The following letter from a member of Captain Meagher’s Company, the “Irish Zouaves,” Co. K, 69th , was received by R. J. Lalor, Esq., by whom we have been kindly allowed its use: -
Fort Corcoran, Arlington Heights.
July 22, 1861
Doubtless you have heard, ere this, of the terrible engagement of last Sunday. The affair is of such importance in out annals that I hasten to give you a succinct account of it.
After the ad affair of Thursday at Bull’s Run Ford, where we lost a good many man of the Union troops, our regiment, with all the others engaged and in the immediate vicinity, were encamped in and around Centreville, on each side of the road lead to that place and towards Manassas Gap. We remained perfectly quiet on our respective camping grounds, save when our pickets and those of the enemy met. That the rebels were receiving reinforcements, was proved by the constant arrival of trains every night, as well as by outside intelligence. We, too, were receiving reinforcements and by Saturday night were ready for making an attack. We were ordered to hold ourselves in readiness by midnight, and, accordingly, by that time we were awake, prepared to march. When we reached the road, we went double quick for nearly two miles. Then, having crossed a bridge safe and gained the hill top, which had been obstructed by the enemy, we turned into the woods and remained there for some time, drawn up in line of battle.
Our good chaplain, Father O’Reilly, blessed us; and many were the prayers sent up to heaven that our arms might be nerved to strike terror into our enemies, and this save our distracted country.
The large gun “Long Tom,” commenced to throwing shell at 6.30 a. m. The rebels did not answer, but reserved their fire for a more favorable opportunity. Failing to bring them out, and our regiment having the right of the line, or advance post, we were ordered to move our quarters and approach the front. In doing so, we were obliged to move at double quick most of the way, and to ford a stream or two, knee high. This was a serious disadvantage to us, but our brave boys seemed not to mind it. Still further on we had to defile along a narrow path way among trees and shrubbery. Even this we did in safety, and soon gained an open plain, where we could perceive the position of the enemy, from the constant discharge of heavy guns.
Again changing our locality, we had to move through some meadow; and, just nearly as we passed the last one, a murderous fire was opened upon us from a ravine to the left by the enemy’s sharp-shooters. Our entire regiment halted, and facing about, fired two volleys into them though, without seeing them. This stopped their fire, and upon examination afterwards, we found that terrible chastisement had been inflicted upon them by us. The pace was strewn with their dead, and one officer had no less than seventeen balls in him. But we paid well for this; for one of the first men to fall was our recently appointed Lieut. Colonel, Captain Haggerty, of Co. A. His loss to us was beyond repair, as he had proved himself a true soldier under every circumstance, and was endeared to us all. He was brimful of courtesy and kindness to the humblest as well as to the highest in rank or station, though seemingly rough at times in his manner.
Poor Costelloe of ours – C. K – a recent arrival from Waterford, Ireland, and beloved by us all for his amiability and tenderness of character, fell also in this first fire, with three balls in his left breast and right cheek. They both died easily, almost instantaneously, for their wounds were too near the seat of life to permit them to suffer long.
When we had rounded the house used by our skirmishers as an hospital, directly in the enemy’s front, we were permitted to halt and rest after our severe march, and to recruit for the coming struggle. We could see one regiment after another of our forces assault the enemy and advance upon his position, but it was evident to us that up to this time no effect had been produced upon his batteries, though death and destruction were dealt out to him by our brave volunteers.
At last the order came for the 69th to try and do what the others had failed in. We advanced with hopeful hearts in close line of battle, exposed to the hot shot and shell which were instantly poured in our ranks, though, fortunately, at first with little effect. One ball, however, came near killing our brave Colonel, who treated the matter quite coolly.
A field over a quarter of a mile had to be crossed, then a fence to be cleared, and then another field of equal length till we reached the foot of the hill and woods occupied by the enemy. Here we halted a few moments, and then flanked along to the right across another field of equal length, and through an entrenchment and high stream, and then up a hill, before we stopped to fire or give the enemy a proof of our storming capacities. Worn out by our long and quick march, still more so by the fatigue of clearing fences, ditches, and streams, we stopped for a moment and fired deliberately into the enemy. Then another volley, then another, and we charged up the heights to their battery with all the impetuosity of our race; but we were “like sheep sent to the slaughter”. The cannon belched forth their shells in our midst, killing our men in groups, and scattering them in all directions. But, even then, they halted, tried to close up, and fired again; and then, just as we seemed to be carrying our point, we found ourselves being fired into on the right flank and rear by the rebel cavalry, who emerged from the woods and struck down and picked off all the men near them. It is even said that we were fired into by our own troops – of course, by mistake. But of this I am certain; our own cavalry, who had partly broken our ranks, when charging up the hill, were not to be found when we needed their protection.
