Unknown, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle

12 10 2011

A Volunteer’s Narrative.

The following letter from a member the First Regiment to his mother has been kindly placed in our hands. It gives a very vivid picture of some of the terrible scenes enacted on the last Sabbath, and its graphic frankness gives it a peculiar charm: –

Camp Sprague, July 22, 1861.

Dear Mother; – Ere this you must have heard of the dreadful battle that took place Sunday. * * * * I am perfectly well and unhurt, with the exception of a few bruises. The destruction of human life has been fearful to contemplate, but that you may get a connected idea of the battle, I will begin at the beginning.

Sunday morning at half after two, we set off for “Bull’s Run,” and to escape a masked battery, made a circuit of about fifteen miles. Just as we approached the “Run,” – about 8 o’clock, we heard the sound of heavy cannon, by which we knew the fight was commenced. So we hurried on although Col. Burnside said we would not be called upon until the last, but we found this to be a mistake. As for the first time I approached a battle field, my feelings can be imagined better than described. The first thing of not was a shell whistling through the air, and “bang” went a bomb almost at our feet, and covered us with dust. We could hardly help flinching and bobbing our heads as we heard the whirr of these missiles of death.

We, instead of being kept back as a reserve, were formed directly after our arrival into a line of battle, and marched upon the enemy. Now the scene became awfully thrilling and dangerous. Every few minutes a shower of bullets would come among us, and some were sure to fall beneath their deadly force. We had to climb over a fence, and then proceeding to the brow of the hill, we fired upon the enemy below. The balls whistled around my head like hailstones; one knocked my musket out of my hand, while another just grazed my thumb joint. I fired eleven times and loaded lying down. The scene was dreadful; the first shot fired at us, hit our beloved Lieutenant, Henry A. Prescott, in the forehead, and he dropped instantly; and they kept falling and bleeding and dying before our faces, but we merely kept loading and firing. We had to sustain ourselves nearly half an hour, when some regulars came to our assistance and charged the enemy.

The battle lasted all day, and the slaughter was dreadful. * * * * We were safe nowhere. The cannon balls would come whizzing over our heads every few minutes, generally killing some one in their progress. We drove the enemy back into their batteries several times, when suddenly a panic seized the troops. It was said that the rebels had captured all our artillery and were making a charge: 40,000 men set off on the run, leaving muskets, blankets, wagons of provisions, and the dead and dying all lying on the field. Ours was the only brigade that retreated in any sort of order. * * *

The scene was terrible. Shells were exploding and cannon roaring made such a noise that the cry of the wounded could not be heard. Cavalry, infantry and artillery, in one confused mass, hurried away as fast as possible. Some seized their arms, others not. One of the terrible scenes was just as we were retreating, the men were grabbing their muskets, which were loaded and capped, when one suddenly went off, wounding Jesse Comstock, a fine fellow of my age and a great friend of mine. He cried “Oh dear, I’m shot! Don’t leave me here! So we placed the poor fellow in the ambulance, but had hardly done so when a shell came tearing through the trees and landed directly in the ambulance, blowing at once to atoms one of our dearest companions in arms. But so we lost him – hard it seemed after his escaping the chances of battle, to so fearfully lose his life.

We were obliged to retreat the same way we came, by making a long and tedious circuit. On the way, not a drop of water could be procured, yet in spite of that, we marched fifteen miles without a single rest. It was a sad march, too, for we knew that our retreat would be cut off by the enemy, and true enough, just as our army, scattered as it was, reached the straight road, the rebels opened fire upon us with their artillery. The grape shot came pouring and whizzing by me, and we all began to run. Our artillery had strived to gain a post on the opposite hill, but before our arrival the rebels hade effectually barricaded the bridge, so that it was impossible to get anything over it. Ambulances, cannon, men and horses were piled in one confused mass, and to add to the horror of the scene, the enemy commenced firing solid shot and shell directly at the bridge, blowing up the living and the dying.

I leaped over a fence, and had hardly done so when I heard a loud crash and looking back I beheld (horrible dictu) the upper half of a soldier’s body flying up the hill. He had been cut in twain by a solid ball. At this almost barbarous cruelty, – that is, firing upon an almost unarmed and entirely unopposing force, a cry of mortal terror arose among the flying soldiers, and they followed me into the wood. This of course led the fire to be turned in my direction, and I quickly found the balls coming close to me. I dodged several; for if not crowded, you can dodge a cannon ball. I came within an ace of being killed by one of the flying missiles. I saw it coming directly towards me, and sprung into a gully close by, and the ball whizzed past close by my head, ploughing up the earth each side of me.

