November 6, 2010

My Great-Great-Great Grandfather at Bull Run

I spent the afternoon at the Houghton Library with my uncle Bob, transcribing documents from the MOLLUS Civil War archives. While he worked on our ancestor Major Robert Henry Gray's 1863 war diary, I transcribed two newspaper clippings. What follows below is then-Lieutenant Gray's first-hand account of his experience at First Bull Run, originally printed in the Rockland (Maine) Gazette sometime in 1862, and re-printed in an unknown newspaper some time later (source unknown).
Statements of Lieut. R. H. Gray
[From the Rockland Gazette]

EDITOR GAZETTE: – Agreeably to my promise, I make some remarks concerning the affair at Bull Run.

Of the general features of the battle you have probably before this been well informed. Our brigade commenced moving at about 2 o’clock P.M. We were kept waiting for other troops, who fell in so slowly that at sunrise we had not advanced one mile from our camp. This was a fault. – Had we advanced promptly, we should have taken the northern batteries, as the enemy were not expecting an attack in that quarter. But as our column was some 5 or 6 hours in marching a distance we might easily have gone in two, the enemy, who watched our movements, and saw where the blow was to fall, had time to throw reinforcements into those batteries from Manassas, only three miles distant.

The force detailed to storm the batteries was insufficient. The army generally halted a little short of the battle field, and the battle was fought by detachments from the main body, and marching from one to three miles on a “double quick.” These detachments, after fighting as only brave men will fight, and performing, in many instances, deeds of valor which will never be written were compelled, by being outflanked by superior numbers, and for want of support, to fall back, and abandon the advantages they had gained.

The most glaring fault on the field that day was that, with a few exceptions, our attacking columns were not supported. I make no comments; I am not allowed to censure the conduct of a General, but men will think.

On arriving at a point about one mile from the centre, and about two and a half miles from the right of the enemy’s line, we halted in a wood. While there Major Nickerson was ordered forward to reconnoitre, I got a horse and went with him. Major N. advanced to where Ayer’s battery (formerly Sherman’s) was playing into a [w]ood, where were stationed a body of the enemy’s riflemen and cavalry. They were finally driven out. I passed through this wood later in the day. The havoc was fearful. The trees were splintered and limbs cut off, the ground plowed up, and horses and men dead and dying, lay thickly scattered about. Major N. having finished his reconnaissance, gave me permission to remain a little longer, and returned. – Hitching my horse I climbed a tree and saw Hunter’s brigade engage the enemy. They were about a mile distant, in an open field inclining toward me. I had a fair view. – They had an equal number, no outflanking, and the fight was with musketry alone. – They advanced until the lines were very near, and for about fifteen minutes the roll of musketry was unceasing. The lines of the rebels then began to waver and break, and finally they rallied in four or five confused masses. The rebels were between me and our men. In a moment more the glistening bayonets of our troops came bursting through the smoke-cloud, and rushing on the confused rebel masses. The slaughter for a moment or two was great. The rebels ran to the wood; where they were reinforced and advanced again, and again, after a smart fight, were driven by the bayonet to the wood.

Mr. Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, who pretends to have been an eye-witness of the Battle of Bull Run says there were no bayonet charges on that day. This writer prefers sarcasm to truth, and states what is false.

Thinking I had staid too long, I hastened to join my regiment which was marching by a circuitous route, over to attack the enemy’s left. Before getting into position, […] to [peer? pass?] some distance over a hill.
[column break; two columns of newsprint have been cut and pasted together, and some text is lost here]
[…] missed me, but [reeling? feeling?] so badly, I was some-what indifferent as to the result. I had almost reached my friends, when I was cut off by rebel cavalry, who came charging back, cutting down stragglers. I turned, went into a house used by our troops for a hospital, and lay among the wounded. – The cavalry came up, shot two men who were unwounded, rushed in and took all the guns, pistols, knives and watches they could get, and left. A guard was soon placed over us, which prevented personal violence, but not wordy abuse, for which the rebels have a particular gift. The officers were gentlemanly, but the questions of most of the soldiers showed them to be extremely ignorant. One said to me, “I spose ye are all starvin’ up North, now you don’t git our cotton.” “We do not eat cotton, sir.” “Well, ye wont git any corn up there, neither.” Another, the poorest specimen of humanity I ever observed, ragged, dirty, and ignorant, said to me, “What are you down here for, meddlin’ with out instooshuns?” Our “instooshuns!” I pitied him. The poor class of whites at the South ignorantly worship the Juggernaut “institution,” whose wheels crush them into the mire of society.

