At Our Former Camp, Near Alexandria,
Wednesday, July 24, 1861.
[To Dr. William J. Dale]
My Dear Doctor, — Knowing that you would feel an interest in my movements and fate during the past eventful week, I seize the earliest moment, after our regaining this place of safety, after the most terrible defeat of modem times, to give you a brief and crude narration of what concerns me personally; aware that you must already know vastly more of the general events than I have the means of doing. I will begin with last Tuesday week. After resting a day or two at this beautiful spot, whence I wrote you at a late hour before we left, the order came for us to march at two o’clock, P.M.
With four or five regiments more, we set out in fine spirits for unknown regions, as not a whisper ever passes from those at the head as to the route or destination. Soon the column began to move at a snail’s pace; and, after many hours, in this way we reached Aquatink Creek, where the bridges were burned, and the whole division had to pass over a single plank, which explained the strange delay. The creek was at the bottom of the deepest ravine, and then the hill on the other side was to be surmounted over the most horrible obstructions. At half-past three, a.m., we lay on the ground for an hour. Recommencing, we dragged along all day, under a burning sun, and through paths cut in the forest, so as to avoid the trees cut down and masked batteries. At night, we bivouacked near what is called Sangster’s Station. That afternoon, we again marched forward to Centreville. On entering this at nine or ten, p.m., the light of a thousand camp-fires shed their glow over a vast ravine, in which it was plain that the great division of the army was encamped, — forty or fifty thousand men, with batteries of artillery, baggage-wagons, &c. Here we bivouacked two nights. Dr. Josiah Curtis joined our camp here, and Mr. Henry Wilson was with us a night. At two o’clock, Sunday morning, the order to march was obeyed; and, as the mighty mass moved forward, it was manifest that the hour for the great action was near. At nine or ten, we saw, away at the south-west, clouds of smoke and dust, with plain sounds of cannon, and volleys of musketry. We hurried on, and about noon turned down into a field, where there was a creek, to rest and drink. In about two minutes, the order came to form into line, and push forward, as we were wanted. At half-past one, we were at the verge of the battle-field. As I passed, I noted a pretty large, rough-stone church, — large for Virginia, — which I decided would be one of the depots for the wounded. Curtis and I went up to the field, and there were abundant proofs of the awful work going on, — hundreds of dead men, horses dead and half killed, wounded men, in all directions. I notified all the officers of the regiment where their wounded should be carried; tried to aid some wounded, for whom I had carried my pocket full of tourniquets ; but found that there was no hemorrhage. The ambulances then came up, and were heaped with wounded: no attempt could be made to separate regiments, or even friends and enemies. Getting back to the church, I found work enough; for, in an hour, the entire floor and gallery (pews torn up) were covered with wounded to the number of seventy-five or eighty. The wounds were awfully ghastly; being made much with shell, Minie-balls, and rifled canon. We turned to with all our might (i.e., Dr. Foye, my- self, and Dr. Curtis, — to whose noble, fearless, volunteer devotion, too much honor cannot be given), and, until late in the afternoon, cut right hand and left hand. There were three or four other surgeons at the church; and I recollect seeing Dr. Magruder, U.S.A., who was said to have some directing power; although we all did as we saw fit.
About six o’clock, we were informed that the mighty stampede of our panic-stricken columns, flying for life, approached its end. Curtis coolly asked me if I meant to risk assassination or capture. I replied, ” that in no civilized country could a surgeon be injured with his badge in sight, his hospital-flag set, and about his duty of mercy. This is our post of duty: let us stand by it.” Curtis and Foye both replied, ” Doctor, we shall do just as you do.” “We went to work again in full activity, though I was almost exhausted with fatigue. No water could be had: our dressings, chloroform, &c., were exhausted. A half-hour after, Curtis said, “Doctor, if you should decide to change your design, you have but a moment to do it in. The enemy are just upon us. In hot blood, it is not likely they will spare us.” I had a young man from New Hampshire on the board laid over the chancel-rail, just having applied a tourniquet ; and was about making my first incision to amputate the leg. I thought an hour in a moment. I felt I had no right to sacrifice men who thus relied upon me. I said, “Let us go ! ” seized my coat and sash, and we rushed out. I had my valuable horse and equipments at hand; but there was no time to save them. I lost all, — sword and belt, every surgical instrument, and some family tokens which I valued much, such as my son Samuel’s (you recollect the boy) shawl and my brother James’s revolver.
