Unknown, Co. B, 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry, On the Battle and Retreat

17 01 2020


Alexandria, Va., July 22, 1862

Friend P. S. B. : – Without doubt you have ere this, hear of the battle that took place on the 21st, therefore I shall not be able to five you much news; but thinking you would like to know what I saw, I take this opportunity to give you some idea of the same.

We were encamped about one mile from Centreville, on the eve of the 21st we got orders to march the next morning at 2 o’clock, accordingly we prepared to do so. Our Brigade was composed of the 3d 4th and 5th Maine and 3d Vermont regiments under the command of Col Howard (of the 3d Maine) acting as Brigadier General. We did not get our Brigade ready to move as soon as we expected, but about sunrise we were in motion – we marched a short distance and were ordered to come to a halt, here we were delayed about one hour, for another Brigade to pass – then we passed on, and about 9 o’clock we could hear in the distance the booming of cannon. I cannot say that I was very much in favor of the sound, yet there is much in the sound that is grand and I longed to be with those of my Country’s brave sons who so noble stood the charge against such odds. We were at this time about 3 miles from the scene of action, on the east of the field, and here we came to a halt for one hour, after which we took up a line of march around to the north and came up the west side, a distance of about ten I should judge, and the last four miles we were marched double quick which caused on half to fall out from exhaustion. Each man had his blanket, gun and haversack with three days rations in it, and a canteen of water, making a luggage of over thirty pounds. A large proportion threw them away except their guns, but mine I hung to. You know that I am used to the double quick, therefore it did not use me up as it did many of our Co., who have never belonged to the Triumph Engine Co., of Biddeford. We were now within sight of the enemy, and from this place to the scene of action, the roadside was lined with men, some dead, some wounded, and some exhausted, it will be impossible for me to give you the faintest idea of what I saw from this time until our retreat was ordered, some were brought away in wagons, and some were led away by their friends, and many were left on the field, yet I hop and trust that they have the best of care, even if they have fallen into the hands of the enemy.

We now had to cross a hill where the enemy had a raking fire on us – they having guns on our right and left, and be assured if a soldier has any man about him he will require it at moment like that, for my part, there was a strife within between fear and courage, courage got the best of it, and I made up my mind if I was to die, to die like a Imani, and from that time I felt no more fear. While marching under their fire I saw many shots that took effect, and some cannon balls struck within a few feet of our company but not a man flinched one inch, but we did not stop under quick time and when we had crossed the hill and got into the valley, then we halted to form into a line of Battle. It was now found that there was but 500 of the 5th in the line. Company B. had the most of any company in the regiment, and that numbered but 32 men, company A. of Gorham next, and that numbered 24 men. How so many men stood this march is more than I can tell, for the day was very warm and not half of those that started in the morning were fit to go.

We were the last regiment that went into the field, after we had formed into a line the Cavalry came rushing down from the battle shouting for us to run, which caused the right of our regiment to flee, but the left stood fast, we had to clime a hill in order to get where could do some fighting, it was covered with a thick growth of scrub pines, which made it very hard to climb, and when we got to the top there was not a rebel to be seen, there being a piece of woods about one hundred yards beyond they fled into it. So we marched up within fifty yards and poured one volley into it, and soon we saw them come out on the other side in hot haste. If we had had some good field pieces at that time we would have cut them up in good shape, but we could not reach them with our guns – this was all the fighting that we did.

I will now speak of the conduct of our brave officers, and them I will give you a short account of our retreat. First, I will speak of Capt. Goodwin, he was well nigh used up before we got to the field, and was not able to take command, but he went into the field with us, and was with us until our retreat, and had our march been anything but such quick time he would have had command.

Lieut. R. M. Stevens, he is a perfect brick, he was as cool as ever, and took us into the field and stood in our column until we were twice ordered to retreat. I tell you he is a brave man. And he looked like a hero, while his voice could be heard above the din of the battle, plain and distinct.

Lieut. S. M. Pilsbury is also all courage, he stood at his post and did not flinch one inch, but was as cool as ever. I do not think I could ever ask for more courage in officers than there is in company B., of the 5th. I have heard it often remarked since we have been here, that the coolest men in the field were our first and second Lieutenants and Major Hamilton, and I cannot pass further without speaking of him, of his coolness and bravery you will doubtless learn by the papers before you receive this, therefore I will just say that he rode into the field, dismounted and took his post, and stood there until he was ordered back with us, then he was the last to leave the field. The Brigadier-Gen. paid him his best compliments for his coolness and courage. I do not think that any account of other companies will be of much interest to you, therefore I will give you the account of our retreat.

