“DeW”, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (2)
Correspondence of the Journal.
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After our brigade had been withdrawn to the woods, arms were stacked, and the men sat down to take some refreshments from their haversacks, and compare notes with regard to the battle.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.
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.
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