Second Battle of Bull Run: Duxbury’s First and Most Severe Casualties

by Patrick Browne

The memorial to Union forces at the Second Battle of Bull Run. By coincidence, the 18th Massachusetts, including about 50 Duxbury men, charged right past this location.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the final day of fighting during the Second Battle of Bull Run. It was a tragic day for the nation at large…but for Duxbury, the battle had particularly sad and shocking significance. The Second Battle of Bull Run brought about the town’s first battle casualties after almost a year and a half of war. Not only were they the town’s first casualties in combat, they were also the greatest that Duxbury would suffer on any single day during the war.

The numbers are not huge. Three killed in action, five wounded (one of whom later died of his wounds), and one prisoner-of-war for a total of nine casualties. It might seem a small number, but this represented about one-fifth of the men that Duxbury had in the field at the time.[1] In a small town such as Duxbury, the effects of the battle must have been stunning.

The Duxbury men engaged in the Second Battle of Bull Run belonged to the 18th Massachusetts, one of the many regiments in the Army of the Potomac. They had gone off to war more than a year prior, been through a tough campaign on the Virginia Peninsula, and dealt with hunger, exhaustion and disease. They had not, however, seen any serious combat. They were deployed during the Battle of Yorktown on April 5, 1862 which was, technically speaking, their first engagement. They witnessed the effects of shot and shell and it must have been a harrowing experience. Fortunately, they did not suffer any casualties and never came into close range with the Confederates.

During a large part of the Peninsular Campaign, the 18th Massachusetts was detached from their brigade and served special duty, much of it well behind the lines. A corporal in the 18th Massachusetts, Thomas Mann of Middleborough, later wrote that their unit spent their time, “…scurrying from one place to another; doing picket duty one night and marching to protect some exposed position during the day.”[2] They therefore missed the bloody Seven Days Battles in which the other regiments of their brigade suffered terribly.

The fact that the 18th Massachusetts had not seen tough fighting while virtually every other unit in the Army of the Potomac had did not sit well with Mann. A good many Duxbury soldiers probably shared his opinion. Mann wrote, “…The Eighteenth has not succeeded in getting into a good square battle yet and I am becoming a little discouraged. We were in hopes of taking a hand in this fight to show the rebels what kind of metal we were made of.”[3]

That opportunity came when the Army of the Potomac abandoned the Peninsular Campaign and was shipped piecemeal to Northern Virginia in mid-August 1862. Major General John Pope had been placed in command of a new Union force, the Army of Virginia, and intended to advance overland on Richmond. Pope believed, and Lincoln hoped, that this new army would accomplish what McClellan’s Army of the Potomac had not—the capture of the Confederate capital. McClellan was ordered to support Pope’s army with his forces. McClellan, viewing Pope as a rival, did so begrudgingly.

Beginning on August 14, 1862, the 18th Massachusetts marched about 60 miles from Harrison’s Landing to Newport News, Virginia. There they boarded, on August 21, the steamer North America and were brought up the Potomac to Aquia Creek  Landing. Of the short voyage, Private David Meechan of Duxbury wrote in his journal, “Crowded, jostling, much swearing, and not much sleep.”[4] From Aquia Creek they took a train to Falmouth, Virginia, then pushed on by foot, eventually travelling about 50 miles to the site of the Bull Run battlefield.

The march was rapid and confusing, sometimes moving forward, then countermaching. The common soldier had little understanding of their objective. Meechan wrote in his journal, “…Nobody seems to know what is up…We suppose Pope’s Army of Northern Virginia [sic] is fighting. We are all anxiously enquiring what all this means…Nobody knows…”[5]

In fact, Pope’s army was indeed fighting and slowly falling back northeast towards Washington. In one of the most brilliant maneuvers of the Civil War, on August 26 and 27, Confederate General Stonewall Jackson managed to move his Corps rapidly around Pope’s right flank, getting between the Union Army of Virginia and Washington D.C. Jackson’s men took up a strong position along an unfinished railroad bed by the village of Groveton near Bull Run. It was virtually the same ground on which the first major battle of the war had taken place in July 1861. With the enemy to his rear, Pope had no choice but to attack Jackson. The opening clashes of the battle began on August 28.