I ran three miles to where we were to encamp, and found what was left of our regiment starting for Washington. We arrived here this noon, after a march of fifty-six miles in two days, and a hard battle thrown in. * * *

I never shall pass such a dreadful Sunday, I trust and pray. I have seen war, and seen enough, and I hope I shall never hear the din of cannon and the rattle of musketry, while I again live. How I escaped is miraculous. We have to be thankful that all our relations were preserved to us. We come home within three days, with a regiment stripped of many of its brightest ornaments. * * * We shall return with a train of mourners, and a flag shattered with bullets. * * * * *

Give my best love to all and my kindest sympathy to sorrowing friends.

Providence Evening Press 7/26/1861

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“H”, Co. C, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle

11 10 2011

The following is an extract from a private letter of a member of Company C, 1st regiment.

Camp Sprague, July 22.

Yesterday was the most terrible day of my life. I can give you no idea of it. We had orders to move at 3 o’clock Sunday morning, so at that time, with hard crackers and a canteen of water for rations, we started from our camp near Fairfax. It was a beautiful sight, as our immense column moved to the right to make a flank movement. – We had marched about ten miles, and McDowell and staff passed. As he passed he said, “in a few moments you will see action.” Soon we deployed in a field, followed by the 71st and New Hampshire regiments. We had hardly taken our posts on the plain, when the pickets met and the firing of small arms began, the balls striking all around us. Then up came our battery at the rear, and disappeared. In a very few moments the shell came whizzing through the air over our heads, and next we heard our pieces speaking in rapid succession. On the right we saw our 2d regiment deploying in good order to the right, and delivering their fire. We had no much time to look, for we heard Burnside’s voice summoning us to “forward,” and into the woods we marched. – When we reached the woods we were halted. How the shell and shot did crash through the trees. – One ball struck in front of our first platoon, and bounded over their heads; another struck in front of our platoon, and covered us with dust. Soon from the hill above we saw Burnside beckoning to us “forward, over the fence.” To the fence we went. How the shot did drop around us. We passed Major Ballou lying wounded by the fence. We found when we reached the top of the hill the 71st lying on their stomachs. Over them we went, and just below the hill, within a hundred rods of us, the rebels were blazing away at us. We opened upon them, when the cry was raised that we were killing our own men. We then turned to the left and directed our fire to the bushes. The 71st finding we were mistaken about those in front being our friends, took our old position, and together we drove them down the hill, and concealed in the bushes they blowed away at us, who, exposed on the summit of the hill, returned the fire. I was standing on top of the hill waiting for the cowards to show themselves, when I felt a commotion between my legs, and a man was deliberately blowing away, using my legs as a port hole. Poor Prescott, while standing there encouraging his men, received a shot in the head; clasping his hands over it, he exclaimed “Boys, I am going,” and fell. We cannot mourn for him, for he has gone to his reward, one of the noblest men and best of Christians I ever say. His men cannot speak of him with dry eyes. He was universally beloved.

Soon we seemed to have silenced them, and the order was given for us to retire and fall into our ranks. Some places were vacant which a few moments before were filled. The rear rank stepped to the front and took their places, and we filed off the field into the woods, thinking the battle won. I set down to write you, and had hardly finished, when our batteries ceased firing, and we were ordered to fall in to cover the retreat, and in a few moments horsemen and footmen came running over the fields in full retreat. We moved off quietly, picking our way through heaps of knapsacks, canteens, blankets and accoutrements, and in a confused mass the whole column was pouring down the road. I think I never felt so badly in my life.- After awhile the Rhode Islanders got into to cover the retreat, and we all pressed backward toward Centreville. The ammunition had given out, the position of the rebels was too strong, and their force too large. Thus began one of the most rapid and perfect routs I ever heard of. As we came out of the woods one of their batteries played upon us, and into the woods we went. We forded a stream which came up almost to our waists, and tired and wet, we pressed on for our old camp. – The bridge was barricaded so that our battery had to leave their pieces behind them. Baggage wagons were all about the fields, the drivers mounting the horses and pressing on. Our only hope was to reach our camp before we were cut off. Tired as we were, we could not stop, we had to leave our dead and wounded to the mercy of the enemy. It was awful. When we reached our camp the order was given, “on, to Fairfax,” and picking our way amid baggage wagons, cavalry, and impediments of all kinds, having eaten nothing but dry crackers, and drunk nothing but dirty water, we pressed on. We reached Fairfax, and found to our joy that they had not cut off our retreat. “On, to Washington” was the cry then. We reached Arlington Heights this morning, having marched at least ten miles, fought a battle, and retreated, marching forty-one miles, with nothing but our rations of crackers and water to sustain us. God alone gave me strength to do it.


