“R”, 5th Massachusetts Infantry, On the Battle

21 11 2012

The following is a letter  from another member of the Massachusetts Fifth:

Our brigade under Col. Franklin, consisting of the First Minnesota, Fifth Massachusetts, and Fourth Pennsylvania Regiments, with a battery of six guns and a company of cavalry, left Alexandria on Tuesday morning, 16th inst., and arrived at Centreville on Friday night. We bivouacked in an oat field until Sunday morning at two o’clock, when we formed and stood in the road until five, at which time the column moved on. While we were at Centreville we were allowed but three hard brad a day, or one for each meal. True, we had some fresh beef on Saturday morning, but it was eaten so soon after being butchered that it made the men sick, and was thrown away. Even water could hardly be obtained, and a guard was stationed at the two or three miserable puddles to allow the men but one dipperful at a time. In consequence of this, two thirds of the men started for the battle field without any water in their canteens. The men from the first had slept upon the ground and had been half starved - not only our own brigade, but the entire division – and were more fit to be marched to the hospital than the battle field. Hungry and thirsty we marched until 12 o’clock, at which time we reached the field. The last two miles we traveled on the “doublequick.” About half a mile before reaching the field a halt was made for a moment and we divested ourselves of our haversacks and blankets, and advanced with full company front, close column.

The 11th Massachusetts, who had been ahead on the march, here halted while we passed but followed and took their position on our left, being the extreme left of the line of battle, the 5th being next. To our right were the Zouaves, who we supported. The position of the 5th was in the thickest of the fight as was also the 11th. To the left of the 11th was a piece of woods, from which stray bullets from the rebel skirmishers were fired into the ranks of the 11th. The 5th was ordered to halt upon the side of a hill, and lie down upon their faces. No sooner was this order obeyed than a shower of bullets came whistling over the heads of the men, ,but no one was hurt. Col. Lawrence gave the order for the first company to fire and then fall to the rear and load, when the second company was to fire and fall to the rear. After several volleys had been fired in this way, the enemy retreated from their position. The first man injured in the 5th was by a cannon ball, which injured two men in the Charlestown City Guard.

Col. Franklin rode up and asked, “What regiment is that lying on the hill?” When told they were the 5th Massachusetts, he replied, “I thought you were regulars you lay so still.” He then said to the Colonel, “Can you take that house? If you can the day is ours.” The Colonel shouted that we could, and we immediately fell into “sets of fours,” and proceeded to a road at a short distance, which led to the house referred to, behind which was a large force of rebels. The 5th and 11th had almost reached the house, passing through a dreadful fire to reach it, when the riderless horses attached to Rickett’s battery came dashing down upon us, the Zouaves following and the United States Cavalry following them. For a time a fearful confusion prevailed, and the 5th were obliged to halt and, and received our own cavalry at the point of the bayonet to prevent them from running over the men who were advancing. At this time Colonel Lawrence was wounded and carried from the field. The command then devolved upon the Lieutenant Colonel, but as he was not to be seen, the men were rallied by Sergeant Major Quincy, and Lieutenant Everett of the Charlestown City Guards; Lieutenant Tebbets of the Charlestown Artillery also exerted himself to the utmost to rally the men. After the cavalry had passed and left the field, the Fifth then rallied around the colors and reached the top of the hill, supporting the Zouaves, whose numbers were fast being diminished. A few moments after reaching the top of the hill, Color Sergeant Lawrence was shot through the breast by two bullets, another bullet passing through his head. Corporal Wallace, who carried the State banner, threw it on the ground and raised the stars and stripes again. Sergeant Major Quincy picked up the State flag and bore it aloft until the retreat had sounded. On his way he met a civilian on horseback, who he requested to take it for safe keeping and carry it to Centreville. He did so, but when he reached Centreville he had come to the conclusion that he had rescued the flag from the enemy and made himself a hero, and told his story accordingly.

After the retread had commenced, the Fifth rallied several times in squads of three or more, and were the last to leave the field, retiring with the Zouaves, 11th Massachusetts, and one other, in as good order as the confusion of the different regiments would admit. For the last half hour of the battle every man in most of the regiments was fighting “on his own hook,” firing wherever a rebel showed his head or his heels.

There were many men who deserve particular mention. Capt. Wardwell was very brave and cool, as was Adjutant Chambers, who was smoking a pipe during a part of the engagement. Sergeant Major Quincy deserves great praise for rallying the men when the field officers could not be found. Col. Lawrence was brave even to rashness, during the action, and did everything in his power to save the lives of his men by good management and care that one company not fire into the others, as was unfortunately the case with many other regiments.

R.

Boston Evening Journal, 7/30/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy

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