The Continental Guards at Bull Run and Stone Bridge.
The town having waited with much impatience for news of Capt. George Clark and his gallant Continentals, it affords us much pleasure to lay before our readers the following letter, descriptive of what the Continentals saw and did during the ever memorable battles of the 18th and 21st of July. It was addressed to Mr. J. M. Laborde, and by that gentleman kindly placed at our disposal. The fact that the letter is from our old friend, Fred Gruber, will render it especially interesting:
Stone Bridge, Virginia, July 24, 1861
J. M. Laborde, Esq. – My Old Friend: Having by note to my wife apprised you that I am still in the land of the living, I avail myself of this first opportunity to give you a rough sketch of our doings since my last. The camp life at Camp Pickens, at the Junction, went on in the usual routine of business – drill, parade, etc., – until the 9th inst., when our company was ordered a few miles from camp, on picket duty, where we remained up to the 12th, on the morning of which day we were ordered back to camp, on order to join our regiment in the march of advance on the enemy.
While on picket duty the life was pleasant enough, with the exception of the fare, which was rather scant, consisting of salt pork and bread, and one young hog, which lost its way and strolled into our camp, where, owing to an unmistakeable Abolition proclivities, it met with an untimely death, greatly to the gusto of the boys. On the morning after our return to camp we struck the tents and marched to Camp Wigfall, about five miles distant, and there took up our abode for the time being. Reports constantly reaching us from Manassas Junction of the frequent arrivals of large bodies of troops, at once admonished us that our stay there would not be a long one, and our surmises proved correct, as on the evening of the 16th we struck tents again, leaving them and knapsacks behind, and provided with three days’ provisions in our haversacks, forty rounds of cartridges and guns, we quartered for that night on the ridge of one of those romantic mountains with which Virginia abounds. Here we met, for the first time, the Washington Artillery, or at least a good portion thereof. Of course the courtesies of war were exchanged, without, however, that usual New Orleans appendix, “Let us take a drink” as we had ‘nary drop.” After having, during a pleasant night, inhaled a sufficient supply of cool Virginia breeze and indulged in sweet dreams on rather hard ground, we broke camp in the early morn, and joined by a Virginia regiment and a battery of Washington Artillery, went over hill and dale, until about 12 o’clock, when we halted and took up, very mysteriously, our quarters under cover of a point of woods. At first, I thought strange of the movement; but in a very short time, with my usual quickness of perception, sharpened by a number of rifled cannon balls of the enemy flying right and left of us, I fully discovered the propriety of this order. Balls continued whistling, and at intervals musketry could be heard. Finally, when the report of arms indicated the progress of a general engagement, the word “march” was given and the brigade under Col. Early, of which the 7th regiment formed a prominent part, went in double quick time to the scene of action. On the way we were continually saluted by shells and balls of the enemy’s artillery, and it was a real miracle that some of us did not get killed; but God seemed then, as he has up to this time, to have held his protecting hand over us.
