Capt. Henry B. Williams, Co. H (1st), 13th New York Infantry, On the Battle

19 06 2020

Capt. Williams of the Thirteenth – Interesting Account of the Battle.

The following letter from Capt. Williams to his mother, will doubtless be perused with interest by our readers. A more graphic description of the terrible dangers our soldiers were in, and [?] the noble manner in which is was met, could hardly have been written:

Arlington Heights, Va.,
July 24th, 1861.

Dear Mother: – Here I am, alive and comparatively sound. I feel rather nervous, as my writing will show. It is not from fear, however, but from exhaustion. When last I wrote you, it was after our first battle of Bull’s Run. I am now writing you after our defeat at Manassas Junction and Bull’s Run. It was the most terrible battle ever fought in this country. We were called out a half past 2 o’clock, Sunday morning, and were marched three miles before we came to the field of action. It is impossible to describe the battle on paper, more than that it was dreadful.

The 13th Regiment have covered themselves with glory. We were ordered to support [?] battery, that was playing on a [?] masked battery, on the summit of a high hill. – We lay for two hours on our faces, and had our men torn to pieces by the shell and grape shot that came into us, as fast as 20 or 30 cannon could pour it in. Our battery being all torn to pieces, we were ordered to charge on the enemy, who were on the top of a hill. There was a chance to try men. We charged up the hill to the summit, and if you look at the official report you will see that we charged at leas 20 rods further than any regiment on the ground. We were about 10 rods from the enemy, a portion of whom were behind a stone house. They [?} out the stars and stripes, and by so doing, deceived us, and we stopped firing.

The rebels in front kept pouring in a murderous fire into us from the front, and the 69th and [?] were behind us, commenced firing into [?] dreadfully. [?]. The Colonel then saw that [?] other way, ordered a retreat when we started. I started with the rest, and as I got up to run a rifle ball struck me on the sole of my foot, bruising it pretty bad, causing me exquisite pain and tumbling me down into a little ditch. As soon as I fell, I sprang up again, intending to leave, when a shell came into the ditch with a horrid roar. It struck the ground and bounded up, striking me on the thigh, and sending me up in the air about three feet. I fell on my back, stunned. I supposed that my hip as all torn to pieces, and when I recovered enough to think of myself, I put my hand to my hip and found no blood. I then began to think of escape. They had a company of riflemen whose sole business it was to pick off the officers, and I saw that there was no chance for my life. Where I was I had to fairly burrow into the earth to get clear of the balls. I lay there some 15 minutes, all the northern forces being three-fourths of a mile away from me at the time, except four of my men, who would not leave till they saw the last of me. – There were five or six boys laying dead by the side of me, and one alive. He started after a while to run, when a shot passed through his head, killing him. I stuck my head out above the grass and saw the rebels advancing, and I saw that I must run for it. I had to take off my belt and scabbard and pistol case. I took a gun from one of my men who had been shot, and with my sword in my teeth, and my pistol in my hand, I commenced drawing myself along on my stomach, down the ditch. I went that way about 6 rods, till I came to the end of it, when I cautiously raised my head enough to see them coming. The man in advance was about 10 rods from me. I raised the gun as gently as I could, and took deliberate aim for his heart, and drew the trigger. He dropped his gun, sprang up in the air and fell like a log.

As soon as I had fired I sprang up and started on my race for life. Being an officer, as they co’d see by my shoulder strap, drew upon me a tremendous fire. I hear the bullets zip past my ears, close enough to almost take away my breath.

I ran a zigzag course, and by doing so saved my life. I had to run nearly half a mile at a pace that would have shamed Flora Temple. Our regiment was on the right of the brigade, and we consequently were in front. To show you what we did I refer you to the enclosed paragraph cut from the Washington Star. We were at least 20 rods ahead of the 69th and 79th regiments, and we retreated in good order, and was the only regiment that rallied to cover the retreat.

Our loss is not as large as we supposed at first. The loss in my company is the larges in our regiment, being five killed, three wounded (not including myself,) and three missing. Our retreat was dreadful Dead men and horses, wagons, artillery and ambulances stopped the way. Masked batteries opened upon me at every turn. As I said before, that Sunday morning at half-past two we started for the fight. I fought all day and marched all night, and was so lame that I could hardly step. Next day (Monday) it rained as hard as it could, and I was wet through to the skin. I had to pass the night in a cold, wet tent, without any blanket. I drank water out of mud-puddles in the road, where the men and horses were rushing through, and I drank once in a pool that was as thick as butter, and a dead man lay with one half of his body in it, his whole head being shot off. It makes me shudder to think of it. The cause of our defeat was bad Generalship. The boys are so badly jammed up, and are so weary, that we can do no service for two weeks at least. We are not allowed to cross the river into Washington under any pretense whatever, and are, by that, deprived of any of the comforts of life.

But we are to be sent across the river to-day or to-morrow, and we will be all right then. – General McDowell said that we would be honorably discharged, and sent home, for that charge we made. Where I have my tents pitched now I can see Washington and its surroundings. It is right on the bank of the Potomac River, and is, indeed, a lovely place. Our colors have several shot holes through them, and look pretty hard.

Col. Quinby has no one to say anything against him. He has plenty of courage.


Rochester (NY) Democrat and American, 7/30/1861

Clipping image

Contributed by John Hennessy

79th New York Infantry roster 

Henry B. Williams at Ancestry 

Henry B. Williams at Fold3 



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