Ozaukee County News Articles
AN EARLY DAY LETTER
Extracted from the
The Milwaukee Sunday Telegraph
April 5, 1885
Transcribed by Mary Ann Albrecht
(The soldier boys spend many happy hours pouring over the letters they wrote home during the war. Some of these letters afford lots of amusement. Some of them are remarkable for their sentiments of patriotism, foresight and ability. We have been fortunate enough to get hold of some written by the late Captain James McGinley, of the 3d Michigan. This young hero made a record which should inspire his relatives for generations to come. When the war broke out he was 25 years of age, married and the father of an infant son. His home was Manistee, Mich. Fort Sumter's guns aroused his patriotism, and leaving his home and loved ones he walked alone, 100 or more miles through the wilderness, to Grand Haven, where he was one of the first to volunteer for three years, and became a member of the 3d Michigan infantry. His regiment was hurried to the front, at Washington, and was there several weeks before the battle of Bull Run. Becoming a part of Kearney's famous division- afterwards Birney's — they took part in all the battles in which the Army of the Potomac was engaged. At Fair Oaks, Groveton, Gettysburg and several other battles, the 3d Michigan suffered terribly, and became so reduced that it was consolidated, in '64 with the 5th Michigan. James was wounded at Groveton and again in the Wilderness, and was killed in a charge near the Boydtown Plank Road, south of Petersburg in Oct. 1864. His body was taken from the field by the enemy, and his friends never knew where he was buried. He went in as a private and fought his way to the rank of 1st lieutenant of his company, and when they were consolidated with the 5th, he became the adjutant of the regiment, and just before he fell he received a captain's commission, but died before he had a chance to muster, the veteran of 34 battles. He was honored by having the "Kearney Cross" bestowed upon him by Gen. Birney for gallant conduct. The following letter was written by this gallant man who served so well the country he loved. It was written at a time when the country was in a great uproar. It was written by a cool-headed, brave man, whose word is worth vastly more than that of the demoralized frightened correspondents who made such wild stories in those troublous times. The Major Wadsworth he speaks of is the late General James Wadsworth. That the then major, in his excitement and chagrin acted semeting as a drunken man would, may be true, but he was too brave a man to get drunk in action. But the stories of drunkenness on the part of McDowell and staff were rife for a year after that battle. That they acted like drunken men, McDowell, at least, there is no doubt, but subsequent investigations relieved both Wadsworth and McDowell from the charge. McDowell lost his head in a fight, and was a child, so far as capacity was concerned, and he acted and looked both like a drunken and a crazy man; but in fact he was always a total abstainer; will not even have wine on his table, at his receptions. We speak of these things, just as our dead comrade would have done had he written of Wadsworth and McDowell two years later. The letter is very interesting, and will be read with pleasure by the veterans. — EDITORS SUNDAY TELEGRAPH)
Arlington Farm, Opposite Washington, D. C., July
My Dear Sister: I wrote a note the other day to let you know that I had come safe from the battle, and in it I promised you an account of the fight and I now set about it, supposing that my friends would like to see what is a very scarce article in the newspapers, a correct recital of the events of that eventful Sunday. As I gave you an account of the first fight in the letter I wrote you at Bull Run, I shall commence where I then left off.
Our first fight was on Thursday; on Friday morning we marched back and took possession of the battle ground without any interference from the enemy, and remained there, keeping a sharp lookout, doing picket duty, scouting in the daytime, securing some prisoners, and sleeping on our arms in line of battle every night until Sunday, the nearest troops being several miles in the rear of our brigade. We were afoot as soon as day broke and something seemed to tell me that we were to have a fight that day, so I took my gun and started out to find if my prognostications were correct. Passing to the rear and right of our position to some elevated land, in a widely cleared section, I could see approaching from Centerville and points to our right, toward the left of the enemy's position, long lines of our troops presenting, as you may well imagine, a "gallant array" as they moved briskly along, their long lines of polished gun-barrels floating splendidly in the morning sun. I knew then that we were to have an eventful day and turning on my heel I returned quickly to the camp, thinking that our generals were hurrying things a little and having little confidence in the result, for I knew that we were illy prepared for the combat; that the enemy outnumbered us largely, and I must say that I made up my mind for the bloodiest kind of a victory if we won any.
When I got back to my regiment a number of cannon had arrived and everything seemed ready for the fray but eating our breakfast, which was soon disposed of. The artillery advanced to the open field and took up its Thursday's position and our regiment was drawn up in line of battle to support it.