Providence Journal 7/26/1861

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Unknown Officer, Co. C, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle

10 10 2011

The Rhode Islanders in Battle.

Extract From a Private Letter of an Officer in Company C.

Camp Sprague, July 23.

At the risk of repeating what the papers have already told you, I send a brief sketch of the battle as I witnessed it. But first let me gratefully record the safety of my men. As far as I know at this writing, none were killed, and the five missing is reduced to three by the return of Lieut. Warner and one other member. The men com in languid and late. exhausted by their hardship, and I find they have straggled along the road and been reported among the missing. But there is great reason for hope that they will all be in camp before we leave, – and my desire above all things is, that Company C may return with full ranks, and I may hear every manly voice answer “Here” to the roll call. I do not consider that the valor of an army, or a regiment, or a company, consists in its list of dead and wounded, but in having done its whole duty, and living to do it over again, – and that some of us must do that is very plain.

This is not a good time to talk of one’s self. I think all personalities are insignificant in the importance of the mighty cause. But I may say that I thank God to-day I am a Rhode Island man. My pride in her is all satisfied, and you must take a soldier’s testimony that her sons did their duty. Our regiments had expected to be a reserve, but were called into immediate action. The 2d regiment, with their splendid light battery, were the first that took position for the fight. They formed under full fire, and marched past the confederate battery as coolly as they did on a dress parade.

Our 1st regiment went into the fire with perfect courage and calmness, standing the death-dealing shot and shell like veterans. We broke the right wing of their army and drove it in. It was said to be commanded by Beauregard in person. After two hours’ fight we were allowed to stack arms for a brief rest. Then the ambulances and ammunition wagons began to pass us with the wounded – a ghastly procession. At that time the firing ceased, and a shout went up, and we claimed the victory; but it was only a pause in the work of death, for the enemy, largely reinforced, opened a steady and fatal fire again.

Our troops saw the reinforcement – and outnumbered and exhausted themselves, they took a universal panic, succeeded by an irresistible stampede, which resulted in a general retreat. I claim for our Rhode Island regiments that they left the field in perfect order, bravely resisting the contagion of fear and flight – bravely waiting the orders of their Colonel for retreat. Then came the voice we loved and obeyed, clear and calm – (no defeat in that) – and Rhode Island, unconquerable in her courage as in her pride, marched from the field she had defended with her best blood. And I contest the victory now. Outnumbered three to one – and ten to one if your realize the advantage of entrenched position – our famished, exhausted men could do no more than die. No tongue can tell the bravery of our troops. It will yet make the north invincible – and the final triumph is only a question of time. This battle is not lost if it teaches a clamorous people patience. I am proverbially a “slow man.” I know “the race is not to the swift.” Let the counsellors who urged us to battle before were we “strong” contemplate the result.

It is too late for regrets, the time given to contemplating our losses is better spent in redeeming them. Better pens than mine have told the scene of confusion – the wild flight of men and horses – the deserted wagons – the loss of provisions we were suffering for – the storm of shot and shell that followed our fleeing army, – death on the right, death on the left, and in front. Our only safety was that the enemy had neither courage nor strength for pursuit of our exhausted troops, else I might not be the one to tell the story. So we came on and on that dreadful day, and such as could reached their camp in Washington. But many a brave fellow, lifted in blankets or by generous hands, laid down his life by the roadside. Humanity had done its best and yielded to death and danger. Exhausted by hunger and sleeplessness, even a victory could hardly have roused us, and the retreat to Washington was made in pain and sorrow. nothing less than God’s care preserved us as we went. A rally was hopeless if we had been attacked. But we are all here now, and we await our missing comrades hopefully.

