The annexed letter was commenced before the engagement, but finished in Fort Corcoran after the unfortunate rout: –
Centreville, Va. , July 20th, 1861.
Our position is unchanged since 7 p. m,. Thursday, and I expect we will begin to fight about 10 this morning. Several very heavy guns were placed in position. The great trouble in all this affair is, that so many were brought up to be shot at without being permitted to approach the batteries of the enemy. One regiment after another were ordered to the front, and there they had to stand and be slaughtered like sheep. Not a shot did we fire, but had to receive all that came from our enemies. The reason we did not fire was because we could see no enemy. They had a trap or masked battery (their old trick). Our men are boiling to retrieve the disasters of yesterday; some of the men and regiments of our brigade disgraced themselves by their incendiaryism on their march hither; burning houses and sacking them, shooting, stealing and killing all the live pigs, turkeys, and ducks; and supplying themselves with all the edibles in their reach. Three of us found a barrel of flour, and we started for the woods, and baked four good cakes, which were of service to us from Wednesday night till yesterday. It was darkies who cooked for us and whom I paid. There are no white people left here, all have gone with the rebel army and left their slaves behind. Col. Sherman, who commanded our brigade, has the names of forty-five men who disgraced themselves as mentioned, but not one of them belongs to the 69th. Thank God there are so few Vandals among us. The homes were completely sacked, and every article of value stolen; what could not be taken away was torn up and destroyed. This is deserving of reprobation, and it will, besides, hurt our character with our friends and enemies. Gen. McDowell has issued general orders censuring such conduct and announcing penalties for any like offence.
It was awful to see men in the heat and perspiration of a long and tedious march, under a scorching meridian sun of July, rushing by the hundreds and fighting for as much water as would wet their lips, but to nineteen twentieths of them their efforts were in vain; water was only obtainable by a very few, and they were the ones who could fight for it the best. I tried in vain from earliest dawn to 3 p.m., to get a tin-full to quench my thirst, but failed; once, when I had a cup full in my hand and was already anticipating the reward of half an hour’s patience and perseverance, my cup was wrenched from me by an unseen hand, and both cup and water “faded from my view.” Thank God, I bore it well, but went sorrowfully after my regiment; this was the first and only time I left my regiment and staid behind.
We were ordered up the narrow road leading to the masked battery, the order was given to throw away blankets and knapsacks, but the later contained all my food, and a few little valuables which I prized next to my life, and therefore I retained it, but the blanket I left beside a tree and found it fortunately on my return. The India rubber blanket is my chief protection, as it has rained every night since we came here. I place my musket on the ground and cover myself and it with the rubber blanket. Last night and the previous I was awakened by the firing of musketry, in each case bullets falling right into the ranks of our company. In the day time I was much more cool and collected than I ever thought to be, even when expecting to die by the bullets of the enemy, but this night-work is not at all to my taste. I am pleased to tell you that not one of our boys have shown the white feather. Tyler, McDowell and every officer of rank in the regular army, said that our coolness and courage was beyond all praise. Let naught be said, though, in dispraise of others, for as far as I have seen, all behaved bravely and stood to their colors.
Lieut. Dalton, of ours, was grazed in the forehead by a ball – it even turned the hat on his head and struck the man next him and sounded him severely. The flag of Sherman’s Battery was torn to ribbons, leaving nothing but the staff: but one man was killed and another wounded of the entire battery. Many poor fellows who were found wounded begged to be killed outright; still I heard but few of these cry, save when jolted over the stoney road. Col. Corcoran says our remarkable preservation was owing to “the protection of Almighty God, vouchsafed to the prayers of our good women at home;” and I endorse his opinion, and hope they will continue to pray until we are all safe and our country free from rebellion and civil war. The time of many of the regiments expired this week and last week, but as yet none have returned home, and we all feel, since we marched, that our country really needs us, and, therefore, do not complain; action is all we want if we are to stay any longer.
Capt. Meagher is winning laurels and is appointed Provost Marshal of the brigade: his bravery since Thursday, is proved.
Some of the First Massachusetts, I hear, marched clear upon the masked battery before they knew it, and had to fight with knives and revolvers; they could not use their muskets and were terribly cut up.
My feet blistered the first night’s marsh. Men drank freely of the brooks and streams where dozens were washing their bodies and clothes; the mud too was as thick as in your roads after a rain, yet all drank as if it was milk or good soup; I trust I shall never again see men so eager for drink, even officers and educated men were as greedy for it as others. I fortunately got a little vinegar from the Captain before the fight, and mixed it with water, this I kept and gave to some poor artillerymen, who needed it, when retreating from the scene of our disaster; I swallowed a little myself, dust and all, and felt greatly relieved.
P. J. R.
Fort Corcoran, July 23d, 1861.
I have to record to total defeat of our forces yesterday, we fought twelve hours and were marching six hours previously. A remnant of our brave regiment saved themselves by a march of fifty miles last night among the rest. Thank God, I have not even a scratch, although all my best friends are either dead or wounded or in the hands of the enemy. I am laid up and only reached here at 4 a. m. to day (over forty miles in eight hours). We were taken to the shambles to be slaughtered; we got no chance to fight, but we stood until we were more than half thinned; all we have saved is our honor. We have lost our principal officers, and have made the bravest stand during the day, save the Second Rhode island and the Fire Zouaves.
A more disastrous affair could not well be imagined – eight or ten thousand of our troops flying panic stricken and firing upon each other. My feet are black and swollen, and I feat that I shall be unfit for duty for a long time. About a hundred of us started for this place, over forty miles distant. The road was blocked up by our enemies. Our men are straggling back to camp and all are as badly off as myself. We marched in quick and double quick time over ten miles, then fought twelve hours and then made our hasty retreat when we found every other regiment flying in disorder and confusion. I turned up my pantaloons and marched just so until this morning. I was nearly the last to leave the field, but fear I did not do much good while there, save to rally round our flag, which was completely riddled; and our Colonel could not be persuaded to leave until he saw all the rest leave us. The rebel scoundrels fired upon our ambulances and dragged out the wounded. Since then we have not seen the Colonel. I am at present unable to write a full account of the affair, but shall endeavor to prepare one soon. Only about eighty-seven of our company, which numbered on hundred and twenty-two, are left, Meagher was the bravest of the brave. Pray that God may avert the destruction of our Republic.
P. J. R.
New York Irish-American, 8/3/1863
Contributed by Damian Shiels