Letter From The 2nd Regiment
Camp Life—The March to the Battle of Bull’s Run—Conduct of the Regiment in the Battle—The Bravery of Officers and Men.
Camp of Sec. Vt. Reg., Clermont, 6 miles
from Alexandria, Va., 1861.
Editors of the Times: I am aware that when I left Burlington I promised to write you often in regard to all matters pertaining to the Vermont Second, and I am equally aware that I have not kept my promise; but when you reflect a moment upon my duties in camp and position in our Regiment, you will, I know, forgive me. The history of our triumphant route from Burlington to Washington has, by this time, become exhausted; and I shall pass over that and take you to the hill east of the Capitol in the most terrible shower of rain that was ever known, and there you may see our boys, wet to their skins, pitching their tents and preparing their supper, on the afternoon of the 26th of June. Of our stay in the city it is enough to say that we had a grand time, and enjoyed ourselves hugely. But at last the order came to “strike tents,” and we packed up “duds” and started for some point, the exact location of which we were not informed; but time, which always brings us out somewhere, brought us, about sun down, and in an awful thunder shower, out at Commodore DeForrest’s estate, about six miles west of Alexandria. – Here, wet through as rats, we pitched into the mud and went to sleep. I was so perfectly worn out by the labors of the day that I had not strength to raise my tent, and by invitation from Capt. Dillingham, whose tent was up, I turned into his mud-hole, wrapped my overcoat around me a laid down to pleasant dreams!
The next morning we arose under a scorching Virginia sun, which soon dried us off, and we found ourselves in a very pleasant location; and here let me say, that during all the rain, toil and fatigue of the day, not a murmur or word of complaint was heard from one of our men. They bore themselves, as they always have. We now learned that our Regiment was the advance guard towards Manassas Junction, and that we were occupying a post of danger as well as honor. Here we commenced our first lessons in active field operations. We were immediately in the enemy’s country, and our time was pretty well occupied in guard and picket duty. Of all our adventures I have not time or space to write. Others have given you the history of them, and I will only say that our boys were always on hand and ready to do their duty, however difficult or dangerous.
About this time we were advised that we were joined in Col. Howard’s Brigade, which was composed of three Maine Regiments and our own. We found Col. Howard to be one of the finest of men, and a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word, and we have since found out that he is as brave and noble as he is good. I cannot pass without also bearing testimony to the kind acts and gentlemanly deportment of the Colonel’s Aids. One is his brother, and a splendid fellow; the others are Lieutenants Buel and Mordecai, from West Point. We have all received many kindnesses at their hands. But we must pass along and come down to the time when we received orders from headquarters to put ourselves in light marching order, to move with all the grand army upon the enemy, entrenched at Manassas. The morning we were to march was Monday, and we all arose with light hearts at an early hour, and had our “traps” all on and ready for the encounter. We did not receive orders to march until about noon when we left our camp with three days rations in our haversacks and started on that fatal journey.
We marched all the afternoon and most of the night and finally brought up on a side hill where we had the extreme pleasure of laying down on the damp ground with our clothes all on for sleep and repose. In the course of the after noon I bought me a horse, as we had no horses, which aided me very much in the march, and that together with now and then a cheering word from Col. Howard spurred us on in good spirits. The next morning, Tuesday, we started early and marched all day and encamped in a fine piece of woods that night where we stopped until Thursday morning. Tuesday we routed about 700 rebels from their camp and they left in such a hurry that they had not time to gather up their provisions which were eagerly seized by our boys and appropriated with a relish. Thursday morning we weighed anchor for Centerville and arrived there after dark and went into camp. When we started Thursday I was ordered by Col. Howard to take two companies of our regiment to act as rear guard of the brigade, which means to march behind all the baggage wagons and see that they were brought into camp safe. Just at dark we came to a very steep hill about one half mile long and attempted to ascend it, but lo and behold, of all the horses and mules which were hitched to that long train of wagons, not one would go up that hill. Here was a question for a lawyer. The main body of the army was far in advance and we left behind with the pleasing reflection that we were liable at any moment to be pitched into by the enemy and all our baggage taken and ammunition appropriated to blowing out our brains. We raved like mad bulls and you may not be at all surprised if before we left that delightful spot there was considerable tall extemporaneous swearing. The result was we unloaded the wagons, carried the baggage all up the hill on our backs, pushed the teams up, loaded and went on our way rejoicing. When we arrived in camp we found the boys all anxious about us and fearing some evil had befallen us. I am deeply indepted to Capts. Drew and Hope and their gallant boys for their assistance on that occasion. We remained at Centerville until Sunday morning at 2 o’clock A. M. July 21st, when we started for Bull’s Run.
Saturday evening at Dress Parade the chaplain of one of the Maine regiments made a most affecting prayer after which Col. Howard addressed us upon the events of the morrow and told us that in all human probability that was the last time we should all meet on parade and expressed the hope that we should all behave like men and never turn our back to the foe in the hour of conflict. He was answered with a cheer and a “never,” which echoed through the woods of old Virginia for miles. At two o’clock A. M. Sunday morning we started and after marching about one mile we were halted and remained there until nearly seven. We were now advised of our destination which we were told was to march around Bull’s Run between that and Manassas and cut off the retreat of the rebels if they should attempt to retreat on the latter place. About seven we marched on some three miles and halted near the cross road. Here we found Gen. McDowell and staff and all the other notables of the general army. They all put on airs and looked as wise as sheep and so did we. Here we stayed until about ten o’clock when a dispatch came for Colonel Howard to move his brigade out to Bull’s Run, at “double quick” as our services were likely to be needed there very much before sun down. The order came “fall in” and so we went on a dead run for about ten miles, through woods, over fences, ditches, rivers and everything else – soon our men began to give out – it was hat as the thermometer would allow and no water but stagnant pools, which a frog would not live in, to drink – during this time we could hear the loud roar of the batteries as they answered each other in rapid succession, and we knew our boys were at them. Soon we could hear the musketry and as we approached nearer we could hear the clash of arms and we came to the conclusion that it would not be necessary for us to cut off any body’s retreat until somebody began to retreat.
On, we went upon the run and our poor boys were dropping out by dozens, yet no halt or slack. Now we have arrived, at a road which leads up along the skirt of a piece of woods, we enter it and go on upon the run. Now, Oh God! what sights meet our eyes! Here are the hospitals for friends and foes, all thrown in together; here are the surgeons in the woods sawing off legs and arms from the poor fellows who have been wounded – some they have on the ground and some on a board; they shriek, they groan, they swear, in their delirium of agony; here comes the carts bringing in the wounded; the blood running from the cart like water from your street sprinkler. It is awful; it is terrible, but yet our brave boys press on. Now comes a messenger saying to us, go on boys; they need your help. Then another saying go ahead boys, the rebels are flying. We heed them not but with steady step move on. Now we have arrived at the corner of the woods where we must break off to the right through a corn-field which had been occupied by the enemy’s lines in the forenoon – here is our first lesson – we march along the ridge of a hill exposed to the raking fire of three batteries, all in plain sight of use. When I stepped over the fence into the field the first thing which greeted my entrance was a shell which went screaming past my head in a manner neither pleasant nor tranquilizing. I involuntarily dodged down my head and let the unwelcome visitor pass by. On we went while the shot and shell from those rifled cannon tore up the ground around us with perfect impunity – soon we came to to a stone house, and here we bore to the left and passed into another field, still in point blank range of those accursed batteries. As yet I had seen none of our boys fall, but just as I entered this field, I saw my friend, Lieut. Sharpley, of the Burlington company, fall flat on his face. The air was full of the deadly missiles and my fears were that he had been struck by a rifle cannon shot – I ran to him and picked him up and was happy to find that it was only the effects of a shot having passed so near his mouth as to take his breath from his body. I called a private to take care of him and went on glad in my heart that he was not hurt, for a braver man and kinder friend does not live than he.
About this time Col. Howard rode up and ordered our regiment to form line of battle in a deep ravine and march up a steep bank covered with brush wood, on to an inclined plain in full sight of the enemy. The order was given to Col. Whiting, who was near me at the time, completely exhausted and worn out – he immediately ordered me to give the order and see that it was executed, which I did to the sound of music which could be heard but not seen. We found in the ravine our boys, as cool as when on parade, and the order was given to “Forward the Second,” and you may depend it was done nobly. Oh, who would not have given a world at that moment to have been a Vermonter. Not a man but what felt that they carried the honor of Vermont upon their bayonets. On they went – the orders come, “Captains in rear of your companies,” “Boys keep cool,” “Take good aim and mark your man,” – not a pale face appeared in the line; lips were compressed and hearts were as firm as the granite in their native hills. The air was full, even to darkness, with iron and lead, yet I felt a pride in being with the noble Second on that day; and, although I was not born upon Vermont’s soil, yet I was proud of her and her gallant sons, and gloried in the State of my adoption. When we arrived on the brow of the hill we were in plain sight of the enemy’s lines. We marched down the hill about half way, and halted in line of battle. – Between us and the enemy was a deep ravine, and on the other side, on the hill pitching towards us were the rebels, behind a Virginia rail fence. The order now came to open fire on the whole line. Our boys drew up their guns, took deliberate aim at the fence, and then it would have done your soul good to see the devils jump. At the second volley they all cut and run into the woods on their left flank. Soon they made their appearance at the edge of the woods, and at them we went again like bulldogs. We were now in a very uncomfortable situation at least. They were shooting at us with three batteries, and all the rifles and muskets in the Southern States – I thought.
