On the evening of July 15 – when we had about concluded that it was all talk – we were ordered to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice. It did not take long to make all necessary preparations. The tents were to be left standing, and a detail of ten men from each company – with a complement of officers – was to remain in charge of the camp. The selection was to be made from the sick and those the least able to march. About every company had that number of sick and ailing. Each man going was to carry his canteen, haversack with three days’ rations, and his blanket, besides gun and accouterments. The blanket was rolled lengthwise, and the ends tied together, and it was carried over the left shoulder with the ends tied at the right hip. In the blanket were soap, towel, etc., and also twenty rounds of extra cartridges, which with the forty in the box made a total of sixty rounds to each man. It was all arranges that night who of the company were to remain with ‘the stuff.’ I think we all found an opportunity to write a few lines to the folks at home, informing them of the contemplated movement and saying a word of farewell.
It is almost surprising – realizing the possibilities of death or wounds as we did – that we marched out so cheerfully the next morning to take our chances. I am quite sure that we all understood the personal risks – perhaps exaggerated them – but I think none of us thought seriously of being defeated. We seemed to feel assured of success.
There were two officers and – I feel quite sure – eighty-six enlisted men who left the camp at Alexandria for the Bull Run Campaign on the morning of July 16, 1861. There were not more and might have been less. The commissioned officers of Company F were: Captain William Colvill, First Lieutenant A. Edward Welch, and Second Lieutenant Mark A. Hoyt. Non commissioned officers were: First Sergeant Martin Maginnis, Second Sergeant Hezekiah Bruce, Third Sergeant Calvin P. Clark, Fourth Sergeant Henry T. Bevans, and Fifth Sergeant Charles N. Harris. The corporals were: John Barrows, William D. Bennett, Fred E. Miller, Amos G. Schofield, Merritt G. Standish, John Williams, E. Oscar Williams, and James A. Wright. I recall that Lieutenant Mark A. Hoyt was one of the officers of the guard left behind us, and I feel quite certain that Corporal John Williams was also left, as his wife was then in camp at Alexandria.
For the first time, our brigade – the First of the Third Division – was assembled as a brigade. It was composed of the Fourth Pennsylvania, the Fifth and Eleventh Massachusetts, and First Minnesota. The brigade was commanded by Colonel William B. Franklin; and the division, Colonel Samuel P. Heintzelman – both of the regular army. It seems a little surprising that it had not been got together and drilled and maneuvered as a brigade and division before starting on the march, but that is not the only surprising thing about that campaign. If this had been done a few times, perhaps the brigade commanders might have been able to get more than one regiment in action at a time.
We started early, and it took some time to get fairly moving. The roads were dusty, and the day was very hot. The march was not hurried, and camp was made before night on a ridge covered with a second growth of scrub pines near Fairfax Court House.
Each man carried his rations as issued from the commissary, and they consisted of coffee, sugar, crackers, and salt pork. Each one did his own cooking while on the march, Although the cooks and wagons followed as far as Centreville, they were not with us. None of the boys were expert cooks, but all managed to make a shift at it and get something to eat. Many of the boys had provided themselves with coffee post – or small pails – to make coffee in and small frying pans to cook meat in, and found them very convenient. A ‘mess’ with a coffee pot, a frying pan, and a hatchet were pretty well fixed, and with a little experience could always prepare a meal at short notice – provided they had the necessary materials.
There had been no conflict with the enemy during the day, and we rested quietly during the night, sleeping on the ground under the pines, which sheltered us from the dew.
The next morning, Wednesday, July 17, the march was continued. There were frequent halts and delays, considerable skirmishing and some artillery firing, but no real fighting. We took no active part in these affairs, though near enough to hear them and feel a little of the excitement. One of these episodes was an attempt to capture an outpost on the railroad, which failed, as they ran off as soon as our men came in sight, leaving their dinner cooking.
We bivouacked in the bushes again that night near Sangster’s Station on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad. During these two days, we had occasionally passed a few houses near each other and, frequently, single houses in little cleared patches in the woods, but for the most of the way the country was rough and densely wooded, with pines and cedars predominating. Our division had apparently gone across the country and principally on the by-roads.
