|Unit History Project|
After The First Bull Run
Paper Prepared and Read
Transcribed by Thomas J. Ebert
As the sun rose on the morning of July 3, 1861, I awoke after an all night journey in a crowded day passenger car to find myself and my fellow soldiers of the 24th New York Volunteers among surroundings which were entirely novel to us. We were in Maryland. The foliage of the trees was strange, and we had never seen tobacco fields before. The farm houses, too, had an unfamiliar look, with their low roofs, their wide-spreading foundation walls and their deep verandas, and the negro quarters presented an aspect such as we had never had an idea of in connection with human habitancy.
For the preceding two months, nearly, we had been quartered at Elmira, N.Y., where our company had arrived early in May, before barracks had been built for us, and before we had been assigned to a regiment even. We were in the first enthusiastic rush towards the war after the militia regiments had been hurried forward to meet a temporary emergency, and hitherto we had been greeted with cheers and waving handkerchiefs wherever we had been seen on our way southward. In Maryland, we found it different. An occasional handkerchief was waved at our train from solitary houses along the route, but there were no cheers anywhere except from some of the most effusive of our own number. All outside of the cars was silent until we reached Baltimore at 8 o’clock in the forenoon, and as we marched through that city to the Washington railway depot, the silence was not frequently broken.
On our way from Baltimore to the capital, we passed one group of negroes in a grain field, who waved their hands and shouted. Writing to my parents the next day, I said: “The poor creatures thought I suppose, that our mission was one of freedom for them. It may be so at last.”
Ours was one of the thirty-sight New York regiments which enlisted before the first three years call, “for two years unless sooner discharged.” We were mustered into the state service at Elmira, May 7, and furnished with such uniforms as could be obtained at short notice, and with muskets left over, apparently, from the patriot war. From that time on we kept drilling pretty continuously and on May 17 were mustered into the national service, not withstanding our abbreviated term of enlistment. All of us were brimming over with enthusiasm and ready to march to the field, if necessary, with the arms that had been provided.
On reaching the capital at about noon of July 3, we were quartered in the empty loft of an old warehouse, where we staid until evening. Then orders came for us to pack our knapsacks, don our accouterments and march out to find a lodging. That night tents were pitched on the bank of a stream, between Washington and Georgetown, but a few days later we moved the camp to the vicinity of Columbian College on Meridian Hill, about a mile outside of the settled portion of the city, as it then existed. Here we abode until the battle of July 21, each “A” tent furnishing sleep facilities for seven men. Naturally we grumbled somewhat at the narrowness of our quarters, for we had to sleep in the clothes worn through the day in order to be sure of having them in the morning, and turning from one side of one’s body to the other in the course of the night involved a similar movement on the part of every bedfellow, as we all had to lie on the same side together, in order to have room for ourselves under the tent. Our food was plentiful and good and we had not yet learned the qualities of hard tack.
Those July days of 1861 were terribly oppressive from heat, and the officers were glad of any excuse for omitting drills. What drills they were obliged to give us, however, were more than we wished. What drills they were obliged to give us, however, were more than we wished. We wanted to fight, but the necessity of training for that purpose was not very obvious to most of us. Therefore, we besieged our regimental headquarters for passes out of camp, and when we got them wandered into every part of the city, including the houses of congress, then in extra session. Representatives and senators visited our camps also, and left huge piles of franked envelopes with the orderly sergeants, so that soldiers would not have to pay postage when writing to friends at home.
About the middle of the month the white tents which had been very conspicuous on the Virginia side of the Potomac and which were understood to be occupied principally by the three-months militia of the first call for troops, began to grow less numerous and a few days later there were hardly any to be seen there. Then we heard that these troops had moved out to Fairfax Court House.
On July 19, it was rumored that the rebels had evacuated Centerville and had been attacked and driven still further back the day before, at Blackburn’s Ford, on a stream a little beyond Centerville called Bull Run. The unassigned regiments about Washington were notified, also, that they were liable to be ordered across the river at a moment’s warning, and that knapsacks must be kept packed for the emergency. This was encouraging and we stayed at camp all day Saturday and Sunday, in expectation of orders.
