[Correspondence of the Journal]
Station near Alexandria, Va.,
Sunday, July 28, 1861.
My Dear Selkreg –
The calendar indicates that a week has passed since the great battle. Nothing else shows it, for in war the sun rises with no clearer or holier light on the Sabbath than on any other day. The gentle and serene influences which have hallowed this day in our minds through all our lives, are unknown, unseen and unfelt here, save as our memory goes back to our homes in the far-off North, and imagination brings before our spirit’s backward gaze a christian people moving to the music of the Sabbath bells toward the place where the God of our fathers is worshipped. Other than this and an occasional war discourse from our Chaplain, we know no Sunday.
I wrote you a hasty sketch of the fight the other day, and have been endeavoring since to collect the facts as to the number of men actively engaged – the loss in killed, wounded and prisoners, – and other circumstances necessary to a complete and intelligent account of the affair; but I have given up the attempt in utter despair. In the first place I enquired of members of different regiments as to how many they had lost, and their stories were so conflicting that nothing could be gathered from there. Statements made by members of the same regiment would differ immensely. One would say about twenty of their men were killed, and another would assert that not fifty of the whole regiment was left. I have no doubt, judging from the accounts in the dailies, that the New York reporters asked these same fellows about it and sent on their answers as the exact figures. It is of no use to try to give any accurate statistics as to numbers and losses at present. Stragglers supposed to be lost are constantly coming in. Regiments totally broken up are being rapidly re-organized. Cannon reported captured turn up all right in Washington and Alexandria.
One thing is certain. On Tuesday, July 16th, 1861, the Grand American Army in solid column, with firm step, proud heart, drums beating and banners streaming on the breeze, marched on Manassas Junction via Fairfax Court House, and on the following Monday that same army returned via. Fairfax Court House in a very unsolid column, rapid step, humiliated hearts, with folded banners and ‘nary sound of drum. The causes which led to this sad reverse have already been largely canvassed in the newspapers. Some of them I know – many of them are known to almost everybody.
That somebody was to blame is very evident. It is very evident too that Gen. Scott thinks so, for high military officers who commanded on that battle-field won’t have a chance to unsheathe their inglorious swords at the head of our columns again very soon. Abler hands and wiser heads will guide and control our future operations. But I did not intend to say a word about this.
There ae a thousand conflicting opinions as to the cause which led to this defeat, and enough of them have already been printed so that your readers have had a good chance for selection in the premises, and each can pick out an opinion for himself. Aside from bad manoeuvering and gross imprudence on the part of officers commanding, our defeat is mainly to be attributed to a regular licking received at the hands of the rebels who had more men, were behind strong fortifications, in woods, well furnished with artillery which was well served, and rifles which were handled with as much dexterity and by men fully as brave and well disciplined as ourselves. For other and further causes of the disaster see articles in the New York papers written by parties who were not within three hundred miles of the fight.
The manner in which an army starts off to war may not be uninteresting to many of your readers, and the friends of the volunteers who have to stay at home, and consequently cannot see for themselves. The incidents on the march are also many times worth detailing. You will remember that early in July we moved from Camp McDougal, near Washington, across the Potomac into Virginia, and encamped about one and a half miles south-west of Alexandria, on the Fairfax turnpike. Several other regiments did the same thing about the same time, and we knew that something was going to be done. On the 15th of July, couriers on horseback were seen riding through all the camps, and immediately each company received orders to cook three days rations, and be ready to march at an hour’s notice. Forty rounds of ball cartridges were distributed to each man, and everybody was busy getting ready to march. That afternoon our regiment – and we did what all the others did – formed in column by company, and our arms and ammunition were duly inspected by the Colonel in person, to see that everything was in good working order. We were then dismissed. The next day we again fell in line, and the Colonel made a few stirring remarks, when our regimental colors were brought out, and he asked us if we would follow and defend them. We unanimously agreed that we would. Meanwhile the movement of the army had already commenced. Long trains of artillery had moved past our camp, and regiment after regiment had filed along the road towards Fairfax. The soldiers were in eminent spirit, and cheered loudly as they passed, and we hurrahed and tigered in response. At last our turn came to fall in column, and our line was put in motion. It was now past four o’clock P. M., and the army was fairly on its forward march. The order of march was in four ranks, or four men abreast, with files closely closed, and arms at will. The column this formed extended both to the advance and rear, further than the eye could reach, and as it moved slowly and steadily forward over the hills and down into the valleys, beneath the glittering bayonets and shining arms, which seemed to cover it like a steel armor, it resembled in the distance and immense serpent, with a shining metal back, and from its proportions one might imagine that its length was sufficient to wrap around the entire rebellion, and that a single tightening up of its folds would squeeze secession out of the Old Dominion. We moved on through a thinly settled country, finding few of the natives at home, and these principally women and slaves, and in many instances, these were gone also. Few were friendly to us, tho’ the boys would break from the ranks and fill their canteens with water at their wells, and help themselves to such fruit and things as they could find. We marched until about ten o’clock at night, and then encamped about three miles from Fairfax Court House. That night we slept on our arms, and posted a strong picket guard. The next morning our division was ordered to the left for the purpose of executing a flank movement on the rebels, who were in force at Fairfax. This took us three miles out of our direct route, and brought our line of march over the old military road cut by Gen. Braddock, thro’ to Western Virginia, for the purpose of the old French war. This road is very narrow, not wide enough for teams to pass each other, and cut through a dense forest, and much of the way it is dug out like a cut through a hill for a rail road. We soon came to trees lately felled across the road by the rebels. These our pioneers were obliged to cut away, and as we had to wait for them to clear the road, our progress was very slow. But we pushed on, momently expecting and attack, until we came to a deserted earthwork.
We then moved more cautiously and re-inforced our skirmishers in advance. – Pretty soon we heard sharp firing ahead, and a courier came dashing back, stating that a party of rebels had fired on our advance and fled. It was a good place for an attack, being where our route lay through a deep cut. Two hundred resolute men could have held the position against almost anything but a regular siege. This over, we moved on with an occasional skirmish, until we suddenly came in sight of an extensive earth work directly across the road. From behind this the enemy fired a volley upon us wounding two of our men. Their fire was returned and several of their men were seen to fall, when they fled carrying off their dead. – We then marched directly through their fortifications, and the boys picked up several things in their camp and among them some pistols and a sword or two. Blankets were scattered about in great abundance. We pressed on and found that the enemy had precipitately fled. We found their sick, hospital stores, provisions, liquors and some arms. The boys also captured a storehouse filled with drygoods, tobacco, cigars, shoes, ammunition, &c. – These they rapidly appropriated and distributed in a very liberal and profuse manner, cigars and tobacco being the most desirable plunder. A guard was soon placed over the storehouse however, and the fun stopped. While this was going on intelligence came that the rebels had left Fairfax and that it was occupied by the American troops. We immediately marched into a neighboring field, stacked arms and broke ranks for the men to rest. In company with Capt. Whitlock I immediately started for the celebrated Fairfax Court House, half a mile distant. Found the village full of the American army, and the Court House a very ordinary looking building. It is built of brick, and is about as magnificent as a country school house, and the interior arrangements quite similar. Fairfax is about the size of Dryden village. Most of the citizens had fled, and the soldiers had taken possession of the deserted house which were generally well furnished, and they had the darkies making hoe cake and roasting bacon which they had served up in good style on the tables where rebel families had that morning taken their breakfast. I regret to say that much property was wantonly destroyed, but it was impossible to wholly prevent outrages. The Zouaves especially broke things, generally. We encamped that night near Fairfax and the next day moved on to Centreville distant about ten miles, and five miles from Manassas, and there encamped. We had stacked our arms when heavy firing was heard to the right, indicating that our advance had engaged the enemy. This proved to be the battle of Bull Run, fought on Thursday, a short account of which I have already given you. Our loss was not so great as I then reported.
