Private Correspondence – Lieut. P. H. O’Rorke (ADC to Brig. Gen. Daniel Tyler) to his Brother, Thomas*
Washington City, July 28th, 1861
I saw P. J. Dowling and Mr. Buckley this morning over at fort Corcoran, and my heart was gladdened by the sight of some letters from home. These are the first letters from my own family that I have received since I left West Point, a month ago. I have been changing about from one place to another so much that my letters get lost in following me. For instance I was told by one of Gen. McDowell’s Staff that there was a letter for me at their HeadQrs. on the other side of the river. I went over there the next day and found that some of my friends had sent it to Alexandria thinking that I was there. It will probably reach me in the course of a month. You ask me for details of the Battle of last Sunday. To give you a general plan of the Battle and its progress throughout the day would take more time than I have to spare, as I am now busily engaged in assisting Gen. Tyler to collect the reports of the several commanders in his Division, and engrossing them in one. I shall limit myself to an account of my own experience since I left the Point. On arriving in this city from the Academy, as you already know I was set to drilling a Reg’t of volunteers from N. Hampshire. This continued about a week when I was ordered to //VERSO// report in person to Gen. McDowell at his Hd.Qrs. at Arlington. He immediately sent me to Gen. Tyler at Falls Church a few miles this side of Fairfax to be one of his Aids. Here we staid until the 16th, being all this time busily engaged in perfecting the organization of the different Brigades composing his division, inspecting Regiments etc. The day after my arrival at Falls Church I went out with another member of my class Mr. Audenried on a scouting party towards Fairfax then strongly held by the enemy. We approached to within two miles and a half of Fairfax when we came upon the pickets of the enemy and captured two of them. I mention this to show that myself and Mr. Audenried were the first of our class within the enemy’s line of pickets, and that we had the first sight of the enemy. On the 16th the forward movement of the army commenced. Our Division moved on Vienna. When we arrived there we found no enemy. The next day, learning that the enemy had evacuated Fairfax we moved through Germantown and encamped beyond, towards Centreville. Here we found a camp of the enemy which had just been deserted by them, and in which their fires were yet burning. Our men picked up here quite a number of carbines and other arms left behind by the rebels in their haste to get out of our way. The next morning at daylight we were again on the road on the track of the flying enemy, and on arriving at Centreville found that they were yet before us, having abandoned at this point a strongly entrenched position which fully commanded the road by which our Division //Page 2// arrived. From this point roads diverged in various directions. We learned here that the enemy had divided his forces, part of them taking a road which led to Blackburn’s Ford over Bull Run, in the direction of Manassas. Now as we were approaching the strong position of the enemy, it was necessary to move with great caution. Gen. Tyler now took a squadron of Cavalry and two companies of Infantry to make an armed reconnoisance in the direction of Blackburn’s Ford.
If you will take a good map of that vicinity you will easily follow me. Well we proceeded without seeing anything of the enemy until we arrived on the crest of a hill overlooking the Ford and about half a mile from it. From this point we could see the enemy pickets in the valley before us, and bodies of his troops on the high ground on the opposite side, but not in very large numbers. Our object being to discover if possible something of the enemy’s numbers and the position of the Batteries we knew he had here, the General sent back one of his Aids to order up a couple of 20 pdr. rifled guns, and Richardson’s Brigade to support them. These were soon on the ground and then we thought we would try to draw their fire, and thus make them discover to us their position. A large body of Cavalry was standing in an open field about two miles and a half from us, who evidently thought they were beyond our range, from the confidence with which they showed themselves. We aimed one of our 20 pdrs. carefully, and sent a shell whizzing towards them. //VERSO// In about ten seconds the shell fell and burst among them, and it certainly was amusing to see them scamper. They got themselves out of sight in double quick time I can assure you. We then aimed and fired at several prominent points, where the enemy could be seen, but for several minutes they maintained an obstinate silence. At last when we had about concluded that they were determined not to show themselves, a battery of two pieces opened very unexpectedly, almost at the foot of the hill on the crest of which we were standing, sending their balls right amongst us as we were standing grouped around our pieces. We immediately turned our pieces on this Battery whose position we could not see, but which we could determine approximately from the smoke rising through the trees. In about four minutes they ceased firing and we heard nothing more from that point.
Our object being so far but very partially attained, Col. Richardson was directed to throw forward skirmishers into a small wood, between us and Bull Run, who were directed to feel their way cautiously forward, and see what they could discover, a couple of Regiments being marched forward and placed under cover in a ravine, within supporting distance. In the meantime I had been sent back to Centreville to bring up Ayres’ Battery and Sherman’s Brigade so as to be prepared for any emergency, and I arrived on the ground with the Battery just as our skirmishers //Page 3// were entering the wood. In a few moments we heard a scattered firing commence in this wood, as our skirmishers met those of the enemy. The affair now began to get interesting. Now men were thrown forward to support our skirmishers, and as the General had discovered an opening in the wood in which a couple of pieces of Art’y could be unlimbered, he now sent Capt. Ayres with two Howitzers to that point to open a fire upon the enemy within a short range. Ayres took his pieces to the indicated point and sent a couple of charges of Canister among the enemy who appeard to be in great numbers a short distance in his front. This was more than human nature could stand quietly, and the enemy answered by a thundering volley of musketry and artillery, thus showing us that they were in very great force, and also the positions of their Batteries. This was all we wanted to know and the affair would have ended there, but before the General could interfere Col Richardson sent the 12th N. Y. Reg’t in line into the wood to clear it. They went forward in excellent order, until they reached the edge of a ravine, in the bottom, and on the opposite side of which the enemy were posted. Here they were exposed to the combined fire of three or four thousand troops, and two Batteries. They returned the fire warmly for a few minutes, but the odds were too great, and they finally broke, and retreated in confusion.
