Report of Col. Oliver O. Howard, Third Maine Infantry, Commanding Third Brigade, Third Division
O.R.– SERIES I–VOLUME 2 [S# 2] — CHAPTER IX, pp. 417-419
HEADQUARTERS THIRD BRIGADE, THIRD DIVISION,
Bush Hill, four miles from Alexandria, July 26, 1861
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the march, battle, and its results, so far as concerned my brigade, on Sunday, the 21st instant:
The column was formed at 2.30 a.m. in rear of Colonel Willcox’s brigade, about a mile this side of Centreville. Here we waited till the sun was an hour high, when the rear of Colonel Willcox’s column began to move. We followed with the usual haltings along the Warrenton turnpike till we turned into the narrow road to the fight. Here we found General McDowell. As soon as my leading regiment had passed him he halted the brigade. We waited in this place till near noon, when the order to rejoin your division was received. We had marched near a mile, when Captain Whipple met us, and conducted us along the same road that you had passed. We turned to the left, and took a cross road before reaching the road you took.
When we came into the open plain we were met by my brigade quartermaster, Lieutenant Burt, who had preceded us on to the field of battle. He said, ” Colonel Heintzelman orders you to move at double-quick.” I gave the order, and we marched nearly a mile at this pace, when I found the men so much exhausted that they could march so no longer. The rear of the column, having lost distances, moved much of the time at double-quick. The last two miles the head of the column marched at quick time. Many dropped out and fainted from exhaustion.
As soon as we reached the second open space past the hospital for wounded men, your aide met me and ordered that I should move across the plain into the valley to our left, and there form line and march up through the thicket, to support a battery. Captain Fry also reiterated the same instructions. In the manner indicated, I formed the first line, composed of the Fourth Maine, Colonel Berry, and the Second Vermont, Colonel Whiting. This line I marched up the hill. When we cleared the thickets, we found one caisson, and Lieutenant Kirby, with his face covered with blood, on a horse that had been shot through the nose. My line passed this caisson, and just as the Vermont Second gained the crest of the hill the order to fire was given. The Fourth Maine, which was delayed a little by the thicket, then came up into line, and commenced firing. The enemy’s battery on the left, and the one on the right, that soon came into position, with the showers of musket balls from the front, made it rather warm work for new men; but they stood well, or rallied to fire between twenty and thirty rounds per man.
After the first line had been formed, and was well at work, I returned and brought up the second line. A remnant of the Fifth Maine and the Third Maine composed this line. A part of the Fifth had retreated, as near as I can learn, they having been discomfited by our own cavalry and by a cannon ball striking their flank. Major Staples, with the Third Maine, replaced the Vermont Second; the Fourth Maine continued on the field, and the Fifth Maine (what was left–I should judge about the strength of four companies) took the extreme right. Soon this line began to break and fall back, an order for a wing to retire being understood for the whole. Major Nickerson I noticed then. He asked me if I had given the order to retire, and I shook my head. He aided me especially, as he always has done, in rallying the command. Colonel Dunnell said he was entirely exhausted and could hold out no longer. Many officers strove to reform ranks, but we could not under fire, so I gave the order to retire under cover and form. The order to retreat came to my ears before I left the field.
There was very little organization before we reached Centreville, where we halted for an hour. At Centreville I learned that you were to retreat. I marched at the head of my brigade in good order to Fairfax Court-House. Here we lay on our arms till morning, and not being able to ascertain what orders were intended for us from conflicting statements, I continued my march towards Alexandria, halted at Clermont, and were taken to Alexandria by cars sent out for the purpose.
As to conduct on the field, I myself noticed Colonel Berry, Lieutenant-Colonel Marshall, and Major Nickerson, whom I have already noticed; also Major Staples and my quartermaster, Lieutenant Burt, who had volunteered with the Third Maine. They were at their posts and doing their duty. Colonel Whiting was at his post when I left for the second line, and I refer to his report for notice of his field and other officers. They were not wanting. Colonel Dunnell I have previously mentioned. I noticed Major Hamilton trying to rally and encourage his men. I wish particularly to speak of the ready and fearless manner in which my aides, Lieutenants Buel and Mordecai, assisted me.
My brother, Charles H. Howard, gave no little assistance in the midst of danger, and my orderly, John Zantish, followed me closely, fearless of exposure. I shall trust to the commanders of regiments to do justice to the officers and soldiers of their commands. The fallen have given their lives, and deserve the highest praise for their good conduct, which is all we can send of comfort to their stricken families at home. The readiness of these soldiers to sacrifice themselves for their country deserved a better result. God grant it be different in the future.
Herewith please find a list of the killed, wounded, and missing.(*)
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
O. O. HOWARD,
P. S.–I wish to testify to one thing that I observed on that memorable day and have since ascertained to a greater extent: “The best men in camp are the best in the field.”
Captain and Assistant Adjutant-General, Washington, D.C.
(*) Embodied in Division Report, p. 405