Cpl. James A. Wright, Co. F, 1st Minnesota Infantry, On the Retreat

12 04 2012

In leaving the position in the road, we observed that everybody seemed to be going, and, in crossing a little rise of ground, we were fired on by some of the advanced skirmishers of this new force, but I do not think that there was a shot from those with whom we had been contending.

This new enemy – we then supposed – was the advance of Johnston’s forces from the Shenandoah Valley, but we have since learned that it was the last of them, under command of Kirby Smith, and that we had been fighting Johnston’s forces all day.  And that this force had got off of the cars at Gainesville and marched towards the firing at an opportune time. Without them, the story of Bull Run might have been a very different one.

After passing the rise, we were sheltered from this musketry fire, but the battery off at the right was throwing shells almost directly down the little valley.

After crossing the stream, which was neither deep nor wide, we started to go up the hill to the point where we had come in, and were again exposed to the batteries which fired on us going down. There was much haste and confusion going up the hill. It was a ‘go as you please’ until we reached the top, where we were out of the range. A hospital had been located at the Sudley Church; an effort had been made to get the wounded there; and both of the surgeons – Stewart and Le Boutillier – were there. Some of the wounded were being assisted up the hill at the time, and I helped carry Joe Garrison on a blanket a part of the way. At the same time, Corporal Schofield was being helped by some of the others of the company.

After we reached the top of the hill, I think there was but very little more firing. There were portions of a number of regiments and some batteries there, with guns in position for firing, but there did not seem to be anyone that knew just what to do. As many as possible of the regiment were assembled here, and an attempt made to find the other companies. After a little delay, we were directed to the ford across Bull Run, where we found what remained of the left wing of the regiment.

It was the first time we had seen or been in close connection with them since forming in line at the beginning of our fighting, and we now learned something of their part in the fight. It had been a terrible experience. Following Ricketts’s Battery – with the left very near the guns – they had come into line and faced the woods. At almost the same time, they saw a force coming out of the woods, and there was uncertainty as to their identity, which caused them to hold their fire – until fired upon. Almost the same time, they received fire from the batteries, which Colonel Franklin says were only about 1,000 feet away.

This was a very destructive fire – killed and wounded many men of the regiment and practically disabled the battery, as it was able to fire but a few round. The regiment returned this fire with such effect as to drive back this force, but their position was untenable on account of the enemy’s artillery. They were obliged to retire to the shelter of the hill, which position they maintained until ordered to withdraw, but – in the meantime – they took part in one or two other attempts to recover the guns. These attempts were failures – but all attempts of the enemy were also failures. If we could not remove the guns, neither could they so long as our forces remained in the shelter of the hill to protect them.

It was after we had reached the top of the hill and were nearly ready to march away, when a large force came out of the woods and charged on the deserted guns, swinging their hats and cheering. Whether these were some of the troops that had been there during the fighting – or some of those who had just come up – of course, I do not know. This was just at the time that the battery near us – Arnold’s, I think it was – limbered up to leave. I saw no other display of their infantry, except those that were coming across the fields on our right.

When we left the position on the hill, both of the surgeons remained with the wounded and fell into the hands of the enemy. This was voluntary on their part.

When we joined the regiment on the other side of the stream, we found several other regiments – or parts of regiments – there, but all were without orders. About this time, Governor William Sprague of Rhode Island joined his regiment and brought the news that our forces were retreating. It was decided by him – or someone else – to return to the bivouac at Centreville.

I do not know the time, but I judge it to have been between four and five o’clock in the afternoon. It was not far from 12 o’clock when we first came under fire. If it was four o’clock when we recrossed Bull Run, then it was probably three or later when we left the cut in the road where we did the last fighting. This is the best estimate we can make of the time, and, if correct, we were confronting the enemy – within musket range – three hours or more. If that was all, then we lived an awful long time in three hours.

When getting ready to march, Colonel Gorman offered the regiment for service as rear guard, but Governor Sprague claimed this for his regiment. This brought on a little discussion as to which was senior in rank – which involved command of the troops present. They were unable to agree, but Sprague settled it – at least to his own satisfaction – by claiming his rank as governor.

With this matter settled, we started for Centreville with the Rhode Island regiment in the rear and ours next in order. In this manner we marched until overtaken by a body of our cavalry – when we were considerably broken up by their hurriedly passing through us, obliging us to take to the sides of the road.

