Pvt. William Boardman Reed, Co. C, 2nd Wisconsin Infantry, On Blackburn’s Ford and the Eve of Battle

20 03 2022

Letter from 2d Regiment


Camp Near Centreville, Va.
July 19, 1861.

Dear Parents: – You will have heard before receiving this that we have had a battle, and knowing that you would feel concerned about my safety, I have thought best to write to you, though I think it is doubtful whether this letter can be sent to Washington very soon. Yesterday about noon some of our advanced regiments were drawn into and ambuscade where the rebels had a masked battery and several thousand men. This was in some very heavy timber where the underbrush was very thick and they had belled trees before it and so fortified their position that it was impossible to see either their guns or men. When the firing commenced our main army, some fifteen or twenty thousand men, were lying in camp about two miles back. We heard the cannonading distinctly, and occasionally the volleys of musketry I continued over an hour when our brigade (Col Sherman’s) was ordered to the assistance of those engaged. This brigade consists of the New York 13th, 69th, 79th, and our regiment. We formed into a line in a few minutes and proceeded towards the scene of action, going most of the way on a run. As we neared the place the cannon balls whistled over our heads and struck the woods all around us. We met the cavalry returning, saying that there was no chance for them to do anything in the thick woods. A little further along we met the ambulances bringing back the dead and wounded. One officer was lying wounded by the roadside, and as we passed him, his attendant begged us to give him a little water. One of the men stepped out and gave him some from his canteen. I tell you it was a dreadful scene for new volunteers to look upon, but we marched steadily forward as coolly as you could expect of us when cannon balls are falling all around us. One man whom we met riding a horse was wounded in the foot, others we could see lying and bleeding in the ambulances. When we got within a short distance of the scene of action we turned to the right into the woods and formed into line. There was not room in the woods for but a few to fight at a time, and we understood that we were to take the place of those who had been fighting and who were much fatigued. We waited then in the ranks for some time while cannon balls were whizzing over our heads knocking the limbs off trees and striking the ground both before and behind us. One of the La Crosse Company which is on the left of our regiment was struck near the knee by a cannon shot; his leg was afterwards amputated at the hip, and this morning at 4 o’clock he died. Two others of that company were wounded, one in the foot and the other in the face. The cannon ball came so near the eyes of the latter that he has since become blind. The woods were so thick that we could see but a few rods towards the rebel battery. Men were continually coming back past our line who had been fighting. We asked them how it was going; they replied that some of our regiments were badly cut up, that they came right upon the rebel battery before they knew where they were, and that the brush was so thick that they could keep no lines, and consequently they became scattered while the rebel batteries kept playing upon them, killing many of them. After we had been there exposed to their fire without being able to return it for nearly half an hour we retreated.

You will get much more reliable accounts of the battle from the papers than I can give you, for we have no means of hearing the exact number of men engaged or all the circumstances attending it, for the men are not supposed to know all these things. We retreated to our present camp, about 2 ½ miles from the battle field, last evening. We were reinforced last night by about fifteen thousand men, and some heavy artillery, and report says that Gen. Scott is here with them. I have not heard how many of our men were killed. A negro who came into camp to-day says that “dead rebels were lying about there as hail” and that the cars were running all night carrying them back to Manassas, which place is said to be about six miles from here. We hear that the rebels have about forty thousand men around here but this is probably much exaggerated. We shall probably attack their position again this afternoon or to-morrow, if we do we are bound to take it.

There are many exciting incidents which I could tell you about this battle if I had the time and space. Those who were in the battle say that when any of our men were wounded and fell near the battery the savage fiends leaped over the breast-works and stabbed them; this has so exasperated our men that some of them swear that they will never give the rebels any quarter.

The enemy has retreated before us all the way until we got here, and we should certainly have driven them from their batteries yesterday if we could have brought even on-fourth of our men to bear on them. When the firing first commenced one or two batteries of flying artillery started from the camp to their assistance, but after they had gone but a short distance they were ordered back, as there was no chance to use any more cannon than they had.

You never saw men in such high spirits as we were when we heard the firing. Every one inquired why they did not march us over there, so we could have a hand in. It was the first cannonading that most of us had ever heard and we could hardly continue ourselves; we were so anxious to see and fight the rebels. When we heard the volleys of small arms Jeff. Dillon remarked that it sounded like a lot of “darkies dancing on an oak floor.”

When we started for the fight we were carrying our blankets, haversacks and canteens, besides our belt and cartridge boxes and forty rounds of cartridges and heavy woolen coats. When we got to the top of a hill we started down on a “double quick” with loud yells and hurrahs; the road was crowded with dust and the air was sultry hot so that some of the weaker ones began to give out. Before we had gone far the boys commenced throwing off their blankets and haversacks and even their canteens until the road was fairly filled with them. Two or three of our company, one of whom was John Cahill, gave out entirely and sat down by the roadside. I carried all of my things until the balls began to fly around us when an order was given to throw off the blankets and haversacks.

