The Great Battle of Manassas.
A Graphic Account,
By One Who Participated.
We are kindly permitted to publish, almost entire, the following letter from a surviving Oglethorpe to his mother. We think our readers will agree with us that it the most interesting yet published. Our young friend has proved himself an artist with the pan as well as the pencil. It is proper to remark that it was not written for publication, but it will be found all the more admirable for that reason:
Manassas Junction, July 22, 1861.
My Dear Mother: Sunday, July 21st, 1861, will be a day never to be forgotten. A more glorious victory, or a more decisive one, never occurred on the continent. What wailing there will be throughout the land; the wounded and the dead on every side. I have seen as much blood and as many awful scenes as would do for a lifetime! A battle! how awful!
On last Thursday we left our encampment near Winchester, and marched all that day and the succeeding night, with the exception of two hours, when we halted to rest. At half past 11 that night we crossed the Shenandoah, pulled off our clothes, put them with our accoutrements on our heads and shoulders, and forded the river. The most of us had nothing to eat on the march. Day before yesterday we were encamped about eight miles from this place. Yesterday morning, about six o’clock, we received orders to march, after having advanced about a mile, we could hear, every now and then, the report of a cannon. – We halted, inspected our arms, and loaded our muskets. Col Gardner said to us, “Men, I am no public speaker, but recollect to sustain the honor of the State from which you come.” We gave him three cheers, and then continued on our march. The firing became more distinct as we advanced, but it was only a single gun, and that at intervals of about fifteen minutes, but it was sufficient to show that the ball had commenced; after a while, we could see the smoke from the cannon.
We must have marched about eight miles up one hill, and down another, with the sun intensely hot and plenty of dust, when we were brought up on the brow of a hill in a corn field, from whence we could see the enemy advancing in immense numbers.
Then the firing commenced in good earnest, and appeared to be on every side. A battery began to play on us, the first shot passing just above our regiment. You can have no idea, not the slightest, of what a peculiar noise and at what a distance you can hear a ball passing through the air. Several balls and bombs struck within a few yards of us, tearing up the earth and making the dust fly.
Col. G. ordered us to lie down flat on the ground, I suppose a hundred bombs and balls passed over us, not more than ten feet above us, and very often bursting and falling very near us. One fell in the Macon Guards, the company next to ours, wounding two of their men. – They were the first men in our regiment to spill their blood. The balls would tear away the limbs from apple trees near us, and one bomb fell and exploded not over fifteen feet from where several of the boys and myself were lying. It threw the dust all over me. After we had laid there about three quarters of an hour a courier came, saying Gen. Bee wanted a regiment to assist him. We were ordered to rise, and marched down between the fire of both sides, the balls whizzing over us incessantly. It seemed as though one passed every second. Sometimes a shell would burst in the air, leaving a little cloud of white smoke, which looked beautifully. After passing the batteries, we were placed in a pine grove and small saplings, and then commenced the work. The enemy were not more than a hundred yards from us, and had the advantage in position, as also a house, fence and hay stacks as defense, while we had no protection, the trees being too small to prove such. There must have been several regiments against us, our own being not six hundred men, but all brave fellows. At the word fire we rushed to the edge of the thicket and fired. I took deliberate aim. We then laid down, loaded and fired. The balls from the enemy fall like hail around us, tearing the bark from the trees. Our company and the Rome Light Guards were exposed to the most galling fire; a great many men were behind us, and in firing I am certain wounded some of our men. While loading for my second discharge, a ball struck me and I believed myself wounded. It pained a good deal, I looked, but could see no blood. George Butler, noble fellow, who was lying by my side, loading his musket, my right arm touching him, was shot; he jumped up, ran to the rear, and died in a few minutes. Bob Baker then ran up, and, as I saw him, (I was then on my back loading) I said, “Hello, old fellow, is this you?” He said, “Yes, Jim,” and laughed, and was just in the act of firing when he was shot. The blood flew over my hand and the stock of my gun. He rolled over groaning, and I thought he was shot in the heart. He was not killed, however, but badly wounded in the arm. Several others were killed and wounded within a few feet of me. I continued at my position, expecting every moment to be killed, until I was nearly shot by one of our own men in the rear, when I retired ten or twelve feet back.
