“He Turned the Tide of Battle at First Manassas”

In the supreme moment of crisis for Southern arms at the First Battle of Manassas, Arthur Campbell Cummings was a central figure. A graduate of Virginia Military Institute’s Class of 1844 with a stellar record in the Mexican War, he had organized the 33rd Virginia Infantry in June 1861.

Weeks later at Manassas, the 33rd occupied the extreme left of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson’s brigade. According to Sgt. Maj. Randolph Barton of the 33rd, Cummings and his second-in-command reconnoitered the ground about 100 yards ahead, peered over the crest of a hill and discovered the enemy in force. Both commanders walked quickly back to their line. Cummings stated, “Boys, they are coming, now wait until they get close before you fire.”

Meanwhile, routed South Carolina troops streamed through Jackson’s rock-solid lines and prompted the comment that gave Jackson his nom de guerre. “Stonewall” ordered his men not to fire until the federals had advanced to within 30 paces.

Back in the 33rd, Cummings and his boys soon saw a color bearer appear on the crest, followed by the rest of the blue battle line. Several Virginians raised their muskets and fired. Then, Barton recalled, “The shrill cry of Colonel Cummings was heard, ‘Charge!’ And away the regiment went, firing as they ran, into the ranks of the enemy.”

The rest of Jackson’s Brigade soon followed and before long the enemy was in full retreat. Barton credited Cummings. “He turned the tide of battle at First Manassas,” and added, “I should think to Colonel Cummings the circumstance would be of extraordinary interest, and that he would time and again reflect how little he thought, when he braced himself to give the order to his regiment, that he was making a long page in history.”

Cummings left the 33rd and the army the following year and returned to his family in Washington County, where he became as a captain in the Abingdon Home Guards. After the war, he served a stint in the Virginia legislature. Cummings died in 1905. His wife, Elizabeth, and a son predeceased him.

Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Dave Batalo Collection.

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