From the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Interesting Letter from the Second Regiment.
Monday Night, July 22, ’61.
Once again, we are back in the vicinity of Washington, having passed through a battle that will ever have a full page in the history of battles. The full report of it you may have seen, and my work will be to give only a few scenes connected with the Second Wisconsin Regiment, which from the many who narrowly watched us, has received not a few encomiums.
On Sunday morning, July 21st, at 2 o’clock A. M., our camp near Centerville, was aroused by the cry of “Fall in to march.” – The men were ready and eager to be up, it being supposed that the commander-in-chief of the division had made preparations for us to go on and complete a victory which we felt sure was before us. The Second Wisconsin, 79th, 69th, and 13th New York, with Sherman’s battery and Capt. Thompson’s troop of 100 horse, formed one brigade, while two Connecticut and two Ohio regiments, with company E. U. S. artillery, and a troop of 100 horse, formed another. Both were under the command of Gen. Tyler, and formed the centre of McDowell’s grand army. The right wing was under the command of Gen. Hunter, and the left, under Gen. Heintzleman. The right and left were to close on the wings of the enemy’s fortifications, extending to a distance of six miles, while the centre was to attack their principal fortresses.
Our wing waited until nearly daylight before starting, as the others had a much longer distance to go; but at length we were under way. To Bull’s Run was only a distance of three miles, which was soon reached. Here we felt ourselves in the midst of the enemy’s works. The ground we were approaching was known to be full of masked batteries but a few days before, and now the march was necessarily slow and tedious.
The 2nd Wisconsin and the 79th New York to the right of the road and filing off through the woods, flanked with the left on the road, while the balance of the brigade took the left hand side, and Sherman’s battery, with “President Lincoln’s Baby-waker,” as a large 32-pound rifle cannon was called, took the road, the infantry acting as a support to the battery. The column, in this order, worked its way up gradually to the edge of the woods, and came to a halt. Just beyond the woods was an opening some 500 rods in extent; then came Bull’s Run, a deep ravine, and beyond this, high up, rose the natural fortifications of the rebels. No better place could have been selected, and no other natural fortification so easy of self-support could have been found.
On the enemy’s side, as we drew near, nothing out of the usual course of events could be seen. All seemed as natural as though the roads were not alive with armed men and filled with masked batteries.
After reconnoitering a while, the large rifle cannon began picking out some good marks. Sever shots were made, but they were not returned, when some one suggested that in a deep ravine, which could be seen, was a good seclusion. A shot directed there, sent forth into the open field at least 500 cavalry, who scattered like chaff in every direction, but soon returned. The big gun continued its work, and the riderless horses that came flying out, several of which came over to our lines, showed that it was no idle play. Sherman, too, opened his battery, and, at the same time, a masked battery, almost within musket shot of the Connecticut regiments, opened upon them, and then battery after battery poured in, and the shower of lead came out from every clump of trees.
The men threw themselves upon the ground, with their arms ready to come to a charge, and although the fire was hat and heavy, only one man was killed and two wounded, both of the Connecticut. The fire of the big gun and of Sherman’s and Co. E batteries was directed against those of the enemy, and in a remarkably short space of time, so accurate was the aim, they were all silenced.
Almost the same instant our battery commenced, that of the left wing opened in the stronghold we had attempted to take a few days before. They were soon silenced, and when the guns of Gen. Hunter’s wing opened, the other wings started on the march, the right pressing, formed in line, the center making the circuit around, in order to aid Hunter. On the route and in crossing Bull’s Run, fires from batteries opened on the columns, and in this movement several were killed. The rebels seemed to possess innumerable batteries. They had them everywhere, and no point where a gun could be planted to have an effect upon our column, seems to have been neglected. The column soon crossed, and we went up the mountain road, we could see the enemy flying in companies, in squads and in regiments, before Gen. Hunter’s men, towards a long and narrow piece of woods, while from the right they came pouring down in the same hasty manner before Gen. Heintzleman’s men. The ravine, against which fire had at first been directed, seemed filled with dead. Bodies were laying in every directions, showing that the loss from shot and shell was terrific. With a loud shout for the “stars and stripes” our boys pushed forward, in pursuit of the flying rebels until we reached Hunter’s command, it having halted to be recruited. The open plain before us had been the enemy’s camping ground, and muskets, blankets, knapsacks, canteens, haversacks and dead bodies, were lying about indiscriminately. Our boys threw off everything, down to clothing and cartridge boxes, when the battle line was formed so as to completely hem in the rebel stronghold.
Now the work commenced in earnest. — All along the line of woods batteries opened one after the other, and shot, shell, canister and grape poured in upon us. From the position we occupied it did but little serious damage, although it whistled with so shrill a series of noises as to startle the most brave. By some neglect we had little artillery with us, it having remained behind. — The Rhode Island battery opened on one of the enemy’s, but it had taken a position so near them that before it could be brought into actual service it was used up. Carlisle’s battery and Sherman’s opened a heavy fire, and as far as two batteries could be of use they were. They silenced gun after gun, and at length got out of ammunition. By this time the federal troops got ready for a charge at the point of the bayonet, the battle line being extended all along the enemy’s lines, with the regular cavalry and marines, together with Ellsworth’s Zouaves on the right. The Wisconsin Second occupied about the center of the line. They lay for some time under cover of a hill, while the shot was pouring over them, and then, when the charge was ordered, filed on up a narrow lane, and came into line, It was a dangerous position, as they were subject to a cross fire, and many of them fell wounded.