Sunday was the 21st of July, and in the afternoon we heard that a battle was in progress out beyond Centerville. I was sorry not to be there, for it seemed as though the rebels could not possibly have raised an army to compare favorably with that which had moved out under McDowell, and in case of a Union victory, the Confederacy must, I thought, inevitably go to pieces without delay, so that I was likely to be deprived of the view even of a battle. We listened eagerly, and now and then heard smothered pulsations of the air, like heart-beats, and wondered whether it really meant the cannonading of thirty miles away. We went to sleep in our tents as usual after nightfall, but at about midnight the orderly sergeant went up and down the company streets pulling the tent flaps apart and delivering his terse message, “Turn out for rations.” There was, of course, little delay in obeying this order, and our haversacks were soon filled with hard tack, port, boiled corned beef, coffee, sugar and salt. Then came another order to equip ourselves for drill and fall in. This was also quickly accomplished and we set out from camp and marched to the armory, a few miles away, where an hour or two were occupied in exchanging our old muskets for Enfield rifled arms and appurtenances, just arrived from Europe.
When we reached our camp again, it was broad daylight, but most of us lay down and caught a little more sleep before reveille. While eating breakfast we received directions to put ourselves into light marching order and get into the ranks, so our knapsacks were left behind and we started out once more, equipped each with a woolen blanket wrapped in oilcloth or rubber cloth, a canteen of water or other beverage, and haversack containing rations for three days’ use, besides our arms and ammunition. This time we were off for Virginia and before we were half-way across the Potomac, by way of the Long Bridge, we were getting reports of the battle the day before. On the bridge we met a train of ambulances and other wagons bringing in our wounded, with others, not so badly wounded, walking beside them, the latter having been assisted on the way by riding some of the time on the rear steps of ambulances or by clinging to the hind end boards of the wagons as they walked. They were haggard with fatigue and want of sleep, and their answers to our inquiries were quite uniform. “They’re a tough lot out there. We beat ‘em all the forenoon yesterday, but they licked us to pieces in the afternoon.” Sometimes we could see the wounded in the ambulances and wagons, and very often we could hear their groans as they were jolted by movements of the vehicles.
At the Virginia end of the bridge we began to see, beyond the advance stragglers of the great rout, entire bodies of troops coming in something like regimental formation and we were directed to move out on the Alexandria road to let them get past. It was raining drearily at this time and kept on doing so for the remainder of the day. Still we had nothing to do but sit down by the side of the muddy wagon track and lunch at our hardtack and boiled beef while waiting for the road towards Centerville to be cleared enough to permit us to pass. An hour or two later we tried it again, and waded through the mud towards the battlefield for the rest of the afternoon, having to stop frequently to let the returning infantry and artillery have as free a passage as possible.
They had marched from twenty to thirty miles since the battle was finished the previous night, much of the time through a pouring rain which weighed down their clothing and made the roads almost impassable. They were in consequence greatly exhausted and all along the road were seen knapsacks, overcoats, blankets, coffee pots, frying pans and even rations and haversacks thrown overboard, after having been carried night and day to within a few miles of the capital. Yet there were some among the returning crowds who were still inclined to indulge in chaff as they were passing, asking us if we had made our wills, if we thought we could hide in the mud, if we were really started “On to Richmond,” if Old Abe hadn’t any further use for us, and much similar badinage, of the sort of which any one who ever saw two regiments pass each other remembers something.
After going up and down hill after hill, wading in the valleys, halting at mudholes to permit the advance companies to string out their lines in passing around, and from time to time standing aside to make free the way for returning troops, during what seemed interminable periods, the regiment, then about 800 strong, closed up in columns at Bailey’s Cross Roads, six miles from Washington, and afterwards the scene at McClellan’s grand review. There were a few houses, sheds and barns at that point, and our Colonel, wishing to make things as comfortable as possible for his command, ordered all but the guard into the buildings. Three rooms of a dwelling house were occupied by the soldiers of our company, who lay down on the floors and tried to go to sleep, while thick dampness exhaled from the saturated clothing of us all.
It seemed, however, that somebody else took a different view of what we were there for, and towards midnight we were turned out of doors, formed in line along the road and told to do our sleeping there, so as to be ready for an attack. I remember nothing further of that night’s proceedings and have no doubt that my rest in the rain with the butt of my musket for a pillow was satisfactory and untroubled. All day Tuesday, also, we spent in trying to recover from our fatiguing experience, but on Wednesday morning twenty of us went towards Falls church with our Captain, to look for rebel cavalry. Our route westerly and north of the road; beyond Munson’s Hill was a considerable growth of timber through which the men made their way, while the captain walked alone in the traveled track. Suddenly he leaped over the fence into the woods with us, and simultaneously we heard a whirring and whishing over our heads as bullets cut the leaves of the trees. “We’ve found the cavalry,” said the Captain; “They’re about half a mile ahead. Choose your trees and get ready to make it warm for them if they come any nearer.” “Is it cavalry?” said one of the boys, “I thought we had scared up some young partridges.” Peering out from points near the road fence, we could see at a distance a considerable body of men in gray on horseback, and several of us fired at them with no other visible effect than that they wheeled about and disappeared.
After waiting a short time without seeing any more of the rebel horsemen, the captain sent a corporal back to the cross roads, where he had left the regiment, to report and receive further orders. He found that the regiment had been moved back a mile and half towards Washington, to the point where a brook called Four Mile Run, and also the Loudon & Hampshire railroad, crossed the Long Bridge and Fairfax highway, and that orders had been left with a guard directing us to follow without delay. He therefore came back for us, but by the time we reached the cross roads, we received further orders for half of our party to stay there and the rest to be posted half a mile further out on the Fairfax road, as a sort of support for the cavalry vidette beyond. So by the middle of the forenoon, ten of us were in a clump of small trees and chinquapin bushes, half a mile from Bailey’s Cross Roads towards Fairfax, with orders to fire on any rebels that should come our way. We masked our position by cutting and sticking into the ground, other leafy shrubs towards the front of our hiding place, and then, after detailing one man to act as lookout, the others indulged themselves in letter writing, hunting for water, and in such other ways as seemed convenient, probably including cards, though I find no mention of the latter in my memoranda of that day.
While we were at this outpost, on Thursday another scouting party of thirty men from our own and another company of the regiment went out on the Falls Church road again, but were not as fortunate as we had been. A corporal who had been a tentmate of mine, was fatally shot through the arm and body by a rebel marksman. He died the same night. At 9 o’clock that evening our post was abandoned and its occupants recalled to join the other half of the detachment close to Bailey’s Cross Roads, where we stayed over night and part of Saturday, but on that day we got orders to join the regiment at the railroad crossing mentioned before. When we reached this place --- Arlington Mills we used to call it --- we found it vastly changed from what we had seen it a few days before. Big trees had been felled across the road, the railway track had been torn up and thrown into ditches and the railway embankment itself had been turned into a breastwork, behind which the 24th had established itself in as much comfort as was practicable without tents. Mess kettles had been brought out from Washington and the company cook was boiling pork as he stood under a pavilion formed of poles laid through crotches of trees and covered with leafy boughs. A pole resting upon a couple of crotched stakes held the kettles over the fire in front of his edifice, and around him were boxes of hard-tack ready for our eating. Our appetite for the last named provisions was not spoiled by the sight of chubby white worms which fell out when the bread was broken, but the food seemed rather ancient for dealing out at a point less than five miles from Washington. However, we were glad to be among acquaintances again, and I was lucky in finding a blackberry patch, which furnished a sufficient supply for my own mess, now reduced to four persons. From that time on, as long as the berries lasted, we kept up our supply by picking while others were amusing themselves with draw poker and loo, or by whittling pipes from laurel root or criticising the conduct of the war.
The next day, Sunday, I was detailed as one of the guard and was stationed in the direction of Munson’s Hill. A terrific thunder storm came on at night and our clothes, which we had worn continuously all the preceding week, were again drenched through and through. It was so dark that we were left tour own devices until morning, when I listened for the first time to rebel drums beating an impudent reveille off toward Falls Church and about five or six miles westerly from the Potomac, in front of Washington.
During the first week after the great battle, we private soldiers knew nothing about the location of any other regiment, but after the succeeding Sunday’s guard duty, having a day off, I began explorations beyond the regimental lines and found that troops were taking positions within supporting distance of us by thousands. Within a few days after that the stream of soldiery pouring across the Potomac came to be reckoned by tens of thousands, and one more the hills of Arlington were covered with white tents and batteries of light artillery. We ourselves, remained without tents during all of our stay at the railroad crossing and readily adjusted ourselves to the new environments and the new conditions of life. We knew we were at the extreme front, and that knowledge served to impart a flavor of interest in the possible danger ahead of us, so that we were not affected by monotony, although we had little to do. Drills and parades were out of the question, because there was no level spot in our vicinity large enough for the sort of drilling then in vogue. Besides if we had established skirmish practice, there was no guessing what we might have run into in the way of Rebel or of Union troops. Guard duty, therefore, was practically all the military work we had on our hands, and this brought our services into requirement about twice a week in the regular routine of two hours on post and four hours off, during twenty-four hours. The leisure time at our disposal was consequently abundant, and was employed in various ways, according to the various habits of the soldiers. Probably one-fourth of the whole number centered their main interest in card playing and groups of players seated around oilcloths spread on the ground were always to be seen among us. Poker, loo and vingt-et-un were the favorite gambling games, and seven up, casino and euchre those most generally played without stakes. Then there were quoits, pitched with horse-shoes or flat stones, and also occasional wrestling matches. Some, too, would take occasion to sleep as much as possible, while others would tickle the necks of the sleepers with straws, so as to give the effect of crawling insects or worms. There was a little climbing lizard or gecko that had a way of falling upon us from the limbs of trees and which was regarded with horror by most of the boys, unfamiliar as they were with that kind of reptile. There, and perhaps elsewhere, these lizards were called “swifts”, and the soldier who could make his comrade imagine himself infested with them considered his whole duty for that day well performed.
