The following is an extract from a private letter of a member of Company C, 1st regiment.
Camp Sprague, July 22.
Yesterday was the most terrible day of my life. I can give you no idea of it. We had orders to move at 3 o’clock Sunday morning, so at that time, with hard crackers and a canteen of water for rations, we started from our camp near Fairfax. It was a beautiful sight, as our immense column moved to the right to make a flank movement. – We had marched about ten miles, and McDowell and staff passed. As he passed he said, “in a few moments you will see action.” Soon we deployed in a field, followed by the 71st and New Hampshire regiments. We had hardly taken our posts on the plain, when the pickets met and the firing of small arms began, the balls striking all around us. Then up came our battery at the rear, and disappeared. In a very few moments the shell came whizzing through the air over our heads, and next we heard our pieces speaking in rapid succession. On the right we saw our 2d regiment deploying in good order to the right, and delivering their fire. We had no much time to look, for we heard Burnside’s voice summoning us to “forward,” and into the woods we marched. – When we reached the woods we were halted. How the shell and shot did crash through the trees. – One ball struck in front of our first platoon, and bounded over their heads; another struck in front of our platoon, and covered us with dust. Soon from the hill above we saw Burnside beckoning to us “forward, over the fence.” To the fence we went. How the shot did drop around us. We passed Major Ballou lying wounded by the fence. We found when we reached the top of the hill the 71st lying on their stomachs. Over them we went, and just below the hill, within a hundred rods of us, the rebels were blazing away at us. We opened upon them, when the cry was raised that we were killing our own men. We then turned to the left and directed our fire to the bushes. The 71st finding we were mistaken about those in front being our friends, took our old position, and together we drove them down the hill, and concealed in the bushes they blowed away at us, who, exposed on the summit of the hill, returned the fire. I was standing on top of the hill waiting for the cowards to show themselves, when I felt a commotion between my legs, and a man was deliberately blowing away, using my legs as a port hole. Poor Prescott, while standing there encouraging his men, received a shot in the head; clasping his hands over it, he exclaimed “Boys, I am going,” and fell. We cannot mourn for him, for he has gone to his reward, one of the noblest men and best of Christians I ever say. His men cannot speak of him with dry eyes. He was universally beloved.
Soon we seemed to have silenced them, and the order was given for us to retire and fall into our ranks. Some places were vacant which a few moments before were filled. The rear rank stepped to the front and took their places, and we filed off the field into the woods, thinking the battle won. I set down to write you, and had hardly finished, when our batteries ceased firing, and we were ordered to fall in to cover the retreat, and in a few moments horsemen and footmen came running over the fields in full retreat. We moved off quietly, picking our way through heaps of knapsacks, canteens, blankets and accoutrements, and in a confused mass the whole column was pouring down the road. I think I never felt so badly in my life.- After awhile the Rhode Islanders got into to cover the retreat, and we all pressed backward toward Centreville. The ammunition had given out, the position of the rebels was too strong, and their force too large. Thus began one of the most rapid and perfect routs I ever heard of. As we came out of the woods one of their batteries played upon us, and into the woods we went. We forded a stream which came up almost to our waists, and tired and wet, we pressed on for our old camp. – The bridge was barricaded so that our battery had to leave their pieces behind them. Baggage wagons were all about the fields, the drivers mounting the horses and pressing on. Our only hope was to reach our camp before we were cut off. Tired as we were, we could not stop, we had to leave our dead and wounded to the mercy of the enemy. It was awful. When we reached our camp the order was given, “on, to Fairfax,” and picking our way amid baggage wagons, cavalry, and impediments of all kinds, having eaten nothing but dry crackers, and drunk nothing but dirty water, we pressed on. We reached Fairfax, and found to our joy that they had not cut off our retreat. “On, to Washington” was the cry then. We reached Arlington Heights this morning, having marched at least ten miles, fought a battle, and retreated, marching forty-one miles, with nothing but our rations of crackers and water to sustain us. God alone gave me strength to do it.
Providence Journal 7/26/1861