A La Crosse soldier's letter describing the Battle of Bull Run

2011-04-10T00:00:00Z 2011-04-10T11:35:11Z A La Crosse soldier's letter describing the Battle of Bull RunBy Corp. William H. Collins July 23, 1861 La Crosse Tribune
April 10, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Corp. William H. Collins enlisted in the La Crosse Light Guard on April 18, 1861, and served with Co. B until he was discharged as disabled in May 1962. Collins, who later returned to La Crosse and opened a Pearl Street jewelry store, described the battle of Bull Run in a letter to his wife dated July 23, 1861, and reprinted in a 1930 edition of the La Crosse Tribune and Leader-Press.

My dear, dear wife:

You will perceive that I am still alive, after helping to fight one of the greatest battles that was ever fought in this country, or any other, except the battle of Sebastapol. Old men say that the battle of Waterloo was nothing to it.

On Saturday evening we received orders that we were to march at 2 o'clock the next morning, although it was Sunday. We marched precisely at 2 o'clock. We intended to surround the same batteries we fought on Thursday afternoon. We go five miles on the right of them expecting to surround them...

Our company were acting as scouts and skirmishers through the woods in advance of our column on the right side of the road to make any discovery we could. We came across eight different masked batteries ready to receive us. We also discovered that the rebels were 80,000 strong, where we were only 35,000. We crept back to our column and reported ourselves.

Col. (Daniel) Tyler after he commanded us before, was as I told you in my last, court-martialed for losing the battle, was acquitted and he also commanded us in the battle Sunday with as little success. We marched up to a turn in the road on the far side of a wheat field. (Col. William T.) Sherman's battery took up its position on the edge of a long wood while the enemy had a masked battery one mile up the road on the far side of a wheat field....

The different regiments then fell into a line of battle each side of the road extending from the road facing the enemy through the woods so that they could not see us, and we could march out of the woods at a moment's warning. The large gun fired shell into them for one hour and a half before they fired one shot into our lines...

We cut through, then the right opened another masked battery right opposite to us as we were advancing on the right of the wheat field. We were halfway across the field when we stopped to put off our blankets and the cannon balls were whizzing over and among us. The first ball cut one of our men in two.

As they kept up a continued fire on us and Ellsworth Zouaves (the 11th New York infantry), we laid down out of range of their guns. Our colonel then gave the orders to up and march in front. From that time out it was every man for himself though we all kept the ranks all the time. The enemy kept throwing shell and ball from two of their batteries. We kept on advancing steadily on their lines until we got within shooting distance with our rifles, when the order was given to fire - I believe every rifle brought down a rebel. They fell thick and fast. We continued to advance and load.

At the first fire 1st Lt. (Frank) Hatch was wounded by a shell bursting right in front of him. The next round that we fired told on the enemy's ranks as before. Hatch was wounded a few minutes afterward by a rifle, tearing the flesh from his arm.

After we had red two rounds the rebels opened a fire upon our troops from seven different batteries; still we kept on. We were ordered at about 2 o'clock in the evening to charge on a battery, which we did at point of the bayonet, and succeeded in taking it after a desperate struggle when we turned the canon on the enemy and commenced firing upon them. Poor (Samuel) Jackson got his arm broken by a canon ball in taking this battery, and our company lost several of its number.

(Edwin) Brewster (killed the following year) is all right; so is (Lt. Robert) Hughes, they say, though I have not seen him since we were on the field. We have only got one surgeon left. Capt. (Wilson) Colwell is all right; there is not a scratch on him. We cannot tell all we have lost out of our regiment.

As for myself, thank God I am still alive, after many hair-breadth escapes. One ball passed through my cap, another through the skirt of my coat - but not a scratch on my skin.

At 4 o'clock the rebels got reinforcements from Richmond and Manassas; but we still kept at them until 6 o'clock, when the enemy, who were at that time one-half stronger than we were, by a maneuver of their own, and having so many more men than we had, came very near surrounding us all, when an order was given to retreat.

Then it was that the butchery of our troops commenced in earnest. Everyone that could got out of the field as quick as possible. Even the wounded, all that could, dragged themselves from the field into the woods or road.

The dead and wounded that could not help themselves were left on the field as we retreated, and many of the wounded were praying for us to carry them with us, some cursing us for leaving them.

The enemy commenced a murderous cross fire upon us from canon, rifle and musket as we retreated the same road we took to go on the field. Between the wheat field and the wood where we threw off our blankets, the battery commenced throwing grape shot among us. I had just got my blanket when two men who were only four feet from me were stooping down to get their blankets when a canon ball went through both of them at once. They fell and died without a single moan or groan. I started to gain the road as fast as possible when I met Jackson and Frame. Frame was helping Jackson along, whose right arm was all shattered to pieces.

I told him to get out of the field as quickly as possible or he would get killed. Just at that moment the enemy commenced a terrible fire of musketry. Still we kept on retreating. I looked around: Jackson and Frame were still advancing. We got through the woods and struck the road.

Just at that moment the enemy's cavalry made a charge on us all, some 200 strong, and most of our men had not loaded their rifles again. All that saved me was that I had loaded mine while running. One of them made at me with his saber, which I guarded off with my bayonet and in a moment after he dropped from his horse a corpse. One of our boys seized his horse and rode off toward camp with him.

I looked around and the last I saw of Jackson was that he and Frame were taken prisoners and surrounded by cavalry. Neither of them have been seen or heard from since. We had to fight our way back to the camp where we had encamped the night before at Centreville. All the time the men kept falling around us, even the ambulances that were carrying off our wounded were fired into and taken, and they even throwed shells into the building that we were using for a hospital, and God only knows what became of the wounded inside, for in a few minutes the building was on fire.

I then took to the woods with some others, a few had made a stand of the different regiments. We could still see the enemy coming up toward us. I still kept on the road for I was completely done up from undergoing so much fatigue from 2 o'clock in the morning. I kept on the road a mile and a half further to Centreville where all was confusion....

It commenced to rain just as we got to Fall's Church. You can form no idea what a sight it was to see so large an army retreating. It rained all day and we were outside the fort without tents or anything, our tents being three miles from here and it was expected that the enemy would follow us up and for that reason the colonel would not let us go back to our old camp so we had to stay all night in the rain. Yesterday we got our tents and are now camped just outside the fort. Hughes has just come in. He was slightly wounded but got safely through the woods.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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