Scenes on the Battle Field – – – Personal Adventures at the Battle of Bull Run.
From The Boston, Traveller, Aug. 1.
Most of these rebels had gray outfits, with black trimmings, very similar to the uniforms of some of our men. Scattered all through this wood were our men and the Alabamians, dead and wounded mingled together. I noticed a splendid bay horse nibbling the leaves from a tree, and was thinking what a fine animal he was, when I saw that one fore leg was shot off, clean as though cut by a knife, and bleeding a stream. Until this time I supposed that everything was being swept before us, as the fire from the batteries had been nearly silenced on the right, and only an occasional discharge was heard. On the enemy’s left the firing was not nearly as vigorous as half an hour previous. I came out of the woods, and to my utter astonishment saw our whole body retreating in utter confusion and disorder – no lines, no companies, no regiments could be distinguished. I stood still a few moments, unable to comprehend the extraordinary spectacle.
I heard my name called, and turning round a lieutenant of the Massachusetts Fifth came towards me. “My God, Ed., what are you here for?” he exclaimed. Without replying, I asked if the Fifth had suffered much; he said that it had, and that the colonel was dangerously wounded. I waited to find others of my friends, but the whole line was drifting back through the valley. I fell in with them and went slowly up the hill, occasionally halting and looking back. I stopped on the brow of a hill while the volume drifted by, and I can compare it to nothing more than a drove of cattle, so entirely broken and disorganized were our lines. The enemy had nearly ceased firing from the batteries on their right and centre, but upon our extreme right, beyond a patch of woods, the fight was going on, and their cannonading was kept up with vigor.
The line where the main battle was fought was a half to three-quarters of a mile in length, the ground uneven and broken by knolls and patches of wood. At no time did we have a fair chance at the enemy in the open field. – They kept behind their intrenchments or under cover of the woods. Our comparatively slight loss may be attributed to the fact that the great body of our troops were posted in the valley in front of the enemy’s batteries, but by keeping as close to the ground as possible, the enemy’s shot passed over their heads, while the cross fire of infantry from their flanks caused us the most damage.
I did not leave the hill until the enemy’s infantry came our from their intrenchments, and slowly moved forward, their guns glistening in the sun; but they showed no disposition to charge, and only advanced a short distance. Had they precipitated their columns upon our panic-stricken army the slaughter would have been dreadful, for so thorough was the panic that no power on earth could have stopped the retreat and make our men turn and fight. They were exhausted with twelve hours marching and fighting, having had little to eat, their mouths parched with thirst, and no water in their canteens; what could be expected of them then? Our men did fight like heroes, and only retreated when they had no officers to control and command them.
I found my horse tied to the tree where I had left him in the morning. Mounting him, I rode up to the hospital headquarters, and stopped some time watching the ambulances bringing their loads of wounded, fearing I might discover a friend or acquaintance. As these loads of wounded men were brought up, blood flowed from the ambulances like water from an ice cart, and their mutilated limbs protruding from the rear had no semblance of humanity.
I left these scenes of blood and carnage and fell into this retreating mass of disorderly and confused soldiery. Then commenced my retreat. None who dragged their weary limbs through the long hours of that night will ever forget it. Officers of regiments placed themselves in front of a body of their men and besought them to halt and form, for if they did not make a stand their retreat would be cut off. But they might as well have asked the wind to cease blowing; the men heeded them not, but pressed on in retreat. The regiments two or three miles to the rear, which had not been in action, exhorted our men to stop, but all to no purpose; no power could stop them. The various regiments tried to collect as many of their regiment and their State. In some instances they collected together two or three hundred men.
At a narrow place in the road the baggage wagons and artillery got jammed together in a dead lock, and in trying to get through I was hemmed in so completely that for fifteen minutes I could not move in either direction, and in this way I became separated from a remnant of the Fifth, ,and did not see them again till I reached Centreville. I finally extricated myself by breaking down a rail fence, and driving my horse over it, struck across a large corn field, thus cutting off a considerable distance and reaching the road at a point where it entered the oak forest. Shortly after entering the woods the column in front of me suddenly broke and ran into the woods on the left; the panic spread past me and soldiers ran pell mell into the woods, leaving me alone on my horse. I was afraid that in their fright they might shoot me and I shouted lustily “false alarm.”
Turning my horse about not a man could I see, but soon a soldier thrust his head from behind a large oak. I asked him “what the matter was;” he replied “the enemy are in front.” Somewhat provoked at the scare, I made some reflection on his courage, and shouted again still louder, “false alarm,” which was soon taken up along the road, and in five minutes we were going along as before. This was between five and six o’clock in the afternoon. Shortly after I overtook two soldiers helping along a disabled lieutenant; they asked me to take him up behind me, to which I readily assented, although my horse was already encumbered with a pair of saddle-bags and several blankets. The poor man groaned as they lifted him up behind me. – I was fearful he might fall off, and I told him to put both arms round me and hold on tight. Leaning his head upon my shoulder we started on.
He soon felt better, gave me his name, and informed me that he was a first lieutenant of the Marines, and belonged to Connecticut. – He stated that they had in the fight four companies of eighty men each and that Lieutenant Hitchcock (a very dear friend) was killed by his side. A cavalry officer with his arm in a sling, came riding along, and drawing up near me, I asked him if he was much hurt. He replied “that he had received a rifle ball through the fleshy part of his arm.” He also told me that during the fight he had two horses shot under him, and the one on which he was then riding he caught on the field. I questioned him as to the cause of our disaster, and he answered “that our light troops and light batteries could make no headway against the heavy guns of the enemy strongly intrenched.” I asked him how the enemy’s works could be carried; he replied, “by allowing the cavalry to charge, supported by infantry.” He also informed me that we had about one thousand cavalry in the field during the battle.
As we continued our retreat through the wood, the men overcome with weariness, dropped by the roadside, and immediately fell asleep – some completely exhausted, begged to be carried, the wagons being already overloaded with those being unable to walk; and some shrewd ones quietly bargained with the driver of an ordnance wagons for a seat by his side. Passing through this wood we came in sight of the hills of Centreville. I noticed that the column mostly left the road and bore off through and open field, leaving the bridge we had crossed in the morning some distance on our right. I could not account for this deviation from the morning’s course, and I left the main body and continued along some distance farther, determined to keep the main road, as I knew of no other way to cross the creek except by the bridge we had crossed in the morning, but coming up to a line of broken down wagons, it occurred to me that the bridge might be blocked up, as I recollected the passage was quite narrow. I then started off to the left across a level field, but upon looking back I perceived that the wagons still continued on toward the bridge; in fact there was no other way for them to cross. I followed the crowd of soldiers through the field and into some low woods.
Here they scattered in every direction, as there was no path, and each one was compelled to choose his own route. I picked my way among the tangled underbrush till I came to the creek; the bank down to the water was very steep, and I feared my horse could not carry us both down safely; so, dismounting, I led him slowly down, and then mounting, I drove into the stream. The bottom was soft and miry, and my horse sunk in to its belly. I began to think we all should be floundering in the stream; then urging him to his utmost strength we reached the opposite bank in safety. Twice my gallant horse started up the bank and fell back. After crossing this creek I came into a corn field, and soon struck a road leading to Centreville, which village I soon reached, and there my companion met with his captain and he dismounted. Never was a man more grateful for a favor than was this lietenant. With tears in his eyes he thanked me a thousand time, and, wringing my hands, walked away with his friends.
From Centreville I could see the disordered army winding on for some two miles; a portion of the men and all the wagons and artillery took the road over the bridge, while another portion came in nearly the direction I had taken. It was now nearly eight o’clock, and as it grew darker our retreating army kept the main road over the bridge. About two miles from Centreville, on the Southern road was a rebel battery where the fight had taken place the Thursday previous. This battery commanded the bridge above mentioned. Suddenly a cannon shot was fired from the battery and struck our column, crowding across the narrow bridge. The utmost consternation was created by this fire. In their haste wagons and gun carriages were crowded together and overturned; the drivers cut their horse loose who galloped, they scarcely knew whither. Our men plunged into the stream waist deep, and were scattered in every direction, and some who were seen up to this time have not been heard of since.
The enemy still fired from the battery but did not dare sally out, as they were kept in check by our reserve on the heights of Centreville. I reached our camp that we had left in the morning a little after eight o’clock and found that a few of the Fifth had arrived before me. It was then expected we should encamp for the night, but about nine o’clock we received orders to march to Alexandria. We had already travelled from ten to twelve miles, and now our weary soldiers were ordered to march twenty-five or thirty miles farther.
Slowly the fragment of our regiment fell into line and began this dreadful night march. – I took a sick man behind me and followed in the rear of our regiment, and crossing a field to the main road we fell in with the drifting mass. A friend of mine from the Fifth, who could hardly walk, approached me. I offered him my horse if he would hold the sick man, who was groaning at every step. Tho this he readily assented, so I dismounted. I saw no more of my horse till morning, but trudged along all night without once sitting down to rest, only occasionally stopping to get water.
I felt comparatively fresh when compared with my companions. The dust was intolerable, and, not having any canteen, I suffered exceedingly from thirst. Men dropped down along the road by scores; some, completely exhausted, pleaded piteously to be helped along; some took hold of the rear of the wagons, which was considerable support to theme, and many a horse had two men on his back, with another helped along by its tail; in fact, a horse carrying but one was an exception. – I assisted one fine fellow along for a long distance, who told me he was taken with bleeding at the lungs while on the field; he was very weak, and in vain I tried to find an opportunity for him to ride, but he bore up manfully through the night, and I saw him the next day in Washington.
After passing Fairfax Court House some of the regiments, or such a portion as could be collected together, bivouacked for the night., but the men were so scattered that I doubt if half a regiment halted at any one spot. I still walked on, never once resting, fearing if I did I should feel worse when I started again. Towards morning my feet began to be blistered and the cords of my legs worked like rusty wires, giving me great pain at every step. – Gladly did I hail the first faint streak of light in the East.
At daylight we were within five miles of Alexandria. About this time we came to where the Washington road branches off from the main road to Alexandria, and here our column divided. I continued on towards Alexandria, and in about an hour came in sight of Shuter’s hill. I then felt my journey was nearly accomplished, but the two miles seemed needless.
I stopped at a small house just back of Fort Ellsworth and asked the old negro woman for some breakfast. Two Zouaves were there when I entered, and soon four more came in. She knew them all, as they had paid her frequent visits while encamped in that neighborhood. She gladly got us the best she had, and those six Zouaves and myself, nearly famished as we were, sat down to that breakfast of fried port, hoe cake and coffee, served to us by this old slave woman, with greater delight than ever a king seated himself at a banquet.
The Zouaves each had their story of the battle to relate, but the charge of the Black Horse Cavalry was their especial theme. One of the, pulling a large Colt’s pistol from his pocket, said, “There, I gave that fellow h–l, and he wasn’t the only one, either.” I coveted this pistol, and soon bargained for it, and now have it in my possession. One barrel only had been fired. The Zouaves gradually dropped off, and after paying the slave woman for the meal I started over the hill for the camp of the Fifth, where I arrived about half past eight o’clock, and found that my horse, with his riders, had arrived safely some time before.
New London (CT) Chronicle, 8/7/1861
Barrett, Edwin Shepard What I Saw at Bull Run
Contributed by John Hennessy
*Likely the letter writer