Letter from Geo. L. Russell, of the 38th Regiment.
[A friend to whom the following letter was addressed has kindly permitted its publication. The writer was 1st Lieutenant in Capt. Baird’s Company, but resigned and was appointed Officers’ Clerk in the regiment:]
Alexandria, Va., July 23.
You have probably heard, ere this, of the bloody and terrible battle of the 21st, and our awful defeat. We broke camp on the 16th and marched on Fairfax, the Ellsworth Zouaves and first Michigan Regiment taking the lead. The enemy hearing of our approach, fell back on Bull’s Run, where they were attacked on the 18th by the 12th and 69th N. Y. Reg’ts, who were unable to dislodge them, and were obliged to retreat to Centreville, where we joined them, together with the whole of Gen. McDowell’s column, consisting of about 45,000 men. Here we rested for two days, and on Sunday morning, the 21st, the whole army commenced its march on Manassas, which is distant 14 miles, where we arrived at 12 M., marching the whole distance under a broiling sun. And although completely exhausted, we were immediately ordered into action.
The battle had already commenced, having been opened by the 71st and 69th N. Y. Regiments. The enemy were entrenched behind strong breast-works, mounted with heavy rifled cannon, compared to which our light field pieces were mere pop-guns.
For four hours our men fought desperately, but in vain. Regiment after regiment would rush in, only to be driven back or cut to pieces by their terrible discharges. As soon as one battery was silenced another would open fire from a quarter least expected, slaughtering our men by hundreds.
At last the order for a retreat was given. (Now comes the most heart rending part of the whole.) Instead of retreating in good order, regiment after regiment rushed off the field in the greatest disorder, creating a perfect panic. Soon the route became general, and infantry, cavalry and artillery rushed from the field in the utmost confusion. It was the most terrible sight I ever witnessed. I have often imagined what the route of Napoleon was at Waterloo: but the reality of this far surpasses all my ideas of a great defeat. The army became a perfect rabble – they ran like sheep. If they had made a stand they could have retreated in good order, and saved hundreds of lives, and thousands of property; but there seemed to be no head whatever. On they rushed, every man looking out for “number one.” As fast as the horses attached to the waggons and artillery gave out, they were deserted. For thirty miles the roads were strewn with artillery, baggage waggons and military stores of all descriptions, amounting in value to hundreds of thousands of dollars – most of which will fall into the enemy’s hands. The wounded would struggle on as far as possible, and then fall – left to the mercy of the enemy, who on the field showed no quarter. I saw many a poor fellow bayonetted after being shot down. Terrible will be the revenge when our troops get the advantage of them.
Of Captain Baird’s company, one is known to be killed, (Jno. Orman;) wounded, Wm. Baker, (in leg;) Hugh Dunnigan, taken prisoner; Harry L. Stainton, slight; Ralph Patterson, Byron Stevens, John Robson, all slight; Norton Schemerhon, in breast, slight. These are known. There are a few who have not yet arrived in camp, but probably are all right. We hope for the best.
Carl did bravely – the company all praise him. Capt. Baird’s company all did well. The Zouaves and 38th did the hardest fighting that day, as their loss will show. Enclosed I send you a plan of the battle, so that you can see what we had to contend with. Our regiment lost about 200 men. I was on the field during most of the engagement. On the retreat I captured a horse and secured a minnie rifle. I met the Col. of our reg’t, who had lost his horse, and he being very much exhausted, I gave him my horse, and walked myself 14 miles. He then dismounted, and Carl and myself took turns the rest of the way. We were both completely used up when we arrived here, having had no sleep for two nights, and walked 40 miles.
Troops are arriving fast, and we shall make a stand here to protect Washington.
We are expecting an attack every day. Let them come; we will polish them off next time. Fred Andrus is all right. Let me hear from you soon. My regards to all.
George L. Russell.
P. S. I visited the Surgeon. It was terrible to see the poor wounded fellows.
Geneva Gazette, 8/2/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy