FORT CORCORAN, July 28, Sunday.
I have already written to you since my return from the unfortunate defeat at Bull Run. I had previously conveyed to you the doubts that oppressed my mind on the score of discipline.
Four large columns of poorly disciplined militia left this place, the Long bridge and Alexandria, all concentrating at a place called Centreville, twenty-seven miles from Washington. We were the first column to reach Centreville, the enemy abandoning all defences en route.
The first day of our arrival our commander, General Tyler, advanced on Bull Run, about two and a half miles distant, and against orders engaged the batteries. He sent back to Centreville and I advanced with our Brigade, when we lay for half an hour, amidst descending shots, killing a few of our men. The batteries were full a mile distant, and I confess I, nor any person in my Brigade, saw an enemy.
Towards evening we returned to Centreville.
That occurred on Thursday. We lay in camp till Saturday night by which the whole army was assembled in and about Centreville. We got orders for march at 2½ Sunday morning, — our column of three brigades — Schenck, Sherman and Keyes — to move straight along a road to Bull Run; another of about 10,000 men to make a circuit by the right (Hunter’s), and come upon the enemy in front of us; Heintzelman's column of about similar strength also to make a wide circuit to sustain Hunter. We took the road first, and about 6 A.M. came in sight of Bull Run. We saw in the grey light of morning men moving about, but no signs of batteries. I rode well down to the stone bridge which crosses the stream, saw plenty of trees cut down, some bush huts, such as soldiers use on picket guard, but none of the evidences of strong fortifications we had been led to believe.
Our business was simply to threaten, and give time for Hunter and Heintzelman to make their circuit. We arranged our troops to this end, Schenck to the left of the road, and I to the right, Keyes behind in reserve. We had with us two six gun batteries, and a 30 lb. gun. This was fired several times, but no answer. We shifted positions several times, firing whenever we had reason to suppose there were any troops. About ten or eleven o’clock, we saw the cloud of dust in the direction of Hunter's approach, saw one or more regiments of the enemy leave their line and move in that direction, soon the firing of musketry and guns showing the engagement had commenced. Early in the morning I saw a flag flying behind some trees. Some of the soldiers seeing it called out, “Colonel, there's a flag, a flag of truce.” A man in the field with his dog and gun, called out, “No, it is no flag of truce, but a flag of defiance.” I was at the time studying the ground and paid no attention to him. About nine o’clock I was well down to the Run with some skirmishers, and observed two men on horseback ride along a hill, descend, cross the stream, and ride out towards us. He had a gun in his hand which he waved over his head, and called out to us, “You d----d black abolitionists, come on,” etc. I permitted some of the men to fire on him, but no damage was done. We remained some time thus awaiting the action which had begun on the other side of Bull Run. We could see nothing, but heard the firing and could judge that Hunter's column steadily advanced. About 2 P. M. they came to a stand, the firing was severe and stationary. General Tyler rode up to me and remarked that he might have to send the N. Y. 69th to the relief of Hunter. A short while after, he came up and ordered me with my whole Brigade, some 3,400 men, to cross over to Hunter. I ordered the movement, led off, found a place where the men could cross, but the battery could not follow.
We crossed the stream, and ascended the bluff bank, moving slowly to permit the ranks to close up. When about half a mile back from the stream, I saw the parties in the fight, and the first danger was that we might be mistaken for secessionists and fired on. One of my regiments had on the grey uniform of the Virginia troops. We first fired on some retreating secessionists, our Lieutenant Colonel Haggerty was killed, and my bugler by my side had his horse shot dead. I moved on and joined Hunter’s column. They had a pretty severe fight. Hunter was wounded, and the unexpected arrival of my Brigade seemed a great relief to all. I joined them on a high field with a house, and as we effected the junction the secessionists took to the woods and were seemingly retreating, and General McDowell who had accompanied Hunter’s column ordered me to join in the pursuit. I will not attempt to describe you the scene. Their batteries were on all the high hills overlooking the ground which we had to cross, and they fired with great vigor. Our horse batteries pursued from point to point returning the fire, whilst we moved on, with shot, shell and cannister over and all round us. I kept to my horse and head of the Brigade, and moving slowly, came upon their heavy masses of men, behind all kinds of obstacles.
