Unknown, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle

12 10 2011

A Volunteer’s Narrative.

The following letter from a member the First Regiment to his mother has been kindly placed in our hands. It gives a very vivid picture of some of the terrible scenes enacted on the last Sabbath, and its graphic frankness gives it a peculiar charm: –

Camp Sprague, July 22, 1861.

Dear Mother; – Ere this you must have heard of the dreadful battle that took place Sunday. * * * * I am perfectly well and unhurt, with the exception of a few bruises. The destruction of human life has been fearful to contemplate, but that you may get a connected idea of the battle, I will begin at the beginning.

Sunday morning at half after two, we set off for “Bull’s Run,” and to escape a masked battery, made a circuit of about fifteen miles. Just as we approached the “Run,” – about 8 o’clock, we heard the sound of heavy cannon, by which we knew the fight was commenced. So we hurried on although Col. Burnside said we would not be called upon until the last, but we found this to be a mistake. As for the first time I approached a battle field, my feelings can be imagined better than described. The first thing of not was a shell whistling through the air, and “bang” went a bomb almost at our feet, and covered us with dust. We could hardly help flinching and bobbing our heads as we heard the whirr of these missiles of death.

We, instead of being kept back as a reserve, were formed directly after our arrival into a line of battle, and marched upon the enemy. Now the scene became awfully thrilling and dangerous. Every few minutes a shower of bullets would come among us, and some were sure to fall beneath their deadly force. We had to climb over a fence, and then proceeding to the brow of the hill, we fired upon the enemy below. The balls whistled around my head like hailstones; one knocked my musket out of my hand, while another just grazed my thumb joint. I fired eleven times and loaded lying down. The scene was dreadful; the first shot fired at us, hit our beloved Lieutenant, Henry A. Prescott, in the forehead, and he dropped instantly; and they kept falling and bleeding and dying before our faces, but we merely kept loading and firing. We had to sustain ourselves nearly half an hour, when some regulars came to our assistance and charged the enemy.

The battle lasted all day, and the slaughter was dreadful. * * * * We were safe nowhere. The cannon balls would come whizzing over our heads every few minutes, generally killing some one in their progress. We drove the enemy back into their batteries several times, when suddenly a panic seized the troops. It was said that the rebels had captured all our artillery and were making a charge: 40,000 men set off on the run, leaving muskets, blankets, wagons of provisions, and the dead and dying all lying on the field. Ours was the only brigade that retreated in any sort of order. * * *

The scene was terrible. Shells were exploding and cannon roaring made such a noise that the cry of the wounded could not be heard. Cavalry, infantry and artillery, in one confused mass, hurried away as fast as possible. Some seized their arms, others not. One of the terrible scenes was just as we were retreating, the men were grabbing their muskets, which were loaded and capped, when one suddenly went off, wounding Jesse Comstock, a fine fellow of my age and a great friend of mine. He cried “Oh dear, I’m shot! Don’t leave me here! So we placed the poor fellow in the ambulance, but had hardly done so when a shell came tearing through the trees and landed directly in the ambulance, blowing at once to atoms one of our dearest companions in arms. But so we lost him – hard it seemed after his escaping the chances of battle, to so fearfully lose his life.

We were obliged to retreat the same way we came, by making a long and tedious circuit. On the way, not a drop of water could be procured, yet in spite of that, we marched fifteen miles without a single rest. It was a sad march, too, for we knew that our retreat would be cut off by the enemy, and true enough, just as our army, scattered as it was, reached the straight road, the rebels opened fire upon us with their artillery. The grape shot came pouring and whizzing by me, and we all began to run. Our artillery had strived to gain a post on the opposite hill, but before our arrival the rebels hade effectually barricaded the bridge, so that it was impossible to get anything over it. Ambulances, cannon, men and horses were piled in one confused mass, and to add to the horror of the scene, the enemy commenced firing solid shot and shell directly at the bridge, blowing up the living and the dying.

I leaped over a fence, and had hardly done so when I heard a loud crash and looking back I beheld (horrible dictu) the upper half of a soldier’s body flying up the hill. He had been cut in twain by a solid ball. At this almost barbarous cruelty, – that is, firing upon an almost unarmed and entirely unopposing force, a cry of mortal terror arose among the flying soldiers, and they followed me into the wood. This of course led the fire to be turned in my direction, and I quickly found the balls coming close to me. I dodged several; for if not crowded, you can dodge a cannon ball. I came within an ace of being killed by one of the flying missiles. I saw it coming directly towards me, and sprung into a gully close by, and the ball whizzed past close by my head, ploughing up the earth each side of me.

I ran three miles to where we were to encamp, and found what was left of our regiment starting for Washington. We arrived here this noon, after a march of fifty-six miles in two days, and a hard battle thrown in. * * *

I never shall pass such a dreadful Sunday, I trust and pray. I have seen war, and seen enough, and I hope I shall never hear the din of cannon and the rattle of musketry, while I again live. How I escaped is miraculous. We have to be thankful that all our relations were preserved to us. We come home within three days, with a regiment stripped of many of its brightest ornaments. * * * We shall return with a train of mourners, and a flag shattered with bullets. * * * * *

Give my best love to all and my kindest sympathy to sorrowing friends.

Providence Evening Press 7/26/1861

Clipping Image



2 responses

23 10 2011
T.K. Tortch

“I dodged several; for if not crowded, you can dodge a cannon ball.”

Terrifying prospect, especially if you’ve got nowhere to dodge or drop to – as in an infantry line. And I’ve often wondered about that – you see in old paintings or engravings scenes of battle depicting shells or cannonballs in flight between lines or crashing into a line, and I was never sure how fanciful that imagery was. Looks like if you couldn’t dodge a bullet you could dodge a cannonball – though I guess distance from the gun mattered a lot in your chances.

Gah. Imagine having to advance into a battery of guns. Maybe no more lethal than advancing into machine gun fire, but the prospect of seeing the muzzles pointed at you and the flash as it went off, and no time to turn.


25 10 2011
Harry Smeltzer

Yes, W. T. Sherman at Blackburn’s Ford famously admonished his men about trying to dodge shells, just before he himself ducked at the sound of one. He then qualified his chastisement, saying it was OK to “dodge the big ones.”


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