Return to Second Wisconsin Home Page

1st. Battle of Bull's Run

(From Echoes from the Marches of the Famous Iron Brigade..prepared for The Evening Wisconsin. The following descriptions draw heavily from Cornelius Wheeler’s diaries )

 Arriving in Washington at daybreak of the 25th; quartered in Woodward Block on Pennsylvania Avenue. Later in the day moving to Seventh Street Park, where we go into Camp Randall, remain here about a week. 

July 2d break camp and march through Georgetown, Washington, and across the Aqueduct bridge, ten miles west of Fort Cochran on the Fairfax road; camp at Camp Peck. While here we are brigaded with the Thirteenth, Sixty-ninth and Seventy-ninth New York Volunteers (2), under command of Col. W. T. Sherman, afterwards Gen. Sherman. This brings us to the preparation for the first conflict of the war, the battle of Bull Run.

Extract from a Private Letter from Lt. Rollins, of the Second Regiment
Battle Field
July 18, 1861 6 P.M.
This forenoon I wrote you a note - Shortly after I sealed it, a heavy cannonading commenced to the West of us. We waited for a while. At about two P.M. nothing was doing and I went to the grove after some water. As I returned the line was forming. Several regiments formed as quick as possible and pushed forward at double quick time to the scene of action. A sharp musketry fire had been kept up for some time. As we neared the place we met a number of ambulance and other confederates bringing wounded and dead men from the field. We pushed on still farther at double quick time and filed to the right into the line of battle across the road. All this was in thick woods. Cannon balls whistled through the air and cut through the trees in all directions. One struck the ground about forty feet ahead of our line and bounded over us about two or three feet above our heads and directly over mine. We were then ordered to sit down. One ball struck the La Crosse company, and wounded three of our men very badly- We stayed here about one and a half hours. Rifled cannon balls were flying all the time; most of them too high but some covering us with dirt. We were then ordered to retreat as we could be of no use where we were. The rebels are in a ravine, with cannon, where we can not reach them without very great exposure. Since we have halted by the roadside, several
regiments have passed - First and Second Ohio, and some others - towards the

field again 8 o'clock P.M.- When I had got so far in the above the bugle sounded "to arms" and we fell in and started again towards the enemy. We are now encamped for the night in a field where we are to sleep again by our arms in the open air.
The New York Twelfth was beat up this afternoon very badly. We shall most
likely try them again in the morning - Through so much of the battle,
Col. Coon has acted in the capacity of aid to Gen. Sherman, our Brigadier, and behaved very bravely.
Lt. Col. Peck appears as cool as on parade.

The Battle at Bull's Run, last Thursday, Interesting Particulars.
Washington, July 19.
A battle was fought at Bull's Run near Manassas Junction yesterday afternoon, between the advance of our grand army of forty thousand stalwart men and many thousand rebel troops. It was the result of a reconnaissance ordered by Brigadier General Tyler, and has ended in the temporary withdrawal of our troops to prepare for a grand battle to-day. The echo of the last guns were dying away as I returned to Washington to wire this dispatch. Both sides ceased as if by mutual consent.
Our loss has not yet accurately been ascertained but I am sure it cannot be more than fifty including the wounded. The enemy's loss is unknown. They are known, however, to have suffered severely. They still hold their position On my arrival at Centreville yesterday morning. I found the town and
entrenchments deserted, and learned that the enemy had retired to Bull's Run, a terribly strong position in advance of Manassas Junction.
The Forth Brigade of Gen. Tyler's division, Col. Richardson commanding, led
the order of march but Gen. Tyler pushed ahead with his staff and an escort on three hundred of the regular cavalry, Second Regiment, Capt. Brackett, to reconnoiter the enemy's position. On arriving at a height opposite Bull's Run, a long valley slope of open field stretched out between them and the enemy. We saw bodies of the enemy's foot and horse gleaming in a dense ugly piece of woods beyond the valley and appearing now and then about the farm houses at the edge of the woods. Gen. Tyler sent back for the two 20-pounders, Parrott's rifled canon with which to shell the points where the troops were seen. Our position commanded them finely. - When the guns arrived they were quickly planted and served by Lieuts. Babbitt and Benjamin. An admirable range was taken and the first gun dislodged a body of cavalry from a grove a mile and a half distant. We continued to fire both guns, and the General ordered Ayers, late of Sherman's battery, to advance and join in the fire.
Our cannonading thus commenced the action at precisely 12 o'clock P.M. No
rifles were fired for half an hour, though with the aid of our glasses we could see bodies of men coming down the hill from Manassas and elsewhere, and apparently filing into the woods; but at 1 o'clock a battery of four guns opened directly on our position from the edge of the woods. We saw that we had started the game. The range had evidently been taken long ago by the enemy, for grape shot fell hot and heavy. Brackett's cavalry was drawn up in the rear of our guns, and two privates were dismounted by the first fire.
Richardson's Brigade now came up and Gen. Tyler gave them permission to
reconnoiter the woods to the right and left and, if possible, to take the enemy's guns, which had been silenced for some minutes.
Our columns advanced under cover of the rolling ground on the left and along the
nearest range of the curve of forest on this side.
The Massachusetts First Regiment led the van followed by the Michigan Second,
Third and Fifth. The column moved forward, stretching across the field, and declined to the extreme right near the location of the battery. The majority dashed into the woods in fine order on the left and center. For a while all was still. We could see our skirmishers advance close to the place from which their shots came and fancied that the enemy had retreated on the Junction. It was now precisely 2 o'clock.
Suddenly there were scattered musket shots in the dense woods under cover of
which the Michigan regiment and part of the Massachusetts Regiment were invisible. There followed one or two rolls of volleys by platoon. "They are at it."
said the general. "Indeed it is" was the reply. In a few minutes the most rapid and tremendous musketry practice conceivable was going on in the woods. It was evident that the enemy were ambuscaded in great force. Brackett's Cavalry closed down to the edge of the woods. Wounded men began to be brought out to the ambulances in the fields, and the reserve was ordered to plunge into the woods to support the advance. Two field howitzers were also detailed from Ayer's Battery, and swiftly disappeared in the woods. They opened fire at once, and were replied to by the enemy's cannon which had evidently been moved to the left of their morning position. The platoon firing also redoubled in force. Our men fired at fearful disadvantage their ranks breaking among the trees while the enemy, lying in rifle trenches and behind embankments, fired with great regularity and terrific slaughter. They must have used many thousand rounds of cartridges in the engagement.
Companies F., G. and H, of the Massachusetts First, who were on the right, led by
Col. Wells, were the first to follow the skirmishers into the woods and cleared the enemy's advance before them. Suddenly they were subjected to a fire from three different points, and many of the men fell. The rest stood their ground until they got into the cross fire of the Michigan Regiment, and then retreated in some disorder. The two howitzers which entered the woods, commanded by Capt. Ayres did not fire upon a body of secessionists they supposed were friends, passed by them, and fell into a terrible musketry fire. Capt Brackett of the cavalry who was close by says that all his Mexican experience he never saw such a tempest of balls. Ayres served his guns with grape and canister till his ammunition was exhausted and then retired bringing the howitzers with him.
None of the Massachusetts companies, except
the three above mentioned, participated in the fight. The artillery men numbered only 18 in all, including Ayres and Lieut. Loraine, the latter of whom was slightly wounded. All the horses were killed and the men dragged the guns out themselves.
A curious feature of the fight was the position of the cavalry close to the edge of
the woods. A battle has not been known of late years wherein the cavalry have been thus used to close up the rear of an attacking force. The firing from our howitzers was most effective; that of the enemy overshot the range and their cannon balls whirled through the Hill Battery position most unpleasantly.
Under these circumstances, it was not surprising that our brave fellows retired
from the woods, the enemy firing on the rear but not venturing to leave their hiding places. The cavalry of course led the retreat.
From our eminence we covered the retreat by a most tremendous cannonade from
all our guns, eight in number. The enemy replied on our battery and on the retiring columns - with what effect I do not know though the shot fell all about and among us. The Michigan Second, New York Twelfth, and companies G and H of the Massachusetts First are supposed to have suffered most. The Michigan troops acted well but as yet I can state nothing with certainly in regard to the other regiments.
For an hour the final cannonading on both sides was terrific. Our shells burst
among the enemy and their loss must be severe; as by appearances, half of Beauregard's army were in the thicket. The place of retreatment was so narrow that it was impossible to get out of the enemy fire. I noticed by the battery Hon. O. Lovejoy, Henry J. Raymond, Esq., and other civilians, eagerly watching the terrific contest. The battle was finally ended for the day, unless the enemy should conclude to attack our position to night before the Sherman brigade, consisting of Sixty-ninth and Seventy-ninth regiments, can come up in the rear.
The day was frightfully hot. For miles no water had been found along the route
and our troops went into action thirsty and came out half dead. Nor have we any rations to-night, our provisions not yet having arrived. If the enemy had ventured into the open valley, the B Battery would have mowed them down by the column. The result of to-day's work will be that to-morrow or next day we shall have a immense engagement to which the battery of Bull's Run will been a mere skirmish. We now know the strength and nature of the enemy's position, and that position must be carried by force. The New York Twelfth, of the reserve, moved up into action in magnificent style. They were received with the very climax of the enemy's fire, from both musketry and artillery and, though they retreated at last, it was not till they had been severely mangled that they escaped to the open field. They have lost twenty men. Gen. Tyler and staff were under fire throughout the action.
Our troops are now returning to their supper less camp. A few houses in
Centerville will probably be taken by our wounded men. I think no officer of high grade has fallen. Lieut Smith, of the Boston Fusiliers is killed. To day's battle is generally pronounced an extended skirmish. Not more than a thousand of our troops were actually fighting at any one time. There were probably 4,000 or 5,000 of the enemy engaged, and large forces held in reserve.
Their position was impregnable against any such force as charged it this afternoon.

