“DeW”, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (2)

2 10 2011

“DeW”, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (2)

Correspondence of the Journal.
The Reverse

Camp Sprague, July 24.

After our brigade had been withdrawn to the woods, arms were stacked, and the men sat down to take some refreshments from their haversacks, and compare notes with regard to the battle. I took this opportunity to traverse the scene of conflict. Our own men had been carried off, but in the corn-field I found numbers of the enemy dead or dying. After rendering what assistance we could, I conversed with some not so severely wounded. They belonged to New Orleans and Alabama regiments, and stated that their Colonel was mortally wounded. They said that all that morning troops had been coming as rapidly as possible from Manassas, by rail and on foot; that their force was very strong, though they had no means of ascertaining the numbers; that Beauregard held command in person; and that we should find the batteries very formidable. They seemed grateful for any kindness, and said they were now convinced that we were neither brutes nor cowards, as we had been represented to them. One poor fellow, shot through the hip, begged us to send home the body of his Lieutenant, lying near, as he was “of a wealthy family, who would pay any amount for the service.”

Returning up the hill I found one of the 71st leaning mournfully over the body of a comrade. “Look here!” said he, “that is my chum – we have slept under the same blanket for three months.” I will not describe the sights and sounds of horror which greeted me whichever way I turned. I have seen one battle field – may no stern necessity ever compel me to see another.

Stationing myself upon the summit of the hill, I watched the progress of the conflict, the heat of which was now removed nearly a mile to the east. The 69th New York, the Fire Zouaves and several other fresh regiments were now ordered forward, crossed the hollow, and commenced ascending the opposite hill. Up to this time I think all the shot had come from one battery, which the Zouaves were ordered to storm, Capt. Reynolds meanwhile keeping up a persistent fire upon it. The brave fellows rushed at it on the double quick, and twice, I am told, they gained possession of it, but each time were repulsed by overwhelming numbers, and at the same time two or three new batteries opened fire upon them from the covert of the adjacent woods, making sad havoc in their ranks. Hardly had they recovered from this surprise, when the famous “Black Horse Cavalry” charged upon them, firing their revolvers. In their ranks they bore a small Union flag, by reason of which they were allowed to approach very near, the Colonel of the Zouaves crying out, “Don’t fire, boys! they are our own cavalry!” Can treachery more devilish and double dyed be conceived of than this, twice practiced on that day? When the Zouaves discovered the deceit, they poured in a destructive fire which emptied many saddles and sent the horsemen flying back into the forest. Thus far I had watched the varying fight, but the enemy’s batteries now began to play upon the infantry who were forming in the hollow, doing them but little harm, their aim being much too high, but dropping shot and shell in my vicinity quite too quickly to be pleasant; so securing a ball from a rifled cannon which ploughed up the earth near by, I retired to the piece of woods where our regiments were in waiting.

The Retreat.

We had perhaps been here half an hour, when there was an energetic call from some one, I think Gov. Sprague, “Rhode Island, stand to your arms! Our troops are falling back on us!” and presently emerged from a cloud of dust half a dozen ammunition wagons, driving furiously, followed by a confused crowd of soldiers of different regiments, walking and running, crying out as they passed, “Save yourselves, boys! we are whipped, and the enemy is close behind us!” There was some delay in forming our men , caused, not by fear, but actually by the men hunting over the stacks to get the muskets with their own particular number on it. We marched a short distance, and halted in a field, while Col. Burnside rode back to reconnoitre. Meanwhile, in three or four different streams the fugitives were pouring by us from the battle field, exhausted and dispirited. After a while the Colonel came back and told us to go to the brook half a mile back and fill our canteens, which we did in perfect order. All this I supposed to be preparatory to a rally by our regiments and the 71st, and a return to the battle field. But I presume Col. Burnside, Gen. McDowell  became convinced that no effort would avail with some of the regiments who had been brought into the field on the run for four miles, without water, and were quite used up. Then, therefore, our canteens were filled, we were told to march on. Then, for the first time, the appalling truth burst upon me that we were defeated, and had nothing left for us but a mortifying and painful retreat. We kept together very well for six miles, till coming upon an open plain, two musket shots sounded ominously in the wood to our left. In three minutes more artillery was heard on the main road, which we were now approaching again, and the iron missiles came singing over our heads and crashing through the trees. The column hurried into the woods, and I think none were killed at this point. But a few hundred yards brought us into the road leading to the bridge, which we had passed in the morning. As we crowded towards it the enemy’s artillery was plainly visible on a hill to the west, supported by cavalry, while the crowded masses in the road made a target which they could hardly miss.

The Flight.

A discharge of musketry from an ambuscade in the bushes completed our confusion, and the retreat became a complete rout, everybody struggled to gain the bridge. But when on reaching it we found it barricaded, and our own artillery piled up pell mell, with wheels broken and horses gone, our ambulances filled with wounded drawn up to the side of the road, their occupants resigning themselves to their fate, the enemy’s guns sending round shot and shells, crashing and tearing through the panic-stricken crowd all the while, our misery was complete. I do not think a man of us really expected to escape.

Some climbed over the barricade. Most, like myself, dashed through the river, waist deep. Many fell down. losing their arms in the water. – When we got through, our clothes were so weighed down with water that we could with difficulty climb up the farther bank. One poor fellow near me lost his shoes, and walked twenty miles in his stocking feet. When we got clear of the stream we scattered into the woods to escape the deadly storm of balls, and after another mile could breathe freer. It was dark when we reached Centreville, but we kept on to our old camp, when we flung ourselves upon the ground, hoping to rest awhile. But there was no rest for us. We had hardly begun to dry ourselves by the fires hastily kindled, when the word was passed: “Fall in, boys, we must march to Washington!” twenty miles more. We staggered into the road again, and commenced our weary march.

I have no very definite idea of the subsequent events of that dismal night. We stumbled along through the hours of darkness, gradually becoming scattered, as the strong ones outwalked the weak, eagerly dipping our canteens in the muddy pools through which the cavalry and wagons had passed, welcoming the drizzling rain which came towards daylight, watching the dull sunrise over the endless road, till at last the blue haze of the Potomac, see through half shut eyelids, revived us a little, and somehow or other, I shall never be able exactly to tell how, most of us got inside Fort Runyon, on the Arlington side of Long Bridge. Here we were detained an hour or two, and treated to breakfast, and a wash. After this the regiments were reformed, and marched over the bridge to camp. A sorry show we made, passing through the city, with feet that flinched from every stone, and a sad assemblage watched us from the windows and sidewalks. A fat Irishwoman looked at us a moment as we passed, then stuck her knuckles in her eyes and blubbered outright.

Ever since we got here, stragglers have been coming in, and some now missing may yet appear. Our loss is not large. You will have the official report before this reaches you. Of the causes of our defeat, I say nothing. It becomes us to be grateful to the merciful Providence that saved so many of us, through that day and night of horror.

It takes the stories of several different men to make the true story of a battle. You have mine.

One word more. All that we won that day, and all that we did not lose, that is, our lives, we owe, under God, to Col. Burnside.


Providence Journal 7/27/1861

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“DeW”, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (1)

2 10 2011

Correspondence of the Journal.
The Rhode Island Regiments in the Battle.

Washington, July 23, 1861.

I had no heart to write yesterday. I have not much to write to-day. It is an ungrateful task to describe a defeat, but I have no choice.

At 2 1/2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, the 21st, our two regiments were roused from their brief sleep, and commenced the march towards Manassas, said to be ten miles distant. Seven miles brought us to a stream 40 feet wide and waist deep, which by reason of subsequent events we shall be likely to remember to our lives’ end. We crossed it by a bridge, and half a mile beyond, turned off to the right into the woods, about 10,000 men of us, while another division made a detour to the south. At 10 a. m. we heard the reports of cannon to the west. We made a circuit of five or six miles through the woods, making about 14 miles from camp, coming out about 10 o’clock upon open ground, near an old railroad embankment, half a mile to the west of Bull Run, about 3 miles north east of the Junction, around which was grouped the enemy’s batteries, of whose strength and number we knew nothing.