On August 30, by the time the 18th Massachusetts reached the field, Pope’s army was in a desperate position (although Pope did not comprehend that fact) and was badly in need of the reinforcements from McClellan’s Army of the Potomac that were finally arriving.[6] Despite the urgency, the 18th Massachusetts was ordered to rest that morning while the battle raged furiously. They sat on Henry House Hill behind Union lines (where Stonewall Jackson had earned his nickname during the First Battle of Bull Run) and calmly boiled coffee and ate salt pork while surgeons tended wounded men nearby.[7]

During the early part of the afternoon, General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps (of which the 18th Massachusetts was a part) slowly arranged itself for a huge assault on the center of the Confederate line. The 18th Massachusetts moved forward to Dogan’s Ridge, then advanced about a half mile through Groveton Woods, nearing the Confederate position. At the edge of Groveton Woods, the 18th Massachusetts halted, was ordered to lie down, and stared across a large open space known as Dogan’s Pasture…about half a mile wide. At the far end of the pasture was the raised railroad bed, a position which the Confederates were employing as a strong defensive earthwork. It was, in short, an extremely difficult position to reach, much less to take by force.

When the order came, the 18th Massachusetts rose up, marched out into Dogan’s Pasture, then was given the order to charge at the double-quick. On their left was the 13th New York. On their right the 1st Michigan, and beyond the other brigades and divisions of the Fifth Corps. All the regiments charging across Dogan’s Pasture were under terrible, concentrated fire from both infantry and artillery and took heavy casualties. The 18th Massachusetts reached the raised railroad bed, formed a line along its top and fired at the Confederates at close range until their cartridge boxes were empty.[8]

There the advance ground to a halt and Union forces were unable to push past the railroad bed except in a few, isolated places. The order was soon passed along the Union line to retreat and the 18th Massachusetts raced back across Dogan’s Pasture towards the relative safety of Groveton Woods, still under terrible fire. An officer of the 18th Massachusetts recalled that the shells fell so thickly during the retreat that “the ground looked like a millpond during a shower.”[9] It was the worst fight of the war for the 18th Massachusetts.

Of the battle, Duxbury’s Private Meechan simply wrote in his journal, “Fought the Battle of Bull Run, got badly cut up…Retreated to Centreville.”[10]

Duxbury’s casualties were the following:

In memory of the Duxbury casualties at the Second Battle of Bull Run

1st Sgt. Joseph E. Simmons, Shoemaker, 23
Pvt. David F. Church, Shoemaker, 26
Pvt. Daniel Rix, Farmer, 26

Corp. Alexander MacDonald, Tailor, 31
Pvt. Henry Jones, Shoemaker, 21
Pvt. Jairus Leavitt, Shoemaker, 26
Pvt. Patrick O’Brien, Farmer, 19
Pvt. Henry B. Paulding, Shipwright, 26 (died of wounds on 10/11/1862)

Prisoner of War
Pvt. Hiram Weston, Shoemaker, 31

We can only imagine what the reaction was when news of the casualties reached Duxbury. There must have been some disbelief. Early reports of casualties after battles were often fraught with errors. Gershom B. Weston, eldest son of “King Caesar” and a community leader who worked diligently to support the troops, wrote to the acting commanding officer of Company E, Lieutenant William Winsor of Plymouth, to verify the Duxbury killed. Winsor wrote back:

“Dear Sir, Yours of the 5th is at hand, and I am sorry to say that the intelligence received in Duxbury of the death of Sergt Simmon and Private Church is but too true they were killed at Centreville on the 30th of Aug. our forces were oblidged to give up the field with our killed and wounded. A flag of truce was sent out the next day and Capt in our Regts accompanied it.  He tells me that they he saw Sergt Simmons lying on the field and went and looked at him, he looked very natural.  They were not allowed to bury any of the dead but were hurried away as soon as they had gathered up the wounded.  Capt Spalding did not know Church. Sad as this intelligence must be to their friends I must say that the recovery of either of bodies will be impossible as they were burried by the enemy.”

First Sergeant Simmons had recently learned that he was to receive a promotion to First Lieutenant and a transfer to the new 38th Massachusetts Infantry in which many Duxbury men had just enlisted. He was the highest ranking casualty from Duxbury. The final resting places of Simmons, Church and Rix are unknown, but based on Winsor’s letter, it is likely these three Duxbury men were buried on the battlefield of Bull Run.

[1] This figure represents only those actively engaged on the field and does not take into account the men who had just enlisted in the 38th Massachusetts and were still on their way to the front.
[2] Thomas H. Mann, Fighting with the Eighteenth Massachusetts, (Louisiana State University Press, 2000), 67.
[3] Mann, 68.
[4] David Crossley Meechan, Civil War Diary, ed. Evelyn Alden Ryerson Hathaway, (Published by the editor, 2008), 67.
[5] Meechan, 69.
[6] John J. Hennessy, Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas. (University of Oklahoma Press, 1993) 303-307.
[7] Mann, 91.
[8] Mann, 94.
[9] Hennessy, 358.
[10] Meechan, 69.

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