A Story from Brentsville, Courtesy of Morgan Breeden

Brentsville historian Morgan Breeden has a reputation for relentlessly uncovering little known history of the area and relevant writings that humanize the Civil War.  His latest neighborhood newsletter highlights the memoirs of James F. Rusling, Brigadier General.

Breeden says of his interest,

“With the high-pitched interest in the Civil War right now I wanted to give some historical information about Brentsville during the war (I’m doing a whole series of things).  Most people do not realize that the largest Union wagon train ever assembled was located at Brentsville at the time of the Bristow action (October 1863).  It is reported that there were about 500 wagons stationed in the field just behind the courthouse. (Rusling refers to them as “our  immense wagon trains…”)  Fearing Mosby would attempt to capture their wagons which would have been a very sever blow to the Union supply, Rusling did the unthinkable — started moving the trains during the dark of night which continued until almost noon on the following morning.

Much is published about Manassas, more accurately Manassas Junction or the Battle of Bull Run, and little or nothing is said about Brentsville, the county’s principal town.  However, during the entire duration of the war there were tens of thousands of troops up and down the road through Brentsville, many of them stopping in town to eat, sleep, rest or establish camp and all taking a toll on the local resources which dwindled to near zero.  I like to say that the people of Manassas wish to hide Brentsville under a basket to allow more attention to themselves.  In truth, Brentsville is alive with history, much of it overlooked but all of it important to those who appreciate the true history of the war and to those of us who call Brentsville home.”


By James F. Rusling, Brigadier General (by Brevet) United States Volunteers

(Pages 74 – 77)

During this movement to the rear, on October 13, as we neared the Rappahannock, General Meade ordered me to take charge of our immense wagon trains, and hasten their crossing below Rappahannock Station. The consolidated trains of the Army of the Potomac then averaged about fifty miles. I found them all crossing by a single ford, and at once directed new fords to be constructed, by cutting down the banks of the river, etc., and soon had several trains crossing simultaneously and rapidly, and at dusk rode into headquarters near Catlett’s Station, and reported our trains practically over. But I was myself thoroughly exhausted, having been in the saddle all day and most of the previous night and day, and after a meager supper was soon sound asleep. In an hour or so, however, along about nine o’clock, an orderly roused me with:

“General Meade’s compliments, and he wants to see you immediately.”

Reporting to him, he said our trains had gone into park for the night at Brentsville, about ten or twelve miles distant, with orders to move on next day to Fairfax Station, to the rear of Centreville; but that the Confederate cavalry were working round in that direction, and he feared that they might raid or “gobble up” our trains, unless they were started at once for Fairfax, and he wished me to proceed immediately to Brentsville and take charge of affairs there. I hesitated; hinted I was used up, dead-beat with fatigue, etc.; but he cut me short by saying I had managed the trains so well at the Rappahannock that day, that he was going to intrust me with this Brentsville job also. And then he added, by way of parting benediction:

“Good-bye, Rusling! The Rebs are reported off in that direction, and you may bring up in Richmond before I see you again!”

“No, I won’t either, General,” I rejoined, kindling up (evidently as he intended); “I will go through all right, and put the trains through, too.”

He gave me his hand, and smiled gravely down from behind his glasses (I was only a young fellow then, and of moderate stature compared with Meade’s), and bade me take what escort I wanted. But I chose only four cavalrymen, for secrecy and speed, and was soon in the saddle again and off for Brentsville.

Once out of camp, we abandoned the main road, and struck straight for Brentsville by the byways and plantation roads, depending on an “intelligent contraband” as guide, that I picked up at the first cabin, with a promise of five dollars if he piloted us safe through, or a bullet through his head if he misled or betrayed us.

“All right, massa,” he answered, displaying his ivories; “I’ll take dat five dollars; fer I was gwine wid you Yankees, anyway!”

I mounted him behind one of the Cavalrymen, and though the night was pitch dark we reached Brentsville safely before midnight. Here we found the teams ungeared and everybody fast asleep; but soon had the trains on the road again and off briskly for Fairfax Station. With the trains thus well in motion, and their corps quartermasters well instructed, I threw myself on the ground by a flickering camp fire, and went heavily to sleep, and slept till after sunrise of a superb October morning, and, then waking up, found our vast trains still rolling on and on. I breakfasted with some officers on a cup of coffee, hard-tack, and fried pork, and then smoked a pipe and lounged on the porch of the Brentsville tavern (its proprietor, of course, in the Confederate service) until the last train was well on its way, and then, mounting my horse, started for Centreville.

I struck the railroad again at Bristoe about noon, and with my little escort (minus the “contraband,” whom I had turned over to the trains as a teamster—no doubt he made a good one) was jogging leisurely along toward Manassas, but had not got a mile away from Bristoe before I heard brisk firing back there, and found the Confederates under A. P. Hill had swooped in just to my rear, and would certainly have “gobbled” me up had I been only a few minutes later. It was a narrow escape —a rather “close call,” as old soldiers say—but an escape, nevertheless. As it was, they ran into the Second Corps, and struck it heavily. But Warren handled them so roughly, and showed such good generalship by posting his men in a railroad cut and some old earthworks there, that they were soon glad to withdraw, with a severe loss both in killed and wounded.

Of course, I was cut off and could not reach Warren, and so I rode on to headquarters at Centreville and reported to Meade that same afternoon. He seemed glad, and congratulated me on my safe return, and I was glad to find my tent pitched, and to get a good “square meal” and a night’s unbroken rest again. This was on October 14, 1863. The Comte de Paris, in his admirable History of the Civil War in America (the best yet written), Vol. III, pages 777, 778, in speaking of our trains here, says: “They were retarded and not able to reach Brentsville (October is), and were thus greatly exposed.” But he is mistaken, as our last wagon left Brentsville before noon of the fourteenth, and rolled into Fairfax Station safe and sound before nightfall, as above stated. Meade’s order, “The trains will move to the vicinity of Brentsville,” is dated October 13, 1 P. M. (War Records, Vol. XXIX, part II, page 305), and that same night I rode to Brentsville and hastened thence to Fairfax Station as above stated.

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