Corp. Samuel J. English, Co. D, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, On the Advance, Battle, and Retreat

7 02 2017

Camp Clark, July 24th/61
Washington, D. C.

Dear Mother

I rec’d your letter of the 21st shortly after our return to camp and take the earliest opportunity of writing. Yes, we have been & gone and done it. Last Thursday the 16th our brigade consisting of the two Rhode Island regiments, the New York 71st and the New Hampshire 2nd took up our line of march for Fairfax Court House. We crossed Long Bridge about 3 o’clock and continued on for six miles where we bivouacked for the night. Nothing occurred of importance to disturb our slumbers except the passing of troops bound on the same expedition. We commenced our march early in the morning, the 2nd R. I. regiment taking the lead and acting as skirmishers, Co. A taking the advance on the right; Co. D acting as flankers; Co. F acting as rear advance on the right of the column, Co. K[?] acting as advance on the left. Co. C as flankers and Co. G as rear guard. I cannot state exactly the strength of our forces at the time, but should judge there were seven or eight thousand, including 1500 cavalry and two Batteries of artillery with two howitzers belonging to the New York 71st Regt. When within half a mile of the village of Fairfax, word was sent that the rebels’ battery was directly in our line of march. Our artillery was immediately ordered to the front and fired three shots into it, making the sand fly, and showing pretty conclusively that the birds had flown. All the time this was taking place your humble servant was skirting around in the woods as a skirmisher and arrived in the village ahead of the main column. As our company arrived the streets presented the scene of the wildest confusion: old negroes running around, some laughing, some crying and some swearing at a fearful rate. The streets were strewn with the knapsacks, haversacks, canteens, blankets, shirts and most every article pertaining to camp life. The houses were deserted and in some places the tables were set for dinner and coffee warm on the stove. After strolling around a short time we quartered ourselves in the park of G. Lee and made ourselves as comfortable as circumstances would permit. The cavalry in the meantime pursuing the retreating rebels and capturing 30 of their men. What particularly pleased me was that the company that lost the mess was the Palmetto Guards and Brooks Guards of South Carolina, having lost all of their camp equipage and barely escaped with their lives. But to continue, the next day our colors started for Manassas but halted and camped three miles this side of Centreville, waiting for our troops and reinforcements to come up; the second regiment being somewhat in advance of the main army; we stay here for about three days and Sunday the 21st about 2 o’clock the drums beat the assembly and in ten minutes we were on our march for Bull Run having heard the enemy were waiting to receive us, our troops then numbering 25 or 30 thousand which were divided into three columns ours under Col Hunter taking the right through a thick woods. About eleven o’clock as our pickets were advancing through the woods a volley was poured in upon them from behind a fence thickly covered with brush; the pickets after returning the shots returned to our regiment and we advanced double quick time yelling like so many devils. On our arrival into the open field I saw I should judge three or four thousand rebels retreating for a dense woods, firing as they retreated, while from another part of the woods a perfect hail storm of bullets, round shot and shell was poured upon us, tearing through our ranks and scattering death and confusion everywhere; but with a yell and a roar we charged upon them driving them again into the woods with fearful loss. In the mean time our battery came up to our support and commenced hurling destruction among the rebels. Next orders were given for us to fall back and protect our battery as the enemy were charging upon it from another quarter, and then we saw with dismay that the second R. I. regiment were the only troops in the fight; the others having lagged so far behind that we had to stand the fight alone for 30 minutes; 1100 against 7 or 8 thousand. It was afterwards ascertained from a prisoner that the rebels thought we numbered 20 or 30 thousand from the noise made by us while making the charge. While preparing to make our final effort to keep our battery out of their hands, the 1st R. I. regiment then came filing over the fence and poured a volley out to them that drove them under cover again; they were followed by the New York 71st and the New Hampshire 2nd regiments; with 2,000 regulars bringing up the rear who pitched into the “Sechers” most beautifully. Our regiments were then ordered off the field and formed a line for a support to rally on in case the rebels over powered our troops. When the line had formed again I started off for the scene of action to see how the fight was progressing. As I emerged from the woods I saw a bomb shell strike a man in the breast and literally tear him to pieces. I passed the farm house which had been appropriated for a hospital and the groans of the wounded and dying were horrible. I then descended the hill to the woods which had been occupied by the rebels at the place where the Elsworth zouaves made their charge; the bodies of the dead and dying were actually three and four deep, while in the woods where the desperate struggle had taken place between the U.S. Marines and the Louisiana zouaves, the trees were spattered with blood and the ground strewn with dead bodies. The shots flying pretty lively round me I thought best to join my regiment; as I gained the top of the hill I heard the shot and shell of our batteries had given out, not having but 130 [?] shots for each gun during the whole engagement. As we had nothing but infantry to fight against their batteries, the command was given to retreat; our cavalry not being of much use, because the rebels would not come out of the woods. The R.I. regiments, the New York 71st and the New Hampshire 2nd were drawn into a line to cover the retreat, but an officer galloped wildly into the column crying the enemy is upon us, and off they started like a flock of sheep every man for himself and the devil take the hindermost; while the rebels’ shot and shell fell like rain among our exhausted troops. As we gained the cover of the woods the stampede became even more frightful, for the baggage wagons and ambulances became entangled with the artillery and rendered the scene even more dreadful than the battle, while the plunging of the horses broke the lines of our infantry, and prevented any successful formation out of the question. The rebels being so badly cut up supposed we had gone beyond the woods to form for a fresh attack and shelled the woods for full two hours, supposing we were there, thus saving the greater part of our forces, for if they had begun an immediate attack, nothing in heaven’s name could have saved us. As we neared the bridge the rebels opened a very destructive fire upon us, mowing down our men like grass, and caused even greater confusion than before. Our artillery and baggage wagons became fouled with each other, completely blocking the bridge, while the bomb shells bursting on the bridge made it “rather unhealthy” to be around. As I crossed on my hands and knees, Capt. Smith who was crossing by my side at the same time was struck by a round shot at the same time and completely cut in two. After I crossed I started up the hill as fast as my legs could carry and passed through Centreville and continued on to Fairfax where we arrived about 10 o’clock halting about 15 minutes, then kept on to Washington where we arrived about 2 o’clock Monday noon more dead than alive, having been on our feet 36 hours without a mouthful to eat, and traveled a distance of 60 miles without twenty minutes halt. The last five miles of that march was perfect misery, none of us having scarcely strength to put one foot before the other, but I tell you the cheers we rec’d going through the streets of Washington seemed to put new life into the men for they rallied and marched to our camps and every man dropped on the ground and in one moment the greater part of them were asleep. Our loss is estimated at 1,000, but I think it greater, the rebels lost from three to five thousand.

Rhodes, Robert Hunt, All For the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes, pp. 32-35

Samuel J. English at Find-A-Grave 

Samuel J. English at Ancestry.com 

Samuel J. English at Fold3 

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One response

7 02 2017
Meg Groeling

Ah! Those were the days!

Liked by 1 person

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