CAPTAIN JACK AND HIS TROOPERS AT MANASSAS.—John “Captain Jack” Alexander beamed with pride after the First Battle of Bull Run. His south central Virginia cavalry had distinguished itself in its first big fight, and his official report praised his men’s participation in the momentous engagement. “From the commencement of the action in the morning until late in the evening they were under the enemy’s fire,” he wrote. “They remained firm and unshaken, exhibiting an anxiety only to meet the enemy, and awaiting patiently an opportunity to strike an effective blow.”
Alexander’s journey to Bull Run began a few months earlier. Soon after the war started, he had organized a cavalry company at home in tobacco-rich Campbell County, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Its ranks filled with farm boys and shopkeepers, many of them descended from the Scottish-Irish immigrants who had settled in the area more than a century earlier. One of the eager young men who enlisted was Alexander’s son Sam. The new soldiers elected officers, a common practice in volunteer organizations, and voted Alexander, 42, captain and commander. In May 1861, the unit, nicknamed the Campbell Rangers, mustered into service with the 30th Regiment Virginia Volunteers, later designated the Second Virginia Cavalry. Alexander became popularly known as “Captain Jack.”
A vigorous man with refined tastes and a passion for fast horses and mint juleps, Alexander was a natural choice for the top spot. He was a wealthy farmer who managed his property, which included 137 slaves in 1860, from his estate, “Lotus Grove.” He also served as clerk of the county court. What’s more, he had been active in the local militia for the better part of a decade. He was politically engaged, too. A diehard Virginia Whig, Alexander had mixed with party elite who supported the Union until political and military events prompted him and others to switch loyalties to the fledgling Confederacy.
Early on July 21, 1861, Captain Jack and his men reported for duty to the fiery and charismatic Maj. Roberdeau Wheat. A mountain of a man more than six feet tall, “Bob” Wheat commanded a tough and unruly infantry battalion, the Louisiana Tigers, who wore flamboyant French Algerian-inspired Zouave uniforms.
Wheat ordered the Campbell Rangers to move out. “I forthwith proceeded with my whole company to the front for the purpose of reconnoitering, and advanced in close proximity to the enemy’s lines,” explained Captain Jack. “Having ascertained as precisely as possible his progress and position, I returned and reported the same to Major Wheat. I then by his direction took position a short distance in rear of his left wing, and held my command in reserve.”
Before long, thousands of Union troops attacked the Confederate left along Matthews Hill. The comparatively tiny force of Wheat’s Tigers and a contingent of South Carolinians put up a stiff resistance and slowed the enemy advance. But superior numbers and firepower soon took a toll on the Southern soldiers; casualties included Maj. Wheat, felled after Yankee lead ripped through both lungs. He miraculously survived his wound.
The Confederates contested every inch of ground against the oncoming federals. The Campbell Rangers, still in reserve and yet to fire a shot, followed. “I fell back slowly and without the slightest confusion before the advancing line of the enemy, halting at short intervals and every available point, and holding my company ready for instant service,” Captain Jack noted in his after-action report.
Wheat’s stubborn defense bought time for Confederate commanders to rush reinforcements to the scene, which included the brigade of Brig. Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. It formed a solid defensive line on Henry House hill. The federal advance halted here in the blistering heat of mid-afternoon, due in part to the resistance of Jackson’s brigade; the commander later earned the sobriquet “Stonewall” for his effort. Momentum shifted to the Confederates and the tide of battle turned.
About this time the Campbell Rangers reported to another sector of the battlefield with instructions to pursue the fleeing federals. “This order was received by our men with enthusiasm, they having remained the whole day patiently under the enemy’s fire,” Alexander wrote.
The Campbell Rangers rode in with the rest of their battalion and came face to face with Union artillery posted in the middle of Warrenton Pike. “The enemy had planted a battery so as to command the road, and in the woods adjacent to the road on either side of the battery they were posted in considerable force,” Captain Jack explained. “On the opposite side of the road the enemy was retreating rapidly and in great numbers.” The bluecoats were headed towards a narrow suspension bridge spanning Cub Run — and across it to safety.
“A portion of the battalion, and among them my company, charged up the turnpike towards the battery, when a tremendous fire was opened up upon us from the battery, and also the whole force stationed in its vicinity,” he added. The attack caused panic in the enemy ranks. “After they were broken here the rout became general and irresistible. Some of my men joined in the pursuit and became somewhat scattered, but were all collected that night.”
Casualties in the Campbell Rangers during the entire battle were limited to one cavalryman — Captain Jack: “I received a slight wound in my leg, which did not disable me.” Five horses that belonged to his troopers were killed or wounded, included one ridden by his first lieutenant during the charge on the battery. The “horse was shot, and fell dead while in its proper place at the head of the company,” he noted.
The First Battle of Bull Run turned out to be the high water mark of Captain Jack’s service in the Confederate army. In the fall of 1862, he appeared before a court martial after receiving men from another company without proper authority. The charges: Conduct subversive of good order and military discipline, and aiding and abetting desertion. The court declared him not guilty on the desertion charge but guilty of subversive conduct, though a majority of the tribunal agreed that Captain Jack “erred inadvertently and through ignorance, not from design.” He was sentenced “to be reprimanded in orders to be read before each Regiment of his Brigade.”
A few weeks later he resigned his captaincy, saying that he had been offered command of a regiment of cavalry. Captain Jack returned to Campbell County and reunited with his wife, Mary, and other children. He resumed his duties as county court clerk, and awaited military orders that never arrived. (His son Sam remained in the army and later joined the famed Col. John Singleton Mosby’s Rangers.)
Still, the war came close to Captain Jack’s estate on at least two occasions. In June 1864, he hosted Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and his family at his farm. The general, who had been wounded a month earlier during the desperate fighting in The Wilderness, spent some days convalescing at Captain Jack’s home. Then, less than a year later and about 25 miles away, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House.
Captain Jack survived the Confederacy by a decade and died in 1875.
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