July 24th, 1861, 10 thirty P.M.
My dear Mother:
At twelve o’clock the orders came to leave by that night’s train. We packed up and started, marching into Richmond at six o’clock, but the cars were not ready. We piled our arms and lay down in the street until twelve o’clock, traveled all night, all Saturday and all Saturday night, and reached Manassas at six o’clock Sunday morning. The cars ought to have made the trip in twelve hours, seven hours is the usual time, and we were ordered to take one meal cooked with us.
We then had orders to move, as the battle had begun, and while we were eating our mouthful of food, the cannon were roaring in the distance. We marched about five miles and were halted by the Colonel just under the brow of a hill. I could see the fight going on in the valley below. A battery of artillery moved up at a gallop on our left end, and commenced firing on the United States troops. This drew their fire in our direction, and as we lay down behind the hill, the grape and round shot came singing over our heads, sometimes so close that you could feel the air as they passed.
We then moved forward some distance, when we received order to advance to the support of some Georgia regiment. They had been forced back, and we met them and formed in front of them, we were lying behind a fence. At that moment, a large body of Yankees were seen moving round, endeavoring to turn the flank of the army and get to our rear. The order was given to us to outflank them, and we moved down a lane running at right angles to that in which we were. It was a broad lane, or country road, with deep gullies on either side. The troops opposed to us were infantry, supported by artillery. I could see them, but could not estimate them. General Beauregard told Hampton today that there were at least four thousand.
As we commenced the movement, they opened a terrible fire on us of grape and canister and musketry. The balls flew like hail and knocked the flint rocks, whistling all around us. I was in advance, my company heading the Legion. We faced to the right, and I ordered my men into the gully, hid under cover of that, and the fence on top of the bank, and returned the fire. It was here we had the hardest fighting and met the heaviest loss.
At the very commencement of it poor Colonel Johnson was killed shot through the head. He was in line with the first platoon of my company; he threw his sword up, and fell back lifeless.
Hot and heavy the fire fell all around us. By this time I had got the men of the other Companies down into the gully and to work, but for the first four or five minutes, maybe only one-half that time, the Washington Light Infantry were alone in that lane and receiving the whole fire. Hampton was in the center and I was on the right, the men in the gully, and he and I on top of the bank, looking out at the enemy and cautioning the men to keep cool, aim deliberately and take resting shots, and above all, to deploy out and not crowd.
Hampton’s horse was shot under him and he was on foot. Barker alone was on horseback, and he kept dashing between Hampton and myself carrying orders. Theodore Barker behaved splendidly. His conduct was above praise. It was glorious, and how he escaped being shot was a miracle. Once he reeled in the saddle as he went down the lane, and I thought the poor fellow was gone, and I ran after him, taking one of my men with me, but we found that it was his horse slipping on the rocks that had made him reel. Neither he nor his horse was hurt, though his gray charger was always in the thickest of the fight. All the Legion are loud in his praise.
How long we held the position I cannot tell, but we checked the flank movement of the enemy. Then they advanced from another point, and we were in danger of being surrounded, and fell back about one hundred and fifty yards under cover of a farm house. Here, again, we made a stand, and had an awful fight the new and old body of the enemy crossing fire upon us. It was terrible, and the men were falling around, and fearing that they would be surrounded. It was the only time of the day the men looked dashed.
Hampton ordered the colors to the front, and I moved my Company up with them, and all my boys came right up and moved up to the head of the lane and exchanged fire. Some artillery then came up when we were nearly whipped out, and relieved us, breaking and dispersing the new body that had advanced. We then returned and gather the companies up, moved on, and halting in a bottom thickly wooded, had another regiment, I forget which, attached to us. It was some Virginia regiment, so my boys said. We then advanced about half a mile, and again engaged the enemy, driving them out of a farm yard, and ourselves taking possession of it. They returned to take it, and the firing was hot and heavy. Here it was that Hampton was shot. We were fighting from the house and behind the thick hedge and paling fence of the garden. They brought artillery up, and we in turn were driven out. I was at this time in command of the Legion, and we fell back, closing well on the colors, to the bottom of the hill, and reformed.
I reformed the Legion, and we were supported by Wither’s Alabama regiment, and we then charged up the hill, and drove the Yankees out of the house and garden, and drove back the artillery. Advancing, and leaving the house behind us, we kept forcing them back. They broke and scattered as Kershaw’s regiment came up, and I united with Kershaw and sent Barker off to Beauregard for orders. He told us to unite with Kershaw.
It was now about four o’clock, the enemy in full retreat and Kershaw determined to pursue. We were now only one hundred and sixty strong. We had gone into action in the morning six hundred and odd. We pursued the enemy about four miles. They halted as we pressed them hard. Kemper’s battery galloped up the road and took possession of the crest of the hill, wheat fields on each side of the road. Cash’s South Carolina regiment on the left, Kerhsaw’s and ours on the right, and the Palmetto Guards thrown out as skirmishers. The artillery opened and played havoc with them, and the cavalry came upon their flank, and were preparing to charge, when they fled, and the cavalry captured twenty-one pieces of artillery and lots of baggage. We were then ordered by Beauregard to cease pursuit.
I am in command of the Legion, and have a great deal to do, but will try to drop you a line.
Moffett, ed., Letters of General James Conner, CSA. pp. 40-43