Lt. Upton and myself had just ridden down into the woods to see how it felt to be under such a fire //VERSO// and we arrived behind our lines just before they broke and ran. We rode about among the men and used every exertion to rally them and lead them again against the enemy. We appealed to their pride and to their manhood. We begged them for the honor of our state and of our flag to reform, and make another stand – but without effect. Their officers I must say were worse than the men, and set them and example of tall running. Only two companies stood their ground and were withdrawn in good order. The object of our reconnoisance having now been attained the men were withdrawn to a safe position, while our two Batteries were directed upon the enemy whose position we now knew, and with terrible effect as we have since learned. The enemy acknowledge a loss of 150 killed and more than twice that number wounded, at the same time claiming to have killed 1500 of our men. The truth is we had but 19 killed and 38 wounded. Col. Richardson remained in possession of the ground we occupied in the beginning of the engagement until the Battle on Sunday last.
I was now satisfied. I had been under fire, and a pretty warm one too, and had felt no inclination to run. The general and his staff returned to Centreville and I lay down that night and slept contented. The next two days we lay encamped at that place. On the night succeeding our action at Blackburn’s ford //Page 4// cars were heard constantly arriving at and departing from Manassas during the whole night. Most of us felt confident that Johnston had effected a junction with Beauregard, and that we should have to fight their combined armies. On Sunday morning we were ordered to march at half past two in the morning in the direction of Gainsville and take up a position just this side of Bull Run. Hunter’s and Heintzelman’s columns took a road which crossed Bull Run about a mile and a half to our right, while Richardson’s Brigade remained to watch Blackburn’s Ford and prevent the enemy from flanking us. Col. Miles was posted with the reserve at Centreville. We arrived at the position assigned us about half past five – when I say “us”, I mean Tyler’s Division, about 12,000 men less Richardson’s Brigade – and fired the gun agreed upon to let the other column’s know that we were in position, and ready to sustain them. In front of the centre of the line which we formed here was a Stone Bridge, obstructed by Abbattis and supposed to be mined, though it was not. To the right and left were fords at short distances above and below the Bridge. All these crossings were defended by Batteries placed so as to sweep them, and all the approaches to them, these Batteries being supported by large bodies of Infantry. Our Division was composed of Sherman’s Brigade – in which were the 13th our Rochester Reg’t, the 69th, the 79th, and a Wisconsin Reg’t //VERSO// Gen. Schenck’s Brigade, and Col. Keyes’ Brigade. We remained in position at this point until nearly 11 o’clock, amusing ourselves in the meantime by firing upon bodies of the enemy which we could see passing down the other side of the Run in the direction of Hunter’s column, of whose movement they seemed to be apprised.
The General sent me up into a large tree with a glass to see and report what was going on in that direction. Using this tree as an observatory, I had a fine view of the beginning of the Battle and its continuance for half an hour before being engaged in it myself. I saw Hunter’s column after it had crossed the Run, coming up towards us, or rather towards the enemy in our front. The latter were at the same time moving large bodies of troops to meet him.
Finally they stopped in a open field, through which the road by which Hunter was advancing ran, and prepared to dispute his passage. Here they placed a Battery to enfilade this road at the point at which it emerged from a wood, and posted their man in line of Battle on either side of their Battery, at the same time throwing out skirmishers into this wood to annoy him as he advanced. Hunter advanced steadily driving the enemy’s skirmishers before him and deployed a portion of his column in the edge of a wood. He then threw a section of one of his light Batteries up along this road into the open space in front, this Section being all this time under heavy fire from the enemy’s Battery. As soon as it came out into the open space in front of the wood it unlimbered and opened its fire, the other sections coming up successively and opening as soo as they were in position. At the //Page 5// same time Hunter opened a heavy musketry fire from the whole edge of the wood which he had occupied, and the engagement became general throughout the whole line. The enemy stood it only for a few minutes when they broke and ran in the greatest confusion. Hunter followed up his success and drove the enemy from one position to another, the enemy contesting every foot of the ground, until he arrived nearly opposite our position, when his column seemed to be arrested and I saw the enemy bringing down heavy reinforcements from the direction of Manassas. I immediately reported these facts to Gen. Tyler when he at once ordered Sherman’s Brigade to cross the Run and support Hunter. I then got down from my perch and joined the General. In climbing the tree my cap had got knocked off, and when I came down I found some one had walked off with it. I looked round and finally picked up an old straw hat, which some poor fellow had probably been killed in, as the inside and under side of the leaf was covered with blood & I wore that all day. Pleasant, wasn’t it, wearing a dead man’s hat and expecting to follow suit every moment. Sherman’s Brigade now crossed the run and on reaching the crest of the hill on the opposite side they encountered a portion of the enemy and routed them. Here the Lt. Col. Of the 69th was killed. This Brigade now joined Hunter’s column //VERSO// and I saw no more of them until the Retreat. Consequently I can say nothing from personal observation as to the conduct of our Rochester Regiment in the action, though from all I can learn they behaved very handsomely.
