Pvt. Edward F. Phelps, Co. G, 5th Massachusetts Infantry, On the Campaign

17 11 2016

Correspondence.

Washington, July 25th, 1861.

Head Quarters 5th Reg’t Infantry, M. V. M.

Mr. Sentinel: – I take up my pen, unwillingly, to give you an imperfect account of one of the most disastrous battles ever fought in this country; one which would seem, to every intelligent person, to be unequal, ill-timed, and to persons of ordinary understanding, foolish and fool-hardy. The only possible object apparent in this movement was the gratification of selfish politicians; and I hope they may profit by this lesson, which they have learned at the expense of the poor soldiers.

On Monday evening, July 15th, an order came to our camp to cook up three days rations, and take our haversacks, blankets, canteens, and round-about, with forty rounds of cartridges, and be ready to march at (?) o’clock on Tuesday, the 16th. On Tuesday morning Col. Franklin, commander of the brigade, sent to Col. Lawrence to know how soon he could be ready to move. The answer was, “At any time.” We were then informed that if we were ready to march at 10 o’clock we should have the honor of being the advance guard of the whole division. At just 10 o’clock we were on a line, ready to march, in consequence of which we were the advance guard 48 hours; 24 hours more than is usual.

Our first day’s march was not more than ten miles, and nothing occurred through the day to indicate that we were in the vicinity of the enemy. At sundown we were drawn up on a sloping hill, to camp, for the night, and after the main body of troops had arrived the guard (5th Mass.) was advanced about one mile to an opening in the woods, when we threw out our pickets, and called in our skirmishers. Then stationed a main guard around the camp, and had just laid down for the night, when firing was heard among the pickets. All hands were at once upon their feet, with musket in hand, expecting an attack; but it proved to be only two horsemen whom the pickets fired upon, thinking, probably, in the darkness and excitement, that there were more of them. They killed the horse of one poor fellow, and took him prisoner, after a desperate fight. I do not know what was done with him, but I think they let him go the next morning. The other horseman got away, but it was thought he was wounded.

We had more excitement that night, and slept soundly until daylight next morning, when we had a hasty breakfast of hard bread and salt horse, and got into marching order again. We marched several miles, taking byroads and lanes, sometimes going through pastures, and bridle-paths in the woods, as our division was not to make the attack, but to cut off the retreat of the rebels from Fairfax Court House. There was but very little excitement, except the taking of a prisoner occasionally, until about noon, when in going around through a piece of woods to avoid a battery, our skirmishers ran into a camp of about six hundred rebels, when their pickets fired upon them, and the whole camp beat a hasty retreat. They left their beef on the griddle and their camp kettles boiling, evidently thinking we might be hungry after our forenoon’s march. We got no prisoners here, but found in a house near by twelve knapsacks, the contents of which the boys appropriated to their own use. We had a very good dinner that day. It consisted of ducks, chickens, turkeys, mutton, corn-cake, and all the luxuries usually found in country farm houses in Virginia. The people were glad to see us, and I really believe three-quarters of the inhabitants of this state, honestly told, would go for the Union.

In our march from this place to Longster’s station, we took about 20 prisoners, but failed in cutting off the retreat of the troops from Fairfax. Although we had two hours to spare of the time given us to get to this place, we were one hour behind the retreating column of rebel troops.

We rested at this place until about 4 o’clock the next afternoon, when we got into line again and marched from there to Centreville, about seven miles this side of Manassas. Here we found the other two divisions, which had arrived in advance of us, and were obliged to stop, as the head of their column had unfortunately ran into one of those infernal machines, otherwise known as a masked battery. The Mass. 1st received nearly all the damage done by this battery, the Boston Fusiliers losing over twenty men. It was thought best to wait a few days more before making an attack on Manassas, in order to let the men rest and give the regiments that were cut up time to get in order again. We had in the meanwhile ample time to reconoitre the enemy’s position and look the country over. Nearly all of the two days we were at Centreville we could directly see, with a glass, that the rebels were being reinforced very fast, and it was apparent to almost every one that their force was very much larger than ours; but notwithstanding all this, we were ready and anxious to fight them at any odds. We did not for a moment think of defeat, and had all the forces been put in the field that we had in the vicinity, I do not think we should have been defeated.

At about 2 o’clock on Sunday morning we were called up, and by 3 were on a line ready to march; but did not march until sunrise, when we took the route for Manassas, which we kept for about a mile and a half, when we were led through the fields, north of the main division, which was to make the attack in front while we were to take the route around through the woods and attack the rear. We arrived near Bull’s Run about noon I should think, and then regiment after regiment were marched off and put in positions where they were needed the most.

