Washington, Thursday, July 25
To the Editors of the Sunday Mercury:
My communications with you have been interrupted for some time by events connected with the movements of our regiment, advancing from time to time, rendering the means of communication with Washington more difficult and uncertain. But to resume from my last letter, written at Shuter’s Hill, I have to say that the regiment broke camp, and move down the road some four miles, to a spot nearly opposite Cloud’s Mills, where we found ourselves supported on one side by the Scott Life Guard (Thirty-eighth Regiment), First Michigan, two Maine, and one Vermont regiments. We here remain for some days, until orders were received for the column to advance in light marching order. The men were given three days’ provisions in their haversacks, consisting solely of six pilot biscuits, a piece of salt pork, one small cup of ground coffee, and a cup of sugar.
Leaving our encampment at about 10 o’clock in the morning, we took the road for Fairfax Station. The rest of the troops marched toward Fairfax Court House, while our brigade, consisting of the Michigan First, Scott Life Guard, and our own regiment, took a circuitous route through the woods to outflank the enemy at Fairfax Station. Company B., Captain Edward Burns, was sent forward as skirmishers, and entered Fairfax Station about an hour in advance of the main body. As they came within sight of the railroad station, they found the enemy retreating down the railroad-track, and, taking a side path, captured eleven in the woods, and in their camp, behind a masked battery, also took the flag of the Teusas Rifles, presented to them by the ladies of Teusas, Alabama. This flag was taken possession of by Colonel Willcox. It was a handsome blue-silk standard, with eight stars on a blue field, and a representation of a bale of cotton, wrought in white silk. It was afterward delivered up to Brigadier-General McDowell, who complimented the company on their bravery, and trusted the regiment would continue to do its duty as well in the future as in the past.
The next morning Capt. Andrew Purtell, of Co. K, assisted by John Wildey, of Co. I, and your correspondent, raised the American flag on the camp-ground of the rebels, amid the stirring music of the drum and fife and the enthusiastic cheers of the men. The flag which was raised was presented to Comapny K by Messrs. Whitton, Forsyth and other friends from the neighborhood of the Washington Market, in New York City. After taking up the line of march, at 3 o’clock that afternoon, we proceeded along the road past Fairfax Court House onto Centreville, when we were apprised of a battle going on by the report of artillery, which could be distinctly heard. Orders were immediately given to proceed as rapidly as possible, and at the same time we heard the most extravagant rumors that the New York Second and Twelfth Volunteers, and the Sixty-ninth, had engaged some batteries near Bull’s Run, and were badly cut up, so as to need immediate assistance. The men made the most super-human exertions until we arrived at the front of the hill near Centreville, when we were told that our services were not required, as they had beaten the enemy, and taken possession of a battery, at a place near Bull’s Run. We then again took up the line of march, with only a rest of a half an hour. We passed there the main body of our army, and lay for the night in full view of the village of Centreville. Here, by orders of Colonel Willcox, foraging parties were sent out, and some forty or fifty head of cattle brought in, shot, and dressed for the use of the men, and distributed to them. Our brigade – under Colonel Willcox – was thus the only one, or nearly, that was supplied with fresh food that night and the ensuing morning. Resting that day, and up to Saturday evening, we were ordered again to fall in line for a forward movement. Company rolls were called, and the men responded with alacrity, after which, we were told to lie down by our guns until 2 o’clock in the morning of Sunday. At that hour we were called up, and were fairly on the march a little after 4 o’clock.
Again striking a circuitous path through the woods, so as to flank the enemy’s batteries, accompanied by Gen. McDowell (the Scott Life Guard and the Michigan Regiment still with us), we marched steadily on until between 12 and 1 o’clock in the day. During the last four miles on the march we were in sight of the battlefield, from whence we could see clouds of smoke arising, and distinctly hear the report of the guns. Coming nearly within a mile of the actual battle-field, our men halted, threw off their overcoats, and haversacks, and, with only their canteens and equipments, marched immediately on the field. Arriving at the foot of the hill, our two associate regiments were detached from us, while we marched over the brow of the hill, through a heavy wheat-field. Our red shirts had no sooner glanced in the sunlight than the enemy, noticing our approach, began to throw their six-pound shot at us. Falling back to the foot of the hill, Companies A and H of the regiment were ordered to be held back as reserve, while the remainder pressed eagerly onto the fight. These two companies in less than five minutes, were ordered forward and join the regiment in the battle. Our first point of attack was the nearest position held by the rebels. Some three regiments of riflemen were drawn up in front of a fence, with a masked battery on their left, at the edge of a wood which run down to our right, filled with their sharp-shooters and cavalry. From two to three hundred yards distant from the enemy’s line was another fence, up to which our regiment charged and delivered their fire. From here we could plainly see the rebel soldiers with the Confederate flag in the centre. While the men were loading, a charge was made on our rear, from the wood, by the now celebrated Black Horse Cavalry. Col. Heintzelman, of the Regular service was at this time with us, and he, like ourselves mistook this cavalry for troops of our own. Waving a small American flag at each end of their line, they advance to within almost pistol shot, when our men discovered their mistake, and, flanking round, poured a volley into them, and then made a charge. It was one indiscriminate fight, hand to hand, and men fell on all sides, the enemy in front firing at us. Bowie-knives and pistols were used with deadly effect, until in this way the cavalry were driven back, their horses scampering riderless and wildly over the hills. At this point Col. Farnham was shot from his horse, wounded on the left side of the head, but was picked up and again placed on his charger, and led us to the charge against the battery. Major Loeser’s horse was also shot from under him, but being again mounted, he rode around our line as coolly as ever, urging the men to the charge. Being again driven back we retired some distance down the hill, attempting to carry our wounded off with us, when the colonel rode around to the rear and again brought the men to the charge. It was all in vain, however, for our comrades were fast falling by the fire from the woods, while the enemy were too firmly intrenched for us to attempt to get nearer than the fence of which I firs spoke. At this point the Michigan First were brought up and driven back. Then the Rhode Island men charged with Gov. Sprague riding at their head; and, fighting all that the men could do, were still repulsed. While we were thus carrying our wounded slowly with us, we observed the Sixty-ninth Regiment coming along in full line of battle. They asked what the matter was, and being told that we had been driven back, answered that they would take satisfaction for us. Marching up to the particular point from where we had been driven, they delivered in their fire, loaded and fired again, and staid until actually driven back without the least chance of forcing the enemy from his position. It was at this time that their flag was taken (the green banner of their nationality) and carried through the woods.
