Washington, D. C.
July 23, 1861
I suppose that you will have heard from us by telegraph before you receive this. The day before yesterday was the first time that we have had a chance to try our skill in the field fighting and the boys have done nobly but we lost our captain. He was shot through the heart and fell dead instantly. He stood by is giving commands and had his arms raised up encouraging the boys on. We lament his loss greatly. We all loved him and he was no coward. We lost somewhere between eight and twelve men and about that number wounded. Among the killed was one flag bearer. He was hit by three balls before he fell and after that he loaded and fired some three or four times. His name was Asa Miller from Cannon City I believe. We saved our company flag. Lieutenant Messick pulled it from the staff and wrapped it around him. We were forced to retreat for we found that we had fell in with the principal and in fact the majority of the southern army. They were somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 strong and we were only about 53,000. The battleground was about 10 miles from Manassas Junction. This information about the strength of the enemy and their position was received from a prisoner that was taken by Co. B. I do not know how many men were lost from the Minnesota Regiment but we suffered less than some other. We were decoyed upon one of their masked batteries and they are the most treacherous people that were ever allowed to exist. They hoisted the Union flag as we advanced and would beckon their hands and show every appearance of being friendly until we got in range of them when they opened up on us. As we had special orders not to fire until ordered, we all dropped down. I did not see the boys drop at first and stood up until they had all laid down and I looked around first on one side, then on the other and could not see the enemy and as the bullets were flying about as thick as raindrops I thought that the safest place for me would be flat on the ground. We laid there about ten minutes when the order was given to retreat firing. By this time the enemy had come up in sight and the boys fired into them and killed them off pretty fast. We then retreated behind a hill covered with timber. The enemy then attempted to make a charge upon the N. Y. Zouaves and they come in range of one or two of our brass field pieces and they opened a fire of grape and canister upon them and it was a sight to see how quick they were driven back. It as a very foolish move. When we were marched up we went up behind our cannon. The enemy were throwing bombs and round shot. Our battery was then about as far off from them as Cole Bloomer’s house is from ours. They threw their shot away beyond us about 100 feet high. We were marched up on the enemy’s right flank intending to give them a flank fire but they were ready for us and had the advantage of us for we had been marched at a double quick step for about one mile besides marching about 10 miles that morning stating at 2:30 in the night.
We were very weary but we gave them what they did not get every day, although we lost our Captain. We carried him off the field and took his sword belt, pistol, hat, etc. which will be sent to his family. We did not want the rebels to rob him. We rallied several times and charged them and it is pretty well known that we killed more than we lost for our boys took good aim as we retreated. Their cavalry tried to cut us off but we beat them badly. There was not more than 5 or 6 of them escaped. Although we had to retreat we did not feel like giving up. We were on a continual move from half past two Sunday morning until Monday night, without half enough to eat but we suffered the most for the want of water. We marched from Centerville to Washington by the way of Fairfax and Alexandria, in about 9 hours, a distance of about 35 miles. We are now quartered in Washington in a huge brick building. It rained yesterday while we were on our way from Alexandria and when we arrived here we were cold and wet. The citizens brought in some hot coffee, bread, ham, eggs and whiskey and we had a dry place to sleep. This morning was the first time that I have felt sick. I did feel pretty sick for two or three hours but have got over it now and feel pretty well again. I have had good health and stood it pretty well. We left our camp at Alexandria on the 16th of July in light marching order which consists of a gun, cartridge box with 40 rounds of ammunition, haversack with three days rations, blanket or overcoat which is rolled in a long roll and the ends tied together and put over the shoulders. I took my coat. We marched all day and camped in a thicket of pines on the ground. We heard some firing in the evening and expected an attack. I slept first rate right on the ground. We got up at sunrise, ate our breakfast and started. When we had traveled about 5 miles we came to the place where the firing had been. Some of the enemy’s cavalry had been scouting and saw a man out hunting some colts. They fired on him, killed his horse, wounded him and fled to camp. This is a miserable country, thinly settled, the buildings poor and old without paint, but whitewashed. The water is poor and the people poor and ignorant; not half of them can talk anything but the Virginia tongue. We traveled until we were about on-half mile from Centreville where we camped. We stayed there until Sunday morning at half past two. They have sent out some 100 mortars and 1000 horses and several large pieces since the battle. It is said that General Scott is mad that we were defeated and he will be apt to send on a pretty large force. It would do you good to see the earthworks around Washington. There are some very heavy pieces of cannon and they will be apt to get enough if they attempt to take Washington.
I have just come from the Smithsonian Institute. I went all through the museum and into the Indian portrait gallery and in fact all over the building. It is a grand sight. I also went up to the Patent Office. There I saw the coat that General Washington wore when he resigned his commission and also his traveling secretary. I did not have much time to look around there for they were just closing when I went. I shall go again when I get an opportunity.
John Russell says that crops do not look very well there, that the wheat is short and thin. Corn here is of all sizes, some 2 feet, some 4 and I saw some that was about 8, but it is an extra piece that will average 3 feet. You must write often and direct as before to Washington. Mr. Messick sends his respects to you. He was not hurt. Boultice Soule is also safe. We have not been paid off as yet but expect to in a few days if we stay here.
With love from your son,
Edward H. Bennett
Krom, Richard G., The 1st MN: Second to None – A Historical Narrative Including the 218 Unpublished Letters of Edward H. Bassett, Rochester, MN, 2010, pp. 42-46
Used with permission.