When we reached the main road, we found carriages, hacks, wagons, and artillery on the road, and all the moving – or trying to move – in the same direction we were, Some were stalled and some were broken down. There were frequent collisions and several wrecks, and we saw one runaway – a pair of horses attached to a hack. Of course, it was not possible to march in regular formation under such conditions, and we were too tired to attempt more than was necessary and make our way the best we could and as fast as we could. At one point, the road passed over a hill that was in range of the enemy’s artillery across Bull Run, and they were throwing shells in that direction. This added to the confusion and hurried matters, also, along that stretch of road.

It was getting dark when we reached Centreville and went to the place where we had spent Friday and Saturday nights and where some wagons had been left – with regimental and company property and some Negro cooks. I think that about one-half of those who had gone out of there that morning had returned. Not more. Where were the rest? At that time, we had no definite knowledge of the others and were anxious to learn the fate of absent ones. We sat or laid down on the ground, and for a little time there were inquiries about this and that one – when and where they had been seen last – but nature asserted herself, and it was but a few minutes before the majority were sleeping soundly.

It seemed but a moment – though it might have been an hour – when we were awakened and found a supply of coffee and crackers awaiting us. I do not know as I had realized that I was hungry, but the smell of that coffee made it evident at once. We drank an unknown quantity of the coffee, but it was not a small quantity, and we felt greatly refreshed and strengthened. We also filled our canteens. It was now quite dark and threatening rain, but we again laid down to sleep.

It was not long after this that we were again called up and told that we were to march soon. This was a surprise to us, as we expected to spend the night there. No one knew where we were to go. It was now raining a little and very dark. We had had no opportunity to recover the blankets we had piled up in the woods, and the rain and night air were chilling. I do not know what became of the blankets we left, but I have been told by a Massachusetts comrade who was in the field hospital at Sudley Church that our surgeons sent and had many of them brought in to lay the wounded on.

When we fell in, we marched down to the Warrenton Turnpike and formed on the left-hand side of the road, and we began to consider the probability of our going back. Up to that time, I do not think there was any expectation of a general retreat. I do not know who organized the order of march, but it was a pretty complicated arrangement for a dark night. In the main roadway there was a line of wagons and a line of artillery, side by side, and a line of infantry marching in fours on either side. Our regiment with others was on the left, and on the right was the Jersey Brigade, a body of troops which had not been actively engaged. I knew that the New Jersey men were on the opposite side of the road, and that there were wagons between, but it was too dark to see.

Everyone who made that terrible march knows that ‘confusion worse confounded’  was produced in large quantities that were painfully evident to all of the senses but seeing. When we started on the march, it was raining hard and so dark that you could not recognize the comrade with whom you touched elbows. It was, I judge, ten o’clock or later.

Since leaving the bivouac 20 to 22 hours before, we had marched 25 to 30 miles, under the scorching heat of the mid-summer sun, much of the way through smothering clouds of pulverized clay, which covered our clothing and filled the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and was breathed into the lungs. Added to these were the excitement and mental strain of the battle and the bitter, humiliating results: defeat and disaster. To all of these was now to be added another march of 25 miles or more. None of us – of the ranks – really knew where we were going or what distance it was intended to march. All we actually knew was that we were headed back over the road we had come, and that it was dark as Egypt and raining diligently.

When this ‘mixed multitude’ of men, mules, horses, and wheels was set in motion, the situation was intensified. Wagons collided or got off the pike into the ditch; teams balked, and drivers swore and called for assistance; we of the infantry  blundered along the sides of the road as best we could – bumping into each other and everything else bump-able – tired beyond all previous experience and in anything but an amiable frame of mind. After vain attempts to keep some kind of a formation by touch and calling each other’s names or the company letter, all efforts in that direction were given up, and we just plodded along in the pouring rain as best we could.

When the rain began to fall, it was cooling and refreshing, but – as it saturated our scant clothing and poured over us in a continuous shower-bath fresh from the clouds – it became the reverse of agreeable and added much to our discomfort. The accumulations of dust on the road became sloppy mud very quickly, and the gathering water ran in little streams across the road or along the sides and collected in the depressions. Unable to see where we should go, we waded through these – often over our shoes in water and mud. The day’s operations had left a liberal deposit of dust, sand, and gravel in our shoes, and the addition of water increase the discomfort and added to the abrasions of our tired, blistered feet.