A certain rebel colonel belonging in Richmond, after making himself agreeable, as he thought, tried his hand at pumping. – He asked me how many men we had in the fight? I replied, “We had 60,000. How many did you have?” He told me “they had 45,000 at 1 o’clock P.M., besides a reserve,” the number of which he did not inform me, “and at 4 P.M., Johnson arrived with 15,000” I then told him we really had only 32,000 including the reserve, He said I “knew nothing about it, the Yankees had 80,000.” The loss of the enemy must have been severe. An Alabamian remarked with a deep sigh, “If this is war, by —— I want to go home, for our regiment was almost wiped out!” On of their orderlies told me that his company consisted of between ninety and a hundred in the morning, and only forty came out of the fight unhurt.

We received no bad treatment. The good woman of the house made us some goose broth. The good soul was fearful that a bit of the meat would hurt us, and so she kept it for herself and family, giving us only the broth. Whether it was gratis, or the paid her in “Virginia scrip,” I do not know. The dish was without much salt, and being strongly flavored with goose grease, we could not appreciate her kind gift.

The arms of the rebels are generally good, but most of their clothes are cotton, and their shoes are thin and unserviceable. If they stay in Virginia they will suffer much this winter. They have a numerous cavalry and but little of the hay in that State was cut.

I was with the rebels seven days. My condition, to me, was intolerable, and I determined to escape or die in the attempt. I made what little preparation I could, taking some biscuit, (which got wet and I threw away,) and some bandages and salve to dress my wounds, and also a secession blanket. I was thirty-four hours in reaching Georgetown, during twenty-four of which I was saturated with water. I crossed the Potomac by wading and swimming, using a rail to compensate for my arm. I had a slight fever when I started. I was seen several times by soldiers and others, but my blanket deceived them. For the first fourteen hours I repeatedly saw their pickets and sentinels, but they did not see me. – However, I escaped, assisted by a chain of fortuitous circumstances, and a little of that peculiar wit with which Nature kindly furnishes a Yankee.

UPDATE: An 1899 book about Maine Major General Hiram G Berry by Edward K Gould, published by the Rockland Courier-Gazette, contains an account of Lt Gray's escapades at Bull Run that appear to be drawn directly from the above article. It includes information about his wounding that is ostensibly drawn from the missing section:
"Lieutenant Robert H. Gray [...] was wounded and taken prisoner at Bull Run. He received his wound just before the order came to retreat. On his way to the rear Lieutenant Burgin of the Searsport company found him and bound up his wounded arm, and afterwards sent some men to conduct him to a place of safety. They did not find him, however, as his wound commenced bleeding soon after the lieutenant left him, and he started for a stream near by for water. Before he reached it he fainted from loss of blood, and on reviving, saw the retreating column of the Union army nearly a mile away. Replenishing his canteen at the brook, he attempted to rejoin his comrades by a short cut, but soon came in view of rebel troops who began firing on him, but he escaped further injury. His wound was so painful that he was indifferent to the danger he run, and continued steadily on his course until he had nearly reached his friends, when he beheld rebel cavalry rapidly approaching. Hastily entering a house which had been converted into a hospital by the Union forces, he lay down among the wounded, and had just made himself comfortable, when the cavalry dashed up, shooting two unwounded men."

1 comment:

Scoopernicus said...

Fascinating account! I'm fascinated by your Uncle's opinion of the poor Southerner fighting for the cause of the wealthy planters.