Capt. Wildey, of Co. I, rallying a few men, charged through the wood after those who had the flag in their possession, and with his own pistol shooting the two rebels who had it, rescued and brought it back in triumph. In this way, with the flag of the Sixty-ninth at the head of our regiment we marched on towards Centreville. We had gone but a short distance, when from the clouds of dust on the roads to the right and left, and, on our rear, we could notice that the enemy were in full pursuit. Before proceeding a half mile, we were warned of their being within range by cannon-ball plowing the ground at our sides. We then took to the woods the colonel still riding at our head, bareheaded, and bleeding and after a march of about a mile, were charged upon by their infantry. Turning and delivering a volley which drove them back, we again marched on, and in a short time, gained the wide open road which brought us to Centreville, and from thence about two miles further down where those who were most fatigued made a halt for the night under charge of Capts. Wildey and Purtell, Lieut. Willsey, Capts. Bill Burns, Leverich, and a few other officers.
At about 10 o’clock that evening we were roused by the wagoneers, who told us that they had orders to retreat, as the enemy were endeavoring to cut us off at Fairfax Court House. There was no recourse but to again take the road; and weary, footsore, and travel-worn, those that were left in our party reached Alexandria next morning.
There were many incidents connecting with the battle which might be interesting to your readers, did time permit or space suffice. The first one carried from the field was Lieut. Divver, of Vampany G. Shortly afterward, we saw a sergeant, whom we supposed to be Dan Collins, so well known and celebrated a singer in New York, carried off. Then small troops of men were scattered over the field, four or five in each, endeavoring to bear off some wounded comrade. Some were shot through the head, and lived perhaps five minutes; but most of the wounded were shot about the stomach and thigh – the majority of missiles being rifle-balls. On the road down, Capt. Leverich told me that he had left three of his sergeants on the field. Lyons, Connolly, of Engine 51, were left behind, also Babcock, of Engine 38, and many others whose names it would be impossible to give in this brief space. It will perhaps be three or four days yet before the actual loss in killed and wounded can be ascertained; but it has been very heavy – perhaps too heavy for our friends in New York to believe. Still, many are reported as missing who will yet turn up. Quite a number are undoubtedly in the woods between Fairfax and Centreville, and may yet come home safe.
It will take at least a month for our regiment to be fully recruited and ready to enter the field again. The general feeling among the men is, that of wanting satisfaction for the loss they have already suffered. So far as the officers of our regiment are concerned, one and all fought as bravely and manfully as the men could do. The colonel himself, bleeding, and faint, and weary, stood by us, and led us on in our disastrous route, and even took the precaution to have the guns that were thrown away by men in the fight placed under the wheels of the wagons so as to be broken and rendered useless, if picked up by the enemy.
Where the fault rests, it’s impossible for me to say. General McDowell, who was near our regiment, seemed to act cool and collected, and I cannot believe the mistake was his. The one great mistake, in bringing the men up, regiment by regiment, to charge on the batteries, where a full brigade was required.
If our friends in New York will only send on money, if they can, it will be the means of keeping many here, who, otherwise, will be likely to go away, and endeavor to reach home.
Many acts of kindness where exhibited toward our men by citizens in Washington, and also by our friends in New York, who came on, prominent among whom I noticed Hon. John Haskin, Alderman Brady, James Cameron of Horse Comp. 28, and many others, who did not spare their money in providing food and quarters for those who are here suffering. The stories told of the barbarity of the rebels toward our troops are in many cases, perhaps, exaggerated; but that cruelty was practiced toward them, there can be no doubt. Our hospital, with the yellow flag, and the letter H in its centre, flying from the roof of the building was fired on with shells and cannonry, and set on fire. Many poor fellows very likely lost their lives in it. Capt. Downey, it is reported, was butchered by them; but for the truth of this I cannot vouch, although many men assert it as an actual fact within their own knowledge. Certainly we were led to believe, before going into battle, and even on the retreat, that we need expect no mercy, and those who sank from exhaustion, intending to deliver themselves up, lay down with but little hope of ever regaining their regiment or meeting their friends. We ascertain from a sergeant of the Alabama Rifles whom we captured that their orders were to spare no man wearing a red shirt, but whether this inhuman mandate was fully carried into execution or not, it is impossible to say. Possibly those who may come in within the next day or two, will be able to state the truth on this point. I have thus briefly given such particulars as can be hurriedly noted down; and in my subsequent letters, will endeavor to give full information relative to all those who have been reported as missing, who are not with the regiment.
J. A. S.
P.S. – I shall furnish you with an official list of our killed and wounded as soon as our loss can be definitely ascertained. At present, all is rumor; and I would not harrow the feelings of any family by forwarding an unreliable statement.
New York Sunday Mercury, 7/28/1861
William B. Styple, ed., Writing and Fighting the Civil War: Soldier Correspondence to the New York Sunday Mercury, pp. 32-34