Arrived at a small river. Bull’s Run, the line of contention, the enemy occupied the top and slope of a hill on one side, while we were on a plain on the other side of the stream. One Virginia regiment, stationed there before us, had repelled the enemy already three times, and actually crossed the river and driven them to the top of the hills, when again they had to retreat and give way to numerical odds twenty to one. It was then our brigade arrived; and of such volleys of musketry, and the roaring of six pieces of the Washington Artillery, one who never was in battle cannot form an idea. The commanding voices of their officers, the shouts and hurrahs of the boys, the bursting of shells and howling of balls, formed a concert which was rather calculated to strengthen nerves, no matter how weak, or else kill instanter. For more than two hours this state of affairs lasted, when finally, the Artillery, after then enemy had been driven up the infantry, so effectively poured their shells and rifle balls into the ranks and batteries of the same, that the former must have suffered a terrible loss, and the latter were completely silenced. Our loss on that day was comparatively small – ten killed and about twenty-five wounded; among the latter Ernest [Siball?], of whose fate you, no doubt, know more than I do. The boys, though in their first battle, showed great spirit and spunk, and not one seemed to realize the constant danger impending. The officers were cool and collected and led their men to the front. I should not particularize, but I cannot refrain from mentioning particularly big Captain Wilson, (tobacco merchant on Gravier street) of the Virginia Blues. He, by our marching by the left flank, held the post of honor, and well did he fill it; no sooner in front of the ford, than he exclaimed, in his characteristic style, “Light on me, blue birds;” and so they did; they fought like good fellows, while their gallant Captain crossed swords with a Yankee Lieutenant, when one of the men expedited him to the other side of the Jordan. To make this rather hasty sketch complete, you must imagine Capt. Wilson, with nothing on but a dirty woolen shirt and a pair of blue pants and a slouch hat. Shortly after the firing had ceased, the dead on our side removed, and the wounded been properly cared for, I went in a squad of about twenty, in command of Lieut. Harper, across the stream to the slope of the hill. The sight here beggared description; so precipitate was their flight that they even did not take time to carry their dead off, and even left wounded behind; who, after suffering and groaning all night, were finally brought over and cared for by us; their dead on the side of the hill, where only musketry reached, to the number of more than twenty five, were buried by us, while the ground was literally covered with clothing, haversacks, equipments of all descriptions, and thousands of other things. Over 160 stands of the most improved fire-arms fell into our hands, together with more than that number of soldier’s caps.
In searching over the effects thus suddenly acquired, we found that the main force of this army seemed to have been letter writers, specimens of which fell into our hands, testifying strongly that imagination, no matter how vivid, at a Southern standard, could compare with the poetical flight of these consummate liars. Envelopes with colored engravings of the most disgusting and fanatical character, and franked by some Abolition member of Congress, were to be found in every pocket, while the general outfit of all seemed to be more appropriate to a barbecue of three days duration, or a regular week of camp meeting, than for war purposes.
Our Colonel, Harry Hays, is a trump; so is Lieut Col. DeChoiseul; and young Major Penn has a veteran’s head on young shoulders; he is the coolest man I ever saw, while the Adjutant, Merriam, is good naturedly smiling, whether in battle or in jovial conversation. Their behavior throughout was such as only to increase the confidence of their men in their favor.
I cannot close this brief sketch of this skirmish without alluding to the trojan services rendered by the Washington Artillery. They are au fait in their business. Prisoners since captured acknowledge that they estimated the number of pieces engaged at eighteen, while only six were there, and sometimes only four in play. But it is useless to dwell now upon the precursory marks of that gallant band of New Orleans soldiery, as they have already won laurels since that occurrence, which eclipse any previous one of their or any other corps of a like number.
It was on that evening that poor Maylan, of No. 18, was out on picket guard, when a wrong alarm was given, and on the quick return of the picket the poor fellow was shot through the heart while crossing the stream. He was a good fellow, and was well liked by his fellow soldiers. During the same night we commenced throwing up entrenchments along the stream for nearly a half mile, in order to protect us against the attacks of the enemy, in case they should feel disposed to renew the play, but they did not. Over five hundred men slept on their arms, if sleeping it can be called, anxiously waiting, [?] nothing occurred except one or two false alarms. On the following morning work again commenced, until we were completely protected against the fire of the infantry of the enemy, some companies working as late as [?] o’clock. During the following night, two companies, who had been stationed at a ford about a mile further down the stream, were surprised by the enemy; they, however, returned the fire very promptly and with such telling effect, that everything was quiet on the following day. Feeling now rather secure and having recovered most of our blankets, canteens and other equipments, which we had thrown away in our quick march, we expected a