I then threw mine off, but before I had got them fairly off the order was countermanded and I put them on again. Our position in the woods was a most trying one even for old soldiers, but we all stood it like majors. When the great six pound balls come near our heads some of our boys rather squatted to dodge them, and Col. Peck, who was riding coolly along before the line seeing them dodging the balls laughed at them and asked if they were afraid of a few cannon balls. Capt. McKee too, stood at the head of our company but a few feet from me apparently as calm and collected as he would be pleading law in the old court-house.

Col. Coon, our former Colonel, is one of the aids to Col. Sherman, the commander of our brigade; he came down our line once in a while with orders to Col. Peck; he showed more courage than we supposed him capable of, for he rode along in the most unconcerned manner possible, asking as he passed, how we felt; we replied that we were ”all right” and asked him how he felt; he answered that he was perfectly cool and hoped he would remain so. I have just heard that our loss was 25 killed and 40 wounded, the rebel loss must have been more than this, for our artillery kept up all most an incessant fire upon their battery for about three hours. And many of our riflemen assert that they concealed themselves behind trees close to their works and picked off many of their officers and men. It is said General Beauregard was there and directed the battle. I don’t know how true it is.

It is now about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and we have been lying here all day. We are sure that our Generals are at work. It is said that a part of our army had gone around towards Manassas to cut of the enemies retreat. We have now got some heavy columbiads and rifled cannon and arrangement for firing hot-shot and shell, so that without exposing our men to much danger we can soon make their position too hot for them. I expect this letter will last you a long time, for it is written so poorly that you cannot read it in a week, but you ought not to expect it to be very elegant for the paper has been crumple in my pocket for days, and then I have to write on a it of board, or cracker box or any thing else I can get. Our Col. and Major, are both writing letters, and I notice they do not have any more conveniences than I do; the Col. is sitting on the ground writing on a board placed across his knees; the Major is partly reclining upon the ground writing on a low box. I intend, if I can get it finished in time, to send this letter to Washington by J. F. Potter, member of Congress from Wis., who is in camp to-day; he is around with the bowie knife that he made to fight Pryor, with several pistols; for, as you may suppose, it is not very safe travelling the road from here to Washington without being well armed.

We have taken quite a number of prisoners along the road; three of the rebel cavalry deserted and came to us; they say that they were pressed into the rebel service. One of them has been furnished with a musket and has gone into our ranks. At one of the houses we passed I saw two rebel soldiers who were left behind sick; they did not seem to be near as intelligent as many of the slaves.

We have slept out upon the ground for three nights and have lived almost entirely upon hard bread or crackers, and though the nights here are very chilly and the dew very heavy, we stand it very well. It is a grand sight to see our army over the hills and along the road; it might be called a river of bayonets flowing along glistening in the sun, seeming to one who is in the middle of it, to have neither beginning nor end. And then when we encamped for the night we are divided according to the brigades, each regiment being formed in a line by itself, the cavalry generally occupying one field, the artillery another, and as far as the eye can reach in every direction the fields are fill of men and horses, with the covered U. S. wagons scattered over the whole. It is indeed a grand view, and especially to us, who never saw a company of soldiers before leaving home. Our chief trouble on the march is want of water. Evey time we halt a few men are allowed to go from each company with a lot of canteens for water; they immediately break for the nearest well or spring, and on getting there never fail to find it surrounded by twenty or thirty soldiers, each one of whom tries to crowd himself as near the water as possible. If it is a spring, in less than five minutes it is converted into a regular mud puddle and the men ladle up the dirty with water an eagerness which can be only caused by thirst. If it is a well, one of the soldiers winds up a pailful, but before the bucket gets to the top a score of cups ae plunged into it, and the bucket is quickly drained. I have not suffered very much from thirst, for by standing my ground and gradually working my way into the crowd I have generally succeeded in getting a drink, though I was seldom fortunate enough to fill my canteen.

July 20 – It is said that Gen. Scott condemns most severely the action of Gen. Tyler in so needlessly exposing his men in the battle day before yesterday. Last night our company was detailed as part of the picked guard, and consequently I got but little sleep. We heard firing in the direction of our advance at intervals during the whole night. I have not heard what it was but presume that our flanks were pushing forward and driving in the enemy’s pickets. I have never seen our company in better spirits than they are now and in fact the whole army is composed of as jolly a lot of men as could be got together. Gen. Tyler and staff came riding along our line of ”gun stacks,” and as he passed where several of us were writing he remarked to one on his staff, “what a difference you see between this and the 69th (Irish) Regiment; these men are all writing letters.” He then asked us if we were writing home; we replied that we were; “tell them,” said he, “we shall have some good news for them before long.”

I want you to write to me oftener; I have received but one letter from you since leaving Madison; direct to Washington, the same as before. You will no doubt hear all kinds of reports about my being killed, &c., enough to keep you in a worry all the time if you believe them, but just consider them all false until you hear from me.

Your son,
Wm. Boardman Reed.

Grant County (Lancaster WI) Herald, 7/31/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy

William Boardman Reed at Ancestry

William Boardman Reed at Fold3

William Boardman Reed at FindAGrave

William Boardman Reed auction page

William Boardman Reed at Civil War Voices



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