I saw instances of great personal courage. Come of our friends were unconscious heroes, and it was the proudest day of my life when I saw my noble boys stand shoulder to shoulder to meet their fate. Not a man flinched, and their tread was as steady as in their old armory. And when I contemplate their sacrifices, what they risked, and what they fought for, my words of praise fall far short of justice. The names of Gove. Sprague, Col. Burnside, Major Balsh and Major Goddard are widely known for their bravery on the field. These names are known from their position and prominence, but there was no distinction where all did their duty. There were some heroes in the splendid rank and file of the Rhode Island regiments. Of myself it is enough to add I am alive and well, ready and, I trust, willing for any duty fate and the future assign me. As for “home,” you may expect us when you see us. God bless Rhode Island. She is making history hand over hand.

Providence Journal 7/26/1861

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Unknown, Co. C, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the March to Manassas

9 10 2011

We are favored with the following extracts from a private letter written by a member of Company C, 1st regiment.

Fairfax Court House,
July 17th, 1861.

Here we are in Fairfax Court House, without a gun having been fired. We only marked five or six miles, but it was an awfully tedious march, for the retreating rebels had cut down trees and stopped up the road (in one place so bad that we had to make a new road), and it was necessary to wait till the axe men had cut down the trees before we could march. In about every 15 minutes there would be a halt, and then we would creep along slowly until another halt was made for the same purpose. The last part of the march was very exciting. The enemy had an extensive earthwork thrown up to protect the road, and we supposed they would make a stand there, but about an hour and a half before we got there they retreated and carried off their cannon. Then we hurried after them. Our advance guard got a good breakfast in the entrenchment that the rebels first evacuated. It had been prepared, I suppose, for the officers. Then we marched into town, and our two regiments are now encamped right about the Court House. The town is a God-forsaken looking place. You cannot find a white woman in the place, so complete has been the exodus.

We found a quantity of hospital stores and camp equipage here, mostly marked S. C. 2d and 3d regiments. I myself have a cup and some other things that the rebel troops left. When we move from here is more than I know, though the U. S. cavalry have gone in pursuit, and I should not be surprised if we were to follow them right on to Manassas, where, perhaps, though I doubt it, they will make a stand.

There are three divisions in all moving towards Manassas. We are the centre, with another brigade. In our brigade we have 12 pieces of artillery and about 300 cavalry. Gen. McDowell is with us, though he commands the whole movement.

Providence Journal 7/20/1861

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Unknown Officer, Co. C, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the March to Manassas

8 10 2011

The Rhode Islanders at Fairfax.

We have the pleasure of printing a part of a private letter from an officer in Company C, 1st regiment. How noble the spirit which it breathes! Rhode Island may well be proud of her sons, when they go forth to fight the battle of the country with such pure and lofty purposes.

Fairfax Court House,
Wednesday noon, July 17.

We are safe and well at this place, which we reached about noon this day, having left Camp Sprague yesterday at one o’clock.

We had a hot, hard march of about twelve miles, bivouacked for the night, which was pleasant, but with a heavy dew.

The last hour’s marching was very slow and cautious – picket guard thrown out in front and each flank – but we moved steadily, firmly forward – every face stern, with a purpose in it.

We found breastworks all along for a mile or more, which could have been easily defended, but the rebels ran from there as from all points, fleeing in such cowardly haste as to leave everything behind, – knapsacks, blankets, even the medical stores in the hospital. Had a brigade, which was to meet us here on another road, arrived in time, the enemy would have been taken in their own camp. As it was, Rhode Island was “ahead of time,” came in alone, and the rebels were off, giving us only the usual chance of seeing their heels. The movement of so large a body as this is much less free and easy than a smaller one. An army, or even a brigade, is more unwieldy than our two noble regiments, who moved as one man, to the inspiring voice of our Colonel.

Some of our troops (in other brigades) have helped themselves lawlessly to everything portable. Where is the old law and order feeling among us, which respects even the rights of an enemy, and I do not share the enthusiasm for “spoils.” I was sorry for any trespass, which brings reproach to our army without discrimination of parties.