The Wisconsin Second in Action--
Their Noble Behavior--
The Ball that killed Gardiner.
Gen. King writes the Sentinel in regard to the skirmish at Bull's Run on Thursday:
Our Second Wisconsin regiment was about two miles off when the action
commenced and was immediately ordered forward. They came up at "double quick" and, as I hear directly from General Sherman to whose brigade they are attached, formed into line and "faced the music" with the steadiness of veterans.
Not an officer or man flinched; but all stood their ground like men though for the first time under fire. They escaped with the loss of one man killed* and three wounded; Myron Gardner, F. L. Hildreth, G. Wenzel, and a fourth whose name I failed to get but whose injuries are not severe.
Gardner was struck by a rifled cannon shot which carried off his right leg.

Dr. Lewis was promptly on hand to save his life if possible; but the case was past surgery and the poor fellow died within an hour or two. He was a member of the La Crosse Co., (Co. B.) and resides, I believe at Trempealeau. His remains were interred with military honors at Centreville, Va. Friday morning. Hildreth was wounded by the same ball which killed Gardiner. His ankle is badly shattered and it is feared that it may be necessary to amputate his leg, though the Doctor hopes to save it. Wenzel was also struck in the face by a fragment of the same destructive missile; his nose being badly cut and his eyes seriously hurt. Dr. Lewis however thinks that he can bring him through all right.
I have got the rifled shot which did all this mischief and will send it by the first
opportunity to Madison. It was brought here from the battle field by our Representative, Hon. John F. Potter, who paid the Second Regiment a visit on Friday, and gladdened their heart by telling them how highly Gen. Sherman spoke of their courage and coolness.
Their friends may rest assured that they did honor to Wisconsin.
*"Marion F. Hume of Co. F was killed by a cannon ball - the first Wisconsin Soldier killed in the war." History of Rock County