few days rest and ease, but such was not our luck. ON the following morning we received orders to march and make room for another Virginia and one South Carolina regiment. In less than half an hour the whole brigade was under way, and we were moving in the direction of Camp Wigfall, when about half way the order was countermanded and we camped that day and the following, until 7 o’clock on the morning of the 21st, (Sunday,) at the very place the courier overtook us. From here we returned to where we had started from, only by a different road; arrived there, we were soon honored by shot and shell from the enemy, but did not return, as we had no artillery. About 9 o’clock that morning a regiment of Virginians, together with the Continentals and Baton Rouge Fencibles, crossed the stream to storm the battery if it should become too annoying to us, it having already then killed four and wounded several of our men. At that time, in fact from early daybreak, we heard cannonading at some distance, and well aware that a general engagement must necessarily soon take place, we came to the conclusion that the crisis had at length arrived. At about 1 1/2 o’clock we were ordered to recross the river, and the whole brigade took up march in the direction of the firing, namely, the great battle of Stone Bridge. The distance is about twelve miles, and was made principally running, over fields, through woods, not one hundred yards even soil. You may well imagine how we felt at mid-day, the thermometer ranging about 85 [degrees]. Of course we threw off knapsacks, provisions, blankets and everything calculated to lighten us, but, nevertheless, a good many lagged behind and some others actually gave out; as for myself, I never experienced such fatigue and heat in all my various exploits. But what was that in comparison to what was to come? Closer and closer sounded the artillery and vollies of the infantry. Miles distant from the battlefield, dead and wounded lay strewn about on both sides of the road, while not a step we could go without meeting some one returning from the battle wounded or assisting the wounded, or one whose appearance already indicated that the battlefield of this world was closed for him forever; but not one passed who was able to speak, who did not hail us with some words of encouragement – such as, hurry up, boys; you are just in time; or, we have got them, boys – hurrah! and at them; while some, actually despairing, encouraged and begged us to be quick, as their regiments had suffered terribly; and if no reinforcements had come soon, the battle would have been lost. Both appeals, though contradictory, had the desired effect – the last eminences were gained, and there lay before our view two armies in deadly combat, deciding whether a nation of freemen shall be free or be subjugated to the rule of their would-be oppressors; every prominent point occupied by batteries pouring forth their deadly missiles, while brigade after brigade marched to and fro to protect them and gain for themselves more advantageous positions. A more appropriate place, so far as name is concerned, could not have been selected than Stone bridge, as had the enemy been successful, the North would indeed have had a stone bridge to cross over to the very streams of Southern heart’s blood. But, to the battle. Before sunrise, the special battalion if Major Wheat, composed of the Tigers, Capt. Alex White, the Walker Guards, Capt. Harris, the Old Dominion Guards, Capt. O. P. Walker, the Delta Rangers, Capt. Gardner, and Catahoula Guerillas, Capt. Buhoup, numbering together about 460, rank and file, commenced paying their respects to the advanced guard of the enemy. In this they were assisted by companies of South Carolina Regiments; but, owing to the rapidity of the advance in overwhelming numbers, it became necessary to retreat and resort to all stratagems known to warfare to escape the deadly Minie balls of the enemy. It was when emerging from the woods on our side of the road, to await the arrival of the enemy, that the South Carolinians mistook this battalion for the enemy, and fired into them; and the fire was returned before the unfortunate mistake was discovered; but this accident, as it were, cemented both only closer together for the balance of the day; wherever the fight was the hottest, the gallant Wheat, with his battalion, was foremost, assisted and seconded by the captains and officers of the companies, who are too well known by all of you, to need any praise at my hands for personal courage and bravery. It was very near the close of the battle when Maj. Wheat was wounded. His command having suffered severely, he rallied once more all remnants and scattered factions, and brought them again before the enemy only to dare them once more to come on, and their refusal to charge, to fall mortally wounded.
The command of the battalion, which was on that day reduced from 460 to 260, fell on Capt. Harris – a soldier and gentleman well known to all of you – who, during the battle, had his horse shot from under him, and had, in fact, several narrow escapes from death. And, while on escapes, allow me to relate to you the escape of Henry S. Carey of New Orleans. He got shot in the leg, and being left by his company, very quietly laid down and awaited coming events. He did not wait long; for one of those chivalrous Yankee brigades soon retreated in the direction where he was lying, when a straggling lieutenant discovered him some distance off, ran to him and said, “Aw, we have got you, [?]” “Yes.” said Carey, “you have, and I hope you will treat me like we treat you.” With that the Yankee ran his sword through Carey’s thigh, having, of course, missed his aim, (the heart) when Carey very quietly drew his revolver and blowed off the whole back part of the head of this Northern ruffian. Such is their bravery.