I have only time to add that this Fairfax justifies the general reputation of southern towns. Its dilapidated houses and primitive court house being no exception to the Virginia style.

Add to this the empty streets, the homeless negroes, the miserable jail and empty post office, with all the decay and dirt of a southern hamlet, and you have “Fairfax Court House,” the famous bug-bear of the secessionists. The rebels having fled, of course there was neither attack nor defence of the place, nor victory in our possession; but it is firm and final so far. We “play for keeps” in this great game of war.

What our next move will be I cannot advise you, for we are a small item in a grand army, though I know to Rhode Island hearts our two regiments seem an army in itself. God keep them, and us – those who await us in our far-off homes. I know old soldiers who will stand fire better than they can talk of home to-day. You know as well as I what we are here for. It is no time for words. A few hours may tell the story of life or death for some of us. But we are cheerful and hopeful to a man. I confess to the spoils of war so far as the writing on confederate letter paper goes. This sheet was taken from the running quartermaster’s desk. When and where my next may be written I cannot tell, but you must wait with courage and patience.

We bivouac here to-night. Rations rather hard – but a soldier’s life is no holiday, and his real wants are so few that there is no just cause for complaint. There is only one movement for the north to make, and that is Forward!

Providence Journal 7/20/1861

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“DeW”, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (2)

2 10 2011

“DeW”, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (2)

Correspondence of the Journal.
The Reverse

Camp Sprague, July 24.

After our brigade had been withdrawn to the woods, arms were stacked, and the men sat down to take some refreshments from their haversacks, and compare notes with regard to the battle. I took this opportunity to traverse the scene of conflict. Our own men had been carried off, but in the corn-field I found numbers of the enemy dead or dying. After rendering what assistance we could, I conversed with some not so severely wounded. They belonged to New Orleans and Alabama regiments, and stated that their Colonel was mortally wounded. They said that all that morning troops had been coming as rapidly as possible from Manassas, by rail and on foot; that their force was very strong, though they had no means of ascertaining the numbers; that Beauregard held command in person; and that we should find the batteries very formidable. They seemed grateful for any kindness, and said they were now convinced that we were neither brutes nor cowards, as we had been represented to them. One poor fellow, shot through the hip, begged us to send home the body of his Lieutenant, lying near, as he was “of a wealthy family, who would pay any amount for the service.”

Returning up the hill I found one of the 71st leaning mournfully over the body of a comrade. “Look here!” said he, “that is my chum – we have slept under the same blanket for three months.” I will not describe the sights and sounds of horror which greeted me whichever way I turned. I have seen one battle field – may no stern necessity ever compel me to see another.

Stationing myself upon the summit of the hill, I watched the progress of the conflict, the heat of which was now removed nearly a mile to the east. The 69th New York, the Fire Zouaves and several other fresh regiments were now ordered forward, crossed the hollow, and commenced ascending the opposite hill. Up to this time I think all the shot had come from one battery, which the Zouaves were ordered to storm, Capt. Reynolds meanwhile keeping up a persistent fire upon it. The brave fellows rushed at it on the double quick, and twice, I am told, they gained possession of it, but each time were repulsed by overwhelming numbers, and at the same time two or three new batteries opened fire upon them from the covert of the adjacent woods, making sad havoc in their ranks. Hardly had they recovered from this surprise, when the famous “Black Horse Cavalry” charged upon them, firing their revolvers. In their ranks they bore a small Union flag, by reason of which they were allowed to approach very near, the Colonel of the Zouaves crying out, “Don’t fire, boys! they are our own cavalry!” Can treachery more devilish and double dyed be conceived of than this, twice practiced on that day? When the Zouaves discovered the deceit, they poured in a destructive fire which emptied many saddles and sent the horsemen flying back into the forest. Thus far I had watched the varying fight, but the enemy’s batteries now began to play upon the infantry who were forming in the hollow, doing them but little harm, their aim being much too high, but dropping shot and shell in my vicinity quite too quickly to be pleasant; so securing a ball from a rifled cannon which ploughed up the earth near by, I retired to the piece of woods where our regiments were in waiting.

The Retreat.

