Bulls Run, Virginia
Saturday July 20th 1861
I have but one more piece of paper, so I will tell you what I have to say in as few words as possible.
At Fairfax, where we were stationed, early in the morning of Wednesday the 18th of July, firing was heard in the direction of the pickets, also the booming of a few cannon shots in the same direction. About 7 o’clock A.M. the army of the enemy came in sight. The glistening of bayonets as they approached appeared like a sea of silver. Fairfax was slightly fortified only; the enemy numbered 50,000 or 60,000, while we had only some 8,000 or 10,000. It was their intention to cut us off from the main body at Manassas, some 14 miles distant. At nine o’clock A.M. we marched up to the breastworks, the enemy only a short distance from us on our flank at next Manassas. Our baggage in the meanwhile had been sent on to Bull’s Run. By shifting the regts from position to position we kept them at bay until about 10 o’clock when the retreat began.
Such a retreat was never known before. Our men had been double-quicked for two hours before the enemy appeared, and having all their baggage to carry, were nearly broken down before we started. The day was excessively hot and the road hilly and rocky. Men began to throw away their knapsacks before we had gone a mile. It was a mournful sight to see the soldiers on the way. Some fainted in their tracks, while others fell from their horses. Some dropped on the roadside with scarcely breath enough to keep them alive, but only one man died, he from the effects of a sun stroke.
In an incredibly short time we came to Centreville, 7 miles from Fairfax. There we were again drawn up in order for battle. Our company was detache as a picket guard, and on that account we laid upon our guns from the time we got there until 12 o’clock at night when we were again roused and continued the retreat. By that time the enemy had nearly cut us off from the main body again. (Let me here tell you that we had been sent to Fairfax and ordered to retreat as soon as the enemy appeared to induce them to follow us to Bulls Run where it was intended to give them a warm welcome. This plan succeeded admirably.) We got to the Run four miles further about daylight and took position for the fight.
Bull Run is the best natural fortified place in Virginia, and the fortifications extend for six miles along the banks of the creek. Our regt was stationed at an unfortified position. Thursday about 12 o’clock the enemy had come within about a half a mile of us, and planting their batteries, they began to pelt us with balls and shells shot from rifle cannon. It was amusing to see the men dodge them. At first they flew high over our heads, but they soon began to lower, then they whistled about us in earnest. Shells bursted in every direction. Our artillery could do nothing except fire a few scattering shots at them, which killed only a small number of them. After they had been shooting at us for an hour or so with their cannons (not having killed or wounded a single man), they sent about 10,000 men to flank our right. But Beauregard was a little too quick for them and sent a force of 4,000 to foil their plan. They met in a wheatfield and began work with the musketry. Volley after volley burst forth until all became mingled into one long continuous roar which seemed to shake the very heavens. They began to retreat, covering their retreat with their artillery, while our artillery commenced to fire upon them. We had about fifteen pieces. We do not know the number of theirs engaged. The cannonade lasted a long time, and in all the fight was 5 1/2 hours long. The enemy then fell back about two miles, where they are now.
The loss on both sides is variously estimated, but I believe all have now agreed that the number of Yankee killed was about 8 or 900, the number of wounded unknown. Our loss was 8 killed & 50 wounded. We took two common & one rifle cannon & eight hundred stand of arms, besides quantities of oilcloths, blankets, knapsacks, overcoats, and all kinds of army equipments. Yesterday (Friday) the enemy sent in a white flag to bury their dead, but they only half did the work & left about seventy unburied. Our men went over to the field yesterday to finish the work, but the stench was so great that they were compelled to leave it undone & so they were left. I forgot to mention that we took about 30 prisoners.
Synopsis – Wednesday & Wednesday night we were on the march & watch – Thursday all day we were drawn up in battle array & part of the time dodging balls and shells. Thursday night we were busy throwing up works for our company – Friday part worked & part lay on watch waiting for the general battle – Friday night (last night) was the hardest of all, for having had no sleep the two nights previous, we were wearied awfully – yet we had to sit in our entrenchments all night-kept awake by the firing of the pickets.
This morning we are still on the watch expecting the general attack. We were sure it would commence last night, but now we have no idea when it will commence. For two days & nights I ate nothing but seven year old sea biscuits.
Cousin Jim was among the number to break down in the retreat from Fairfax, but he was taken up on the wagons. I & Buddie [Taliaferro Simpson – BR] stood it finely excepting the blistering of our feet & shoulders where the straps of the knapsacks worked. Cousin Jim was sick before we left & has been ever since, but is much better now. Since Wednesday all the snatches of sleep were on the bare ground with nothing but the blue sky for our covering – but it was far sweeter than all the feather beds in creation.
The 4th Regt is now two miles above us. All our troops are ready or the fight. Patterson is coming or has come to join the Federal commander McDowell. Their army numbers about 80,000 string. I can’t say how many men we will have engaged – but I can say I know we will whip them easily. One of the prisoners taken at Fairfax says when their army came up & found the place deserted, they were completely thunder-struck & said “if we can run the gamecocks of the South that easily, we will go on, have a slight brush at Manassas, take Richmond, & there end the war.” We would have got them completely in a trap at Bull Run if a woman there had not told them we had stopped there & disclosed the position & strength of our breastworks. It was there they planned to flank us on either side, drive us back, & decoy our men from the center – then make a desperate rush with their reserve through our middle & thrash us outright. But lo and behold! our right wing defeated them & drove them back from their position & completely frustrated their grand ball at Richmond.
We are now much better prepared than before and are anxiously waiting for an attack. One of our Alabama regts killed about 20 Yankees before they left Fairfax.
Letter likely written to Simpson’s father.