Col Gardner, who was in front of us, was ordering us to charge the enemy, but in the noise his voice could not be heard, and a Minie balls struck him in the leg, below the knee, passing entirely through, and fracturing the bone. Gen. Bartow ordered us to retreat under cover of one of our batteries, as he knew it was madness for us to stay there. Had we laid there a half our longer, I believe not a man would have survived. Col. G. says he never saw such firing. Another ball struck me on the sole of my shoe, but did not damage.
As we were retiring, I stopped to take a mouthful of mud – scarcely could it be called water – my mouth was awfully hot and dry; just then I met Capt McGruder, who, pointing to a clump of bushes, said, “Col. Gardner is wounded” – the first I knew of it. I immediately went there, and there lay our gallant Colonel, with several men around him. I threw down my musket, took his wounded leg in my arms, while the others supported his body; it was then I saw our own beloved commander, our Gen. Bartow, for the last time – very soon after he received his death-wound. We made all the haste we could to get the Colonel on, as the enemy were advancing. Seeing our regiment retreat they supposed we were defeated, and were pushing on rapidly, the balls still falling around us, but when the enemy were only a little distance behind us, we being in rear of our regiment going up a steep hill, only able to advance slowly, the enemy opened a terrific fire. It is amazing that we were not all cut to pieces, for the balls passed between our very legs. Three of us stuck to the Colonel, but finding it impossible to succeed in carrying him off, and his leg being very painful, we stopped, after having carried him about a quarter of a mile, and laid him down in a sort of gully, hoping thus to be protected from random shots. His head was on my arm; Heidt, of our company, and Banon, of the Rome Light Guard, were the two men who were with me. The Colonel entreated them to leave him and try to rejoin the regiment and save their lives., (I had told him I would remain with him) but they refused to go. I firmly believe, if found, that we would be bayoneted. We had one gun; the enemy about sixty yards off – three regiments distinctly seen. I told the Colonel I would load it, and fight it out, that we might as well kill as many as possible. Do not consider this any bravery on my part, the veriest coward would have done the same thing, believing, as I did, that he must be killed. The Colonel said “No, if we keep quiet we might not be observed.” The enemy, in the meantime, coming on in line of battle, one regiment came within twenty feet of us; one man raised his rifle and took aim at us, and I raised a white handkerchief on the ramrod, and told them, “We surrender.” The officers then came up. I asked permission to take the Colonel down the hill to a spring where we could get water. They said “certainly.” We did so, and several physicians came up. They all treated us honorably and as prisoners of war. Never was I more surprised; the physicians examined the Colonel’s leg, had a litter brought for him, gave us water, and in all respects treated us with every kindness. Several of our wounded were lying around, and all of them received the same kind attentions. They asked us if we did not know how utterly useless it was to attempt to resist; that they “could sweep us all away – that they had fifty thousand men as a reinforcement. At the time they felt confident of glorious victory. While there, the balls and shot of our batteries tore away the limbs of trees all around us. With the assistance of one of their men, we got the Colonel to their hospital – an old farm house – a quarter mile distant.
We laid him under a tree in the shade. Their wounded were being brought in in large numbers – the whole yard was strewn with them, lying all about in the shade. The old farm house appeared to be their headquarters as well as the hospital, and we had not been there more than a half hour before they began to prepare for a retreat, and then ensued a scene of the wildest confusion. But we had time to observe that their men are far better equipped, in all respects, for a campaign than ours. The wounded, believing they would surely be killed, begged earnestly not to be left. They ordered us to put the Colonel on board and carry him with them, but he told them he would rather that they should shoot him there and then than move him again, and tried to persuade them to leave their wounded, with the physicians to attend them, pledging his word that if they would raise a yellow flag not a shot would be fired in that direction, and that their wounded should receive every attention, but their confusion was too great to admit of their listening to reason. At length, however, the Colonel persuaded them to leave some of their wounded, as well as ours, and six of their men to attend them, pledging himself that they should not be considered not treated as prisoners, nor would ours; and that their men should be returned as soon as possible. To this they consented.
