Pvt. John Alden Copeland, Co. G, 27th New York Infantry, On the Battle and Retreat

23 06 2020

FROM A PRIVATE OF THE LIMA COMPANY, 27TH REGIMENT, TO HIS FATHER, G. W. COPELAND, OF CLARENDON, N. Y.

Washington, July 24, 1861.

Dear Father – When I left Washington a week ago yesterday I did not expect to see it again under such circumstances as surround me at present. I arrived here last night, direct from the battle field, tired and foot sore, but in good spirits. I was the last almost to return, and found that my name had been entered upon the list of the killed.

Sunday morning, at [?] o’clock, our division left camp, three miles north of Centreville, and marched till noon – about [?] miles – when the battle commenced. After we emerged from the woods – the greatest forest I ever traveled, our route through it being about [?] miles – we were drawn up in battle front, our regiment being the leader. We then went on a run for three miles to the battle field. One of our boys stopped to fill several canteens before we started, and I carried his gun to the field, in addition to my own, and at the same time I was loaded with my haversack, containing three day’s provisions, two blankets, and 40 rounds of cartridges. When I got to the field I threw aside everything except my gun and cartridge box, and took my place in the ranks under heavy fire from the enemy’s artillery, and charged up the hill with the boys, but when half way up, I fell from exhaustion, with several others. I staid about fifteen minutes, and then summoned strength to rejoin our regiment, and crawled over the hill, the balls flying like hail around me. I met our Lieut. Col. Chambers galloping back to get help for our regiment, and he rushed up to one of the field officers and in his stuttering way called for aid, for heaven’s sake, to relieve our boys. He said that they were surrounded in the woods below. When I heard this I ran down in the woods and found our regiment retreating, carrying back our Col., wounded in the thigh, with several of our company wounded but none killed. – Other companies had some of their members killed. Here we made a stand, the balls of the artillery and musketry whizzing over our heads in a perfect storm. Our Major took command and led us out of the woods, to make, as we thought, a second charge. Our Colonel nearly wept when he could not lead us further, and ordered that we should be taken from the field, as we had already had our share of the fight, and were enough cut up without hazarding further loss of life. We left the woods, the fight raging all around us, and lay down behind the banks of a creek, as it was almost instant death to lose cover, as the enemy were continually unmasking new and unseen batteries upon us, and all well planned with good engineers. They had nearly 100,000 men arrayed against us, and they had reinforcements pouring in continually from Manassas, four miles distant.

The battle was in reality the long, long looked for struggle which was to come off at Manassas, although it took place at Bull Run. We had scarcely 15,000 troops to oppose them, and with this odds against us, we drove them from the field three times, forcing their batteries into the woods. But the woods were filled with their troops, and they could lead fresh men to the attack continually. More than that, there was on our side no order whatever. Each Col. attacked or withdrew from field when he pleased, and that is the way the fight was carried on. Our regiment and another went first into the fight, and after driving the enemy from the field, unsustained, were driven back by the guerilla hordes, who never gave us a chance to use the bayonet. Notwithstanding their superiority of numbers, they fled to the cover, and played Indian through it all. Thus the fight continued until the retreat was ordered. I was never in a battle before, but I never saw a braver set of men in my life, than our volunteers. The regulars were less enthusiastic, and seemed to be pushed to the charge, while the volunteers would come rushing along, hurrahing with all their might, driving the enemy into their thicket fast[?], when they were only forced back by the murderous fire of masked batteries and concealed musketry, leaving their wounded to be butchered by the boasted chivalry of the South. Our artillery did terrible execution, but the enemy would bring two pieces to our one, against us. Sherman’s battery was first on the field and mowed down whole ranks of the retreating enemy, and as the remnants came flying past our regiment, we were about to fire upon them when they hoisted the Stars and Stripes, and they were suffered to pass. After getting by, they put up their true colors, and poured a whole broadside into our regiment. Our Colonel, when he saw them, said, “Boys, there are the rascals, fire!” But another countermanded the order, supposing them to be our friends, and thus they escaped. Our boys were mad at this deception, as they were entirely in our power.

Ellsworth’s and Brooklyn Zouaves were about the last to leave the field, and received the special attention of the enemy. The white cap South Carolina Zouaves charged upon them, and the way they routed the Carolinians was a treat to see. They are large swarthy fellows, and hung to each other like brothers, and the enemy have a great terror of them.

When we left the field we expected to encamp on the ground we had taken, and the bold front we showed on our retreat undoubtedly saved us from utter destruction. They did not dare to follow us, having seen too much of our fight during the day, to attack us. But we had not proceeded three miles before it was known throughout the line that we were in a full retreat to the [?], and then the rout commenced. Instead of [?], the regiment broke up, and there was nothing to be seen but a long line of fugitives hurrying to the North. Before we entered the woods the cry arose that the cavalry were upon us, and such a scramble I never saw. The officers ordered the men to the cover to save themselves. Baggage-wagons, artillery, ambulances and carriages of every description, thundered on by us, and the whole route was strewn with broken wagons, or [?] men filled [? ? ?] and all the appurtenances of war, [?] large [?] of private property belonging to the officers.

