Monday, July 25, 2011

Not Cowardice That Caused Defeat

This letter is written by somebody with the initials N.R.,a soldier with the 2nd Wisconsin Voluntary Infantry Regiment, a regiment nicknamed the Iron Brigade of the West by General McClellan. The soldier is writing to the [Wisconsin] State Journal in reaction to an article in the paper published on July 22nd about the Battle of Bull Run.  He and his regiment fought there three days earlier, and in this excerpt the writer tries to make the readers understand the circumstances, and iterate the outcome of the battle was certainly not because they were cowards.  This letter can be found in its entirety at Second Wisconsin Voluntary Infantry Website.

Arlington Heights, Va.
Near Washington, July 25, 1861
I have just received your paper of the 22d and do not feel justified in allowing the grossly false accounts of the battle of Bull's Run given in your telegraphic dispatches, to go uncounterdicted. I wish to give a sufficient explanation of the battle or let our friends know that it was not cowardice of the men that caused the defeat. . . 
. . . . During this cannonading, one battery after another of ours was silenced by the guns of the rebels:  Still the enemy's fire was as fierce and effective as ever. The air seemed to be full of balls and bursting shells. During the firing, we got up flanked to the left and filed over the hillside down further into the ravine, and immediately to the bottom of the hill, off which the enemy's large battery was located. Before we left our first position, the fire from our batteries had nearly ceased and while lying there (which was by order of the General) we saw the New York Fire Zouaves, Ellsworth's regiment, charge on the hill. They were repulsed and driven back after a terrible resistance by a large body of infantry and cavalry. The fight between the Zouaves and the rebels became so hot that all lines and forms were broken up and they were entirely overpowered by numbers; their retreat was, of course, a confused mass. We afterwards learned that this was the point at which the rebels had just been reinforced by twenty thousand fresh troops under Johnston. When the rebel cavalry charged on the Zouaves, they turned on the rebels and swept their men and horses like chaff.

By this time, all our cannon, except one or two, were silenced and the enemy's battery appeared to work as briskly as at first. As the Zouaves began to fall back the battery opened on them such a fire of grape shot and bullets as we have never seen before.Under this fire it was absolutely impossible for men to form and rally but before they had got fairly to retreating down the hill, another regiment of infantry was ordered to charge in the same place. Our cannon was now silent, demolished, ruined. We were ordered forward. We had come from our first position to the foot of the last hill during the charge of the Zouaves and two or three other regiments. A narrow road is cut into the hill on the south side leading up to near the battery. On the North side of the road, next to the battery the bank is some three to five feet high. On this side of the road the water had cut a ditch one or two feet deep. Here the road, and especially this ditch, was crowded full of dead and wounded men. By getting close to the bank, they were partially protected from the enemy's fire and here the poor follows had crowded in and crawled one upon another, filling the ditch in some places three or four deep. I will not sicken your readers by a description of this road. By this time the ground on the lower side of the road was covered with men from different regiments who had charged up to that battery and been overpowered by the superior numbers and fallen back. They were already in such a confused mass that they could not be reorganized without much trouble, even if they had not been exposed to a fire, much less could they do it when the air was literal full of grape shot and rifle bullets.

Under these circumstances the 2d Wisconsin Regiment were moved forward along this road and halted. The smoke prevented us from seeing the length of our line and the noise from hearing commands even if any were given. By a sort of mutual consent we rushed over the dead men, climbed up the bank over the fence and up the hill to the rebels guns. Here the rebels displayed a Union flag when a part of our officers cried out "They are friends, don't fire" By means of this delusion, they gained an advantage over us when down went the Union flag and up went the emblem of treason. This piratical warfare is a favorite game of theirs. We had rushed up too near to be much effected by cannon when our men commenced the wickedest kind of a fire ever known. The woods in front of us was full of men firing on us. The fort, now plainly seen, was full of men and its embankments lined with the fire of musketry aimed at us. Under this fire they they stood some minutes returning it steadily but with terrible effect when they fell back three or four rods toward the road, firing all the time. Here they stopped retreating and rallying again rushed back to the rebels and poured three or four rounds into them. On their side, ten guns were fired to our one. The bullets whistled all kinds of tunes, but mostly in quick time.
As we fell back a little toward the road again the New York 69th, about which there has been so much gas, fired a full volley into us from the rear. Our men, after standing such a fire from the rebels and then a rear fire from a set of fools from our own side, retreated to the road and there got mixed with other regiments and, as was an inevitable consequence, retreated down the hill in confusion. The 69th, after firing one or two rounds, broke and ran in perfect confusion. As we went down the hill, they opened a terrible cross fire from the woods on our left at the same time the fort in our rear kept up a constant fire of grape shot and shell after the retreating regiments. The regiments had been sent up one at a time, not near enough to render each other any assistance, and still so near as to be in each others way when they were forced back. As the men retreated there were no officers of high rank to stop them and rally them again. No reserve had been prepared to cover our retreat in case of defeat.
We went into the battle with not more than thirty thousand to the outside. The rebels had full sixty thousand in the morning and were largely reinforced during the day. Their artillery was better and heavier than ours. They were at home, acquainted with the country, and had been fortifying these hills for months. The result is before the world. The retreat was bad enough, Heaven knows, but I deny positively that it was through any fault or cowardice of the men. . . .

Iron Brigade Soldiers as found at

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