July 25, 1861
From the letter collection of the 5th Maine Regiment Museum.
John French and the 5th Maine Regiment found themselves caught up in the tumult of battle at Mannassas Junction (1st Battle of Bull Run) on July 20, 1861.
Atop Chinn Ridge and House Hill as part of Union brigade under the command General Oliver O. Howard, of Leeds, the 5th Maine tried to carry the fight to the Confederates, but the Union effort faltered and the troops’ retreat grew panicky.
Days later, French writes to his family, "although we had a terable fight was obliged to retreat we was not whiped & our loss is not near as large as it is reppresented in the papers."
Rather than feeling shame at the retreat, French places the battle’s events in perspective, "we fought smart for a while but they had such an advantage over us that we became broken up & had to retreat we made a poor retreat & mixed all up so that when we got back it was hard to tell who was lost & who was not."
The regiment scattered during the retreat, with some soldiers dropping back nearly 20 miles from the battlefield. French and one of his friends chose another tactic.
"I and one of my comrades staid in the woods within 6 miles of the rebels & in the night the rebels was all around us we laid still till morning & then as we could not see any of the enemy we started & about three o’clock in the afternoon we got whare I am now it is about three miles from Alexandria," he writes.
Making his way back to the regiment, French reports that, "my boys thought we was dead shure & when we sent word to our Captain that we was here he & all the rest of the boys was quite pleased."
With the time to think about what happened, the Lewiston soldier assures his family in Albion of his resolve, "we are bound to wipe out this stain before long." He purposely withholds details of what the response might be, but he demonstrates a new-found respect for what war means.
"I must say that I had not a very correct idea of a battle but I have now for I have heard the tireful roar of cannons the sharp of thousands of muskets & the peircing schrieaks and groans of the dying & wounded. I thought I had seen suffering but I never did before but the worst of it was we had to leave our wounded in the field & the secession sons of bitches killed and tortured them in the worst way they could but we’ll pay them for it," he assures his family.
Adding to the chaos and panic were civilian spectators who watched the battle while sitting on blankets and eating from picnic baskets. The civilians would join in the retreat and crowd the roads with their carriages. Nearly 3000 Union soldiers were recorded as dead, wounded, or missing.
- Civilians flocked to the Battle of Bull Run to watch it while they picnicked. In what ways do we watch warfare today?
- How is it the same or different?