Letter from 2d Regiment
Camp near Centerville, Va.
July 19, 1861

Dear Parents:-You will have heard before receiving this that we have had a battle,
and knowing that you would feel concerned about my safety, I have thought best to write to you though I think it is doubtful whether this letter can be sent to Washington very soon. Yesterday, about noon, some of our advanced regiments were drawn into an ambuscade where the rebels had a masked battery and several thousand men. This was in some very heavy timber where the underbrush was very thick and they had felled trees before it and so fortified their position that it was impossible to see either their guns or men. When the firing commenced our main army some fifteen or twenty thousand men, were lying in camp about two miles back. We heard the cannonading distinctly, and occasionally the volleys of musketry. It continued for over an hour when our brigade (Col. Sherman's) was ordered to the assistance of those engaged. This brigade consists of the New York 13th, 69th, 79th, and our regiment. We formed into a line in a few minutes and proceeded towards the scene of action, going most of the way on a run. As we neared the place the cannon balls whistled over our heads and struck in the woods all around us.
We met the cavalry returning saying that there was no chance for them to do
anything in the thick woods. A little further along we met the ambulances bringing back the dead and wounded. One officer was lying wounded by the roadside and as we passed him his attendant begged us to give him a little water. One of the men stepped out and gave him some from his canteen. I tell you it was a dreadful scene for new volunteers to look upon, but we marched steadily forward as coolly as you could expect of us when canon balls are falling all around us. One man whom we met leading a horse was wounded in the foot, others we could see lying and bleeding in the ambulances.
When we got within a short distance of the scene of action turned to the right in to
the woods and formed into line. There was not room in the woods for but a few aight at a time, and we understood that we were to take the place of those who had been fighting and who were much fatigued. We waited then in the ranks for some time while cannon balls were whizzing over our heads knocking the limbs from trees and striking the ground both before and behind us. One of the La Crosse Company which is on the left of our regiment was struck near the knee by a cannon shot; his leg was afterwards amputated near the hip and this morning at 4o'clock he died. Two others of that company were wounded, one in the foot and the other in the face. The cannon ball came so near the eyes of the latter that he has since become blind.
The woods were so thick that we could see but a few rods towards the rebel
battery. Men were continually coming back past our line who had been fighting.
We asked them how it was going; they replied that some of our regiments were badly cut up, that they came right upon the rebel battery before they knew where they were and that the brush was so thick that they could keep no lines and consequently they become scattered while the rebel batteries kept playing upon them, killing many of them. After we had been there, exposed to their fire with out being able to return it for nearly half an hour we retreated.
You will get much more reliable account of the battle from the papers than I can
give you for we have no means of hearing the exact number of men engaged or all the circumstances attending it for the men are not supposed to know all these things. We retreated to our present camp about 2.5 miles from the battle field last evening.
We were reinforced last night by about fifteen thousand men and some heavy artillery and the report says that Gen. Scott is here with them. I have not heard how many of our men were killed. A Negro who came into camp to-day says that "dead rebels were lying about there as hail" and that the cars were running all night carrying them back to Manassas which place is said to be about six miles from here. We hear that the rebels have about forty thousand men around here but this is probably much exaggerated. We shall probably attack their position again this afternoon or to-morrow, if we do we are bound to take it.
There are many exciting incidents which I could tell you about this battle if I had
time and space. Those who were in the battle say that when any of our men were wounded and fell near the battery the savage fiends leaped over their breast-works and stabbed them; this has so exasperated our men that some of them swear that they will never give the rebels any quarter.
The enemy had retreated before us all the way until we got here, and we should
certainly have driven them from their batteries yesterday if we could have brought even one-fourth of our men to bear them. When the firing first commenced one or two batteries of flying artillery started from the camp to their assistance. After they had gone but a short distance they were ordered back as there was no chance to  use any more cannon than they had.
You never saw men in such high spirits as we were when we heard the firing.

Every one inquired why they did not march us over there so we could have a hand in. It was the first cannonading that most of us had ever heard and we could hardly contain ourselves; we were so anxious to see and fight the rebels. When we heard the volleys of small arms. Jeff Dillon remarked that it sounded like a lot of "darkies dancing on an oak floor."
When we started for the fight we were carrying our blankets, haversacks and
canteens, besides our belt and cartridge boxes and forty rounds of cartridges and heavy woolen coats. When we got to the top of a hill we started down on a "double quick" with loud yells and hurrahs; the road was crowded with dust and the air was sultry hot so that some of the weaker ones began to give out.
Before we had gone far, the boys commenced throwing off their blankets and
haversacks and even their canteens until the road was fairly lined with them. Two or three of our company, one of whom was John Cahill, gave out entirely and sat down by the roadside. I came and sat down by the roadside. I carried all of my things until the balls began to fly around us when an order was given to throw off the blankets and haversacks. I then threw mine off, but before I had got them fairly off the order was countermanded and I put them on again. Our position in the woods was a most trying one, even for old soldiers, but we all stood it like majors. When the great six pound balls come near our heads some of our boys rather squatted to dodge them and Col. Peck who was riding coolly along before the line, seeing them dodging the balls, laughed at them and asked if they were afraid of a few cannon balls. Capt. McKee too stood at the head of our company but a few feet from me, apparently as calm and collected as he would be pleading law in the old courthouse.
Col. Coon, our former colonel, is now one of the aids to Col. Sherman, the
commander of our brigade; he came down our line once in a while with orders to Col. Peck; he showed more courage than we supposed him capable of for he rode along in the most unconcerned manner possible, asking, as he passed, how we felt; we replied that we were "all right" and asked him how he felt; he answered that he felt perfectly cool and hoped that he would remain so. I have just heard that our loss was 25 killed and 40 wounded, the rebel loss must have been more than this for our artillery kept up almost an incessant fire upon their battery for about three hours. And many of our rifle men assert that they concealed themselves behind trees close to their works and picked off many of their officers and men.
It is said General Beauregard was there and and directed the battle. I don't know how true it is.
It is now about 2 o'clock in the afternoon and we have been lying idle here all day.
We are sure that our Generals are at work. It is said that a part of our army has
gone around towards Manassas to cut off the enemies retreat. We have now got some heavy columbiads and rifled cannon and arrangement for firing hot-shop and shell so that with our exposing our man to much danger, we can soon make their position too hot for them. I expect this letter will last you a long time for it is written so poorly that you cannot read it in a week but you ought not to expect it to be very elegant for the paper has been crumpled in my pocket for days and then I have to write on a bit of board or cracker box or any thing else I can get.
Our Col. and Major, are both writing letters and I notice that they do not have any more conveniences than I do: the Col. is sitting on the ground writing on a board placed across his knees; the Major is partly reclining upon the ground writing on a board placed across his knees; the Major is partly reclining upon the ground writing on a low box. I intend, if I can get it finished in time, to send this letter to Washington by J.F. Potter, member of Congress from Wis., who is in camp to-day; he is around with the bowie knife that he made to fight Pryor, and several pistols; for as you may suppose, it is not very safe traveling the road from here to Washington without being well armed.
We have taken quite a number of prisoners along the road; three of the rebel
cavalry deserted and came to us: they say that they were pressed into the rebel service. One of them has been furnished with an musket and has gone into our ranks. At one of the houses we passed, I saw two rebel soldiers who were left behind sick; they did not seem to be near as intelligent as many of the slaves.
We have slept out upon the ground for three nights and have lived almost entirely
upon hard bread or crackers and though the nights here are very chilly and the dew very heavy we stand it very well. It is a grand sight to see our army over the hills and along the road; it might be called a river of bayonets flowing along glistening in the sun, seeming to one who is in the middle of it, to have neither beginning nor end. And them when we encamped for the night we are divided according to the brigades, each regiment being formed in a line by itself the cavalry generally occupying one field, the artillery another, and as far as the eye can reach in every direction. The fields are full of men and horses with the covered U.S. wagons  scattered over the whole. It is indeed a grand view, and especially to us, who never saw a company of soldiers before leaving home. Our chief trouble on the march is want of water. Every time we halt, a few men are allowed to go from each company with a lot of canteens for water. They immediately break for the nearest well or spring and on getting there never fail to find it surrounded by twenty or thirty soldiers, each one of whom tries to crowd himself as near the water as possible. If it is a spring, in less than five minutes it is converted into a regular mud puddle and the men ladle up the dirty water with an eagerness which can be only caused by thirst. If it is a well, one of the soldiers winds up a pail-full but before the bucket gets to the top, a score of cups are plunged into it and the bucket is quickly drained. I have not suffered very much from thirst, for by standing my ground and gradually working my way into the crowd. I have generally succeeded in getting a drink, though I was seldom fortunate enough to fill my canteen.
July 20- It is said that Gen. Scott condemns most severely the action of Gen. Tyler
in so needlessly exposing his men in the battle day before yesterday. Last night our company was detailed as part of the picket guard and consequently I got but little sleep. We heard firing in the direction of our advance at intervals during the whole night. I have not heard what it was but presume that our flanks were pushing forward and driving in the enemy's pickets. I have never seen our company in better spirits than they are now and in fact the whole army is composed of as jolly a lot of men as could be got together. Just this moment Gen. Tyler and staff came riding along our line of "gun stacks," and as he passed where several of us were writing, he remarked to one of his staff "what a difference you see between this and the 69th (Irish) regiment; these men are all writing letters". He then asked us it we were writing
letters. He then asked us it we were writing home; we replied that we were; "tell them" said he "we shall have some good news for them before long."
I want you to write to me oftener; I have received but one letter from you since
leaving Madison; direct to Washington, the same as before. You will no doubt hear all kinds of reports about my being killed, &c. enough to keep you in a worry all the time if you believe them, but just consider them all false until you hear from me.
Your Son,
WM Boardman Reed

More news from Bull Run