The Battle at Bull’s Run.
[Correspondence of the Journal]
Camp McDougal, near Alexandria, Va.,
Wednesday, July 24, 1861.
Dear Sir: – Yours of the 19th of July has just been received and read with pleasure. Our Regiment reached our old camp at Alexandria the forenoon of Monday last, on our retreat from the battle of Bull’s Run, and Manassas, of the day before. – We had been encamped near Bull’s Run, and within two miles of the masked batteries of the Rebels for the two last days previous, making, as I supposed, every preparation for a great battle and certain victory, and I to-day firmly believe that the victory was as certainly won and that but for the cowardice, knavery or imbecility of our acting Generals the federal troops would to-day occupy those important points instead of being as they are, repulsed, under the disgrace of retreat, and in the camps they occupied a week ago, or further back even in Washington.
We went forth to battle on the morning of the 21st of July. We reposed much confidence in our strength, and we were strong and the day would have been ours, but for the lack of some one to lead or direct our movements, having the necessary skill and qualifications to entitle him to be styled General of the New York State army. But this was not our case. The left of the line where our Brigade was stationed as a support of the batteries planted at that end of the line, our General seemed either crazy, badly scared or drunk, and our regiment (I understand it was so with others) was moving from place to place continually, to what end or for what purpose nobody seemed to know. Our artillery (two batteries on the left) blazed away all day at the enemy or their masked batteries – (those doing such fearful work among our men but a few days before) – without receiving a single shot from the enemy in return during the whole day, newspaper reports to the contrary notwithstanding. The only fight on the left of the line where our regiment was stationed, was the cannonade of our guns unanswered by the rebels, and the occasional exchange of shots between our skirmishers and theirs, whereby less than half a dozen men were killed and wounded, except that just at dark a body of rebel infantry marched from the woods on the left and fired upon the gunners killing one of the Lieutenants and for the time driving them from their guns. They rallied again, however, and poured into the rebels successive doses of shot and shell that sent them flying and enabled our men to take away their guns before they could rally again.
It was at this time that the 32nd Regiment was for the first time called upon to do active duty, although we had been constantly on the field and ready at all times. When the attack was made upon our battery on the left our Regiment was ordered down to resist it and cover the retreat of the artillery. When we reached the ground the artillery was already retreating, having previously poured into the rebels such a volley of grape and canister, that before they could rally the horses had been harnessed to the guns and they were safely drawn from the field, which we then occupied, covering the retreat. The rebels did not again show themselves; we were not fired into, nor did we fire a shot during the day.
We were soon after ordered to fall back to Centreville, where several regiments were forming to resist the imagined attack from thousands of rebel cavalry, supposed to be in pursuit of our now retreating army. As we took our position in line, some acting General, probably drunk or half scared to death, shouted out in a very loud, excited voice: “The cavalry are upon us; we shall all be cut to pieces; for God Almighty’s sake move out here, or we shall all be cut to pieces!” And then addressing himself to the artillerymen he commanded, “Why in h—l don’t you fire?” And they did, and away went the cavalry, which was to cut us all to pieces, and which consisted, as near as I could see, of some few dozen horsemen just emerged from the woods we had left, and certainly were not so formidable as to call out an expression of fear or terror made use of by our acting General, and which, I have no doubt did much towards unnerving many who could not of themselves see that what their General told them was untrue, and added materially to the general confusion that followed in our horrid retreat shortly afterwards. As we were not molested during the evening by the enemy of any sort, we were allowed to lay down on our arms in line of battle, ready to resist an attack at a moment’s warning, on the damp, cold ground (for the dew had commended to fall, and all the nights are quite cold in Virginia,) to rest and sleep. I know not how it was with my comrades, but I never slept more soundly in my life than I did there in the open air upon the battle-field, where our General would have us believe we were liable to be attacked and utterly cut to pieces at any moment. I could not realize that we were in any such great danger; and to-day, after looking the ground all over, I cannot bring myself to believe there was the least danger imagined; and when at eleven o’clock we were aroused up and ordered to fall back to Fairfax Court House, and finally to Alexandria, it seemed to me that orders were being issued by secessionists, who were having the thing all their own way by merely ordering it so, and, I am sorry to say, this belief has not entirely left me yet. Our Regiment reached our old camp ground at noon of the next day, nearly used up from excessive travel, but not a man had received a scratch from the hands of the rebels. Most of the fighting was done at the right of the line and not in our vicinity. A few wounded men, skirmishers, were carried off the field on the left, and but a few; and in addition to these, the first sight that met our eyes, when we went to the relief of the artillery, was the almost lifeless body of a dying lieutenant of the artillery company, who was mortally wounded by a musket ball at the first attack upon the battery.
I must confess that when I again reached camp I felt somewhat rheumatic, as well as a good deal used up. For a whole week we had lived upon the hardest kind of fare, and often too little of that. At night we slept upon the ground, without the least shelter, no matter though the rain fell, as it did occasionally, and lucky was the man who had both his rubber and blanket. As for myself, by chance I had no blanket or overcoat, but as the boys were some of them very kind to me, I managed to get along very well, and in a fe days I shall be ready, under a new leadership, to march again to the scene of action with, I trust, a different result. One of our Generals told me on our return that our probable loss was from four to six thousand, but this is all nonsense; straggling soldiers have not yet ceased coming in, and already the reliable estimated loss is reduced to some six hundred.
I really believe that if we had maintained our ground at Centreville the enemy would have retreated much faster towards Richmond the next morning than we did towards Alexandria. But as it is it may all be for the best.
You will please say to the citizens of Tompkins through our papers, that not a man of our two Ithaca companies as yet has been harmed by a secessionist bullet.
Ever truly yours,
Ithaca [N. Y.] Journal and Advertiser, 7/31/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy