Lt. Col. William H. Browne, 31st New York Infantry, On the Campaign

11 06 2020

Camp Near Alexandria, Va., July 22, 1861.

We have just arrived in camp after an absence of six days. A magnificent action has been fought. We must have had nearly 40,000 men engaged and the enemy, as events proved, had many more. The 31st had a post of honor, and honorably maintained it up to the moment of retreat. At each step new difficulties arose, and cunning devices of the foe were developed. Masked batteries, protected by the living wood, treacherous mires, and crafty ambuscades, came to light. I was only by a miracle of Grace that I escaped harm. Once I was sent with some companies to “draw out” the enemy. They came too soon, and sent a volley of rifle balls at us, as out caps rose upon the brow of the hill within a few hundred yards of their concealed works. We had only one man touched, springing back as we did into a ravine. As the rebels slowed themselves in pursuit of us, Richardson’s battery of rifled cannon threw in spherical case shot that did much slaughter. They seem determined not to come out openly and fight like true soldiers, so we have to resort to stratagem to bring them within reach. While making a reconnoisance during the battle, I came upon a force of rebels from two or three thousand strong as near as could be judged. Blackhawk took me on a gallop along their front.

Much to our surprise they had entered a ravine, and were discovered by our pickets just in time to prevent their turning our left flank. The instant they saw me a shower of balls came whistling about me. Then the grass was not suffered to grow beneath Black Hawk’s feet. He took the hint, and the way the noble beast cleared a fence and swept along the hill-side up to the battery of rifled guns of Capt. Green was the theme of admiration of the beholders. A score of guardian angels must have averted from me the leaden rain. One shot, perhaps intended for me, struck the head of a gallant young lieutenant (Gill, serving with the regular artillery) and penetrated the brain. While the guns were playing upon the heads of the interlopers, I hastily examined the wound, no surgeon being present. Emptying a canteen of water upon the head of the poor fellow, I soon satisfied myself that the injury was fatal. Consciousness was gone although the eyes were open and he breathed hard, and steadily, a smile being fixed on his lips. I think he lived only half an hour. Lieut. G. belonged to the Massachusetts volunteers.

After maintaining our ground against heavy odds, we received the mortifying order to retreat. We could not understand what it meant, until it became to palpable that the whole of our force was falling back upon Centreville. At 11 P. M. came a whispered order to retreat to Fairfax, ten miles off. The troops, whose haversacks and blankets had been left upon the field, and who had been on their feet for twenty-two hours, retired in tolerably good order, marching by daylight this morning twenty-eight miles. Yet no complaint has been uttered, in my hearing, at least. The Federal loss is terrible, but the Southern more so. The next time we will win.

L— was much interested in his first battle – my seventh. Our admirable surgeon, Dr. Frank H. Hamilton, toiled professionally until he could not stand alone. When all the surgeons of other regiments were literally obeying the order to retreat, he and his assistants of the 31st were true, entirely so. All honor to such men. Why did we retreat when our position was tenable? We only obeyed and imperative order. * * * * *

And so will terminate the hurried epistle of one who has slept but two hours in the last forty-eight.

W. H. Browne,
Lieut. Colonel 31st N. Y. Volunteers

Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, 7/25/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by John Hennessy

31st New York Infantry roster 

William H. Browne at Ancestry.com 

William H. Browne at Fold3

William H. Browne at FindAGrave 

William H. Browne at Arlington National Cemetery 


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