Friday and Saturday morning the army marched out to the battle. It was a magnificent spectacle, grand and awe-inspiring beyond the power of language to describe. Such a display of human power thus terribly manifested in the mighty and outstretched arm of war, is rarely witnessed in any clime or in any age, and must be seen with the living eye to be even faintly comprehended or understood. Those who gazed upon that brilliant yet terrible array, as with all the “pomp and circumstance of war” it went out to write a bloody page upon the book of time, will carry with them to the end of life the memory in pictures of living fire, of that host of freemen, as with floating banners and glistening arms it stood and moved in the early sunlight of that beautiful Sabbath morning. Our regiment was assigned a position on the left, and we were in the reserve while the main body moved to the right towards Manassas, where the principal attack was to be made. We quickly took up our position on the road to Bull’s Run – the right of our regiment resting on the road, and the left extending into the woods. Directly in advance of us, on the brow of the hill, we had a battery of rifled cannon, which commanded the rebel battery at Bull’s Run, where the battle of the previous Thursday was fought. The land lays around where the battle was fought some as it does around Ithaca, only there is no village or lake there and the valley and hill sides are thickly wooded. Our forces occupied what corresponds to the East hill (at Ithaca,) and the rebels occupied the West hill and the intervening valley. The rebels were strongly fortified in their position, and the woods were full of their masked batteries. At 7 o’clock A. M., the fight was commenced by shots from our cannon. These were from our battery in advance of our regiment. Soon we heard heavy firing on the extreme right, followed by the sharp reports of musketry and rifles, announcing that the battle had commenced in earnest.
The cannonading and the fire of small arms now became terrific and continued almost without intermission until nearly two P. M., when it decreased considerably. Meanwhile our reserve lay waiting, impatient for their chance in, knowing nothing of the result of the battle on the right. At last we received orders, and our regiment being in advance and in fact alone, moved rapidly down towards the brow of the hill, where our battery above spoken of, was stationed. What was our surprise to meet our pickets running towards us in the greatest confusion, and closely followed by our battery of flying artillery in full retreat. Not a man in our company flinched, but pressed steadily forward and formed in line of battle. The Colonel passed along the line, telling the men to “keep cool, fire low, and aim at the centre of their bodies.” The enemy were now seen charging out of the woods, and filling a little open field in the valley below us, a little beyond the range of our muskets. The artillery was called back by the bugle, and being quickly placed in position, poured a terrible fire of grape upon them, which did immense execution in their ranks. They charged forward, but the cannon was too much for them, and they retreated after firing a volley of grape and musketry, which killed one of our officers attached to the artillery.
Another body of the enemy then charged on our battery, and the gunners firing a few rounds, hitched on their horses and fled with their pieces, thus leaving us unsupported by artillery. The captain of the battery remarked as he fled past us, “Boys, it is too hot for us, you must take them now.” Our boys stood fast, only grasping their muskets tighter, and waited for the rebels to come up. But the enemy evidently not liking the looks of things, fell back, and then we were ordered to fall back too, of which movement, we couldn’t any of us see the point. We marched rapidly to a hill near Centreville, and there for the first time learned that the main body of our army had been defeated and had already retreated past Centreville and that the rebel cavalry was rapidly pursuing. We formed in hollow square on hearing this and awaited the charge of Cavalry. Presently a body of horsemen appeared emerging from the woods over the road where we had just retreated. A couple of shells from our battery sent them flying, and one of their horses, minus a rider, galopped up the road towards where we stood, and was immediately secured. He was equipped with a good saddle and a splendid pair of revolvers. It was now sundown. Meanwhile the rest of our brigade consisting of six or seven thousand man, had taken position on the hill, and we lay down on our arms in order of battle, ready for an attack whenever it should come. Instead of an attack, at about 11 o’clock we were waked up with and order to retreat and we were huriedly marched back to Fairfax, over a road literally covered with the arms and cast-away equipments of our army. We halted and rested at Fairfax, and then continued our retreat to our camp near Alexandria, where we arrived at about 11 A. M., on Monday, tired almost to death, and heartbroken over our sad reverse. But we are all right now and feel as well as ever, save the gloom caused by the humiliating discomfiture of our army. Although not engaged in the hottest of the battle, and though none of them fell on the field, yet the Ithaca volunteers were placed under circumstances well calculated to try their nerve and courage, and I am proud to be able to say that for their conduct on that trying occasion, none of their friends at home need ever blush.
Yours very truly,
P. B. Wager, Lieut. Co. I, 32d Reg.
Ithaca [N. Y.] Journal and Advertiser, 8/7/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy
Prentice B. Wag[n]er bio sketch
Prentice B. Wager at Fold3