In the fore part of the battle, and while the enemy had the regulars of the United States Army to push forward, the battle was very well contested; and, with numerical strength over us, well-drilled and battle-tried soldiers in front, and more artillery than we hat, they no doubt thought to have quite an easy thing of it, and on several occasions actually did have the advantage. But they lacked one thing – the spirit and spunk which animated every one on our side. Whenever a charge was made, our boys would make the welkin ring with their shouts and hurrahs – so much so, that in the latter portion of the battle, we had only to hallo and run towards them, when they would leave in a hurry without even firing a shot.
The Northern army was commanded by Gen. McDowell, with Gen. Scott at Centreville as the “power behind the throne,” etc., etc.; while Gens. Beauregard, Evans, Johnston and Jefferson Davis, Esq., managed the youngsters of the Young Republic. You cannot imagine that I could give you a full detail of all the movements of the different wings of the army; and I therefore confine myself to such abstracts as may be interesting. Of all the different portions of the Northern army, the New York Zouaves suffered most. They are completely burst up. What are not killed, are wounded or taken prisoners. I actually don’t think that, out of 1100, 200 left the field with sound hides. They fought well, and were the especial favorites of the South Carolinians, Tigers, and particularly of the Washington Artillery. The prisoners and wounded say that they never expected to meet an army here, but merely a concourse of people in open rebellion – something like a Centre street riot in New York. The episode of the battle, however, was the critical moment, when, in order to save the day, it became necessary to storm a battery at all hazards. This duty, dangerous and important, was entrusted to a Virginia regiment, assisted by another, of what State I do not recollect. Their charge was terrible, but of no avail. Again they charged, with the same result. Reinforced, they fought their way, inch by inch, to the top of the hill, and the battery was captured, not, however, before 700 noble lives on our side had been sacrificed. This gave the battle a decided inclination to our side, but notwithstanding this, regiments after brigades and reserves of infantry kept pouring in, and the plan was at once changed.
While their infantry in overwhelming numbers were to keep our infantry harmless, their artillery, which had taken prominent positions, were to operate against our strongholds; but they had, no doubt, forgotten that there was also Washington Artillery in the field at Stone Bridge. Through the thickest of a perfect shower of minie’ rifle balls, they moved their batteries to the point selected by Gen. Beauregard himself, and his horse just then having been shot from under him, he very quietly helped himself to the horse of one of the artillery band left them with the bare admonition, “don’t waste your powder, boys, but take good aim;” and they did take good aim. In less than a half hour, that battery, as well as the surrounding infantry, were rather quiet, while cannons, ammunition wagons, horses, drivers and soldiers were all piled up in one heap. All hope was now gone; the whole reserve of the infantry was now called into action, the enemy not having one cannon left. It was then that our brigade made its appearance on one hill, the Rockville Artillery and a squadron of cavalry on the next. We led off with a charge, supported by the artillery, and if mortal eye ever beheld a sunning set of cowards, it was the thousands then making their way through the fields, over fences, etc., etc., in the direction of Rhode Island and intermediate landings. Escaped from reach of infantry, these brave ones were once more rallied by their commander to resist the cavalry, which they feared would attack them in their flight. Two solid squares were formed on a hill on the very end of the woods, and no sooner formed than they were scattered to the winds by the shells of rifle balls of the artillery. This was too much; to stop the Mississippi would be an easy job to the one of attempting to stop the flying infantry of Abe and Scott. Pursuit was almost useless, as no one could catch them; but General Johnston met them a short distance on their way, giving them his farewell compliment by taking fifty wagons of all sorts of camp equipage and the remainder of their cannon, horses attached, together with a good supply of ammunition, and last, but not least, the private equipage of Gen. McDowell, unfortunately, however, without the General. The number of killed is very large on both sides; ours not less than 1500, while the enemy’s cannot be under 2500. All houses in the neighborhood are converted into