Thus the road continued through the forest, and when we emerged from the woods we were attacked by a masked battery and the Black Horse Cavalry. Our cavalry rushed on with our artillery in order to save it, and it was saved. Where we came out of the woods there was a deep gully, and here the battery poured down upon the stream of fugitives. The Zouaves charged upon the battery, took two rifled cannon, and cut up the Black Horse Cavalry terribly, thus saving Sherman’s battery and adding two pieces to it. The loss of Sherman’s battery would have been worse than losing a battle to the United States. When they fired upon us I turned to the left and waded a creek three feed deep and passed on toward Centreville; but before I reached the road I came upon the encampment of the New York 69th Regiment, and found them united with the 14th for mutual safety. They were expecting a night attack and lay upon their arms all night. They had secured guides who were to lead them early in the morning to Alexandria, and I concluded to stay and go with them. A soldier of another regiment laid down with me and went to sleep. I woke twice during the night, and the regiments were still on the ground; but, finally, I got into a sound sleep and did not wake up until my comrade awoke me, when he told me the whole body of troops were gone, and we were alone beyond Centreville. I must say that things looked tickelish, but I was determined to pick my way through if such a thing were possible. It was cloudy and raining some when we started, and, inasmuch as I went to bed on the bar ground the night before, after wading the creek, soaking wet and also after marching all day from two o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night, with the battle thrown in, I did not feel much like taking a [?] march of some twenty miles to Washington, as I knew I must, a point of safety. We avoided Centreville by crossing the fields and came on in the highway leading from Alexandria to Richmond, but being uncertain of this we took another road leading to Manassas, and I know not how far we should have followed it but for a farmer, who put us on the right track. This was quite a delay as we went about two miles out of the way, and it was about seven o’clock in the morning. When we reached the road we found to our dismay that we were nearly the last of the returning fugitives. I felt very hungry, and although the road was strewed with crackers, bread, sugar and coffee, I did not have time to sit down, build a fire and cook a good dish of coffee, which I might have done at every rod of the way between Centreville and Fairfax. Beef, pork, crackers, bread and sugar lined the roadsides, and the farmers along the route must have picked up enough plunder to feed them for that year, while the enemy, who followed us, must have seized a large number of fine baggage wagons and large amounts of military stores.

I kept up spunk and a quick pace, and I reached Fairfax about three o’clock, P. M. After resting a little, I pushed on, and having overtaken some boys of our regiment, we got a good cup of coffee some four miles this side of Fairfax. It rained in the afternoon steady, but I kept the India Rubber blanket you sent me, and it was of great service to me. I too the road to Alexandria and others went to Arlington Heights. I reached Alexandria about seven P. M., and found Lieut. Hall, and some twenty boys of our regiment. As we could not get to Washington by boat that night, we took up our quarters in the building of the famous Alexandria library. The next day, P. M., went to Washington on foot, and found our regiment out on dress parade, and when our lieutenant marched us into camp before their eyes, it was a joyful sight for both.

This was probably one of the hardest fought battle we have ever had in America, and the rout beats anything I ever read of in our history. Braddock’s defeat, or Green’s retreat, did not begin with it. The Rebels will never give us a fair field fight, and we must bring the heaviest artillery in order to shell them out of their masked batteries. Our Colonel is loved by all the regiment, but the general movement of the army was in unskillful hands. I am a little foot sore and stiff after marching some sixty miles in two days, but I want to get at those rebels again.

J. A. Copeland

Later. – We have just been favored with the perusal of an interesting letter from a volunteer in the 27th regiment, attached to a Binghamton company. He describes minutely the progress of his regiment from Washington to Bull Run and back so far as he understands the movements.

At the point where the 27th went into battle they were the second regiment to engage the enemy, and drove them before them. Suddenly a regiment came out of a piece of woods and the men waved their caps. Col. Slocum thought they were Federal troops and would not fire upon them. They marched up within pistol shot, threw out a secession flag, and opened fire upon the 27th with rifles, the latter being armed with muskets. The 27th returned the fire sharply and compelled them to retire, but when they got out of musket range they poured in the bullets from their rifles and made bloody work. Col. Slocum sent to the New York 14th, near by, for help, but it was refused. At length he ordered his men to retreat to a cover of woods for protection and rest. While on the retreat the Colonel received a shot in his thigh and was borne away to the hospital. Soon after the 27th was ordered to join in a general assault, and went in with other regiments bravely, driving the rebels back to the cover of their masked batteries. Finally the retreat of the Federal army commenced. The 27th left the field in good order, but were charged upon by the rebel cavalry, which broke them up and each man took care of himself.

Rochester (NY) Union Advertiser, 7/30/1861

Clipping image

Contributed by John Hennessy

27th New York Infantry roster 

John Alden Copeland at Ancestry 

John Alden Copeland at Fold3 

John Alden Copeland at FindAGrave


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