Unknown, 79th New York Infantry, On the Battle, Retreat, and Aftermath

8 04 2013

New York, August 3, 1861.

To the Editors of the Sunday Mercury:

You have, no doubt, given me up as one of those numbered with the dead or missing in the late advance, and engagements, and retreat, all of which I have been in, and, no doubt, think I tried to do my duty; however, I will let others judge of that, and endeavor to give you as good a sketch as I can from memory, as I lost my bag and books (but not my implements of war, which many did), and, of course, I will make some mistakes, which I think my friends of the Seventy-ninth will excuse, when they know that it is a severely-wounded soldier that writes it.

Since I wrote you last, we have been advancing from place to place in Virginia, and as nothing of importance happened until we reached Centreville, except that the road was barricaded in several places with trees, which was soon cleared by our pioneers, and the sight of several camps deserted, in some which the fires were still burning – all of which, to us, was the cause of much prospecting on what a set of cowards we had to encounter, but which was set at rest by our arriving, on Thursday, July 18th, at about two miles west of Centreville, where, at midday, we were run (not marched) in at double-quick time, which was the order, for the last three miles; and when we drew up in line of battle, we were more ready to fall down than fight, although the spirit was there; but we had no fighting to do, as the enemy’s cannonading soon ceased. The troops that were engaged in close quarters with the enemy were ordered to retreat, and our brigade (i. e., Sherman’s) to cover the rear, which we did, having in the Seventy-ninth only one man wounded, in the Sixty-ninth, three men wounded, Wisconsin Second, 1 killed; at the battery, two of the gunners were killed. The New York Second Volunteers suffered most; but the whole of it only amounted to a good skirmish.

We retired to Centreville about 4 P.M., as near as I can guess, having no time-piece; then we were marched through the village, taking a road leading westward for about a mile, and there encamped in an open field, until Sunday morning at 2 A.M., at which time we started for the big Bull Run, which we understood very little about, and of which our higher officers, be they generals or gomerals, seemed to know far less. We marched about five miles. When passing through and to the outer or westerly side of a large wood, we got the first sight of the enemy on the rising ground beyond the river. We halted there for about an hour, Col. Sherman, at the same time, trying to discover their batteries by firing shot and shell, which all fell short. We then got the order to march, which we did, crossing Bull Run in double-quick time, and up the hill through a very thick pine wood of small trees, the Sixty-ninth on the right, the Wisconsin Second next, the Rochester Thirteenth next, and the Seventy-ninth (our own) next; another brigade followed, whose I know not. Suffice it to say, on emerging from the wood, the Sixty-ninth attacked the right flank of the enemy (then engaged with our troops, who attacked them from the north), and before the whole brigade got out of the wood and formed, had them completely routed and flying in all directions; but it proved to be only a feint, so as to get us to following them to hotter quarters. The line of battle then was formed on the hill from which the enemy was driven (and where we ought to have intrenched ourselves until we found out their strength), and from which I must say that the grandest scene of my life appeared to me, although awful in the extreme. For a time all was still as death in the ranks.

Our artillery opened upon them with a fury, doing great execution – the shot and shell falling in their midst, their batteries at the same time playing upon us, but generally falling short – their whole army being now (as it appeared to us) only a few scattered regiments in full retreat, when our generals or gomerals, like the fish with the fly, snapped the bait, and gave the order to advance, which was duly obeyed. An attack on their batteries was ordered, the Fire Zouaves taking the lead, covered by a troop of United States cavalry, who, when the first volley was fired upon the Zouaves, wheeled and galloped off, striking terror to the hearts of many brave men. The Zouaves poured volley after volley among the enemy. but having as yet no support, withdrew, although quickly, yet in good order, and formed on the brow of the adjacent hill, and nearer the enemy than the cavalry even dared to go. The panic, at the same time, took hold on another New York regiment, then lying in the road over which the horse and Zouaves passed, who fled in consternation out of the strongest position on that field, and not even waiting to get a chance to fire off their guns at the enemy, who took the precaution not to follow at this time. our position was then changed from the back of a hill about two hundred yards from the same road, but to the left and rear of where that last regiment run from, our right resting near that ill-fated hospital, which was said to be burned on account of no flag being flown on it, and where we could not see what happened at the next attack on the batteries; but it soon came to our turn – the whole Sherman Brigade being marched in along with the Zouaves on the right; and as it would be hard to say to what I saw happen ourselves. Our portion was to attack the right of the enemy, which we did. When at twenty paces from their batteries, they having taken correct aim, the enemy poured into us the most deadly volley that has ever been showered on an army since killing with powder was invented, and in which volley many of our best and bravest fell. Col. Cameron had but uttered the words, “Give it to them, my brave Scotch ladies!” which I distinctly heard, when the word rang along the line, “The colonel’s dead!”