Thursday morning, the 18th, the march was continued near the railroad, and that morning our regiment led the brigade. As on the previous days, there were frequent halts as the advance felt its way. Finally, the regiment was halted in the woods at the edge of a field, while two companies – A and B, led by Lieutenant Colonel Miller – scouted some miles to the front and left. While waiting for the return of Lt. Col. Miller and his party, artillery firing began to our right and front. We were sure a great battle was being fought, while we seemed to be forgotten or lost in the brush. We could hear the distant musketry, also, occasionally.
After an hour or more, the firing gradually ceased, and about the same time the two absent companies returned – they having gone until they had discovered the enemy and retired without attacking, as they were instructed. This was the fight at Blackburn’s Ford, in which the advanced division under General Tyler was engaged. Of course, we were burning to know all about the affair, and there were many conjectures, but very little information obtainable. This was the third day out, and, although we had started with three days’ rations, we were not accustomed to taking three days’ supply at a time, and the most of us were out of food and hungry.
There had been strict orders issued against foraging, before we marched. There were also some cattle and sheep in the edge of the wood across the clearing, and the sight of these was too much for the hungry stomachs of some of the boys, and a small party went after them. They succeeded in getting some of these, which they skinned and cut up in the bushes, but in coming out they accidentally met Colonel Franklin, who at once began an inquiry.
About the same time, Colonel Gorman rode up, and, when he sensed the situation, opened on the culprits with a lively fire of cuss words, asserting that they were a lot of “born thieves” and a “disgrace to their state and to their mothers.” He brought matters to a head by requesting Colonel Franklin to let him make an example of them for the good of the regiment in the future. This was assented to by Col. Franklin, who was probably glad to have the matter taken off of his hands, and rode away. After he was gone, Col. Gorman – who looked very black and uncompromising – said, “Now, —- you, take up that meat and go to your companies, and don’t ever disgrace the regiment by getting caught in any such scrape again.”
It is perhaps needless to say that the boys were extra careful after that not to get caught. I do not think that Company F took a leading part in this affair, but there was a fair representation in the following. I saw ‘Lenghty’ wiping the blood off of his butcher knife with a bunch of leaves, and ‘Barb’ gave us a piece of sheep, which we broiled and ate with relish. I am not asserting that this was the right and proper thing to do – perhaps it was not – but we were in the enemy’s country and hungry. Right or wrong, we were doing just what has been done under like conditions since the days of David.
For the third night we slept under the skies, but instead of twinkling stars there were threatening clouds, and it rained a little that night and in the early morning. Friday the 19th, we marched to Centreville, where all of Heintzelman’s division was brought together; there were also many other troops there. What seemed to us a great army – probably 10,000 or 12,000 men – were gathered there, and more were coming. There was considerable skirmishing going on, but we took no part in it – that day or the next – and remained at the bivouac all day Saturday. It was a time of uncertainty and anxious waiting.
We could form but little opinion of how matters stood, when or where the next move would be made, but we felt assured that affairs had reached an acute stage, and that a crisis would come soon. When it did come we had no doubt that we would be ‘in it’ and share the fortunes of war with the rest, whatever they might be. After the repulse of General Tyler’s command on the 18th, some of us may have begun to feel the possibility of a defeat, but I am sure that the feeling – as to results – was one of assured confidence, no matter what might be the fate of individuals. We went to our blankets that evening knowing that we were to be aroused to march before daylight, and having no doubt but that the morrow would bring a battle. These were not pleasant thoughts to retire with, nor calculated to bring soothing reflections inviting sleep, but we did manage to put aside the wicked war and all of its attendant troubles, and slept until awakened to fall in for the march.
James Wright Papers, Minnesota Historical Society, as quoted on pp. 48 – 51 in Keillor, No More Gallant a Deed: A Civil War Memoir of the First Minnesota Volunteers. Used with MHS permission.