At half-past six the first three guns were heard far off on our right. Soon a battery of three guns on our left opened upon the batteries with which we had the contest on Thursday, and our guns shortly lent their huge voices to the deathly chorus, but the only answer was the bursting of our shells in the enemy’s camp. Our fire was kept up briskly for more than an hour before we heard anything from their side; then the increased cannonading on the right, quickly followed by the fierce rattle of musketry in the same direction, told that the work of destruction had commenced. For six long hours the battle raged with unabated fury, the commingled roar of cannon and small arms swelling and lulling like the cadences of a storm. Our skirmishers, though they tried often, were unable to draw a reply from the foe opposite our position, but our rifled cannon fired upon everything that looked like soldiers and every cloud of dust that arose in the woods within three miles. It was to the re-enforcing of Beaureguard by Johnson, whom Patterson had allowed to get away from him, that we owe our defeat. This army of Johnson’s we could see from our position as it came over the hills in the rear of the enemy's left about a mile and a half away, and our rifled cannon threw spherical case shot among them as they crossed a broad, open field, and when the shells exploded you should have seen them scatter, the cavalry breaking from their lines in every direction, their horses rearing and plunging and dashing wildly away, the columns of infantry opening and suddenly halting and dashing forward at a double quick to the cover of the friendly woods. We could tell by the firing and moving clouds of smoke that our right wing was making serious inroads upon the enemy and was driving him back. At about four o'clock word was passed along our lines that the enemy was in full retreat, but we could see his reinforcements pouring in and still doubted our success. Soon we were ordered back into the woods, where the rest of our brigade was stationed, together with two New York regiments, and stacked arms. Hardly had we broken line and set about getting supper when we were startled by a sharp fire of artillery and musketry on our left. All the regiments were ordered to "fall in, double quick;" then came an order, blundered out by some officious fool, to leave everything but our canteens and arms. So we, supposing that we were going to help our boys on the left, doused our blankets, knapsacks, haversacks and jackets, and hardly had we done so when Col. Richardson rode up and gave the orders; "Left face! Forward, double quick, march!" And away we went toward Centerville, followed by the other regiments, thinking still, that we were only going to go ‘round the woods to the fight on the left, but soon found ourselves drawn up in line of battle, near Centerville, three miles from our encampment with our artillery planted on the high ground as a reserve for the retreating right to rally upon. This was the first we knew of our defeat, and we rather expected that the enemy would follow us up, so we all got into position, stacked arms and lay down to rest.
As soon as I could get away from the regiment I went over to the rear among the troops just returned from the fight. It was now about 8:30 P.M. and some tired soldiers were yet arriving exhausted with their hard day's work. Campfires stretched in regular lines away to the left for a mile or more, and soldiers were lying around them. Stragglers were wandering uneasily around in search of their respective regiments, and to my questions as to how the battle went, they in almost every case replied, dolefully, that their several corps were "all cut up!" I met a member of the 1st Rhode Island regiment and he told me that they had lost all their field officers, Gen. Sprague had had two horses shot under him, and were going to Washington to recruit! Since then I have learned that out of 1300 they lost 13 killed and missing! You can see from this how the newspapers came to be filled with such extravagant stories of our loss, and the "Pictorials" with such exaggerated pictures purporting to be taken "By Our Special Artist." On the Washington road several regiments and a large number of stragglers had built their campfires. Here I met Major Wadsworth, aid to Gen. McDowell, who told me that I had better stay with my regiment as the army was going to retreat to Washington. I was surprised for I knew we occupied a strong position and that the enemy must have suffered as severely as we had, whatever our loss was. To my questions he replied that within an hour the disorganized regiments would take up the line of march for Washington and the organized would follow in their rear. I was still incredulous and asked him who he was and he told me. I could not believe that we were to retreat, and concluded that he was drunk. I went back to the Third and laid down on the cold ground without jacket or blanket to keep off the chilly air and went to sleep thinking that a soldier's was indeed a gay life. At eleven o'clock we were aroused, formed in platoons so as to form a hollow square with the greatest expedition, marched half a mile toward Washington and halted on the top of Centerville Hill, while sixteen regiments in good order marched by us and then closed in as the rear guard, to protect the retreat, expecting to hear the enemy’s cavalry after us every moment, but they didn’t trouble us. I have seen a good many different accounts of the battle and retreat but none of them do us justice. Our brigade fought the first battle unsupported, yet I have seen it stated in the papers that the 69th and 71st N. Y. drove the enemy back at the point of the bayonet. For three days we were miles in advance of the rest of the army, yet the papers all persist in saying that we commenced our advance from Centerville at the same time as the rest on Sunday morning. Our Third Michigan was the rear guard all the way in from Centerville, and still others bear off the honors for the present. Col. Stiles, U. S. A., who as well as Gen. McDowell was drunk as a fool that day, and came in with that worthy in the van of the retreat, has informed the Washington papers that his corps of regulars brought up the rear and that was the reason the army was not pursued by the enemy! When we got here, soaking with rain at one o'clock next day I sought shelter in the tents of the regulars, and found them taking a comfortable smoke after having changed their clothes and eaten their dinner! When I say that McDowell and Stiles were drunk, I speak of what I saw myself, and thus you see what drinking whisky has cost us in this single instance, a loss that can only be repaired by the blood of thousands and thousands of precious lives. Our retreat was not so confused as the papers have represented, as you will understand when I tell you that after we had found our line of battle at Centerville I counted twenty-two regiments in line and I am sure that there were many others that I could not see, and after we left there, there was nothing to confuse them. There is one thing I do know and that is that reporters got scarce mighty quick when the cannon balls began to fly around us on Thursday, and on Sunday I'll bet my blanket — that the rebels have got — that there wasn’t a soldier in the army that could have retreated as fast as they did. They thought the army was confused on the same principle, I guess, that a drunken man imagines every one else drunk and himself sober.
I have talked with intelligent men belonging to nearly every regiment, engaged in the battle; and conclude that we had decidedly the best of it with comparatively little loss up to the beginning of the retreat. The minor details of the battle were managed admirably in almost every instance, and if the general management had been as good — i.e. if Patterson had done his duty and McDowell kept sober we would now be in possession of Manassas. Our men fought well and completely dispelled the illusion that the southerners could whip us with the odds in our favor, and what is more, established the fact that they are no match for us even handed, for they never came to the point of the bayonet with our boys, for as soon as bayonets came close they broke and ran. A great deal has been said about their cavalry, especially the "Black Horse Cavalry," but the "Fire Zouaves" taught that organization a good lesson.
* * *
Such was the battle of Bull Run as I observed it, a repulse to be sure, but important in its results, teaching us many things material for us to know, silencing clamoring politicians, proving the superiority of our men and ridding us of a drunken commander, who if successful now might have got us into a worse scrape at some future time.
James F. McGinley