I will not attempt to give you a description of the battle. I could not if I would, and I will only follow our own brave Fifth. I do not believe there were braver officers or braver soldiers on the field that day. We divested ourselves of our blankets, haversacks, canteens that had no water in them, and all useless baggage. We were then kept close to the woods to avoid the fire of their batteries, until we came to the foot of a hill which sheltered us from their fire; here we were ordered to lie down and rise, one company at a time, and go to the summit of a hill and fire; then file to the right and left to the rear and load; then march to the rear of the rest, and fire when the time came again.

Col. Lawrence commanded us in person, giving his orders with such distinctness and precision as to avoid the possibility of an accident. One regiment on the left of us, in the flurry and excitement, and absence of order, fired altogether, killing at least three of their own men; but such was the coolness of Col. Lawrence and Adj. Chambers that not a man in our regiment was shot in this way.

At the time we were stationed in this position, cannon balls and shells were flying over our heads thick and fact. One shell burst right over the centre of the regiment, and the pieces fell down among us like huge hail stones. One piece dropped beside myself; I picked it up and have it now. Almost every one has some kind of a trophy. We soon drove the rebels from this point, and then we had to march through the Run at ‘double quick,” in order to get at them at another point. We went upon another hill, and were placed along side of the Fire Zouaves, where we saw the best fighting that was probably done by our division. The rebels lay piled two and three deep in front of the gallant and brave Zouaves, many of whom followed poor Elsworth to his long, last home. Here a charge was made by the rebels on the battery which we were sent to protect, and our forces not being strong enough to withstand the charge, we were scattered in every direction. I did not see Sol. Lawrence after this, but was soon informed that he was wounded. After this, not being able to rally all the men around the colors, Capt. Wardwell, of Co. F, and Capt. Geo. L. Prescott, of Co. G., (Concord Artillery,) rallied all the men they could and went into the battle on their own account. They were cool and calm, and fought bravely. Soon after this our color bearer was shot, but the colors were safe.

Our regiment made several rallies after that, and were just forming when they opened their fresh batteries, right upon us, and we were obliged, with everyone else, to retreat. After the order had come for us to retreat, we got together as many as we could, and Capt. Prescott tried hard to make the regiment return to the conflict again. but the rebel force was so large that it was finally thought not best to go back alone, and at this time another battery opened upon us, and we agreed to meet and form again at Centreville; expecting, of course, that we could make a stand there, but just before we got to Centreville another battery opened upon us, cutting us to pieces, and scattering us in every direction. Many of us did not reach Centreville until the next morning, and some poor fellows did not reach there at all. Those who did reach there that night did not stop, but kept on until they reached Washington or Alexandria. We do not pretend to count the killed yet, for almost every hour some one arrives who was so much exhausted that he could not reach home sooner. Our loss is not near so large as we at first supposed, and we hope yet to see many alive who have been counted dead.

We are stationed, by companies, in different parts of the city, and at present are only taking care of the sick and wounded. There are at present only five missing from the Concord company, and we hope to see some, if not all of them yet. The Waltham boys are all alive and well.

Our army will not be ready to march again for several months; but when they do go it is to be hoped, for the sake of the poor soldiers, that all politicians will be kept from having anything to do with it. Gen. Scott says that he fought the battle against his own judgment; and it was evident to every one, by the swarm of politicians in our camp at Centreville, that the whole thing was gotten up by this class of men, many of whom have less principle than brains.

The time for which our regiment enlisted expires in just one week from to-day, and we shall probably return home as soon as we can be mustered out of service. After that, if anything transpires of account, I will give you the benefit of it.

In the mean time I remain as ever,

Yours Truly,

E. F. P.*

Waltham (MA) Sentinel, 8/2/1861

Clipping image

*Likely Private Edward F. Phelps, Co. G., the only E. F. P. I could find in the roster.

Edward F. Phelps at Ancestry.com

The Fifth regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in its Three Tours of Duty 1861, 1862-’63, 1864

Contributed by John J. Hennessy

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2 responses

17 11 2016
John Hennessy

Note he says he did not reach Centreville until the morning of the 22d. I have found any number of accounts that support the idea that some Union troops remained in Centreville overnight–a fact that diminishes the image of an army in wholesale, abject flight back to DC. Some parts of it did fly, certainly, but some went back at a moderate pace.

Liked by 1 person

17 11 2016
Harry Smeltzer

Yeah, I think much of this battle has been sanitized and put into nice, orderly segments. It may explain the relative lack of deep analysis it has received over the years – present company excluded, of course ;-)

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