general Braxton Bragg to attack the Union post. By mid-May, the old fort was secure, and Tidball and the other regular army officers were chafing at their isolation on this distant tropical island. In a letter home Tidball wrote, "We find that our elegant light battery is entirely out of place by being in this fort, and we all think it would be a wise policy to send us back for service with the new troops that are now being raised in the North to operate in the field. …

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