Our flag of the Stars and Stripes was well struck, and the standard-bearer of the dear old Green Flag was shot down; but the flag was instantly raised again. One of our wounded men who carried a flag was shot down, and the flag was torn from his grasp. Raising himself up, he again attacked his rebel antagonist, struck him down, and carried off one of the Secession flags; but this was not long permitted to remain with him, for he was again charged upon, and the trophy taken from him, besides being taken prisoner. However, having a concealed revolver, he shot down the two soldiers in charge of him, and captured a Captain’s sword and a prisoner, both of which he brought in safely to our camp. His name is John D. Keeffe, and he is worthy of being recorded among our truly brave men.
I could recite to you numerous other instances of bravery deserving of record, but it would not be possible to do justice to all.
Captain Thomas Francis Meagher gained the greatest credit of the day. His horse was shot when he first reached the field, the ball going farther and killing one of Company E, and when we reached the gap at the foot of the hill, he brandished his sword and called upon the brave Zouaves of the Sixty-ninth to follow him. His valor and bearing during the entire battle is the theme of every tongue. Lieut E. K. Butler also distinguished himself, and gained much in the favor of his scattered and decimated company. Our Colonel, too, showed the greatest coolness and bravery throughout the fight. He stood to the last, and rallied the remnant of his scattered forces, and took us off the field in a square and with our colors flying high; but he didn’t do this till after all other regiments had retired or were retiring. When we had gained the road, and had halted at the temporary hospital, we were charged by the cavalry again, who made sad havoc among the flying remnants of every regiment which had not gained the road. They broke and fled in all directions, and were pursued and cut down at all points. Such a scene was scarcely ever before witnessed.
This was the last point at which I saw our gallant Colonel, who, I am told, was wounded in the leg. He slipped quietly off his horse, and tried to rally his men; but the crowd and the pressure of the remnants of all the other regiments, rendered it impossible.
What remained of our regiment rallied round the Green Flag in Centreville, and after consultation it was thought best to retire to Fort Corcoran and recruit, as we had not a field officer left to direct our movements. Captain Meagher here joined us and led us home, when we had to come to this decision.
This bold charge up that hill clean into the enemy’s batteries, will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Our company can only muster this morning about 80, with those who were left to guard the fort, out of 123. Lieutenant Conolly, a really brave man, has not been heard of since we rallied round our flag and formed the square. His loss will be deservedly regretted by us all.
Our Company suffered more than any in the regiment, on account of their red jackets, I suppose. Three men went out with me from the Fort to the battle fled [field?]. I alone returned. Many others of ours have the same story to tell. The Fire Zouaves, Fourteenth New York, and the Second Rhode Island, acted nobly and bravely in the grand charges they made upon the enemy when he showed himself before his batteries. So, also, did the Thirteenth New York. But it is safe to say that none made a bolder stand or a grander charge, and retired so slowly and steadily, and in such good order as did the 69th, when the fate of the battle was decided. The Herald and other papers may talk of a “great victory,” but by those engaged in the battle it cannot be considered anything but a great defeat. The generalship displayed was none of the highest, as you will believe when you learn that of the immense force of Union troops in the field, not more than one regiment at a time was ordered forward, and these at different points. We were not even protected by the cavalry and artillery. The former were not near us when we wanted them, though they were permitted to stand directly on our front, where they remained when we were advancing in line of battle, until Col. Corcoran, seeing that his line must inevitably be broken by them, ordered them off. They then moved to our right, and, strangest of all, it was from this point that the most terrible havoc was made upon us by the Rebel cavalry, who rushed out of the woods upon our men when their backs were turned, and they were engaged in charging upon the masked batteries, and cut down and trampled them to death. Most of the men lost by Company K were lost or taken prisoners here.
I blame none, censure none, for these blunders and omissions, nor do I offer any better plan of attack than that which was here adopted, but I must say that I expected better things of those who are appointed, and are supposed to possess the requisite qualifications of good generals. I trust they will be held responsible for the immense sacrifice of life on that terrible day.
Our artillery, too, was easily captured by the rebels. When the Virginia cavalry made their last charge at the hospital near the bridge and Centreville, the men in the foremost ranks of our artillery cut the traces and fled, leaving the guns an easy prize to the enemy. In accounts of battles previously read by hour humble servant it was always thought necessary to well protect, with cavalry or infantry, or both, the artillery companies. Yet Sherman’s Battery and “Long Tom,” a very heavy piece, brought up expressly to counteract the effect of the enemies’ heaviest guns, were permitted to fall into their hands without an effort being made to prevent it.
Of the many missing in our company, and in all the rest of the regiment several are known to be killed, many others only wounded – unless they have subsequently fallen into the hands of the Secessionists. Other are missing, of whom nothing at all is known. I trust that they may yet turn up, and that we shall be gratified by their safe restoration to their many friends in and out of the regiment. We deeply deplore their loss for we can attest to their courage and manly bearing on that day. I saw poor Maguire, for the last time, raise his piece aloft, waving it as if it were a sword, and calling upon the Zouaves to make one more bold charge and rout the Rebels. I fear he is lost.
New York Irish-American, 8/3/1861
Contributed by Damian Shiels