The most murderous battle they ever saw for so short a time. . .

by Carolyn Ravenscroft

Photograph from the main eastern theater of war, First Bull Run, July 1861.

Yesterday marked the 150th anniversary of the 1st Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Manassas). On the field that day, in the ranks of the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, commonly called the Boston Volunteers, was a carpenter’s son from Charlestown named Charles M. Smith. “Charlie” was the son of had enlisted on June 13, 1861 shortly after Abraham Lincoln made his plea for troops. Two days after Bull Run Charlie sat down next to a wounded comrade and dutifully recounted all that he experienced in a letter to his mother so she “would not feel worried.” The following is hair raising letter Mrs. Harriet Smith received:

July 23 [1861]

Shooters Hill, V.A.

Dear Mother and all,
We are again at Shooter’s Hill, we started from here a week ago at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and marched till 3 o’clock the next morning and then started at sunrise and marched till sunset where we camped overnight and took some prisoners. All the houses are empty and some of them we set on fire. If we get hungry we kill hens, ducks and cattle and pigs and every thing we want to eat. We started the next morning with the intentions of cutting off the retreat [of] a rebel regiment which started from Fairfax but we was 2 hours to late. They burnt bridges and cut down big trees to stop us all they could but we pushed on as far as Centerville. There was about 8 regiments in all that went with us but when we got to Centerville there was 20 or 30 other regiments encamped there. We stopped here two days then we started for Manassas where we fought an awfull battle. Men that have been in other battles say that it was the most murderous battle they ever saw for so short a time. It only lasted 6 hours. I haven’t heard how many men we had to take the place, some say there was 40,000 but there wasn’t one half took part in it. The battle twas either sold or it was a great blunder. They had over 100,000 men and had batteries in the woods and batteries that reached 1 ½ miles. They heard we were coming and was reinforced 30,000 the very day we got there. I will give you a little description of it but I suppose you will read about it in the papers. When we got within about 1 mile of the place we heard cannon and saw the smoke they then made us urn double quick to the field where we threw off every thing that encumbered us. The shells were flying every direction and the first man I saw killed was one of our own Company. A shell struck within six feet of us killing one and knocking down two or three more. A piece tore my pants a little and that was all. We was ordered on to the hill where I saw sights that was enough to make a man grow mad. There was men laying dead and wounded and the artillery men had been killed and the horses were all dead piled together by the Cannon. The bullets were flying thick. The enemy wasn’t more than a stones throw from us. The glorious eleventh gave one fire and fell back leaving behind them many dead and wounded. A ball struck my gun but that was nothing. We loaded again but that was the last fire we gave together for the other regiments that went up after us got cut to pieces so they broke, breaking us and everything was confusion. Some of our captains got killed. Then there was so much noise we could not hear our Colonels and every man was for himself. I went again on the hill and fired but the bullets and grape fell so thick we fell back again leaving hundreds behind. Besides a lot of Ellsworth Zouves lost 3 or 400 of their men. I went down into the woods with about 100 others where we could fire into them without their seeing us and here I came the nearest to getting killed. There was some of us went deep into the woods. I saw a company of men in there and thought they were our men but when they see us they fired into us and the way the leaves and splinters flew off o the trees it made me think of home. I rushed out of the woods and our Cavelry were coming down the hill to charge into them but they had hardly got into the woods when I should think a whole regiment fired upon them. They turned their horses and fled and there was as many as 30 horses came out without a rider. I jumped into a little hole to keep clear of the bullets and there was 4 or 5 soldiers in there. I asked them some questions but I found they was all dead. Every one was leaving for the hill. I went up there where I shot about a dozen shots when I see they was retreating. I was one of the very last ones. When our Cavelry rode by us on the gallop told us to run for some woods ahead as quick as we could for their Cavelry was coming. I looked back and saw the dust and only saw about 20 behind me when I threw away my grub bag and gun and run for life if I ever did. They did not follow but a little ways and went back. I picked up another gun that was loaded and discharged it at them. Every body was going towards Centreville on a run. There was men wounded on the way crying for help but every man seemed to look out for himself. All the houses and barns were filled with the wounded but we had to leave them and I suppose they were all killed. There was 12 of our company missing this morning. The Cavelry charged on our rear when we got about 2 miles off taking some prisoners. They also fired shells into us when we got within 4 miles of Centreville killing only a few. One of them struck a rail fence about 10 feet from me and wounding 2 or 3. I was very lucky during the whole of the battle. There was men each side of me got shot dead while I wouldn’t get touched. There was hundreds of men walked to the camp at Centreville that were badly wounded about the head and body. There was only 2 of our Company that was wounded that came here with us the rest we had to leave. One is now sitting in front of me, a ball passed right into his mouth and out of his cheek taking several teeth with it. We shall stay here until we get a big enough force to take the place. Nearly all their whole army are there and you can’t see them but when you go up to fire they can pour right into us. I thought I would write to you so you would not feel worried. They told me today that we could not have any letters go but if you get this you write quick and let me know so I can write more. I don’t feel much like writing today. Give my love to all the folks. I have received two letters from you and want to get some more but good bye till I get home.
Charlie

Charles M. Smith was mustered out of the 11th Massachusetts, Company I on June 24, 1864 and promptly reenlisted six month later in the 1st Massachusetts Calvary Battalion. He finally left the Army for good at the end of the War in June, 1865. Charlie settled in Humbolt, Kansas where he married and raised a family. The Drew Archival Library of Duxbury Rural & Historical Society has 8 of his Civil War Letters all of which are as well written and detail laden as the above.

Photo above: Civil War photographs, 1861-1865 / compiled by Hirst D. Milhollen and Donald H. Mugridge, Washington, D.C. : Library of Congress, 1977. No. 0005

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