Letters from the Battle-Field.
[Correspondence of the Journal]
Headquarters 32d Regiment,
July 27, 1861.
Friend Selkreg: – I cannot help, as one of the many military men engaged in the ill-fated conflict at Bull’s Run, to feel slandered by the public press as regards the operations of that day. It is enough upon the poor soldiers that they were defeated, without making them accountable for the loss of half a million of property, strewn, as wrecks of defeat in the indecent haste with which that great army retired to camp that day; without charging upon the whole army a panic that carried them past Centreville in their rout; that lost that place, Fairfax Court House, and all the territory we had occupied by victorious arms, which is now given back to enemies and is being fortified, and must be retaken perhaps with loss of life.
The withdrawing our forces from the conflict at Bull’s Run, as the fight was then progressing, was doubtless eminently proper. The general rout following is the fault of the Commander, and one of the most infamous things, as it was conducted, in military history. If Gen. McDowell had ordered the army to fall back and form at Centreville, instead of ordering the men promiscuously to run for their lives to their camps, the command would have been well executed, our Government property saved, the territory saved, the moral and credit of the army saved, and neither the world nor our enemies have known that we were defeated. What reason was there for a panic among thirty thousand men, who were formed in divisions remote from the actual conflict, who had not fired a musket all day, who, when they retired from the woods, retired as they would have moved to a fourth of July parade. If all possible panics had been generated among the men in the fight, it would not have affected more than the six or eight regiments actually engaged in it, bating the stupid blunder of moving a train of baggage wagons into the inextricable passes of Bull Run, to be wedged in and block up the rear.
That thirty thousand men would have remained and held Centreville had they been permitted to have done so. So far from the army’s having taken flight, in an uncontrollable panic, I have seen several of the regiments who supposed when ordered to retreat that they were simply changing position for better effect. Ninety-nine out of every hundred of the troops, had they known that they were being withdrawn as defeated, would have refused to have left the woods. Fifteen thousand men, ourselves included, in a selected position natural for defence, were quietly asleep on the grass, and were awakened at 11 o’clock at night to march home. That single fifteen thousand could easily have held Centreville and have recovered all the property and saved the credit of the army. They would have done it if permitted. Re-enforcements would have reached us, and nothing would have pleased them more in the world than to have had Jeff Davis come out from his fastnesses and retreat behind masked batteries in the woods, and have attempted to have driven them from that position. Yet those men are now demoralized by the fright communicated to them by general officers, and by being marched, between 11 o’clock at night and 11 o’clock the next day, thirty miles to avoid some terrible grim-visaged enemy that would hang on their rear and worry and destroy them.
The Colonel of the 32d Regiment, when the enemy appeared and opened a tremendous fire upon our division, (which fire we suppose was simply to divert the attention of the remainder of the army from their own retreat at the place where the battle was, for they ran from our troops faster than our’s from them,) insisted on staying and giving them sturdy battle, and to that end induced some of the artillery, which the regiment protected, to stay after the other pieces had left, and give the enemy a few more rounds of grape and cannister. A young United States officer, a lieutenant of artillery, had just fallen and was carried in rear of our lines, and then retreat was ordered. The bugle, whose notes they must obey, then sounded a peremptory retreat which they obeyed, and left us to our duty to cover that retreat and save their horses and guns from the enemy. We did this, and our regiment came orderly the last out of the woods, with confederate cavalry hanging upon its rear, and audacious enough to show some of their horsemen after we got in line of battle in the open field. The cannon firing late in the day, which the New York papers speak of as a probable diversion, was the artillery of our own Brigade, formed by the side of our regiment, giving these cavalry hollow shot and setting them flying for the woods. When the enemy were at the right of our column, and driven by the artillery were expected to file around to the front and charge upon us at Bull’s Run, and the men stood with pieces cocked to receive them, I passed down the line to see how the men behaved, and my judgement is they would in action give a good account of themselves.
JEROME ROWE, Capt. Co. A.
Ithaca [N. Y.] Journal and Advertiser, 8/7/1861
Contributed by John Hennessy
Bio sketch of Judge Jerome Rowe (thanks to reader Chris Van Blargan)