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A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry/The Army retreats northward

< A narrative of service with the Third Wisconsin Infantry

The Army retreats Northward

We remained at Culpeper until August 18, when we were aroused at midnight and started on the road to the Rappahannock. We crossed over on the next day and went into camp about half a mile from the river. During all that day and night the army of General Pope was streaming across the Rappahannock to the north side, only a portion of his cavalry still remaining to the south. There was a great deal of speculation among the men as to the reason for this unexpected retrogade movement. It was rumored that General McClellan had been compelled to withdraw his army from the Peninsula, and that General Lee, released from the defence of Richmond, was marching our way. For once, rumor was correct. It was not many days before the whole of Lee's army was hunting to find an unguarded point at which to cross the river.

About noon on the day after our crossing, I was watching the movements of some of our cavalry who still remained on the other side of the river. I was standing on the top of one of the highest knolls in the vicinity, from which I had a splendid view of the country for a long distance southward. For nearly two miles the land was clear of timber or fences or any obstacle which could impede the movements of cavalry. Observing that our cavalry seemed to be coming back at rather a livelier pace than usual, I noticed what appeared to be either a large regiment or a small brigade of Confederate cavalry emerge from the woods to the south of the plain. They formed their lines and moved to the attack.

Our men, also, were soon in motion. As they approached each other the two bodies increased their pace, until both seemed to be moving at full speed. They met with a jar, and for some moments it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe. There could only be distinctly seen the flashing of sabres in the sunlight as blows were struck and parried, and the puffs of smoke from revolvers and carbines. For ten minutes or more the stirring fight went on without any apparent advantage to either side. But now another regiment of our cavalry, which had been out of sight up the river at the beginning of the fight, came down upon the Confederates at a hard gallop. It was but a minute before the latter were retreating back to the timber, perhaps hurried a little by a few shells from one of our shore batteries. A little later, I learned that our cavalry had taken about sixty prisoners.

On the night of August 22 the enemy were expected to make an attempt to cross the Rappahannock at Beverly Ford, where I was stationed on picket duty. During the night, however, the river rose almost ten feet as the result of heavy rains in the mountains. By morning, it was so raging a torrent that crossing was impossible. As soon as it was light, the enemy opened fire on us with fourteen pieces of artillery. I had already withdrawn my men from the river bank and stationed them where they could pour a heavy fire upon the Confederates, should they attempt to lay a bridge. I was therefore in a good position to watch at leisure the artillery duel which ensued. For two hours the shot flew back and forth across the stream, without, however, great damage to our side. At the end of that time the Confederates apparently had had enough and withdrew from their position.

The succeeding days were passed in hard marching, with hot weather, no tents or blankets, short rations, and a poor country to forage in. The enemy occasionally made demonstration as though to cross at the fords of the Rappahannock, but all the while moving up toward the mountains. On the evening of August 27, while we were in camp near Warrenton Junction, rumors began to circulate that they had appeared in large force at Manassas Junction, and were threatening to cut off our retreat to Washington. The next morning we were called out at three o'clock, and soon after were on the road to the Junction. The corps of Generals Heintzelman and Fitz-John Porter, which had been marching toward Warrenton, had also been turned back and were directly in our advance. We marched rapidly to Kettle River, a small stream about five miles from the Junction, where we were detailed to guard a train of ninety cars loaded with ammunition and provisions for our army. Here we learned that the enemy had on the previous day captured and destroyed at the Junction over a hundred and fifty cars loaded with supplies, but had in the morning encountered Hooker's advance division near Kettle Run, and had been driven with considerable loss beyond the Junction. We found on our arrival at Kettle Run, tangible evidence of the morning's fight, for a good many of the dead were still lying around.

Cannonading commenced early on the morning after our arrival, in the direction of Manassas, and continued all day. It was evident that a severe battle was in progress. Reports of our successes were continually coming in; we appeared to be driving the enemy at all points. It was said that the Confederates were surrounded on three sides, and hopes were strong that they would be captured before the main body of their army came up. The next morning, the battle was still in progress although it seemed to be farther away than it had been before. The most encouraging reports continued to reach us, and at night General Pope was credited with having said that our troops had won a complete victory.

While the battle was in progress, we had been occupied in rebuilding the bridge across Kettle Run, which the enemy had destroyed on the first day of their raid. We had it completed, and our train of cars moved across to Bristoe Station by the morning of the second day of the battle. We bivouacked that night north of Broad Run, happy in the thought that our troops had indeed vanquished the foe.

The next morning we were ordered to return to Bristoe. As we approached the station, dense clouds of smoke were rolling upwards from the place where we had left our cars. This gave us notice that the reports of victory had been false. The fact was, that the left wing of Pope's army had been driven back the night before, and it had been necessary to burn the cars in order to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy. It had been possible to save only the supplies with which they were loaded. Our Corps, moreover, having received no notice of the reverse, was now in grave danger of being cut off from the remainder of the army. We managed, however, by rapid marching over a circuitous route to reach the north side of Bull Run in safety.

The next day we marched to a short distance beyond Centerville. Here we were halted, and stood in the road on our arms during a driving rain, while the battle of Chantilly was being fought only a short distance to the north. We remained standing in the road—or at least were supposed to be standing—all that night, the rain pouring down in torrents most of the time. After darkness had set in, however, the men quietly began to disappear into the neighboring woods, and soon I alone of all my Company was actually standing in the road. I was not greatly troubled over the breach of orders, for I knew that at the first intimation of danger every man would be in his place. I too found for myself as dry a place as possible, and wrapping my rubber coat about me, tried to secure a snatch of much-needed sleep. But I soon awoke so thoroughly wet and cold that further slumber was out of the question. I thereupon sought a fire that some soldiers had built, and endeavored to extract a bit of comfort from its friendly heat. Just as I was beginning to feel its warmth, a number of staff officers came along and ordered the blaze extinguished, for, said they, it was against the orders of General Banks. I stepped back into the darkness so as not to be recognized, concluding that if General Banks wanted that fire put out, he would get no help from me. The men standing near, however, kicked the burning brands apart as though to put it out, and the officers passed on. But they were not fifty feet away before the fire had been rekindled and was again dispensing cheer. This scene was repeated at frequent intervals until daylight, the fire continuing to burn in spite of all orders.

That morning we took the road about nine, and marched until midnight. On the morning after, we found that we were within the fortifications of Alexandria. Two days later we crossed the Potomac at Georgetown, and went into camp at Tennalleytown, D. C. Our wagons and camp equipage had preceded us. A mail also was awaiting us, the first that we had received since leaving Culpeper Court House.

We now had leisure to reflect upon our situation. It was indeed humiliating. Here we were, after six months of campaigning, back again at the point where we had started. The Grand Army of the Potomac forced to seek the shelter of the fortifications of Washington! The actual fighting had usually been in our favor. Why was it, then, that we had been forced back? We believed that the answer lay entirely in the fact that we had been outgeneralled. We felt that Pope and McDowell were the Jonahs who should go overboard. And overboard they went, not to be heard of again during the war. The reappointment of McClellan to command was everywhere received with pleasure. So far as my acquaintance went, the feeling was unanimous in his favor.

For several days we remained in camp enjoying the luxury of tents and beds after our strenuous experiences on the march. New regiments were in the meantime assigned to the old brigades. Ours received the Thirteenth New Jersey and the One Hundred Seventh New York, with a new corps commander in the person of General Mansfield.