Letters from Members of the Janesville Volunteers.
Fort Corcoran, Va., July 25th, 1861.
Dear Wife and Family: – I have at last found something to write, and having a little leisure time, I will endeavor to give you the news.
The first engagement took place about one week ago; the notice was short, and the contest unequal: the enemy fell back towards Manassas, – but on Saturday last the order was issued to prepare for action. The bugles sounded, the drums beat to arms; swords, muskets, cannon, and revolvers were examined to see if they were all right. At two o’clock the order came to march. In less than an hour, two batteries, sixteen guns (one 32-pounder), 10,000 infantry, 500 cavalry, sappers, miners, Zouaves, &c., were under march. Some were talking of home and friends; some singing, but very low. We had a long and dreary march. Sunday morning came, and I shall remember it as long as I live; and with it we took our position. The 79th Highland regiment on our right, the Sherman battery in the centre of the first brigade; the second brigade then formed with Sprague’s battery to support them; the third was on the extreme left, with the cavalry to assist them, and son on till the whole army was disposed of.
At about six A. M., Sherman’s battery sent in some shot and shell to see what the enemy were made of, but received no answer. We then saw some cavalry advancing, but the battery soon put them to right about; they soon returned, however, to decoy us on. This they did till we came within about a mile of their masked fort, when their cavalry and infantry commenced firing on our artillery. On we went at a double-quick; their batteries opened on us, and the fight became general. We were pretty well exhausted, but after the first fire, we never thought of hunger.
In order to get a high position, we were obliged to ford a river, which made us feel much better; but on getting to the other side, we were nearly surrounded. The very heavens seemed to be on fire, and such a havoc of human life! The rebel force was, as stated, between 30,000 and 40,000, with 10,000 of our troops engaged at one time. You can form a faint idea.
I would stand for an instant pitying some friend who had just dropped by my side, forgetting my own safety, which depended on my loading and firing in the quickest possible manner. I twice picked up the musket of a dead comrade, my own having been shot out of my hands. We came to a charge of bayonets three distinct times. We tried to rally our troops, but at about half past 4 P. M., the order to retreat was given, which I regretted to hear; but nothing could be done to any better advantage under the poor generalship.
The Wisconsin Second has represented her state nobly. Although there were a great many of us killed, there are still enough left who are willing to fight under competent officers, which, if we had been blessed with in the start, the battle would have been carried in our favor. The Janesville Volunteers fought well, although Capt. Ely and Ensign Dodge became exhausted shortly after entering the field; but I do not blame them, as we were all pretty well exhausted. Lieut. McLean fought bravely and escaped all right; I also escaped. Mc and I attribute it to the interposition of a kind Providence, which we hope will protect us till we return home. At roll call this morning, there were 13 missing, with what is in the hospital. I would give you a list of the killed and wounded, but we are not allowed to send any.
I believe we were visited by the president and cabinet. They spoke highly of the Wisconsin Second as we deserve. We are now re-organizing, and at the next battle we intend to do the whipping. We are all feeling as well as can be expected, and as anxious for a fight as before. The men still keep coming in as fast as they can find their way back; but there is one consolation, and that is we retreated in pretty good order. I think I have got along very well so far, as John Hamilton, three others and myself were out on a picket guard, when the rebel pickets commenced firing at us, and we escaped without a scratch. We, however, silenced them by giving them a few shots with our Sharpe’s rifles. You must excuse all mistakes, as I am sitting on the ground with my paper on my knapsack, which you may guess is not a very comfortable mode of writing.
Geo. F. Saunders.
The Janesville Daily Gazette, 7/30/1861.