Capt. (Acting Maj.) Thomas Francis Meagher, Co. K, 69th New York State Militia, On the Campaign (Part 3)

6 03 2022

LAST DAYS OF THE 69TH IN VIRGINIA.

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A NARRATIVE IN THREE PARTS.

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PART THE THIRD.

Retiring, by order of General McDowell, from under fire, the 69th halted on the road side, a little above the village of Centreville. Those who had haversacks opened them and shared their contents with their comrades. Several of the men, in impatient anticipation of coming into close quarters with the enemy, had freed themselves of these encumbrances, as they dashed down to the scene of action. They had flung them off along with their blankets. It was not the fault of the Commissariat that many of the men went to bed supperless. At the same time, it is not in the nature of an Irishman to fight with four or five pounds of boiled port and biscuit banging at his hip.

During this halt, the 79th and 2nd New York swept by us, heading for the enemy, so as to compel the latter to keep at a respectful distance from us, within his lines. Both of these Regiments looked staunch and splendid at that moment. There was Col. Cameron, at the head of his Highlanders, riding erect and resolute, with his broad-leafed hat, shadowed with a superb black ostrich feather, softening the outline of the strong, massive features, which the consciousness of his being on a noble service seemed to illuminate. There was Col. Tompkins, of the 2nd New York – young, calm, unostentatious, full of intelligence and perfectly dauntless – leading as bright and hearty a body of men as any Colonel in the Union Army has reason to be proud of. As with a swinging step, in compact ranks, they swept by, it was with a delighted heart I recognised my friends, Captain Huston, De Courcey, and many other generous and gallant fellows, and hurriedly shook hands with them.

The two Ohio Regiments came next, Col. McCook, radiant and jovial as though it were a pic-nic he was going to, being in command of the First. Mounted on a magnificent horse – black, fiery, solid, full of blood and power and beauty – the Colonel waved his had to us as he passed along, and wishing us all good-bye, and in a few seconds vanished from us in the dust and twilight.

The Ohio Regiments had passed us a little more than a quarter of an hour, on their way to Blackburn’s Ford, where the fighting had been all day, when the order came for the 69th to fall in and march. In something less than half an hour we were in the village of Centreville, on our way to the bivouac or camping-ground for the night, a mile beyond the village.

I have already spoken of this village as a dingy, aged, miserable little handful of houses. It is the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decreptitude. Set down on certain military maps in flaming capitals as CENTREVILLE, one is astounded on entering it, to find that a mole-hill has been magnified into a mountain. Southerners may sneer at New England – toss off their inspiring cock-tails, and contemptuously air the tips of their sensitive noses as they give vent to their disdain, repudiation, and defiance of the North; but in all of New England – in all the North – I wager there is not a village of shabbier aspect and such reduced resources, as that of Centreville. It looks, for all the world, as though it had done its business, whatever it was, if it ever had any, full eighty years ago, and since then, had bolted its doors, put out its fires and gone to sleep. Harry Lorrequer has never chilled us with so dismal picture of a denuded village in Ireland.

Most of the houses in Centreville are built with stone – rugged grayish, gloomily specked and mottled stone – and you follow them up and down two or three little hills and hollows, over a road or through a street which has ruts and rocks, boulders and pit-falls in it, enough t shake the shoes from off a thousand horses, and more than enough to rattle to pieces and disable a thousand waggons. Some of these houses retreat a little from the road or street, behind a dingy fence and two or three leafless and colorless and dwarfed old trees. Others break in with an uncouth and bold protuberance upon the road or street; and thus with a violent intrusion destroy the symmetrical effect of their more modest sisterhood.