Our regiment loaded and fired with the rapidity of lightning for about two hours, when the word came to retreat. The remainder is unpleasant to reflect upon. I will not describe it our attempt to. I have only to say that, although our entire lines were routed and fled in confusion, yet no stain of dishonor or disgrace rests upon Vermont or any of her brave and noble sons on that day. We marched from the field and formed in the ravine from which we started, and made the best of our way to Centerville. I cannot close this letter, although it is too long already, without bearing testimony to our brave men on that day. In the first place no men in any battle or in any age of the world ever evinced more true courage and down-right bravery.
It would, perhaps, be invidious to call names, but I must be permitted to mention Captains Dillingham, Eaton, Hope and Randall, and Lieutenants Henry, Gregg, Campbell, Johnson, Howe, Tracy, Hugh and Tyler, as men who were under my eye during the whole battle. – With Captain Dillingham I have always been acquainted, and have felt a sort of pride in his success. I have watched him, and I saw him in the midst of the carnage on that bloody day. He was as cool and self-possessed as when on Company parade. I could hear him give his orders to his men; I noticed his face as he passed back and forth, speaking words of encouragement to his brave boys, and by his example inspiring them with courage and fortitude. In a moment I saw him fall! O, God! I sprang towards him and caught him in my arms, lifted him up, and, to my great joy, discovered that a Minnie ball had only just grazed his temple and stunned him for a moment. – I set him on his feet and left him in charge of his men, and started for my post on the left of the line, and scarcely had I gone ten paces then, with a voice that could be heard beyond the enemy’s lines, I hear him say: “They have not killed me yet; give it to them, boys!”
Capt. Drew, of the Burlington Company, fell out sick by the way before we reached the field of battle, and the company was led on to the field and fought under the brave and gallant Lieut. Weed, who conducted himself throughout that bloody day in a manner which did honor to himself and glory to his State. He was the only commissioned officer in company G on the field.
Capts. Smith, Fullam, Walbridge, Todd, and others, behaved in a manner worthy of Vermont, while Capt. Randall greatly distinguished himself by his cool courage and self-possession; he was determined not to leave the field, and did not until compelled to do so by the commander. Of the field officers, it is not for me to speak. One word about our Color-bearer: he is a man from Company G, I do not recollect his name. – He is 6 feet 5 1-2 inches high – he carried his banner upon the field and stood by it during the whole battle, like Goliath of old. Not a limb trembled or a muscle moved, while six of the enemy’s bullets pierced the sacred flag, not one touched the noble bearer. He is truly a brave man, and deserves to be remembered.
Of our surgeons, Drs. Ballou and Carpenter, too much praise of them cannot be said. – We all like Dr. Ballou, because he is always a perfect gentleman, and uses us so kindly, and that fatal Sunday he laid aside all fear of danger to himself, and thought only of our poor boys who were sick and wounded. We shall remember his bravery and repay him with our prayers and good wishes as long as we live. – Dr. Carpenter, of course, every body likes; he is always kind and attentive to our men, and does all in his power to cheer them up, and alleviate their sufferings. His extensive knowledge of his profession, qualifies him in an eminent degree to fill the post which he holds; and his conduct at Bull’s Run, when with revolver in hand, he stopped the crazy tide of the retreat, and made them take in our wounded, who were lying on the battle field, shows that he is a brave soldier, as well as a good surgeon. In connection with the doctors, we must mention our friend, E. Z. Stearns, our Hospital steward, who has greatly endeared himself to us all, by his kind offices and sharp repartees. He is well versed in his duties and performs them to the entire satisfaction of every body.
Our Quartermaster’s Department is managed on a scale not to be surpassed by any regiment in the service. Mr. Pitkin is untiring in his efforts to make us all comfortable, and he is nobly sustained by the Quarter-master’s Sergeant Cain, and the Messrs. Stone. Cain is a young man who thoroughly understands whatever he takes hold of, and his even temper and natural goodness of heart make him a general favorite of us all. We cannot but speak in the highest terms of praise of Mr. Hatch, the agent of the governor in New York. From the moment we arrived in New York, down to the present time, he has been with us like a guardian angel – only last night he was out here to our camp to see if there was not something he could do for us. We shall all remember him, for we appreciate his labors. He seems to possess the right business talent for this place, and devotes his whole time and attention to our wants and necessities. We are greatly indebted also, to Col. T. B. Bowdish of Burlington, and to Mr. Canfield for their kindness and the interest they have taken in our welfare. Our Chaplain, Rev. Mr. Smith, is laboring industriously for our welfare, and does us many acts of kindness, which will always be remembered.
Vermont Phoenix, 8/15/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy