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