There was, as usual, a rush of the 69th for the pumps. Utterly regardless and defiant of every remonstrance and warning, the soldiers broke from the ranks, and made fiercely for every door or gate-way that promised them an alleviation of their thirst. This was the mischief of the day. This the mischief of the two preceding days. It was impossible to keep the men in the ranks whenever they thought there was the slightest chance to slake their thirst. True it is, the distance they marched each day was not much over twelve miles at most; but each day’s march was under a seething and blistering sun, over a broken and rugged road, through clouds of stifling dust, after a comfortless and noisome night in swamp and dripping meadow, without one full and wholesome meal; and hence, mischievous as were the irregularities of the advance, they are easily to be explained and generously forgiven. Many a brave poor fellow of the 69th, who would have thrown himself against a rebel battery at that moment, and never given a thought to what the consequences to himself or his lonesome wife or his little ones, might be, used to expostulate with me, when, acting as I did as Major, and in that capacity endeavoring to keep the Regiment full and close, I used to urge and bid back those who threw themselves, every now and then, in search of water, from the line of march.

“Heavens! we’d die for you, Captain,” they used to exclaim, with agony, “but we can’t stand this drought.”

Exclamations such as these could find no answer, and certainly no rebuke; and hence it was that many a time I gave way, and silently, though vexed and maddened almost, suffered these outbreaks for water along the road.

General McDowell, in his report of the battle of Bull Run, mentions the few miles the Union forces had to march each day – lays particular stress, it seems to me, upon the fact, that General Tyler’s Division, of which the 69th was the pioneer Regiment, had marched 6 miles only from their bivouac at Germantown, to the intersection of the road from that village to the road from Fairfax, and that from this intersection there were but six miles and a half more to Centreville – mentions that he himself rode on and urged the advance that night to Centreville, and that, despite of all he could say or do, it was impossible for him to get the column to advance further than withing four miles of Centreville. All this is true. True as an honest, intrepid soldier – a gentleman and a chevalier, as Gen. McDowell unquestionably is – could write it.

But the General, whilst he enumerates, by the surveyor’s chain, the few miles we had to march, overlooks the scorching and disabling heat, the preparations for attack we had to make on our approach to and out-flanking Fairfax, the rush the 69th made to cut off the retreating Southerners – the halts, under an exhausting and deadening sun, whilst their barricades of trees were cut through and thrown aside – the fierce exposure to the same fierce sun which, drawn up in line of battle, the 69th had to stand in the fields after they had passed the abandoned earth-works of the enemy at Germantown – and, last of all, the frenzying heat, and dust and ruggedness of the road beyond the intersection of the roads from Germantown and Fairfax – all this Gen. McDowell overlooks, or considers it unnecessary to allude to, in his report.

For my part, I must say, that no soldiers could have rushed to battle with heartier elasticity and daring than did the soldiers of the 69th, on the evening of the 18th of July; and my admiration of them and my confidence in them were increased and intensified by the fact, that they had had the worst of treatment for five days previous, and that their Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, had no sympathy whatever with them. Despite of all their hunger, thirst, and exhaustion – keenly feeling, as Irishmen alone can feel, that they had been, somehow or other, played and trifled with and defrauded – that they had been precipitated into action when their term of service to the United States had expired – the 69th, bearing the Green Flag presented to them in recognition of their refusal to participate in the reception of the Prince of Wales – still heartily and enthusiastically pressed on. The 69th would not abandon the Stars and Stripes whatever injustice was done the Three Month’s Volunteers, or however violently interested parties, high or low, ambitiously or fearfully excited, expected or exacted their continuance in the campaign beyond the 20th of July. Those who left that day, however, I contend, have right and honor, and citizenship on their side. Is it manly, is it honorable, is it soldierly to force men into a conflict – into a fierce, desperate fight – into a fight which upsets their homes and unroofs and makes them desolate for ever – when they marched for one grand project alone – to defend the Capital – as the 7th, the 8th, the 71st – the very flower of the New York State Militia did – without the slightest hesitancy, persuasion or demur? But this is deviating from my narrative, and I must resume.