We had perhaps been here half an hour, when there was an energetic call from some one, I think Gov. Sprague, “Rhode Island, stand to your arms! Our troops are falling back on us!” and presently emerged from a cloud of dust half a dozen ammunition wagons, driving furiously, followed by a confused crowd of soldiers of different regiments, walking and running, crying out as they passed, “Save yourselves, boys! we are whipped, and the enemy is close behind us!” There was some delay in forming our men , caused, not by fear, but actually by the men hunting over the stacks to get the muskets with their own particular number on it. We marched a short distance, and halted in a field, while Col. Burnside rode back to reconnoitre. Meanwhile, in three or four different streams the fugitives were pouring by us from the battle field, exhausted and dispirited. After a while the Colonel came back and told us to go to the brook half a mile back and fill our canteens, which we did in perfect order. All this I supposed to be preparatory to a rally by our regiments and the 71st, and a return to the battle field. But I presume Col. Burnside, Gen. McDowell  became convinced that no effort would avail with some of the regiments who had been brought into the field on the run for four miles, without water, and were quite used up. Then, therefore, our canteens were filled, we were told to march on. Then, for the first time, the appalling truth burst upon me that we were defeated, and had nothing left for us but a mortifying and painful retreat. We kept together very well for six miles, till coming upon an open plain, two musket shots sounded ominously in the wood to our left. In three minutes more artillery was heard on the main road, which we were now approaching again, and the iron missiles came singing over our heads and crashing through the trees. The column hurried into the woods, and I think none were killed at this point. But a few hundred yards brought us into the road leading to the bridge, which we had passed in the morning. As we crowded towards it the enemy’s artillery was plainly visible on a hill to the west, supported by cavalry, while the crowded masses in the road made a target which they could hardly miss.

The Flight.

A discharge of musketry from an ambuscade in the bushes completed our confusion, and the retreat became a complete rout, everybody struggled to gain the bridge. But when on reaching it we found it barricaded, and our own artillery piled up pell mell, with wheels broken and horses gone, our ambulances filled with wounded drawn up to the side of the road, their occupants resigning themselves to their fate, the enemy’s guns sending round shot and shells, crashing and tearing through the panic-stricken crowd all the while, our misery was complete. I do not think a man of us really expected to escape.

Some climbed over the barricade. Most, like myself, dashed through the river, waist deep. Many fell down. losing their arms in the water. – When we got through, our clothes were so weighed down with water that we could with difficulty climb up the farther bank. One poor fellow near me lost his shoes, and walked twenty miles in his stocking feet. When we got clear of the stream we scattered into the woods to escape the deadly storm of balls, and after another mile could breathe freer. It was dark when we reached Centreville, but we kept on to our old camp, when we flung ourselves upon the ground, hoping to rest awhile. But there was no rest for us. We had hardly begun to dry ourselves by the fires hastily kindled, when the word was passed: “Fall in, boys, we must march to Washington!” twenty miles more. We staggered into the road again, and commenced our weary march.

I have no very definite idea of the subsequent events of that dismal night. We stumbled along through the hours of darkness, gradually becoming scattered, as the strong ones outwalked the weak, eagerly dipping our canteens in the muddy pools through which the cavalry and wagons had passed, welcoming the drizzling rain which came towards daylight, watching the dull sunrise over the endless road, till at last the blue haze of the Potomac, see through half shut eyelids, revived us a little, and somehow or other, I shall never be able exactly to tell how, most of us got inside Fort Runyon, on the Arlington side of Long Bridge. Here we were detained an hour or two, and treated to breakfast, and a wash. After this the regiments were reformed, and marched over the bridge to camp. A sorry show we made, passing through the city, with feet that flinched from every stone, and a sad assemblage watched us from the windows and sidewalks. A fat Irishwoman looked at us a moment as we passed, then stuck her knuckles in her eyes and blubbered outright.

Ever since we got here, stragglers have been coming in, and some now missing may yet appear. Our loss is not large. You will have the official report before this reaches you. Of the causes of our defeat, I say nothing. It becomes us to be grateful to the merciful Providence that saved so many of us, through that day and night of horror.

It takes the stories of several different men to make the true story of a battle. You have mine.

One word more. All that we won that day, and all that we did not lose, that is, our lives, we owe, under God, to Col. Burnside.


Providence Journal 7/27/1861

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“DeW”, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the Battle (1)

2 10 2011

Correspondence of the Journal.
The Rhode Island Regiments in the Battle.

Washington, July 23, 1861.

