Typo, Co. B, 5th Maine Volunteer Infantry, On the Battle

20 01 2020


Alexandria, Va., July 25th, 1862

Mr. Cowan – Sir: – The events of the last few days seem more like a gloomy dream than a reality. Only a few days since a splendid and well-appointed army left the vicinity of this place with light hearts and light footsteps, convinced that their cause was right – confident that the right would conquer – to-day, the men composing that army (some, tho’, lay stretched on the field of battle) are here – as an army they are gloomy and sad – as soldiers they are disgusted with the incapacity of some of those to whom their lives and honor were entrusted.

I do not know whether an account of the unfortunate engagement fought on Sunday last, of which this state of things is the result, will interest you.

The 5th Maine regiment left their camping-ground, 1 ½ miles from Centreville, at 2 o’clock on Sunday morning. No drum beat the reveille, but the men were quietly awakened and formed by companies with as little noise and confusion as possible. As soon as the ranks were formed, every man assured himself that his musket was properly loaded and capped, and that his equipments were all in order. – This done, each company formed a hollow square, for the purpose of receiving a few words of instruction and caution from the officers commanding them. The Biddeford company was this formed, and Capt. Goodwin, in a few brief words, impressed upon his men the necessity of maintaining their ranks intact, and of paying the strictest attention to every order given.

The command “forward” was soon given, and the 5th, preceded by the 4th Me. and followed by the 3d, took up the line of march for Centreville. The men were in good spirits, and full of pleasant anticipations of victory, and of a first rate time in Richmond. A march of 20 minutes brought us to the foot of the hill, upon which the dirty little collection of houses called Centreville is located, and here we were ordered to halt, in order to allow some regiments belonging to another division to pass to the front. We remained halted about an hour, then resumed our march. As we reached the top of the hill, and cast our eyes to the right, to the left, to our front, and to our rear, it was impossible not to be forcibly impressed with the grandeur of the scene around us. – The country, so far as the eye could reach, appeared literally covered with troops, dressed in every imaginable variety of uniforms, from the bright, glossy colors of the zouaves to the somber gray of the volunteers; while the incessant glittering and flashing of thousands and thousands of bayonets and sabres in the morning sunbeams, was perfectly dazzling. It was a sight calculated to inspire every heart with confidence, and out troops must not be too much blamed for anticipating an easy victory. It is not to be wondered at that the men who saw those columns advancing with the steadiness of veterans, should feel confident that the sun, just then rising in the East, would set with the stars and stripes waving from the rebel entrenchments. They did not know they had no General.

On our way through Centreville we passed the building used as a hospital for those wounded in the engagement of the Thursday previous. Many of the poor fellows were at the doors and windows; their pale, wan faces looking bright in anticipation of (as they believed) the splendid victory to be achieved that day. – “We should like to be with you,” said one, “but – “ and as he uttered the last word, he glanced down at his leg which had been shattered by a grape shot.

Passing a short distance beyond the village, the troops filed to the left. Our brigade proceeded about 2 ½ miles down the road, when the word “halt” was given, and the men received permission to fall out and rest under the shade of the trees which skirted the roadside. We were then in front of the enemy’s position, and about half a mile from them. We had remained here, some three-quarters of an hour, when the report of a cannon towards the front told us that the ball had been opened. It was soon followed by another – and another. – In half an hour the cannonading had become general, and the stillness of the Sabbath forenoon was broken by the booming of the heavy guns – the dull explosion of the shells, and the rattling of musketry. Our brigade soon became impatient, and cries such as “What are they stopping for?” “Why don’t they move us on?” was heard on all sides. Some of our mounted officers rode to the front, among them Major Hamilton of the 5th. He soon returned, and stated that he had seen our mortars plant three shells in the midst of the “devils,” at the same time expressing his belief that our artillery was “using them up” rapidly. Shortly after a mounted negro came from the direction of the front. His mouth was distended with the broadest of grins, as he yelled that the seccessionsists had run up a flag of truce. From that time our men made up their minds there was not fighting for them. All they would have to do would be to pursue the rebels at the close of the fight, and secure the prisoners; and this impression was uppermost in the minds of the men composing the brigade, until their arrival, two hours afterwards, upon the field of battle, in rear of enemy’s position. There, they found, unfortunately, that the prisoners were likely to be made on the wrong side.

We received orders at 10 ½ A. M. to proceed by a circuitous route in rear of the rebel position. In order to do this we had to traverse a distance of nine miles. This distance was accomplished in less than two hours. The day was intensely hot, the road was of the worst possible description, the troops were heavily laden with their arms, ammunition, equipments and blankets; they were worn out with want of sleep, and want of food, and out of the 900 men that commenced the march, only 150 were able at first to form in line of battle, and those more than half dead with fatigue.