hospitals, while even a church serves for the present the same purpose; and it is in it where over 400 Zouaves are now under the treatment and kind care of the rebels, as they call us. The prisoners thus far taken amount to over 1500, and every day some fellows turn up, wither from their own will or caught by our soldiers. The total killed, wounded and taken prisoners of the enemy cannot fall short of nine thousand, while we have about twenty-five hundred all told. What made our loss so great was, first, the great superiority of their fire-arms in the hands of regular troops; and secondly, the storming of that battery. While it is horrible to think of such loss of human life, it is also gratifying to know that a decisive blow has been struck, the enemy routed, driven back, and completely disorganized, and their fondest hopes of subjugating the South are blasted for the present, at least. How sure they were of gaining this battle, I can prove to you by letters found in their pockets to their relatives, where they tell them to direct their letters to Manassas Junction; and from the fact that two trains of ladies and gentlemen accompanied Gen. Scott to Centreville, in order to assist the old chieftain in his triumphant march to Manassas, the key of the valley of Virginia, and thence return by railroad to Washington. Another corroborating fact is stated by the prisoners, who say that their term of three months was out some days ago, but they were not allowed to leave until after this battle, when they were to have been paid off in Manassas, and sent to Washington by railroad: but alas! “There is many a slip between the cup and the lip.” It is almost a pity that a man like Gen. Scott, enshrined in life-long glory, should, at the very brink of the grave, follow the promptings of vindictiveness, and avarice, and destroy, with one blow, all affection, love and admiration a grateful country had for him; but “such is life,” as Bill Adams says.
In this battle, the Continentals suffered more than any other company in the regiment, and for a very plain reason: we were the first to come down the hill, after the Mississippi regiment had been flanked; close to the woods in the hollow we were halted; while the Virginia regiment , in our rear, was flanked close to the woods on the right. These having been scarcely posted, Col Early commanding, gave order to form in line of battle – not in the hollow – but half way up the hill, in full view of the enemy on the ridge of the other, who used the opportunity to shoot down five of our men in less time than you could count twenty, and in other companies in proportion. The first man shot in our company was Henry Clay. The ball struck him in the neck, severed the jugular vein, and went out on the other side, killing him instantly. He had scarcely reached the ground, before two others fell – Sergt. Clohey shot through the leg, and Flynn badly wounded in the groin. While they were being picked up, a ball struck a canteen of one, went through it, and took the rear file, Kelly, through the hand. During this short time the cry was, “Let us charge,” but Colonel Early said, very coolly, that it was all a mistake, that they on the hill were our friends, etc.; until, when the whole regiment became so clamorous for a charge, that Col. Hays said: “Boys, do you want to charge?” All hands hallooed “Yes,” and charge it was, our gallant officer in front, closely followed by the boys, just in time to see the running Yankees knocked by our artillery over fences, roads, and everything which was not much higher than a one story house. So much for Col. Early.
I would be recreant to all truth and justice were I not here to mention, with all the praise this feeble pen is able to bestow, the coolness and promptness of our captain and lieutenants. McFarland you know too well to need encomiums from me; but, as regards Davis, he has surely more than gratified the most sanguine expectations of his warmest friends; he is a brick, and no mistake.
And now, let me close this rather lengthy and dull epistle, badly written, and scraped together on three different kinds of paper, with a Yankee cartridge box as a desk; read it to some of the Continentals if you deem it of sufficient interest, and allow me to subscribe myself with my best wishes for you and your family’s prosperity and welfare.
Your obedient servant,
JOHN F. GRUBER, Corporal*
In justice to myself I must inform you that I have been promoted to that important post. Give my respects to Jim McGawly, Blessy, Slemmer, Capt. Hodgkins, Th. Murray, and all the boys, and tell them for particulars I must refer them to a verbal report.
J. F. G.
New Orleans Daily Crescent, 8/5/1861
*While Gruber signed this letter as a corporal, records indicate he mustered in and out of the 7th LA as a private.
Contributed by John J. Hennessy