I had no heart to write yesterday. I have not much to write to-day. It is an ungrateful task to describe a defeat, but I have no choice.

At 2 1/2 o’clock on the morning of Sunday, the 21st, our two regiments were roused from their brief sleep, and commenced the march towards Manassas, said to be ten miles distant. Seven miles brought us to a stream 40 feet wide and waist deep, which by reason of subsequent events we shall be likely to remember to our lives’ end. We crossed it by a bridge, and half a mile beyond, turned off to the right into the woods, about 10,000 men of us, while another division made a detour to the south. At 10 a. m. we heard the reports of cannon to the west. We made a circuit of five or six miles through the woods, making about 14 miles from camp, coming out about 10 o’clock upon open ground, near an old railroad embankment, half a mile to the west of Bull Run, about 3 miles north east of the Junction, around which was grouped the enemy’s batteries, of whose strength and number we knew nothing.

As we did so, we saw the R. I. Second drawn up to the right of a piece of woods, with their battery, and immediately formed in line with the 71st on our left.

Meanwhile the enemy had opened on our 2nd with shot, shell and musketry, which was returned with great spirit by them and Capt. Reynolds’s battery, causing them to retreat from the brow of the hill. The 1st and 71st were now advanced into the grove, and told to wait for orders. Meanwhile the enemy had altered their range, so that the shot and shells which had been bursting harmlessly over our heads, began to fall thick and fast among us. This was the most trying time of all; this forced inaction, while our men were dropping here and there, mangled and dying, was dreadful. This was the moment which, more than any after one, no matter how furious the conflict, puts a man’s nerve to the test. The sight of the first dead man, especially if he be one of your own, causes a sickening feeling, not experienced afterwards on the field covered with the wrecks of war. Yet not a man flinched that I saw. Presently came Col. Burnside, God bless him! riding into the woods, and gave the order: “Forward, First Rhode Island!” We moved out of the woods to the brow of the hill, the 71st in front, passing on the way the dead body of Capt. Tower of our 2d, and many others. Then came the order, “Lie down, 71st, and let Rhode Island pass to the front!”

They did so most unwillingly, and we marched through and over them with a front almost as straight and steady as on dress parade. Arrived at the edge of the hill we were greeted by a storm of musket balls from a large body of men, Alabama troops, drawn up in a corn field in front, which whistled past our ears, every minute drapping one of our brave fellows, for about half an hour, though I cannot speak with any certainty of the lapse of time. We returned it with interest, every man advancing to the front, firing and falling back to load as quick as possible. the 71st were now brought forward and fought well and bravely by our side. Presently some one cried, “Hold! we are firing on our own men!” This slackened our fire for a moment, when the Colonel rode up and told us to keep up the fire. At the same moment the Adjutant ordered our standard advanced. A tremendous fire was at once concentrated upon it, and Sergeant Becherer who bore it fell, shot through the arm; another man seized it instantly and waved it defiantly to the foe three or four times, when he, too, was led off with a shattered arm. The flag fell for a moment, but a third man sprang forward, raised it without letting go his musket, and continued to bear it through the action. It seems pretty certain that our crafty adversaries raised a United States flag at one time which started the report that we were firing on our friends, and caused us to slacken our fire.

I cannot here particularize instances of personal coolness and bravery, but I will say with perfect truth that I did not see a Rhode Island man quail through that terrible half hour, though of course many were too excited to take deliberate aim, often endangering their comrades fighting beside and in front of them, and throwing away a vast amount of lead. The coolest thing I heard was from an officer of the 1st, who walked quietly along the front of his company, remarking, “Boys, it takes 700 pounds of lead to kill one of you, so go in, and give them one for me!” meaning, no doubt 700 rounds, but the mistake was excusable. The enemy fought with determined courage, but our fire grew too hot for them at last – the rattling storm of Minnie balls fell less thickly among us, and they began to retire. At this moment Gov. Sprague who had just had his horse shot under him, seized a musket and offered to lead a charge. But Col. Burnside would not permit it, a column of regulars was brought up, who drove the retreating back to their batteries. Thus was the attempt to outflank us on the left frustrated, and so far as the Rhode Island 1st and 2d and the 71st was concerned it was a complete victory. We were withdrawn in perfect order to the grove, except our gallant battery, which continued to keep up a hot fire upon the masked batteries upon the hill.