Leaving the village of Centreville a mile and a half behind us, we passed down the Winchester road, straight on for Manassas, and then struck into the fields on the left, stacked our arms and bivouacked for the night. Again, as on the first and second night of out advance, and all through those blistering and stifling days, there was not the least provision for our horses. There were cocks of hay and stacks of corn, to the right and left of the Division, as it flung itself off by regiments to this and the other side of the road; but, by a strange propriety, Brigadier Sherman forbade them to be touched. Two or three hours afterwards a few sheaves and bundles of fodder were hustled to the ground. But for this not a horse would have been able to stir the next day. Gen. McDowell speaks of the rations dealt out adequately and liberally to the men. But there is not a word in his report about the horses; and of this there can be no questions, that the Cavalry of the Federal Army flung themselves into the conflict in a starved condition. My noble little horse had not had one good feed for three days, when a spherical ball from the Southern batteries tore him to pieces. Hundreds of horses were in like condition. Col. Corcoran’s was greedily eating newspapers, in front of his hut, before he mounted him, the morning of the 21st. Col. Burnside, of the Rhode Island Regiment, has truthfully and emphatically told the story. In his speech at the Fillmore House, at Newport, he says that he protested against the attack on the 21st of July, advising patience and a more effective concentration of forces before such an attack was made – advising, indeed, a delay of six months, rather than what appears to have been, with all its impediments and checks, a vain and headstrong precipitation.

After the toils and perils of the day – our exposure to a blistering sun and a fire still deadlier – we slept soundly that night of the 18th of July, stretched in the deep, coarse grass the other side of Centreville. Captain Carlisle’s battery occupied the field on our right, across the road, and was protected by the 2d New York, under Colonel Tompkins. The 79th, Highlanders, lay in advance of us, a little to the right – the Wisconsin being in our rear – the Thirteenth, Rochester, immediately in front. During the night a few shots were exchanged between the outposts of both armies. They failed, however, to provoke any general alarm; and those who heard them took them for granted – as inevitable indications of approximating hostilities on a magnificent scale – and, thus satisfied, fell off to sleep again.

Friday, the 19th, dawned. And Friday faded into twilight, and night came on and blotted it out altogether, and left us where we were the night before – in that sloping meadow, buried in that deep, coarse grass, lazily and stupidly waiting for some new and pleasanter development of events. Nothing, however, was done that day. It was a dense stagnation in every camp. There was the Blue Ridge glowing and melting on the horizon. There were the beautiful and ample woods, spreading themselves between us and Manassas, covering in their green depths lines of the deadliest batteries and legions of fierce enemies. There were deserted farm-houses, few and far between, breaking through the sylvan scene, and reminding every one of home. It was a wearisome, hot, drawling, idle day – just a day to relax the staunchest nerves and make dolts and cowards of us all. Just such a day plays more mischief – breeds deadlier discontent and insubordination – amongst soldiers, than hours of storm and havoc. And this day to have been repeated! Saturday to have been just as vacant, just as listless, just as deadening, just as dreamily and sluggishly exhausting as Friday was!

Were it not for the visit of Father Scully, the young and devoted chaplain of Col. Cass’ Irish Regt. from Boston, who, having heard of Thursday’s fighting, dashed across from Washington, over five-and-thirty miles, to see and learn all about us, it would, despite of the glaring sunshine, have been a gloomy day indeed. His hearty words and presence lit up afresh the life and fire of the 69th; and he came in good time, and most kindly staid long enough, to relieve our own beloved chaplain, Father O’Reilly, in his duties at the confessional. There were few of the 69th who failed to confess and ask forgiveness on that day. Every one, officers as well as privates, prepared for death. Sincerely and devoutly they made their peace with God. This is the secret of their courage, and the high, bright spirit with which they bore all the hardships, the privations, the terrors, and the chastisement of the battle. It was, in truth, an affecting sight – that of strong, stalwart, rugged men – all upon their knees, all with heads uncovered, all with hands clasped in prayer and eyes cast down, approaching, one by one, the good dear priest, who, seated at the foot of an old bare tree, against which some of our boys had spread for him an awning of green branches, heard the confessions of the poor fellows, and bid them be at ease and fearless. Long as I live, I shall never forget that scene. It was not less impressive than that of Father O’Reilly’s passing along our line, as we knelt within range of the enemy’s batteries on one knee, bayonets fixed, expecting every instant to be swept upon, and the final benediction was imparted. Father O’Reilly has told me since, that the earnestness and devotion with which poor Haggerty received that benediction, singularly struck him, and that the attitude and expression of this truly honest and heroic soldier, at that solemn moment, could never leave his memory.