Our batteries were now beginning to open on the house. Col. G. ordered a white flag of some sort to be raised. Our handkerchiefs were all too badly soiled, so I took off a part of an undergarment and tied it to a bedstead post, and ran up stairs, but found no possible way of getting on the house, and stuck it out of one of the windows. I could distinctly see our battery – the balls came nearer. I expected momentarily to see the old house knocked down. The balls continued to whiz. I went down into the yard, and was convinced that they did not see the flag. I jerked off my blue shirt, tied my undershirt to a pole, and climbed the chimney to an out-house. It was very broad, and from our batteries looked like an embankment. Heidt was standing near the foot of the chimney. I had nothing on but my pants; while trying to fasten up the pole our batteries must have taken me for one of the enemy attempting to mount a battery. The first thing I knew I heard a ball coming. It could not have passed more than three feet above me – it whizzed through the trees beyond. I was rather scared. I then put up another flag out in the field, which as soon as they observed they ceased firing at the house.
The rest of the day I was busy unceasingly in giving water to the wounded, and trying to fix up their wounds the best way I could. There was no physician there – all had gone when the enemy fled. My hand was in blood all day; nothing but blood. About every half hour I would go round the yard, give each of them a drink of water – so grateful, poor fellows! On one of my rounds I found that two or three had died while I was away. They were shot in every conceivable place.
Towards night we procured and ambulance and brought Col Garner here, where he has a tent, and I am nursing him. He is a noble man – bears it so well – as cool as a cucumber. He sent me down to the battle field this morning on business. I did not get back until two hours ago, it now being half past twelve. I sit up with him till one, when Frank, the negro man, will take his turn. I saw Bob; he is quite well.
We took 78 men into the fight (the O.L.I.) To show how terrible was the firing: six were killed, twenty were wounded, twenty-nine struck but not hurt, leaving only sixteen untouched; and they, when he fell, gathered round our noble hero, our beloved Gen. Bartow. We have gained a glorious victory – taken sixty-two pieces of guns. But all this the papers have told you. But oh! it is impossible to begin to describe the horrors of a battle field for a day or two after or at the time. The most of the killed have been buried, and yet today (23d) when I rode over to the field the dead were still strewn about in every direction – dead horses all over the field. The stench was so intolerable I could scarcely force the horse I was riding to go. I must acknowledge I had but a faint idea of what a battle was, nor am I so anxious as before for a fight; and yet to-morrow, if our company were to go, and our country needed our services, I should not hesitate a moment. I would go.
You must excuse this wretched scrawl, I am so tired. I have been so busy I have not had time to write. I have washed my face but twice since the battle. Our brave boys, who so nobly died, were buried yesterday, 22d, in one grave – side by side – noble, glorious fellows – brothers in arms, brothers in death. John Branch first, George Butler second, Willie Crane third, Bryan Morel fourth, Tom Purse fifth, Julius Ferrill sixth. The wounded are most of them at Culpepper C. H.
That ball that struck my leg left a mark but did not draw blood. I was a little scared in the fight, though my hand was steady, and I think I killed one Yankee. It was through the mercy of Almighty God that I was spared. I never expected it. I had an idea that I should be shot, but I knew that I was fighting for my country in a just cause, and that God’s holy will must be done. Mother, I was thinking of it this evening as I rode along, ’twas those many, many earnest prayers of yours to a merciful God that spared us.
I saw Charlie Daniell and Steve Barnwell this evening.; they are both well. Rockwell is all right, tell his mother.
J. B. G.
Savannah, Ga. Daily Morning News 7/31/1861.
Contributed by Henry W. Persons & Rick Allen
Per Wilkinson and Woodworth, A Scythe of Fire, the author is James B. Grant and the letter was written on July 22, 1861 [though most likely begun that day, and finished no earlier than the 23rd, per the narrative – BR.] Per this roster, Grant was a private in Co. B at First Bull Run. In June 1863 he would be appointed 1st Lieutenant to serve as then General William Gardner’s ADC.
This post updates and earlier post of an abbreviated version of this letter published in the New Orleans Crescent on 8/8/1861, contributed by John Hennessy.