Unknown Officer, U. S. Infantry Battalion, On the U. S. Regulars in the Battle and on the Retreat

16 02 2023

The following from the Phil. Press, so far exceeds our ability to describe the events of the day, that we give it in place of our own imperfect description:

P. S. – I attach to this letter a copy of a letter addressed by an officer of the regular army to a friend, who has kindly consented that I may use it. It is graphically written, and will tell you many things which only an officer can tell:

The march from our bivouac, near Centreville, was taken up at 2:30 A. M. on Sunday. Among officers and men the impression prevailed that the action would occur at Bull’s Run, the scene of General Tyler’s repulse a day or two previously. In this they were disappointed. Tyler’s brigade posted themselves at the bridge over Bull’s Run, where they were ordered to feign an attack as soon as Col. Hunter’s division were known to be in position. This order was partially obeyed. Hunter’s division, composed of Burnside’s brigade and Porter’s brigade, after proceeding a mile beyond Centreville, made a detour to the right, and proceeded over a wood road, well covered from observation, to the left flank of the enemy, at Manassas, a distance of about eight miles. At six o’clock firing was heard on the heights at Bull’s Run, from a battery in Tyler’s brigade, which was promptly answered by the enemy’s batteries. Their position thus revealed, the advance division (Hunter’s) ascended a hill at double quick, and almost immediately the Rhode Island battery and Griffin’s West Point battery were in brisk action. The former was supported by the first regiment Rhode Island Volunteers, who maintained their ground nobly for half an hour. At this moment, Porter’s brigade composed of the Fourteenth, Seventh and Twenty seventh New York, with a battalion of U. S. Marines under Major Reynolds, and a battalion of U. S. Third, Second, and Eighth infantry, under Major Sykes, took their position in line of battle upon a hill, within range of the enemy’s fire. Burnside’s battery being sorely pressed, the enemy having charged closely upon it, the gallant Colonel galloped to Major Sykes, and implored him to come to his assistance. Major Sykes brought up his men at a run, and, with a deafening shout, they charged upon the enemy’s skirmishers, who fled before them several hundred yards. Forming in columns of divisions, Sykes’ battalion advanced a considerable distance, until they drew upon themselves an intensely hot fire of musketry and artillery. This was a trying moment. the volunteers expected much of the regulars, and gazed upon them as they stood in unbroken lines, receiving the fire, and returning it with fatal precision. Impressions and resolutions are formed on the field of battle in an instant. The impression at the moment is a happy one, and Heintzelman’s brigade coming up into line, our forces steadily advanced upon the retreating rebels. The batteries, which had been meanwhile recruited with men and horses, renewed their fire with increased effect, and our supremacy upon the field was apparent. The enemy’s fire was now terrific. Shell, round shot, and grape from their batteries covered the field with clouds of dust, and many a gallant fellow fell in that brief time. At this juncture the volunteers, who hitherto had behaved nobly, seeing their ranks thinned out, many losing their field and company officers, lost confidence and in a panic fell back.

Three fresh regiments coming on the field at this time would have formed a nucleus upon which a general rally could have been effected, but while the enemy had reinforcements pouring in upon them momentarily, our entire force were in the field and badly cut up. This was our action maintained for hours. The panic was momentarily increasing. Regiments were observed to march up in good order, discharge one volley, and then fall back in confusion. But there was no lack of gallantry, generally speaking, and not a great many manifestations of cowardice. Our artillery, which made sad havoc upon the rebels, had spent their ammunition, or been otherwise disabled by this time, and in the absence of reinforcements, a retreat was inevitable. – The time for the last attack had now come. Nearly all the rebel batteries were in place, though silent. There was a calm – an indescribable calm. Every man on the field felt it. I doubt whether any one could describe it. Gen. McDowell was near the front of our lines, mounted on his gray charger. And here let me say emphatically that, whatever may be the criticism upon his conduct by the military or the abominable stay at home newspapers scriblers and politicians, no braver man trod that turf at Manassas than Gen. McDowell. Major Sykes’ battalion of eight companies, five of Third Infantry, two of Second, and one of Eight, were marched several hundred yards to the right, and formed the right flank of the line. Several volunteer regiments were deployed as skirmishers on the centre and left. Thus they advanced to the crest of the hill. The enemy met them with batteries and a thousand cavalry on the right. The fire was terrific. We maintained our position for a half hour. Then it was discovered that the rebel cavalry were attempting to outflank our right. We had no force to resist them, and the bugle of the regulars sounded the march in retreat. – This, so far as they were concerned, was conducted in good order. On Major Sykes was imposed the responsible duty of covering the retreat of the army. In this he was assisted on part of the route by the United States cavalry under Major Palmer, The enemy followed us with artillery and cavalry, shelling us constantly, until we reached Centreville. Here we bivouacked for an hour, and then again took up the line of march. But of the retreat let me say a word, and pardon, my dear fellow, this incoherent letter, written in an excited Centreville bivouack, on my sound knee, the other severely scratched.

As I said, Major Sykes, with his Third, Second, and Eighth infantry, in all but eight companies, and they decimated, conducted the retreat. Three of his officers had been wounded, and one killed, or captured. Several of them were detached, endeavoring to rally the volunteers in front, and have them march off in some sort of order, so as to protect themselves against the enemy’s cavalry, known to be in rapid pursuit. On this duty, I recognized his special aide, Lieutenant McCook, of our Stat, I believe, and another infantry officer, who was also mounted. The road by which the retreat was conducted, the same by which we advanced, had been, I think discovered by the rebels a day or two since. The engineers, in reconnoitering the enemy’s position had been accompanied by a body of troops, who caused such a dust to rise from the road as to make their march easily observable from the heights at Manassas. Retreating by this route, no difficulty occurred in ranging their guns directly upon our line. Major Sykes quickly discovering this, and the cavalry advancing to reconnoitre the pass near Centreville, and charge it if necessary, obliqued in column, getting them upon the turf perfectly protected from the enemy’s shell which were continued to be fired upon the line of dust which was raised in the wake of the galloping cavalry. It was an admirable piece of strategy, reflecting great credit upon the gallant Major, whose conduct in the entire action, to my knowledge, drew forth the most enthusiastic expressions of admiration from both volunteer and regular officers. Were the infantry my arm, I could ask for no braver or more capable commander than he. But we are about to renew our march towards Washington, and entrusting this note to the driver of an ambulance in front of our line, in the expectation that it will reach you early, let me say that if we halt near Alexandria or Arlington and my horse can stand the pressure, I will not be long in grasping your hand. Till then, my dear fellow, believe me, your disgusted and worn out friend.

(Camden, NJ) West Jersey Press, 7/24/1861

Clipping image

Contributed by John Hennessy



One response

16 02 2023
Meg Groeling

So nice to hear kind words about McDowell.

Liked by 1 person

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