As the nights grew longer, quartets and choruses of singers crystallized themselves among us and interpreted many sweet melodies for us while twilight was fading out, the favorite songs, as well as I can now remember, having been “Annie Laurie,” “Home Again,” “The Ingle Side,” “Sweet Home,” “Maggie by My Side,” “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Suwannee River.” The national airs were heard often, and also such religious hymns as “Rock of Ages” and “Coronation,” but the most sympathetic chords were struck by the music and words which best revealed the sentiments of home and sweetheart.
As soon as it appeared that we were going to occupy this point for some time, we began to build shelters for ourselves with poles sloping to the ground and supported by a cross pole at the front. These shelters were covered with leaves and boughs of trees, fastened as well as we know how, and were quite useful in protecting us from rain, although they were not quite waterproof. The ground beneath them was spread over with pine twigs, and our oilcloths, with this bedding beneath, made fairly comfortable sleeping accommodations.
We stayed near the stream at Arlington Mills for more than a month, and I feel sure from reading my old letters written from this place, that we enjoyed ourselves keenly. With a bath every morning in the brook, with fresh beef sent out from Washington occasionally, with berries and fruit, and other additions to our rations purchased of neighboring farmers and with little to do except to gratify our curiosity and love of fun, there was nothing in our sojourn here to disgust healthy young fellows like the boys of Oswego County, in the 24th. Near the last of August we were introduced to a different phase of military duty. Having been recalled to a location in sight of the Potomac, near Arlington House, axes were given us, and we were set to slashing roads through the dense undergrowths and thickets of oak, poplar and persimmon which then covered large tracts in the great Arlington domain of General Robert E. Lee, and which were obstructions to the intercommunication of the forces necessary in case of an attack upon the capital from that side. The big earthworks along the ridge surrounding Washington had already begun, and as soon as we had got the improvised roadways into shape, we were set at work upon a new fortification somewhere in the rear of Arlington House, the name or exact location of which I don’t remember, or wish to remember. My individual connection with that pile of dirt was the Slough of Despond in my army pilgrimage. By itself there is probably nothing more objectionable in shoveling earth than in hacking trees, but nature had not fashioned me to achieve success in digging. My back felt as though it had been bearing the burden of Atlas every time I climbed out of the vast ditch from which I had been painfully throwing material for the yellow fort walls all day. I was humiliated, too, and irritated by the attitude of the corporals and sergeants who assumed the airs of section bosses on a railroad in directing little groups of their social equals or superiors as to their work of shoveling, a kind of work which I had never seen done before in any extensive way, except by the lowest classes of laborers. The scorching days were followed by nights of almost freezing temperature, and between the two extremes of heat and cold our lives were made so miserable that half our number were soon under the care of the surgeons. This work did not last long, however, and while we were performing it, the enemy had taken possession of the road on which our first skirmishes had occurred, and had put up quite a pretentious fortification on Munson’s Hill and a less imposing one at Upton’s Hill, almost under our noses, southwesterly from us. A few week’s later they heard from their Washington news bureau, that we were coming, and withdrew from the immediate vicinity, and we were marched out to Upton’s Hill, where our regiment, with the 14th Brooklyn and 22d and 30th New York, was incorporated into the First Brigade of McDowell’s (afterwards King’s) Division --- the First Division of the First Army Corps --- still fondly spoken of throughout the Empire state as its “Old Iron Brigade.” With our drills and dress parades, our guard-mountings, picketings and the generally harmless rifle practice between opposing pickets, our preparations for attack and abandonments of the same during the next six months, it is unnecessary to speak here, for those who are not familiar with all these matters by actual experience have had other opportunities to become acquainted with them in sufficient detail from many volumes and documents heretofore published.
My principal object in the preparation of this paper has been to draw truthfully the outlines of a picture of soldier life in its least sensational aspect, and it is only incidentally that I have chosen form that purpose a point of time and place in the war which has generally been neglected by writers on topics pertaining to the great rebellion. It may be, however, that soldiers of the western armies have wondered what was happening to the chaos of troops about Washington, before their organization into the Army of the Potomac, and if such shall find material here for a partial clearing up of the question in their minds, it will, of course, afford me additional satisfaction, provided that my main attempt has not been a positive failure.
New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs: Military History