We retired in the fond delusion that the day was ours, and that the fresh regiments coming up had only to drive from the field a defeated foe.

How woefully we were mistaken, and the story of our disastrous retreat must be told in another letter. Fifty miles marching and a hard fight in 32 hours upon a diet of crackers and water gives tired nature an indisputable claim to rest. Our hearts are sad for Slocum, Ballou, Tower, Smith, Prescott and many other gallant men – our consolation is that they and all of us have done our duty.


Providence Journal 7/25/1861

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“DeW”, 1st Rhode Island Infantry, On the March to Manassas

28 09 2011

Correspondence of the Journal
On the Way to Manassas
Four Miles West of Fairfax
Friday, July 19, 1861

Corresponding under difficulties certainly, with a cartridge box for a table, and forty-five drops of ink, all in the country, the drum likely to beat at any moment for an advance.

Tuesday at 1 p. m. we left Camp Sprague, marched through the city over the Long Bridge. I have no time to tell you of our fine appearance, or the enthusiasm which greeted our march. We went about 12 miles, and camped in a large field near Annandale, where we were presently joined by our old friends, the 71st New York and the 2d New Hampshire, the whole constituting Burnside’s brigade of the 2d division, commanded by Col. Hunter of the regular cavalry. Next morning the column advanced, led by the 2d Rhode Island, who acted as skirmishers, scouring the woods for half a mile each side of the road. About three miles from Fairfax Court House we came upon the first barricade, consisting of large trees felled across the road for the distance of one hundred yards. Our axemen were ordered to the front, and soon removed the obstruction. We found two similar ones before reaching the town, but they were easily surmounted. Near the town was an earthwork, recently occupied by a battery of light artillery, which had been hurriedly removed. Behind it, at some distance from the road, were three camps. Paymaster Sisson, who was detailed with a party of carbineers to visit them, found much valuable booty, swords, pistols, muskets, clothing, and provisions of every sort. Their flight had evidently been most hurried. Indeed, our advance saw a small party at a distance making off as they entered the fort.

We immediately pushed forward, and entered the town without opposition. A secession flag flying from the top of the Court House was torn down in a twinkling and the stars and stripes substituted, followed by a violent ringing of the bell.

The troops were quartered about the town, and the stores and houses whence the secession owners had fled were thoroughly ransacked. Quantities of camp equipage and hospital stores, mostly marked “South Carolina,” were found, – sabres and guns of the most fantastic and obsolete description. But it would be perfectly useless to attempt a description of the heterogeneous assortment of plunder with which every man who took the trouble to forage was adorned. To judge from the uniforms about the camp, we would seem to have many of the Palmetto Guard and other crack secession regiments in our midst. Articles of the most cumbrous and useless description were taken, only to be dropped by the way.

Later in the day sentinels were posted in front of all the houses, and the “loot” was confined to the rebels camps.

Our companies bivouacked in the yards and lanes about town. Yesterday morning we moved one mile west and remained till 4 p. m., after which we advanced to this point. On the way we found pots and kettles and all sorts of camp furniture, cast away by the rebels in their flight. They found time, though, to burn one or two houses on the way. On reaching here we learned that Gen. Tyler’s division had suddenly come up on a masked battery which poured in a destructive fire of shot and shell, causing our men to retire. Many were killed and wounded, but you have much better information on the subject than we have. It is reported this morning that the enemy have retired from the battery. We expect to advance upon the Junction shortly. As I write, 12 secession prisoners, one of them a sergeant, are passing, guarded by a double file of soldiers. They are sturdy fellows. Some look defiant some downcast. I understand the Fire Zouaves took them. Sherman’s Battery, the Massachusetts 1st and New York 12th took part in the engagement yesterday. I do not mention any of the thousand rumors afloat respecting the loss yesterday, or the next movement to be made, because no accurate information can be obtained, by me at least. One thing is certain, Manassas must be ours, and the Rhode Island men expect to do their part in its reduction. That done, we will return content. I have been talking with the Quartermaster of the Massachusetts 1st. He thinks about 50 of his brigade are killed. A negro, escaped from the rebel camp this morning, reports dreadful slaughter done by Sherman’s battery.


Providence Journal 7/22/1861

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