They knew the ground perfectly, and at every turn we found new ground, over which they poured their fire. At last we came to a stand, and with my regiments in succession we crossed a ridge and were exposed to a very heavy fire. First one regiment and then another and another were forced back, not by the bayonet but by a musketry and rifle fire, which it seemed impossible to push our men through. After an hour of close contest our men began to fall into confusion. One hundred and eleven had been killed, some two hundred and fifty wounded and the soldiers began to fall back in disorder. My horse was shot through the fore leg. My knee was cut round by a ball, and another had hit my coat collar and did not penetrate; an aide, Lt. Bagley, was missing, and spite of all exertions the confusion increased, and the men would not re-form. Similar confusion had already occurred among other regiments, and I saw we were gone. Had they kept their ranks we were the gainers up to that point, only our field batteries, exposed, had been severely cut up by theirs, partially covered. Then for the first time I saw the carnage of battle, men lying in every conceivable shape, and mangled in a horrible way; but this did not make a particle of impression on me, but horses running about riderless with blood streaming from their nostrils, lying on the ground hitched to guns, gnawing their sides in death. I sat on my horse on the ground where Ricketts’ Battery had been shattered to fragments, and saw the havoc done. I kept my regiments under cover as much as possible, till the last moment, when it became necessary to cross boldly a ridge and attack the enemy, by that time gathered in great strength behind all sorts of cover.
The volunteers up to that time had done well, but they were repulsed regiment by regiment, and I do think it was impossible to stand long in that fire. I did not find fault with them, but they fell into disorder — an incessant clamor of tongues, one saying they were not properly supported, another that they could not tell friend from foe; but I observed the gradual retreat going on and did all I could to stop it. At last it became manifest we were falling back, and as soon as I perceived it, I gave it direction by the way we came, and thus we fell back to Centreville, some four miles. We had with our Brigade no wagons, they had not crossed the river. At Centreville came pouring in the confused masses of men, without order or system. Here I supposed we should assemble in some order the confused masses and try to stem the tide. Indeed I saw but little evidence of being pursued, though once or twice their cavalry interposed themselves between us and our rear. I had read of retreats before, have seen the noise and confusion of crowds of men at fires and shipwrecks, but nothing like this. It was as disgraceful as words can portray, but I doubt if volunteers from any quarter could do better. Each private thinks for himself. If he wants to go for water, he asks leave of no one. If he thinks right, he takes the oats and corn, and even burns the house of his enemy. As we could not prevent these disorders on the way out, I always feared the result, for everywhere we found the people against us. No curse could be greater than invasion by a volunteer army. No Goths or Vandals ever had less respect for the lives and property of friends and foes, and henceforth we ought never to hope for any friends in Virginia. McDowell and all the generals tried their best to stop these disorders, but for us to say we commanded that army is no such thing. They did as they pleased. Democracy has worked out one result, and the next step is to be seen. Beauregard and Johnston were enabled to effect a junction by the failure of Patterson to press the latter, and they had such accurate accounts of our numbers and movements that they had all the men they wanted. We had never more than 18,000 engaged, though some ten or twelve thousand were within a few miles. After our retreat here I did my best to stop the flying masses, and partially succeeded, so that we once more present a front: but Beauregard has committed a sad mistake in not pursuing us promptly. Had he done so, he could have stampeded us again, and gone into Washington.
As it is, I suppose their plan is to produce riot in Baltimore, cross over above Leesburg, and come upon Washington through Maryland. Our rulers think more of who shall get office, than who can save the country. Nobody, no man, can save the country. The difficulty is with the masses. Our men are not good soldiers. They brag, but don't perform, complain sadly if they don't get everything they want, and a march of a few miles uses them up. It will take a long time to overcome these things, and what is in store for us in the future I know not. I purpose trying to defend this place if Beauregard approaches Washington by this route, but he has now deferred it some days and I rather think he will give it up.
The newspapers will tell ten thousand things, none of which are true. I have had no time to read them, but I know no one now has the moral courage to tell the truth. . . .
SOURCE: M. A. DeWolfe Howe, Editor, Home Letters of General Sherman, p. 204-10. A full copy of this letter can be found in the William T Sherman Family papers (SHR), University of Notre Dame Archives (UNDA), Notre Dame, IN 46556, Folder CSHR 1/138.