Surgeon David Little, 13th New York Infantry, On the Battle and Retreat

17 11 2021

A Letter from the Battle-Field.

The following letter from our late townsman, Dr. Little, Surgeon of the 13 Regiment New York Volunteers, will be read with the deepest interest. It was hastily written, immediately after his return from the horrors and dangers it describes, and was intended for his family alone, but at the request of several of their friends, it is given to the public, as it is of great public interest. To our readers, who known the writer, noting could be more authentic and conclusive as to the facts stated, as to the courage and power of our soldiers on the battle field, and as to the uncivilized and savage character of the enemy. On our side we see our young surgeon attending to their wounded, and soothing them by kind words, and on their side our wounded, and even our surgeons bayonetted, and our hospitals fired.

The horrible picture this letter presents of carnage and death, can have only one effect on the outraged and indignant sentiment of our people, – it must tend to arouse all, as one man, against an enemy which has brought such woe and disgrace on our beloved country, We have had that – our day of humiliation, – other days like it may be impending but the fearful retribution must come. From such testimony as this letter, we realize that we are in bloody, barbarous war. We had hoped, we had believed, we had prayed, that this scourge might never visit our dear land, but it is on us. We cannot obey our impulse and instinct to shrink from it in disgust. – We are all of us called upon to take part in hellish war. The memory of the bloody rout of that Sunday must be washed out in blood. We must not shut our eyes to this dread necessity. The cup is forced to our lips. The maxims of peace, of humanity, of civilization, which we have so long cherished, are of no avail now. The even seem to be in our way and a hindrance to us. The cannon balls which shrieked around David Little’s head, as exhausted he slept during the battle, are now our only resort. We have but one duty now – that to our country, which has made us all we are. We can serve here only in one way – by helping on the war. Our women weep over these calamities; our men must help retrieve them. The sight of young David Little drinking ditch water, and fainting on the heroic retreat, appeal to all others to do their part likewise in these days of sorrow.

As we are permitted to give to the public this private letter in which the writer speaks of his exhaustion and fainting, but modestly forbears, even to his mother, to dwell on the hardships he endured, it is due to him that it should be accompanied by the statement of one fact well known to all his associated. Among the athletic young men of this town, he has a reputation for his great powers of endurance. He was a hunter. Wiry, hardy, and muscular, he has no superiors in a tramp, and some of the young friends who have heard this letter read, have remarked that if he fainted, it is no wonder so few of his regiment were left.

M.

Ft. Bennett, near Washington,
July 24, 1861.

Dear Mother: – My mind is so confused with the scenes I have gone through the last week, that it is doubtful if I shall be able to write anything connectedly. I certainly can not give anything like a detailed account of what happened to me. The general account of our disaster you will have learned before this by the papers. One general observation I will hazard though, that is, that superior numbers, and fighting on their own ground from behind masked batteries, won the battle for the enemy. Their boasted superiority in pluck is all nosir. I saw with my own eyes, our 13th drive twice their number, like a flock of sheep before them. I saw the Ellsworth Fire Zouaves doing the same thing. – Afterwards, when reinforcements to the enemy came up, the retreat was inevitable, again and again were their cavalry repulsed by a handful of determined northerners. But then a panic came, and oh, such a scene. It defies description. Such a confused mass of men, horses, cannon, and vehicles of every description, jamming and crowding into each other in precipitate flight, and all the while grape and shells falling into its midst, while the chasing cavalry murdered all the stragglers, yes, and all wounded men! Oh, talk of Southern nobility. I shall never hear it named again without sickening disgust. Yes, they murdered our wounded – bayoneted our surgeons, and shelled and burned the hospital where our wounded were taken, while the hospital flag was flying in full view! They seemed to be filled with devilish hatred. – The fight waged from 7 o’clock in the morning until 5 ½ in the evening, when the flight commenced. The first part of the day, until reinforcements came up, was all against the enemy. For they were driven from one strong hold to another.

But I am filling up my sheet with what you have already from the papers. Now I am going to write my own little history just for your private pleasure and interest.