We were ordered to retreat to Centreville, but the cavalry followed us so closely with their column that we were ordered to Fairfax. Our journey in the forenoon so nearly used me up that I felt as though it would be impossible for me to go so far, and the retreat was in such disorder that no company was together, and after going a short distance I found Lieutenant Stevens and Pilsbury, and we concluded to gas as far as we could and camp for the night, and on our way we found some of our boys and when we came to a halt we had fourteen in all. We had now marched about three miles and found that our retreat was cut off by the enemy, who fired upon us from a masked battery, but their shot did not take effect and there being a piece of woods near by we went into them, and come to the conclusion we would camp for the night. I threw of my blanket about one mile from the battle field, and when I returned I found it in the same place, and as we all had blankets we had a very comfortable nights rest. I woke up at 4 o’clock and found it was raining very hard, I woke up the rest and as we did not have any toilet to make, we were soon on a march to find our way clear of the woods, and after roving round to clear their guards and battery, we cam to a halt and held council, and came to the conclusion to send out a scout to learn if we could where we were. Lieut. Pilsbury and myself being decided upon we started, and went about one mile and seeing a man in the distance I left my gun with Lieut. And drew my trusty revolver and approached him, he proved to be a Slave, but was as bright as any white man I have ever seen; I asked him if he would show us the main road that led to Centreville, he consented to do so, and we went back where the rest of our little company were, and our guide came within on mile of Centreville with us and after a “God bless you” he left us. After we got to the village we went into a house and got some hot coffee which did us much good, altho’ we had hard bread with us yet we had no appetite for it. I think if I could have been seated at some of your tables in good old Biddeford I could have done justice to any amount of eatables.

We now found that all of our troops had gone to Fairfax Court House, a distance of seven miles, so again we started. From this place there was many on the road, some were wounded, and some were frightened. I saw one of the N. Y. Fire Zouaves that was wounded three times, once in his hip, once in his other leg, the ball passed quite through, and one of his arms was badly wounded, and yet he had walked 16 miles and said he should go to Alexandria, but he had the good luck to get a ride; I have seen him since and he is getting along well. We arrived at Fairfax in good spirits; but when we learned that our troops had gone to Alexandria it rather discouraged me, but we concluded to push on. Here at this place there was any amount of baggage all broken open, and the natives were helping themselves. We now had a journey of 14 miles before us, and after a little rest we started. We saw nothing on our journey that was of much interest, about 6 o’clock we arrived here after a march of 28 miles. It rained all through the day and we got almost as wet as could be. I cam to the conclusion if there was a feather bed in this town I would sleep on one. Lieut. Stevens being very footsore, he and I left the rest and went along together, and when we came to a house that we liked the looks of, we stopped and rapped, and soon found that we had made the acquaintance of a mulatto family of respectability, they gave us permission to stop with them, and the free use of anything that we wanted. We got a tub of water, soap and towel, and after we got through they had supper all ready, their supper consisted of corn cake, biscuit, boiled eggs, and hot coffee. And if ever I felt good it was after I got through with that mean. – Lieut. Pilsbury and Major Hamilton found us and we had a fine time with them. It still continued to rain, but we did not mind that now as we had got dry, and bout ten we retired and a better nights rest I never expect to have, and this morning I write to you in our little room the sun shines in and makes me think of days that I have spent in a room much like this far away. We are much better than many of our boys, for they had to take quarters in Halls and different places, but they could not play any Halls on me when I was hungry and wet.

Major Hamilton and Lieut. Pilsbury came up this morning and took breakfast with us, although they stop at a Hotel they like our place best, next time I write I will tell you more about this family that we are with. I do not think that any of our boys were killed or wounded, but if I had not had my haversack with me I should have been, I had it slung over my right shoulder which brough it on my left hip, it had three days rations of hard bread, tin dipper and tin plate in it, and a cannister shot took me fain in the sack went through the dipper, but the force was so nearly gone that the tin plate stopped it, yet it came very near knocking me down. I picked the ball up and put it into my pocket and shall send it to you with a Sharps Sabine Rifle that I took from the field with me belonging to some of the rebels, and if I should never return you can think of me when you see the gun. I have just seen to Orderly Sergeant of Co. B. and he says every man is safe or accounted for, and not more than twenty of the 5th is lost.

Biddeford (ME) Union & Journal, 8/2/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by John Hennessy



One response

19 01 2020
Paul Falzon

Thank you for the postings. I have just completed a diorama of the first Bull run and this site has given me the inspiration and the factual integrity I needed. I continue to follow this historical encounter which helped me understand how your country has come to be formed. In Australia we do not have such a history as yours.
Reading letters from those who experienced such trauma helps me understand why my father would never discuss his encounters with the Germans during WW2. I think he just wanted to forget and move on.


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