We rushed through a creek, and took to the woods, making a few units of that vast, dilapidated, panic-stricken mass, crowding the road for five or eight miles, every now and then alarmed by the out-cry that the enemy was after us, when we would all rush out one side into the woods. A kindly cook, to whom I had shown some trifling kindness, and who had seized a horse, discovered me, and insisted on my riding, while he went on foot by my side, hurrying up my horse. After a while, we saw a Charlestown lieutenant (Sweet) much exhausted and sick, and got him up behind me.
After riding so (and all the horses carried double ; a great many of them had been cut away from the cannons) for some six or eight miles, we approached a narrow, high bridge, over “Cub Run.” In an instant, the bridge was a mass of artillery, wagons, cavalry, infantry, and ambulances, crushed together. The water-way at the side was equally jammed. At this instant, the incarnate fiends fired repeated charges of their rifled canon (doubtless planted by day-light for that range) into the mass, killing many. I was a few rods from the bridge; but, on hearing the awful sounds of those missiles, I drove straight into the woods, then forward, hoping to cross the creek below. A second discharge struck the trees as if lightning had crushed them. I told Sweet we must abandon the horse. He thought so too, and slipped off, and made for the creek. At this moment, my faithful cook cried to me not to leave the horse; for that the only crossing-place possible was at the bridge. He rushed back, seized the animal, forced him over a stone wall and into the water. Here the animal insisted on stopping to drink. Cook laid over him a naked sword, which he had picked up ; and one of our regiment urged him ahead with a bayonet. Just at this moment, a young negro was forced up into the deep water next the bridge, and was drowning ; when cook seized him, and pitched him up upon the bank. Cook then compelled my horse to rise the almost perpendicular bank ; and on we went. At the top of the hill, by a strange Providence, we again encountered Sweet, and took him on. In this way we reached Centreville, whence we had set out in such brilliant array. My cook asked me if I could ride to Washington that night. I replied, that I could do so better than the next day. We started on, I riding and he walking, Sweet left behind, until we reached Fairfax Court House. Here I spied a wretched old lager-beer wagon bound to Arlington. I deputed cook (who said he could ride the horse, beat out as he seemed to me) to hire a ride at any price, as I happened to have some money left. He agreed for ten dollars; and about eight, a.m., I reached the fortification at “Columbian Springs,” opposite Washington. Here I was compelled to stay the livelong day, useless, in the rain and mud, because I could not get a pass into the city. Towards night, I persuaded the colonel in command to give me one, and reached Willard’s. Here I found my servant Prentiss, whom I had directed, by a sergeant flying to our old camps here, to bring up my baggage. I was soon dressed in clean and dry clothes, and soon encountered an old Charles- town friend (Captain Taylor, U.S.A.) there on ordnance duty. He took me to his boarding-house; and I think I must have amazed him by the way I ate, for I had seen nothing but wretched hard bread and poor coffee since we left this place. He then gave me a beautiful bed ; and, having had six nights with nothing but earth and sky below and above me, I enjoyed it. Next morning, had a splendid breakfast, and bore away for Mr. William Appleton. Found him quite ill, but glad to see me, as it had been currently reported that I was among the slain. I told him some of my story, and said I wanted money. I had started with enough: but our staff and officers are very poor, as a general thing; and, having received no pay as yet, I was obliged to share with them. Of course, he put me at my ease cheerfully, and I left him happy. Got a ten-dollar gold-piece changed into quarters ; and, before I got to the Surgeon-General’s office to report the loss of all instruments, I met enough of our un-breakfasted stragglers to use it up. The next day (i.e., yesterday), we came back here in the baggage-wagons, and are again comfortably fixed in the old Virginia mansion of which I wrote you in a former letter. To-day, our pioneers have been cutting down the large trees of the pleasure-grounds, to allow a sweep for the big guns of Fort Ellsworth. Last night, we had an alarm that the enemy was upon us. I, with some half-dozen regiments encamped round about, turned out to arms. It was, of course, a false alarm. . . . Thus, doctor, I have given my share in those awful scenes. How much of life has been compressed in less than a month! I have seen more gun-shot wounds, performed more operations, and had a harder experience, I fancy, than most army surgeons in a lifetime.
I have enjoyed, from first to last, excellent health and spirits. I never, even when those cursed missiles were sent into my rear, felt one sentiment of regret at the step I had taken, or the slightest thought of receding. . . .
Transcription courtesy of John Hennessy