Of subsequent incidents and events, the world, by this time, has heard enough. Concerning the advance from Centreville, the battle, the retreat, the alarm and confusion of the Federal troops, columns and volumes have been filled. I can add nothing to the history of the day but my testimony, that wherever the Federal troops had a fair chance – wherever, indeed, they had the slightest opening even – there and then they whipped the Confederate forces, utterly overwhelmed and confounded them. In every instance, where the Federal infantry came in contact with the Seceding States, did this occur. In no one instance, not for a second, did it happen that the Federal forces were driven back by, or received the slightest check from, the Southern infantry. We yielded to their batteries, and despite of every effort and determination were compelled to do so. It was impossible for men to override that tempest. Three times, having plunged head-foremost into its deadliest showers, was it hurled back. We beat their men – their batteries beat us. That is the story of the day.

Repulsed the last time from the enemy’s works, following the Regiment as it was fiercely driven out, I was knocked head over heels and fell senseless on the field. A private of the United States Cavalry, galloping by, grasped me by the back of the neck, jerked me across his saddle, and carried me a few hundred yards beyond the range of the batteries. When I got upon my feet, I found myself in a group of Fire Zouaves and a number of the 8th and 71st, New York, who very quietly, without the least flurry or trepidation, were retracing their steps to the camping-ground at Centreville, I walked with them until an artillery wagon came up, when, from that out, until we came to the stream which crosses the road between Centreville and the field of battle – half-way between these two points – I had as hard a jolting as any one could well endure.

Here I was pitched into the water, one of the horses of the wagon being shot by the Black Horse which dashed upon us from the woods on our left, and the wagon tumbling over. Here, too, it was that the panic took place. Up to this point, there was no fright, no alarm, no confusion, not the least apparent uneasiness. These fragments of Regiments were coolly and steadily returning to the fields from which they had set out – as coolly and unconcernedly as though they were strolling along the Bloomingdale road on a Sunday evening in the Fall – when, all of a sudden, down came Commisariat wagons, ambulances, hospital carts, artillery forges, and every description of vehicle, dashing and smashing against each other, and with one fearful wreck blocking up the river. A few yards off, there were two or three hundred of the Black Horse sweeping into us with their carbines. But for a couple of guns of Ayre’s battery, which, dashing up from the crowd, were thrown with the quickness of lightning into position, and which flung on the enemy a torrent of cannister, there would, I believe, have been a terrible havoc wrought at that bridge and ford. As it was, the only dark episode of the battle was written there.

Struggling through the river, however, I fell in again with the throng of retreating soldiers, and soon after reached the field where we had encamped the three previous nights. Here I found Dr. Smith and about fifty of the 69th. Learning that three or four hundred of the Regiment were on the road to Fairfax, I hurried after them to ascertain their intentions, Dr. Smith having insisted on my taking his horse for the purpose. They were bound for Fort Corcoran – the Colonel, wounded and exhausted, had passed ahead in an ambulance – Colonel Sherman had told them so – and wherever the Colonel of the 69th was, there the 69th should be. At 3 o’clock, the morning of the 22d July, weary and worn, famished and naked almost, the 69th passed through the familiar gates of their old quarters, and after a battle which lasted for eight hours and more, and a march of five and thirty miles, laid themselves down to sleep.

Last Days of the 69th in Virginia

Thomas Francis Meagher at Wikipedia

Thomas Francis Meagher website

Thomas Francis Meagher at FindAGrave