Gen. Tyler, and of course myself, now crossed the Run under a heavy artillery fire at the head of Keyes’ Brigade. We arrived on the high ground on the opposite side in good order and became immediately involved in the action. We drove the enemy from point to point, until we finally arrived in front of a large house and its enclosure which the enemy had occupied with a large force and prepared for defence. This position Keyes’ Brigade was ordered to carry, and in this operation Gen. Tyler and his staff assisted in person. The Brigade was advanced in line, or rather in two lines nearly at right angles to each other against two sides of the position under a galling fire of musketry until within a short distance, when we opened a hot and continued fire upon the enemy. Our men stood to their work bravely being entirely exposed while the enemy were sheltered. Only once did they show any disposition to retire, and they were easily rallied. We now made them lie down and continue their fire, which they did with a will for about five minutes. During this time Lt. Abbott, Lt. Upton, and myself were the only mounted officers exposed to this fire and as we were necessarily very prominent, and only about fifty yards from the //Page 6// enemy were excellent marks for their riflemen. Judging by the bullets which whistled by my ears, they must have taken particular care to fire at us, though we all escaped safely at that time. I have got a hole in the skirt of my coat which I suppose was mae by one of their balls at this time. The fire of the enemy now appearing to slacken a little, the order was given to charge with the bayonet which was done in splendid style, clearing the enclosure of the enemy and getting possession of the house in which we found a few of them, who could not get out in time and who were taken prisoners. As soon as we found ourselves in possession of the house, a Battery which we had not seen before as it had been silent & was concealed, opened upon us and tore the old house all to pieces. We found the place too hot to hold and retired into the road running in front of the house which happened to be cut down at this point thus giving us a shelter. From this position we made a flank movement to turn this Battery intending to charge and take it if possible. This movement was made under cover of a hill on which this Battery was placed. We had just completed the movement and were about to charge up the hill on the Battery when we discovered that the other columns were retreating and a half mile distant, so that unless we took the back track instanter there was every probability of our being cut off. The Retreat was consequently ordered //VERSO// and our Brigade joined the retreating column in good order. I could scarcely believe the evidence of my senses when I saw that our army was retreating. That portion of it with which I had been had been uniformely successful through the day, and I thought we were winning a glorious victory. I was highly elated with success, and you can judge of the reversion of feeling which took place when I found we were retiring.
The Retreat was well enough and if it had been conducted with order there would be nothing to be ashamed of, for the number of fresh troops that the enemy had bought up to oppose us was overpowering, but after a short time when their cavalry charged upon our flank the Retreat degenerated into a rout. It was at this time that my horse was killed under me. We saw their cavalry coming down on us and tried to form enough men to repel the charge. IN this, with considerably (sic) difficulty we were successful. Some of the Ohio troops and Ayres’ Battery gave them a volley as they came down on us which emptied a good many of their saddles and sent them back again. But they gave us one volley from their rifled carbines, one of the balls taking effect on my horse and killing him instantly. He staggered forward a few steps and fell, throwing me on a pile of stones and bruising my right arm. I got a Secession horse from a man in Ayres’ Battery, which he had just caught, and rode him to Centreville. Of the Retreat from this point I do not care to speak.
I arrived a Falls Church at 5 o’clock the next morning having been in the saddle for twenty seven hours without anything to eat in the meantime, and without having eaten anything before going out, as I was sicj when we started. I can assure you I //Page 7// was pretty well worn out. After sleeping about three hours and getting a little breakfast I mounted my horse again and was out almost all day, in the midst of a heavy storm of rain bringing things down to Fort Corcoran and finally arrived here in Washington about 9 o’clock at night, having been thoroughly soaked to the skin for several hours. I never slept so much in one night in my life as I did that night. Since then I have been here in the City most of the time. For the last two days I have been assisting Gen. Tyler to make out his official report. He has been kind enough to mention me very honorably in it. You will probably see it published in the N. Y. paper in a day or two.
Now, my dear Brother I have written here until I am tired and if you have read thus far I am sure you are too. But I thought an account of the Battle by an eye-witness and an actor, would perhaps be more interesting to you than the newspaper accounts, particularly when the writer was your Brother.
I cannot find time to write any extended account of the Battle to all my friends, so if any of them want to know my experiences, you may show them this. I saw Tom Bishop to-day he is all right. I have not been able to see Charley Buckley but I hear that he is getting along very well. Give my love to Mary, also to Mother and all our family.
*For reference and citational info, see here