On Saturday last, word came from headquarters to our camp, that we must be ready to march at 2 o’clock Sunday morning. – This we did, thought the command was not given to march until 3 o’clock. Then we started with the purpose of out-flanking and taking two masked batteries. I mounted and rode “Kittie,” who, by-the-way, behaved splendidly under fire. Then when the battle began, we Doctors took a place in the rear of the column. For a long while the fighting was limited to unimportant skirmishing, and all that time I lay in the woods (it was a beautiful day) asleep and dreaming on you all at home. Waking, I heard close to me the barking of a squirrel. That seemed like a friend, and with the dream, made me for a time just the least bit home-sick. – The increasing fire, and the whirling of balls, soon cured me though, by making me forget my disease. After this, ie. 10 o’clock a. m., I was busy every moment, until the flight, dressing wounds. Then when the flight came, I looked from my ambulances and horse – they were all gone! Then I was indeed in a fix. The ambulances in which our wounded were to be carried, in which lay my blankets, bedding, dress uniform, surgical appliances and sword, my horse, “Kittie,” whose back I had come to think belonged exclusively to me, with my little other luggage and haversack of provisions, all gone, and poor, tired, hungry, thirsty me, left to walk in a hot sun a distance of thirty miles. It was hard, and I was inclined to be a good deal angry, but remembering that this would do no good, and thinking how much better off than many other poor fellow I was, I got into better spirits and started off with the remaining of our little regiment, some of whom were killed, some wounded, and many scattered, so that a mere handful remained together as we left the field. Our regiment, by-the-by, was the last to leave the field, and was the only one that could be made to rally to the support and protection of the retreating column. Once in particular, I remember, when a little band, we stood out in a field to resist cavalry, and saw all out own troops leaving us behind, while the enemy was hurrying upon us, and I thought it was wicked to keep us there. Again orders came for us to march on, and as you may imagine, we did so, in double quick-time too. How hungry and thirsty I was. Puddles in the road were eagerly swallowed. I drank water that 10,000 men and horses must have marched through, and so muddy that it was fairly thick. No sooner was it down than my dry throat craved more. We marched this eight miles, and just began to think we were at length out of the enemies’ reach, when crash came a bomb-shell in our midst. They had out-marched is and posted a battery just where they could rake us to great advantage. I think I came nearest to being killed just there. It was by a bridge on “Cub Run.” The bridge was blocked over with overturned vehicles and we had to wade waist-deep across the stream; just as I was ascending the hill on this sire, I heard a bomb come screaming through the air. I had just time to drop flat on the ground, when it passed over me, and struck about four feet in advance and bursted, instantly killing two poor fellows who were farther from it than I was, but who neglected the precaution of throwing themselves down. All the harm I received was being almost buried in dirt, Three miles from there we rested, about half an hour, when it was decided to hasten back Arlington, as it was learned that the enemy were endeavoring to head us off and take us prisoners – this was about 10 ½ o’clock in the evening – 21 miles to walk for us who had been at work since 3 o’clock in the morning. I started, and carried a wounded man’s gun. How the steps did drag, and how hunger knawed – finally, about 6 miles back, I fell down, fainting. The next thing I remember was swallowing some milk that a woman brought me. The enjoyment of drinking that milk exceeded anything I ever experienced before in the eating line. They put me into a lumber wagon and sent me here – and now after two days rest, I feel pretty well, excepting a little soarness left.

I should have telegraphed you at once, but not an officer or soldier was allowed to cross the river to Washington. I learn, however, that Henry Benjamin sent a dispatch to Rochester, to the effect that no officer was injured, and hope you may have seen it. – Our regiment is in a pitiable condition, and almost to a man those who are here are sick from fatigue and exposure. The disaster to Government is fearful, and it must take a long time to repair it. It must and will be done though, and terrible will be the retributions to the South. But I have said enough. Prospects are better again for me to see you this summer. * * I dressed many a poor fallen Southerner’s wounds, and found them to be generally grateful, and they seemed fairly astonished when I told them the North had no hatred towards the South – that it was a war to protect the Government and not of depredations on the South. We have a Lieutenant prisoner. He told me that the Washington artillery were there. – I can give them credit for one thing, that is, they are all splendid marksmen. Their balls had terrible effect. The prisoner said, one of our regiments, with their rifles, were a terror to them – that whenever they raised to fire they knew many must fall. This he told to our Brigadier General. * * * *

Affectionately yours,
DAVID LITTLE

Cherry Valley (NY) Gazette, 7/31/1861

Clipping Image

Contributed by John Hennessy

David Little at Ancestry

David Little at Fold3

David Little at FindAGrave

Roster of 13th New York Infantry


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