The grand body now moved forward at a double-quick, until they came within musket shot of the enemy, and the was poured in upon them a most murderous fire of musketry. Never was there anything like it. — Together with the musketry, three batteries were pouring in grape and canister, while our own batteries were silenced from want of ammunition. Had we had our usual amount of artillery, their batteries could have been silenced, but as we had no support from this source, the order was given to fall back, and the regiments fell back a few rods to rally, all in hopes that the enemy would withdraw from their ambush, and follow to give a fair fight.
The command to fall back was given by Gen. Tyler, who it is supposed acted from the order of Gen. McDowell.
The fortress behind which the enemy was entrenched was built of crossed railroad bars and logs, and behind these was an army of 70,00 men, arrayed so as fill up the whole line in front, the rear column loading and the front, two deep firing continually.
Before the order for retreat was given the battle was fairly won, and victory would have been surrendered to the federal flag, but as the rebels were about giving up, Gen. Johnston arrived from Manassas Gap, with 18,000 fresh troops. It was supposed that Gen. Patterson was close upon him, but such was not the case, he, for some reason, which I have not yet learned, having left the track.
When the order to fall back was given, the regiments of the army gave way, then rallied, and as the rebel troops showed themselves outside the entrenchments, poured in upon them volley after volley, but finding it fruitless to continue the fight, they received orders to give way, and take up their line of retreat. They did this by regiments and companies in admirable order, but hundreds fell out, and forming in squads fell behind, and seeking shelter, behind logs and trees, commenced an Indian fight upon the rebel cavalry, which came out of the woods, to the number of 1,000, to pursue the stragglers. They dropped from the saddle in squads under the fire. This Indian skirmishing was a protection to the retreating army; but many of those who were giving the aid, suffered in consequence, as they were taken prisoners, when they got down so few in numbers as to offer little resistance to the rebels.
Among the prisoners known to be taken is S. P. Jackson of La Crosse, a member of Co. B. He had his arm broken by a musket ball and was taken by the cavalry, together with t squad of seven Wisconsin boys. Then they were being taken off, a few of the boys rallied and fired into the cavalry, calling upon the Union prisoners to escape. They all did so but Jackson, who was taken off. Before the others escaped Jackson told the officer of the cavalry that he was useless to them, as his arm was broken. The reply was that he should be taken care of. “yes,” replied Jackson, “the same as our wounded men at Bull’s Run the other day. You bayoneted all our wounded men.” “It’s a lie,” replied the officer. “It is not,” replied Jackson, “you killed every one of our wounded men.” — “Our orders were to take care of the wounded, and we fight humanely. To be sure there are some d—-d rascals in every army who fight like tigers, and kill the wounded, but we prevent it when we can.” At this, one of them spoke up and said, “Not by a d—-d sight; we shall kill every hell-hound of them we take.” The New Orleans Zouave who was taken prisoner, also said, “You may kill me if you please, and you may win the battle to-day, but we will whip you to-morrow when our recruits get in, and then every one of you that falls into our hands will be butchered.” This appeared to be the general sentiment, that no mercy was to be shown, and that all who fell into their hands would have no pleasant situation.
Many of those captured afterwards escaped by a ruse or trick. Ruby, of the Oshkosh company, was kept some time, but escaped by playing Indian, while Whiting, of the La Crosse company escaped by yelling that the artillery was upon them, and they must retreat. The cavalry thought it one of their own officers who gave the command, and scattered, when Whitney escaped. A number of just such cases occurred. Capt. Colwell, of Co. B acted the hero all the way through. He rallied his men and led them on to positions where it would scarcely be deemed men could go. He captured one piece of artillery, he and his men taking the piece by main force and hauling it a long distance off, and then returned to the fight. The Wisconsin regiment was the last body off the field, and their run was caused by the rebel cavalry. Had they been less brave their loss in prisoners would have been greater, as they remained in squads and charged upon the cavalry every time they approached. The retreating column also had to contend against a raking fire of artillery. As they crossed the Run the rebels had a fine rake with their guns, and kept up a constant fire of grape and canister. The loss from this sortie, however, was not heavy.
The enemy did not follow up the retreat, which shows conclusively that they did not consider it a great victory. The retreat was continued to Centreville, when a halt was made for an hour’s rest. The regiments were then re-formed, and continued their march to their old rendezvous, some to Washington, others to Alexandria, and others to Fort Corcoran; the retreat being covered by two regiments who were not in the field.
It is certain that just before Gen. Johnston arrived with his troops, the rebels were whipped, although at no one time did the federal army have more than fifteen regiments in the field; and but for Johnston’s arrival, they would have left very suddenly for Manassas Gap. The federal troops are not disheartened at the result of the conflict. They feel that they have fought bravely, and that they had not well disciplined men to lead them on. After the conflict had commenced, but little was seen of them; but after the retreat was sounded, and while the column was marching until it had got beyond all danger, very few of the field officers were to be seen. Many of the captains and lieutenants of companies exhibited a courage and intuitive knowledge of military matters that was deserving of a better fate.
We lost most of our blankets, haversacks, &c., that were thrown off when we started to join Hunter, and we lost many of our muskets in the field, but their places were supplied with Sharpe’s rifles, with which the enemy were well supplied. I think the trade is about even. They were well supplied with fighting material, having all that is necessary, all bearing the trade mark of the United States.
Just as I am finishing the present, a member of Capt. Langworthy’s company has come in from the enemy. He was taken prisoner, and set to work digging graves for the dead. Fearful are the preparations made, so immense is the number. All will be huddled together in common graves, friend and foe together, without prayers or service. It is asserted that a determination was expressed by many to bayonet such of our men who were badly wounded, and some proceeded to execute the threat, when stopped by an officer. Dr. Irwin, of our medical staff, is among them as a prisoner, and is looking after our wounded who are prisoners.
Janesville Weekly Gazette and Free Press, 8/2/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy