“Soldier,” 16th New York Infantry, On the Battle and Retreat

15 01 2018

Private Letter from a Soldier at Bull’s Run.

[Through the politeness of a friend we are permitted to make the following extract from a letter written by a soldier who was engaged in the battle of Bull’s Run, to his friends in this county. It does not contain anything new; and is chiefly interesting as coming from one who participated in the fight and subsequent stampede. – [Editor Journal]

Head Quarters, 16th N.Y.R.

Near Alexandria, July 29, 61.

Our regiment, in connection with many others, started for Fairfax Court House, where the enemy were encamped in force. About two miles this side we had a smart skirmish with the enemy, who fell back before our advance. It was the first time for all of us, and I confess it sounded strangely to hear the whistle of bullets around our ears. However, none of us were killed, and for the night we camped on the ground which the 8th Alabama regiment left on our approach.

They left behind their whole camp equipage, their dinner cooking, fires burning, &c. We took possession without asking leave. Thursday morning the whole force moved toward Centreville where we camped until the day of the fight. There I saw more of the pomp and circumstance of war than I ever expected to see. On every side the country swarmed with troops of artillery posted on every height, trains of baggage wagons filling every road, making the scene a most novel and interesting one.

You have doubtless read the published accounts of the battle. It was a foolhardy attempt to rout the enemy at great odds. At 2 ½ o’clock, A. M., we were roused for the march, and without breakfast, except such as could be eaten by the way, were led to attack the enemy in position who outnumbered us two to one – Everything was in their favor; complete knowledge of the ground, guns in position, fresh troops outnumbering ours, and sober generals. Against all of those our army had to contend. We did not begin our march until 6 A. M., when an advance on all sides was made. Our position was on the left wing, to repel any flank movement by the enemy. After marching about four miles we halted in front of a rebel battery where the fight of the 18th inst. Occurred. Our artillery opened on it, and we could see the shells burst in and over the entrenchment, but it failed to elicit any reply from the enemy. Two companies from our regiment were then detailed to go nearer as scouts, and force the enemy to discover themselves. The wood was so thick that we went within 100 yards before we were aware of their presence. A sharp skirmish then took place, men firing from behind trees and other shelter. One lieutenant in the other company was slightly wounded, while several of their men were seen to fall. Fearing an ambush, we now fell back and poured in a raking fire of artillery, which soon cleared that portion of the wood. A force of 3000 foot and 2000 horse were soon seen marching down on our left, and the brigade was ordered to the front to repel the attack. – They were in full view, and the most awful sight I ever witnessed was the effect of our artillery on their advancing column. Shells burst among them scattering in every direction, while grape shot mowed them with fearful rapidity.

I see in their account of the fight that the Tiger Rifles (the brigade attacking us) is reported as being cut up the worst of any one engaged, and for the reason that it was the only one that exposed itself – They fired on us very rapidly with rifles, killing one lieutenant and wounding a few privates, but doing us not material damage. At this time, the ammunition of our artillery gave out, and fearing the guns would be captured, they were taken off the field. Owing to confusion of orders, every regiment but ours left with them. The enemy, seeing their advantage, fired on us repeatedly, but injured no one. Orders now came for us to join the retreat, as the right wing was reported as wholly cut up.

On the heights of Centreville we camped until midnight, while the army was falling back on Fairfax, where being in the best condition we covered their retreat, which was soon turned into an utter rout. I have seen in no paper a description of it which answers to the reality. The road was literally strewn with every kind of munition of war and accoutrement of soldiers, which were thrown away or abandoned in the flight. Baggage wagons overturned and their contents tumbled out, horses shot to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy, or ridden off by their cowardly drivers. But the most painful sight was the men, In all stages of exhaustion, they blocked the way. Scores of them gave out and slept by the roadside. Worn out by the day’s exertions, the panic which spread among them was the only thing which kept all from falling, for the heat had been oppressive and the work arduous. It began to rain before we reached Fairfax, but so great was the exhaustion that, without any preparations for comfort, we slept where we halted. There was no order. Regiments were mixed up in almost inextricable confusion. It was one great train of fugitives from Centreville to Alexandria, and all for nothing, for the enemy was retreating as fast, though perhaps not as disastrously, in the other direction. The defeat is universally acknowledged to be owing to the inefficiency and drunkenness of our Generals. Two have already been removed, and more are trembling.

Soldier.

The People’s Journal [Greenwich, N. Y.] 8/8/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy


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