To start on such a march, under such conditions, after the efforts of the day, was a great undertaking. While the darkness lasted, it was each man for himself. When men felt that they had gone as far as they could, they turned aside in the woods and, finding a place where they could rest against a tree or stump, went to sleep. When awakened by the pitiless, drenching rain – as soon or later they were – they roused up by sheer will power and forced their stiffened, benumbed limbs to carry them onward.

Personally, that is the way I covered the distance between Centreville and Fairfax. I did not know where I was or what the hour of the night when – after a little debate with myself – I decided to rest awhile and think the situation over. With a comrade, I went a little ways into the bushes, curled up, and went to sleep without doing any thinking.

Daylight was coming, and the rain had almost ceased, when I awoke. We heard voices and knew that men were passing. Satisfying ourselves that they were not enemies, we went back into the road – though so stiff and sore that it was with difficulty we could walk. Groups of men, here and there, had made fires and were boiling coffee, and others were moving along. Going a little ways, we found two members of the company and several more of the regiment at a fire, making coffee in their tincups and little pails. Of course, we joined them at the same occupation, realizing that we were hungry.

After drinking a pint or so of strong, hot coffee and eating crackers and salt pork, we felt refreshed and continued our march. Many groups were marching, and others were halted – cooking – and we soon found others of the company and regiment and, naturally, we kept together. We soon came to Fairfax, where we found some of the wagons and artillery. From Fairfax, we took the road to Alexandria where our tents and the detail had remained. It was nearly twelve miles, but we made the distance before noon.

Here there was found food and drink and a warm welcome from those who had kept the camp. Some had come in before us, and others arrived later. Some water to wash our begrimed faces and something to eat, and, meantime, there was a general inquiry for the missing ones. In my tent, I was so fortunate as to have left a blanket, and I had a shirt and some underclothes, but I did not stop to change then. In a very few minutes, I was sleeping. I had slept, seemingly, but a little time when I was ‘stirred up’ and told that an order had come to move.

It was now well along in the afternoon, and more of the company and regiment had come in. Tents were struck and – with all the other company material – were loaded into the wagons, and we fell in for the march – we knew not where. The rain had ceased during the day, but as night came on it was threatening again. As we passed through Alexandria, it seemed impossible that it had been but a fortnight since we first marched through the city. It seemed like months.

When we reached Fort Runyon, near the Virginia end of the Long Bridge, it was getting dark and raining hard. Here we found more of the company and regiment, and there were glad greetings for some that it was feared were dead or in the hands of the rebels. I do not mean by that that there was anything like rejoicing in the general sense of the word. We had marched out in confidence, expecting a victory, but we had suffered a defeat which had wilted our pride – very much as the great physical efforts had exhausted our strength. We were sincerely glad the price in blood was no greater.

After a short halt, we crossed the Long Bridge and marched to Pennsylvania Avenue. Here and there was another halt. It rained furiously, and the only shelter we had was an iron picket fence. We got a splendid shower-bath, but we had all we wanted of that kind.

After what seemed a long time, we were admitted to some churches for the night. Food and coffee – plenty of it – was soon brought in. It was now getting quite late, and we could take our choice of sleeping on a seat or on the floor between two seats; only, there were not seats enough for all, and some must take the floor anyway. I was too tired to be particular, and gratefully glad to find shelter from the storm anywhere, and turned in on the pulpit floor. Before retiring that night, I found an opportunity to write a few words to my mother, and I think that evening or the next morning most of the boys managed to let their people know that they were still alive.

The next morning, Tuesday, July 23, the storm had ceased, and we again occupied the camp on Seventh Street out of which we had marched on the morning of July 3. It did not seem possible that but twenty  days had elapsed since we had left it. Neither did it seem possible that the 800 depressed, ragged, mud-stained, and foot-sore men who limped into camp and began the work of pitching their tents could be the same ones who had gone out from there less than three weeks before. We were a pretty hard-looking crowd. the blow had fallen with a heavy hand, and we felt its stunning effects. Mechanically, we went to work, but the interest grew as our work progressed.

Before noon, the tents were up, most of the boys had found another shirt in their knapsacks (or washed the one they wore), taken a bath, and presented a better appearance. Tents were stretched, rations were drawn, and the sun was shining and matters began to assume brighter hue. Our clothing had been a subject of complaint before we marched, and it was much more so now, but it was the result of the battle that lay nearest our hearts.

James Wright Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, as quoted on pp. 58 – 64 in Keillor, No More Gallant a Deed: A Civil War Memoir of the First Minnesota Volunteers. Used with permission.

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