July 22nd, 1861
My dear Mother,
Yesterday was a glorious and a sad day. We have gained a great victory but lost many noble men. Fortunately I came out of the battle unhurt. On Friday morning we received orders to march the next day at 9. At 12 the orders were given to leave by that nights train. We packed up and started – marched into Richmond at 6 – but the cars were not ready, piled our arms and lay down in the streets until 12 – traveled all that night, all Saturday, all Saturday night and reached Manassas at 6 Sunday morning, starving all that time we had but one meal. The cars should have made the trip in 12 hours – 7 is the usual time and we were ordered to take one meal cooked with us. That of course gave out and we reached Manassas worn out from travel, and being cooped up in box cars, and hungry. Fortunately I had started with 300 loaves of bread, (I fed the men with them on the road, that is my Company), and I also had four shoulders of raw bacon. Sunday morning as soon as we landed I started fires, had the bacon cooked, gave the men a little, and a very little it was, breakfast. We then had orders to move as the battle had begun, and while we eat our mouthful of food, the cannon were roaring in the distance. We marched about 5 miles and were halted by the Colonel just under the brow of a hill. I was sent forward to view the position or rather the Colonel permitted me to go. Standing on the hill, I could see the battle going on in the valley below. A battery of Artillery moved up at a gallop on our left and commenced firing on the U. S. troops. This drew their fire in our direction and as we lay down behind the hill the grape shot and round shot came singing over our heads – sometimes so close you could feel the air as they passed. The fight at this point was altogether an artillery one, and finding that we were exposed without doing any good, the Colonel ordered us back to the shelter of some woods. We then moved forward some distance, when we received orders to advance to the support of some Georgia regiments. They had been forced back, and we met them, and formed in front of them, we laying down behind a fence and commencing to fire at the Yankees. At this moment a body of Yankees were seen moving around, and endeavoring to turn the flank of the army and get in our rear. The order was given to us to outflank them and we moved down a lane running at right angles to that in which we were. It was a yard lane or country road, with deep gullies on either side. The troops opposed to us were Infantry, supported by Artillery. I could see their numbers but could not estimate them. Gen’l Beauregard told Hampton today that they were at least 4000. As we commenced the movement, they opened a terrible fire of grape, canister and musketry. The balls flew like hail, knocked the flint rocks whistling all around us. I was in advance – my Company heading the Legion. We faced to the right and ordered the men into the gully and under the cover of that and the fence on top of the bank, returned the fire. It was here that we had the hardest fighting and met the heaviest loss. At the very commencement of it, poor Col Johnson was killed, shot through the head. He was in line with the 1st platoon of my company. He threw his sword up, and fell back lifeless. Hot and heavy the fire fell all around us. By this time, I had gotten the rest of the men – the companies – down into the gully and at work, but for the first four or five minutes, maybe on half of that time, the Light Infantry were alone in the lane, and receiving the whole fire. Hampton was in the centre, and I on the right, the men in the gully and he and I on the top of the bank, looking out at the enemy and cautioning the men to keep cool, and aim deliberately, and take resting shots, and above all to deploy out and not crowd. Hampton’s horse had been shot under him and he was on foot. Barker alone was on horseback, and he kept dashing between Hampton and me, carrying orders. Theodore behaved splendidly; his conduct was above praise. It was glorious, and how he escaped being shot was a miracle. Once he reeled in the saddle as he went down the lane and I thought the poor fellow was gone, and I ran after him, taking one of my men with me, but found that it was his horse slipping on the rocks that had made him reel – neither he or his horse were hurt and yet his grey charger was always in the thickest of the fight. All the Legion are loud in his praise. How long we held the position I cannot tell, but we checked the flank movement of the enemy. They then advanced from another point and we were in danger of being surrounded and fell back 100 or 150 yards under cover of a farm house. Here again we made a stand and had an awful fight – the old body and the new body of the enemy opening fire upon us. It was terrible and the men were falling all around us and fearing that they would be surrounded.
It was the only time in the day that the men looked dashed. Hampton ordered the colors to the front, and I moved my Company up, met them [the colors] and all my boys came right up to them, moved up to the head of the lane, and exchanged fires. Some artillery came up when we were nearly wiped out and relieved us – breaking and dispersing the new body which had advanced. We then reformed – gathered the companies up, moved on, and halted in a deep hollow, thickly wooded, here another regiment, I forgot what, was attached to us or rather moved up to it. It was a Virginia Regt, so my boys said. Satisfied that we would not be moved, our men were there at least twenty minutes, and hearing that there was some water in the neighborhood, I had given my men leave to break when one of their officers came up and begged me for God’s sake not to break, else he could not hold his men together. All the while the rattle of musketry and artillery were going on. So instead of breaking, I detailed ten men to take all canteens. You can’t imagine how we suffered for water. I was hoarse with calling and parched with thirst and as I walked along picked blackberries to moisten my throat and tongue. The men did the same, and when we could not find blackberries, we chewed grass. We then advanced about half a mile and again engaged the enemy, driving him out of a farm yard, and taking possession of it myself. They returned to retake it and the Light Infantry fight was hot and heavy. Here it was that Hampton was shot. We were fighting from the house and behind the thick hedge and paling fence of the garden. They brought up Artillery and we in time were driven out. I was at this time in command of the Legion, and we fell back, closing well on the colors at the bottom of the hill and reforming. We had got all mixed up in the scrimmage around the house and garden, and here it was that the flag was nearly shot away, the ball cutting nearly half way through the staff. I reformed the Legion and we were supported by Withers’ Alabama Regiment, and then charged up the hill, drove the Yankees out of the house and garden, and drove back their artillery. Advancing and leaving the house behind us, we kept forcing them back. They broke and scattered as Kershaw’s Regiment came up, and I united with Kershaw, and sent Barker back for orders to Beauregard. He told us to reunite with Kershaw. It was now about 4 o’clock, the enemy in full retreat and Kershaw determined to pursue. We were almost dead beat out, and only 160 strong. We had gone into action in the morning 600 and more. I could no longer form companies. I massed the six companies and formed 3 divisions of them. We pursued the enemy about four miles, he halted as we pursued him hard. Kemper’s battery galloped up the road, and took position on the crest of the hill. Wheat fields on each side of the road. Kershaw’s and ours on the right of the roads, Coal’s S.C. regiment on the left, the Palmetto Guard thrown out as skirmishers. The artillery opened and played havoc with them, and the cavalry came upon their flank and were preparing to charge them. When they fled and the Cavalry captured 21 pieces of artillery and a lot of baggage. We were then ordered by Beauregard to cease pursuit and fall back. We fell back about 5 miles and bivouacked all night in a wheat field without anything to eat or drink, not even water in plenty. Luckily we had captured some blankets which the Yankees threw away all about the road in their retreat, so we wrapped up in them and slept. At daylight it commenced raining and we marched back in the rain, wet, weary, and dead beat out with a 7 mile march before us. We reached camp and had breakfast. I was so stiff and foot sore I could hardly walk, but a cup of coffee and clean socks helped me much, as I related to Hampton who was very complimentary to me individually and to the Company. Spoke in the highest way of the manner in which the company had behaved. Told me that Beauregard and Davis had both been to his tent to express their great delight at the way in which the Legion had acted in holding their position against a force so far superior, and supported by Artillery. I ten got a horse and rode back to the battle field to look after my dead and wounded. Raining all day and I came in about 5 o’clock, wet through after a days work as painful and infinitely more trying than yesterday. A battle, the day after a battle, is a horrid sight. Then you realize what war is. I went of course through all the hospitals. The most of our wounded are at Culpepper C. H. The general Hospital is there. I could not get there today. Charlie Hutson is wounded, not mortally though – poor fellow. I was within three feet of him when I saw him roll over, his face covered with blood. I thought he was killed, but the ball went too high. I had him moved to the rear. Thompson was shot through the leg, but he refused to leave the ground and fought the battle out limping on one leg. Poor Middleton was shot in the garden in the second fight. I caught him as he fell – he is in a house near the battle ground, and I fear will die tonight. I have been sad all day, doubly sad when I think of poor Col Johnson. What a noble soul he had and how we all loved him and he was such a splendid officer. All the men loved him and nick-named him the old Colonel and he pretended to dislike it but he knew it was the sweet indication that the men loved him. We have lost a generous, gallant officer, and the State one of her wisest and best men. Hampton rode up to me, his whole frame shook and his eyes filled with tears as he shook hands with men and said, “Have you seen Johnson? Great God, how can I write home to his family.” We sent his body down to Richmond today. It is well. I cautioned JM against rumors, for when I returned to camp this morning I found it generally reported that I was killed and Barker too and Spratt had telegraphed this fact to the papers. Some of my own men it was said had seen me fall. I at once telegraphed you, and made Spratt telegraph contradicting his report. I hope the contradiction got there in time. The whole thing arose from a disposition to magnify everything. I was struck by a spent ball, which merely bruised me without even breaking the skin, and which I forgot five minutes after it occurred. The blow was rather sharp, and knocked me back a little and the men reported I had been struck, then somebody added that I was shot, and then somebody said I was shot and killed and Spratt, eager for an item, had me down. He also had it that the Legion was cut to pieces. We did lose heavily but are good yet. If we had had our cavalry and artillery we would have done better. I do not know when I will have chance to write again. I am in command and have a great deal to do, but will try and drop you a line if only to say all well. I have written in a great hurry, on my lap, and only for yourself and the family. As I was moving from the battle field with the Legion this morning, I got your letter sent by private hand from Richmond. Love to all.
Source: James Conner to Mother, 22 Jul 61, MSS letter (copy), James Conner Collection, South Caroliniana.