As we did so, we saw the R. I. Second drawn up to the right of a piece of woods, with their battery, and immediately formed in line with the 71st on our left.

Meanwhile the enemy had opened on our 2nd with shot, shell and musketry, which was returned with great spirit by them and Capt. Reynolds’s battery, causing them to retreat from the brow of the hill. The 1st and 71st were now advanced into the grove, and told to wait for orders. Meanwhile the enemy had altered their range, so that the shot and shells which had been bursting harmlessly over our heads, began to fall thick and fast among us. This was the most trying time of all; this forced inaction, while our men were dropping here and there, mangled and dying, was dreadful. This was the moment which, more than any after one, no matter how furious the conflict, puts a man’s nerve to the test. The sight of the first dead man, especially if he be one of your own, causes a sickening feeling, not experienced afterwards on the field covered with the wrecks of war. Yet not a man flinched that I saw. Presently came Col. Burnside, God bless him! riding into the woods, and gave the order: “Forward, First Rhode Island!” We moved out of the woods to the brow of the hill, the 71st in front, passing on the way the dead body of Capt. Tower of our 2d, and many others. Then came the order, “Lie down, 71st, and let Rhode Island pass to the front!”

They did so most unwillingly, and we marched through and over them with a front almost as straight and steady as on dress parade. Arrived at the edge of the hill we were greeted by a storm of musket balls from a large body of men, Alabama troops, drawn up in a corn field in front, which whistled past our ears, every minute drapping one of our brave fellows, for about half an hour, though I cannot speak with any certainty of the lapse of time. We returned it with interest, every man advancing to the front, firing and falling back to load as quick as possible. the 71st were now brought forward and fought well and bravely by our side. Presently some one cried, “Hold! we are firing on our own men!” This slackened our fire for a moment, when the Colonel rode up and told us to keep up the fire. At the same moment the Adjutant ordered our standard advanced. A tremendous fire was at once concentrated upon it, and Sergeant Becherer who bore it fell, shot through the arm; another man seized it instantly and waved it defiantly to the foe three or four times, when he, too, was led off with a shattered arm. The flag fell for a moment, but a third man sprang forward, raised it without letting go his musket, and continued to bear it through the action. It seems pretty certain that our crafty adversaries raised a United States flag at one time which started the report that we were firing on our friends, and caused us to slacken our fire.

I cannot here particularize instances of personal coolness and bravery, but I will say with perfect truth that I did not see a Rhode Island man quail through that terrible half hour, though of course many were too excited to take deliberate aim, often endangering their comrades fighting beside and in front of them, and throwing away a vast amount of lead. The coolest thing I heard was from an officer of the 1st, who walked quietly along the front of his company, remarking, “Boys, it takes 700 pounds of lead to kill one of you, so go in, and give them one for me!” meaning, no doubt 700 rounds, but the mistake was excusable. The enemy fought with determined courage, but our fire grew too hot for them at last – the rattling storm of Minnie balls fell less thickly among us, and they began to retire. At this moment Gov. Sprague who had just had his horse shot under him, seized a musket and offered to lead a charge. But Col. Burnside would not permit it, a column of regulars was brought up, who drove the retreating back to their batteries. Thus was the attempt to outflank us on the left frustrated, and so far as the Rhode Island 1st and 2d and the 71st was concerned it was a complete victory. We were withdrawn in perfect order to the grove, except our gallant battery, which continued to keep up a hot fire upon the masked batteries upon the hill.

We retired in the fond delusion that the day was ours, and that the fresh regiments coming up had only to drive from the field a defeated foe.

How woefully we were mistaken, and the story of our disastrous retreat must be told in another letter. Fifty miles marching and a hard fight in 32 hours upon a diet of crackers and water gives tired nature an indisputable claim to rest. Our hearts are sad for Slocum, Ballou, Tower, Smith, Prescott and many other gallant men – our consolation is that they and all of us have done our duty.


Providence Journal 7/25/1861

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