The Rhode Islanders in Battle.
Extract From a Private Letter of an Officer in Company C.
Camp Sprague, July 23.
At the risk of repeating what the papers have already told you, I send a brief sketch of the battle as I witnessed it. But first let me gratefully record the safety of my men. As far as I know at this writing, none were killed, and the five missing is reduced to three by the return of Lieut. Warner and one other member. The men com in languid and late. exhausted by their hardship, and I find they have straggled along the road and been reported among the missing. But there is great reason for hope that they will all be in camp before we leave, – and my desire above all things is, that Company C may return with full ranks, and I may hear every manly voice answer “Here” to the roll call. I do not consider that the valor of an army, or a regiment, or a company, consists in its list of dead and wounded, but in having done its whole duty, and living to do it over again, – and that some of us must do that is very plain.
This is not a good time to talk of one’s self. I think all personalities are insignificant in the importance of the mighty cause. But I may say that I thank God to-day I am a Rhode Island man. My pride in her is all satisfied, and you must take a soldier’s testimony that her sons did their duty. Our regiments had expected to be a reserve, but were called into immediate action. The 2d regiment, with their splendid light battery, were the first that took position for the fight. They formed under full fire, and marched past the confederate battery as coolly as they did on a dress parade.
Our 1st regiment went into the fire with perfect courage and calmness, standing the death-dealing shot and shell like veterans. We broke the right wing of their army and drove it in. It was said to be commanded by Beauregard in person. After two hours’ fight we were allowed to stack arms for a brief rest. Then the ambulances and ammunition wagons began to pass us with the wounded – a ghastly procession. At that time the firing ceased, and a shout went up, and we claimed the victory; but it was only a pause in the work of death, for the enemy, largely reinforced, opened a steady and fatal fire again.
Our troops saw the reinforcement – and outnumbered and exhausted themselves, they took a universal panic, succeeded by an irresistible stampede, which resulted in a general retreat. I claim for our Rhode Island regiments that they left the field in perfect order, bravely resisting the contagion of fear and flight – bravely waiting the orders of their Colonel for retreat. Then came the voice we loved and obeyed, clear and calm – (no defeat in that) – and Rhode Island, unconquerable in her courage as in her pride, marched from the field she had defended with her best blood. And I contest the victory now. Outnumbered three to one – and ten to one if your realize the advantage of entrenched position – our famished, exhausted men could do no more than die. No tongue can tell the bravery of our troops. It will yet make the north invincible – and the final triumph is only a question of time. This battle is not lost if it teaches a clamorous people patience. I am proverbially a “slow man.” I know “the race is not to the swift.” Let the counsellors who urged us to battle before were we “strong” contemplate the result.
It is too late for regrets, the time given to contemplating our losses is better spent in redeeming them. Better pens than mine have told the scene of confusion – the wild flight of men and horses – the deserted wagons – the loss of provisions we were suffering for – the storm of shot and shell that followed our fleeing army, – death on the right, death on the left, and in front. Our only safety was that the enemy had neither courage nor strength for pursuit of our exhausted troops, else I might not be the one to tell the story. So we came on and on that dreadful day, and such as could reached their camp in Washington. But many a brave fellow, lifted in blankets or by generous hands, laid down his life by the roadside. Humanity had done its best and yielded to death and danger. Exhausted by hunger and sleeplessness, even a victory could hardly have roused us, and the retreat to Washington was made in pain and sorrow. nothing less than God’s care preserved us as we went. A rally was hopeless if we had been attacked. But we are all here now, and we await our missing comrades hopefully.
I saw instances of great personal courage. Come of our friends were unconscious heroes, and it was the proudest day of my life when I saw my noble boys stand shoulder to shoulder to meet their fate. Not a man flinched, and their tread was as steady as in their old armory. And when I contemplate their sacrifices, what they risked, and what they fought for, my words of praise fall far short of justice. The names of Gove. Sprague, Col. Burnside, Major Balsh and Major Goddard are widely known for their bravery on the field. These names are known from their position and prominence, but there was no distinction where all did their duty. There were some heroes in the splendid rank and file of the Rhode Island regiments. Of myself it is enough to add I am alive and well, ready and, I trust, willing for any duty fate and the future assign me. As for “home,” you may expect us when you see us. God bless Rhode Island. She is making history hand over hand.
Providence Journal 7/26/1861