Letter from Capt. DeWitt
Full Description of the Action of the Horseheads Company in the Great Battle at Bull’s Run.
We are permitted to publish the following interesting letter from Capt. C. S. DeWitt, describing particularly the part taken by the Horseheads Company in the great battle at Bull’s Run.
Head Quarters 38th Regiment N. Y. V.
Camp Scott, Shuters Hill, Fairfax Road,
Near Alexandria, Va., July 27, 1861.
This has been a very short week indeed to me. Here it is Saturday, six days since the battle of Bull Run, of which I suppose you have heard long before this, although I think, you have not heard much from our regiment as our Col. has not sent in his report yet and then our regiment is not a newspaper regiment, as you may have seen by the papers before this.
I looked for the New York papers the next day and was glad to hear that our regiment was not mentioned in the report, for I expected to see it in the papers that I was killed, for it was reported on the field that I was killed or badly wounded, but I am not. I escaped with the exception of a few light scratches. I was struck on the hand by a piece of a bomb and was pricked in the back of the head accidentally by one of my own men, but these are nothing.
But I will now attempt to give you an account of the battle, which is said to have been the most desperate one ever fought in the United States.
Imagine if you can our army on last Saturday night encamped in a pleasant valley near Centreville, Va., with orders to march in the morning at 2 o’clock, with 3 days provisions in our haversacks, no one knew where except the General in command. You might have seen me at 7 o’clock going through inspection of arms, seeing that all my men were fully equipped and had the requisite amount of ammunition. Finding every thing right I broke ranks for the night, telling the men I had orders to march at 2 in the morning, and they must get all the rest they could before that time. Then after arranging all my affairs about camp, at 10:30 I took my blanket and laid down to sleep. I slept until 12 when Col. Ward, wh was going round the camp tapped me on the should and said, “Capt. fall in your men right away as silently as possible. We move from here at one o’clock.” So I got up, spoke to the men, and they were all up and in the ranks in ten minutes.
The whole division of the army was in rank and commenced moving out of camp, but we had to stand there until f o’clock which was more tiresome than marching. Then we took up our march for the field of action which was 16 miles from our camp, which me marched in quick time, and reached the field about 12 M. You may judge what condition the men were in for fighting by this time. They were nearly exhausted by the heat of the day and the long march, and then were hurried into the fight without a moment’s rest.
The battle had been going on two hours when we arrived. We came on the field in double quick and then we were in for it. We were to take a masked battery and fight an unseen enemy. When we first came on the field we saw the rebels, but we gave them one volley, and they run for the woods which were on two sides of the field, and there were their batteries were concealed in the thick woods pouring out upon us their deadly shower of shell and canister, and volley after volley of rifle and musket balls, and as they were concealed in the wood and in entrenchments we could not see a man, and had to march up to their batteries through one of the most steady and the sharpest fire ever known to soldiers. We only had to judge where to fire from where the fire came from, which we did with considerable effect.
We soon however had a chance to see the rebels for we charged on them and run right into their battery. The 38th and the Zouaves charged together, side by side, which made a bad hole in them I can tell you. We laid them in piles, but we were driven back by far greater numbers and greater advantages of ground. There was surely never a more brave lot of men in any filed. My Company has received great praise for the bravery of both officers and men, and for the dangerous position we took.
I kept perfectly cool and composed, and went right in I tell you. My men stuck like good fellows, and if I do say it, was in the thickest and done some of the best fighting. I thought once it was all up with me. I was far in advance in the open field with a few men around men. From our position every shot told upon the rebels. But at this moment came a shower of bullets. The balls whistled past my ears like hail, and a corporal of my company was shot. He was not two feet from me. A ball struck him in the throat and went straight through his neck, low at the breast. He fell on his side and said, “O dear, I am shot!: This did not stop me much. I laid him in an easy position and urged the men on, but it was hard to keep them in that place. They were falling like rain. I looked round at McBride and he was not dead. I thought to carry him back a little from the field. I spoke to my Orderly Sergeant, who was near me, to take hold and we would carry him back a little. So we both took hold of him, but no sooner had we started with him than a ball struck the Orderly in the breast and went right through his body. He fell with a groan on my feet. This made my heart sick. Here lay two of the very nicest boys in the regiment. The Orderly Sergeant was Wm. F. Straight of Elmira, and the Corporal was John McBride of N. York. But no time to waste here. I looked around me and scarcely a man could be seen standing, and the ground was strewn with the dead and dying. Oh, it was an awful sight. I cannot describe it.
Imagine, if you can, a field strewn with dead and wounded, and in many instances the black hearted rebels were known to cut the throats and mangle with their bayonets the wounded men left on the field.
Our loss is not so much by far as it was reported. I awfully hate to own we were whipped, but it was no victory, for the rebel loss was much greater than ours. There was two darkies run out of the enemy’s lines when we were retreating. They say that the enemy’s loss is far greater than ours. They say they had 500 darkies at work carrying away the dead and wounded. These niggars came out after some dead on the field and run over to our lines.
There was no use of losing the battle if we had the right management of the thing. The attack was not made right, nor in the right place. It was nothing but suicide to march those men before an unseen enemy and masked batteries. We were compelled to retreat after a desperate battle of six hours and a quarter, by far superior numbers, masked batteries and great advantage of ground – But we are here yet. Let them come out of their trenches and attack us, or stand up in sight or any way only so that we can see them, and we will show you how soon we can clean them out. We can whip two to one, and had them whipped, only for a panic amongst the teamsters, that was taken for a retreat by some of our troops, and this routed the men so that they could not be rallied in time to save themselves.
The great sacrifice in this battle is blamed on the commanding officer Gen. McDowel. – There was no use to have had so many killed. Men’s lives are too precious to be thrown away in that way. There was no necessity to hurry the thing along so fast, when we knew that the enemy had been in this place for months, and that they would stay there as long as possible. It is one of their strongest posts. They had three batteries, one on the right, left and centre. The Southern account of their numbers say that they had twelve thousand in the fight and sixty thousand in the reserve at Manassas Junction. Well now, McDowel’s command is only forty thousand, and we had only seven thousand men in the fight that attacked Bull Run, (now the papers may say what they please). The force was divided to attack another place but did not do it. At tow o’clock the victory seemed to be ours, and would have been could we have had a reserve of a few fresh troops to have come in to help. But no, there was two regiments in reserve in the woods a mile off waiting, but were never ordered to the field.
The 38th and the Fire Zouaves were fighting side by side, when a whole company of the rebel Black Horse Cavalry made a furious charge on us at the time when they tho’t us nearly whipped. But we gave them a warm reception, for only one horseman of the whole troop went back to tell the tale. We dropped them from their saddles like rain.
But I have written enough – you will be sick of reading more, although the half is not told you. But talk of being tired. I thought I had been tired before, but I did not know what it was to be so. We marched from five o’clock on Sunday morning until 8 o’clock on Monday morning, a distance of sixty two miles without rest, and had six hours hard fighting in the time. I had nothing to eat in this time except a couple of hard crackers or sea biscuits.
We arrived at our old camp at 8 o’clock next morning, and got breakfast at a farm house near by, which it is needless to say I relished very well. I have boarded at this house ever since.
I had two men killed, five wounded and eleven missing out of my company. Our whole loss was six to eight hundred.
Cr. Murdoch’s son is our Chaplain.
Capt. C. S. DeWitt,
Elmira Weekly Advertiser, 8/10/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy