For Blackford, the deciding moment came with the secession of Virginia on April 17, 1861. Like many other Southern Unionists like John Mosby, Jubal Early, and Robert E. Lee, Blackford threw in his lot with the new Confederacy, taking his company, the Barbour Greys, to Richmond. There they were assigned to the 5th Alabama Infantry. As it happened the regimental commander was a fellow Virginian, Robert Rodes. Blackford and Rodes hit it off immediately, in large part because of the superior drill and discipline of Blackford’s company.
Assigned to Brig. Gen. Richard Ewell’s brigade, the regiment exchanged fire with some Union advance guards on July 17, but on the 21st a full-scale Federal advance touched off the war’s first big battle at Manassas Junction. The Alabamians were stationed on the far right of the line and thus out of the main part of the action. Nonetheless they got a taste of battle, which Blackford related to his father the next day.
I have included the entire letter here, which has been published in several books before. However all these versions contain transcription errors, the biggest of which is to misread the S.C.s (South Carolinians) as ILs (Illinois). There were, of course, no Illinois troops at First Manassas. The South Carolinians were Bonham’s brigade, which was composed mainly of men from that state. There was (and is) some controversy about why Bonham abruptly withdrew, whether he was ordered to or did it on his own, but in any case he did not notify Ewell, who suddenly found his flank open.
Bivouac Camp of the Advanced Guard
on the railroad near Union Mills
22nd July 1861
My Dear Father,
We are very much fatigued and jaded by our late movements. I must relieve your anxiety by telling you that I am alive and well. I was in the great battle of yesterday, tho’ our regiment arrived too late to take any considerable part in the action. But I will go back and let you know what I have been doing since this day a week.
Last Monday the enemy advanced their lines considerably and caused our pickets to fall back some two miles. We were up all Tuesday night expecting to march down to the battery to defend it. At 8 o’clock Wednesday the advance guard of the enemy appeared, and we went out to give battle. We all took our positions behind our entrenchments, and remained there some time while parties of our men were skirmishing in front, at last they were driven in, and the firing commenced upon our line. The enemy, having minié muskets, could fire upon us long before we could think of returning the compliment, and so we had to take it coolly. No wound was sustained by our men (in my company) except one pretty badly wounded. The balls make a very loud singing noise when they pass near you, and at first caused me to duck my head, but I soon became used to it. I never expected to be alarmed or excited in battle, but really it is a very different affair from what I thought it. I never was cooler in my life, and have ever since been very much pleased therefore, as I shall have no trouble hereafter.
Just as we were about to make our fire general, news was brought that the S.C.s had retreated from Fairfax C. H. and thus had exposed our flank. Of course there was nothing to be done but to retreat. This we barely had time to do, the enemy (A) was almost in sight of the Xroads when we passed from down B to C at double quick-had we been 20 minutes later, we would have been cut off utterly. As I said before, we marched quick time for twenty miles to this place, my company being deployed as skirmishers on the side next to the enemy. The part was one of honor and implied trust, but it was at a great cost, as the country was awfully rough, and we suffered very much.
Ever since we have been here at work making batteries to defend the passage of Bull Run. I have a ford to defend and have thrown up a very nice battery for about 50 yards. We worked with arms by our sides expecting an attack at any moment from the yankees who were about two miles off. Yesterday morning about day light word was brought that the enemy was advancing on all sides, and that we must be ready to advance to the support of any point that might be seriously threatened. We had an alarm about 8 o’clock and set out immediately but were ordered back before we had proceeded far, before the order was countermanded and we stood some 8 hours in the sun on the road awaiting further orders. Since 7 in the morning heavy cannonading has been heard on all sides, mingled with a perfect roar of musketry—at 11 o’clock we set off at double quick to reinforce our men at Mitchell’s ford and so after crossing a dozen creeks, in the same creek a dozen times, we came upon the enemy. While retreating they had been informed of our coming and had set off double quick so we had our march of three miles for nothing.
We then came right about and set off to reinforce our men in the great battle (not yet named) about ten miles from us-this distance we marched at double time and came on the field about 5 o’clock, too late as I said to do much service, but early enough to smell a little gunpowder and receive a little of the enemy’s fire. We went over the battlefield several miles in extent. T’was truly awful, an immense cloud of smoke and dust hung over the whole country, and the flashing of the artillery was incessant tho’ none of the balls struck my company. One bomb burst a little above me, and killed and wounded several. This was our only loss. Had we been an hour earlier, many would not have lived to tell of it.
I shan’t attempt to describe the appearance of the field, it was literally covered with bodies, and for five miles before reaching it I saw men limping off, more or less wounded. We met wagon loads of bodies coming off to Manassas, where they are now piled in heaps. While we were looking over the field, an order came for us to go back to our batteries ten miles off, and defend them from the enemy who were advancing upon them, so we had to go back, tired as we were, to our holes, where we arrived half dead at 12 o’clock last night, having marched 26 miles heavily loaded. We have no protection against the rain which has been falling all day. I have no blanket, not having seen my baggage since leaving Fairfax; I never was so dirty before in my life and besides I have scurvy in my mouth, not having anything but hard bread and intensely salty meat to eat, and not enough of that. I do not however complain, nor do my men, tho’ I never thought that such hardships were to be endured. We have our meat in the blaze, and eat it on our bread. A continual firing is now going on around us.
Your affectionate son,