We wish we could describe that march, but we can’t – it was perfectly indescribable. For the first four miles not a man fell out, though the dust almost choked us, and our tongues were parched with thirst; but when, on entering a field that had been recently plowed, the order “Double quick” was given for the third or fourth time, men who had struggled hard to keep up felt that they could do no more, and soon a long line of stragglers was seen in rear of the column, slowly dragging their weary bodies along, while many others lay gasping and fainting by the roadside. In vain our Adjutant exclaimed, “You’ll all be shot down like dogs.” In vain Col. Dunnell cried, “Not another man leave the ranks!” The voice of exhausted nature demanded rest. We left the ranks with one or two others, about two miles from the battle-field. After a tedious search, we found a thick mud puddle. No mine of gold, at the moment, could have more delighted our eyes. No fears of cholera morbus prevented us from drinking freely of the putrid, stagnant fluid. How it refreshed us! By its aid we were able to join the main body of the regiment about half a mile from the battlefield. The main body of the 5th then consisted of about 200 men ! the 4th probably had 300, and the 3d about the same number as the 5th.

As we neared the scene of action we were met by the remains of a Mass. Regiment which had just been severely handled by the seessionists. We asked them eagerly “How goes the battle?” They replied, for what reason we cannot tell, “the rebels are retreating. We have them whipped completely.” You should have heard the shout that went up from our too credulous brigade, “Onward! Onward! we heard on all sides, Onward, or we shall lose them.” All fatigue was forgotten, all other thoughts swallowed up in the desire to get one shot at the enemy before they could escape. But we were destined soon to be undeceived. An ambulance wagon, full of wounded and dying men, followed by another and another until the number swelled to twenty, making all haste to the rear, did not seem to us a very conclusive token of victory. As we emerged from the woods on our left which concealed us from the battle field, another disorderly squad of New Yorkers met us. Their faces were smeared with blood and blackened with gunpowder. There was an expression of sadness on their faces as they said, “Hurry up boys, they want you badly there.” Another moment and we were in the field. It is a hard thing to describe a battle-field. We saw a battery on our right and on our left and one in front, or rather we saw clouds of smoke and flashes of fire where those batteries were planted.

Thick volumes of smoke, flashes of fire, dead and wounded men, strewn thickly round, broken gun carriages, bullets singing and whistling in all directions, musketry rattling, cannons booming, shells bursting – this is what we saw and heard as we crossed the field towards the cover of a little wood, where we were to form for the attack. There was a little brook near the wood; several of us went there to drink, while the remainder rested for a few moments. We looked around us, as we have said, there was a battery on our right, on out left, and to our front, all playing with the greatest regularity and precision, while all of our troops in sight appeared to be disorganized and in confusion. For our artillery we looked in vain, that was in the hands of the rebels. We could not help coming to the conclusion that the battle was lost irretrievably.

We wondered what our task would be, whether they would lead our brigade of 800 or 900 against those almost invincible batteries, or whether they would suffer us to remain there until the enemy got our range and mowed us down like so much grass. We were glad when the command “5th fall in,” was given, for we were impatient to see what would be done next.

The regiment was formed in close column at half distance. Company B. had 32 men, and all its officers. Company F. we believe, had six men. Company B. was, by far, the strongest in the regiment. Almost as soon as we were formed, a tremendous rushing and crashing was heard in the woods on our left, and in an instant they appeared alive with men, belonging to several regiments. They were retiring in the utmost confusion. A cry arose, “It is the enemy retreating,” and in an instant a dozen men had left our ranks and sent as many bullets flying among them. Several fell. It was a sad mistake – a mistake too often made in this unhappy war. The retiring troops were the Ellsworth Zouaves and the Mass. 5th. “For God’s sake don’t fire upon your own men,” they cried. The firing ceased and we asked them why they fled. “We can do nothing with them,” said they. They passed to our rear; the secession troops following them, until they saw us, when they opened fire upon us, they, however, retreating to the cover of the bushes.

At this moment, a company of u. S. Cavalry retired in disorder, and their so doing occasioned a panic in our ranks. The 5th regiment, no, the colors of the 5th, flanked on either side by about 70 or 80 men, formed a line and commenced their advance through the woods. The balls flew thick, but the rebels committed the common mistake of firing high, hence our small loss. We traversed the wood and reached the open field beyond, there we expected to meet the enemy – no enemy was to be seen. The enemy had retired to a wood on the opposite side of the field, and from thence they sent numerous but ill-directed volleys (fortunately for us.) We halted in the middle of the field, and for fifteen minutes poured a continual storm of bullets into the woods, but of course we are utterly unable to estimate the effect of our shots. At length a battery of rifled cannon on our right having got in our range, it was thought best to retire; the order was given, and we retired, not in good order, nor in any particular order, but pell-mell, every man seeking his individual safety. When we reached the place where we had formed, we saw a sight which made us sick. Imagine five or six thousand men spread over a wide expanse of country in an inextricable state of confusion with dozens of shells and cannon balls flying in their midst; imagine four or five hundred men bleeding on the field, and you will have the last grand tableau of the battle of Bull Run. An account of the retreat in my next.

Yours, &c.


Biddeford (ME) Union & Journal, 8/2/1861

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Contributed by John Hennessy