Captain Brown fell at the same time. All of which happened quicker than time it takes me to tell it. But suffice it to say, that the Seventy-ninth never faltered; but gave and took as coolly as ever did the regiment from which they take their name. Twice did they rally on the field, and drove back three times the fresh regiments of the enemy, at the same time they received the musketry of the masked batteries from right and left by oblique firing (the deadliest of all firing); nor did they leave the ground until several minutes after the retreat was sounded – the Sixty-ninth and the Zouaves acting in the same cool and decisive manner. During the last charge I was taken from the field, having given way from loss of blood from a wound I received in the beginning of the action; and feeling a little refreshed, after getting a drink of water at a small brook in the valley below (and at which place I saw resting themselves several prominent members of the Seventy-ninth, a number of whom are now in New York; showing holes made in their clothes by themselves, telling of the narrow escape they had, and how many they killed; but whom, I am led to believe, were never in the engagement, and when told to go back refused to go – they may rest assured that they will be exposed as soon as the regiment returns). I proceeded toward the  second hospital (the first being crowded). The second was also crowded; but I got a place under a tree, and got the wound dressed and the bleeding stopped; but the doctor could not take the time to extract the ball. I ate a cracker, drank some water, and, after resting a little, joined in the general stampede which followed, coming back by the northern road toward Centreville, and which proved, afterward, to be the safest, as on the other, or direct, road the rear was attacked by cavalry, and several taken prisoners, amongst them Captain W. Manson, First Company – which place we passed about one hour after, and arrived in Centreville, about eight or nine o’clock, where I entered the hospital for the night, sending the man who conveyed me – by resting my weight on his arm – on after the regiment, as I felt perfectly secure, there being two regiments covering our retreat half a mile below Centreville. I there got the ball dug out, and lay down and slept sound until morning.

At daylight rose; looked for the two regiments that covered us the night before; they were gone; had left at 2 A.M. on Monday; was told that the rebel cavalry had visited us at 3 A.M., and had gone to Fairfax, which I reached about 1 P.M., seeing nothing to disturb me, the road being literally covered with wagons, provisions, and the implements of war, such as swords, muskets, cartridge-boxes, knives, etc. Passed a captain and lieutenant of another regiment; asked them where was their company or regiment; said they did not know, which I believed, as they looked like men who knew nothing. Traveled until within three miles of Arlington, when an Eighth-Regiment ambulance wagon picked me up, and took me into the hospital of the Brooklyn Twenty-eighth Regiment, where I found several of our wounded, and where I, as well as all the others, received the kindest treatment and care from Dr. P. B. Rice and assistant, as well as from the Hospital Steward, Geo. G. Holman, whose attentions for two days and nights were unceasing. The services of such men are invaluable to a regiment; and, I must say, are rarely to be found.

On Wednesday, we moved into Washington, into several houses in Massachusetts avenue, Sixth street. Our tents were brought over on Friday, and we moved into camp on Saturday, on which day I left for New York. Arrived in Philadelphia at 9 P.M.; put up at the Continental Hotel, J. E. Stevens & Co. proprietors; went to the office for my bill at 4 P.M. on Sunday; found some friend had paid it; but on asking Dr. Gross, who visited me twice while there, for my bill, it was only five dollars – paid it. He is a strong Union man, lives corner of Eleventh and Walnut streets, and has a son in the army. Left with the 5 1/2 train for New York; arrived home – where I now am – at 11 P.M., and where I expect to be confined for a month to come. I now find, on arriving in New York, that a statement is going the rounds that we, while in Columbia College, destroyed furniture, pictures, etc. – in fact, everything that appeared not in accordance with our views of religion. I pronounce the whole an unmitigated falsehood, and I refer the authors of the same to the president of said college, who, when we left there, stated to the officers of this regiment that he was sorry that we were going to leave, as we had conducted ourselves with more propriety than even the Sixty-ninth had done. I may also state, that in our regiment there was, and is, many good Catholics, whom, I am certain, would have let the writer of this know had anything of the kind occurred.

And now as to a Colonel of our regiment. I find that Secretary Cameron has appointed Governor Stevens, who on Tuesday last, was presented to the regiment – they being drawn up in line – and who, when he gave the first command, was answered with silence – not a man took notice of him. The fact is, they want a colonel of their own choice, and will have him.

And I would caution all interested in this regiment to beware of imposters here in New York, as plenty are going around representing that they belong to the regiment, and were at the battle, and work on the finer feelings of the afflicted for their own nefarious purposes. One has already been arrested by the activity of Capt. Wm. Bruce, 280 Eighth avenue, and is now receiving his deserts. Captain Bruce is always ready and willing to do anything for the regiment, and is one of those men in whom both officers and privates of the regiment has entire confidence.

Excuse the length of this letter, and believe me to be your sincere friend,

One of the Seventy-ninth Regiment, N. Y. S. M.

{This correspondent received a musket-ball through the collar bone, and was extracted at the bottom of the shoulder blade. We shall be happy to give his name and address to any one desirous of seeing the gentleman. – Ed.}

New York Sunday Mercury, 8/4/1861

William B. Styple, ed., Writing and Fighting the Civil War: Soldier Correspondence to the New York Sunday Mercury, pp. 36-38








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