from The Worcester Daily Spy, November 13, 1861 , (Volume 16 # 268), 

For the Worcester Daily Spy
A Volunteer’s Account Of His First Battle

 Camp Foster , Poolesville , Md.
  November 2d, 1861

Last night, an avalanche of letters came upon me from the friends of soldiers engaged in the unfortunate battle of “Balls Bluff,” near Leesburg in Virginia , on the 21st of October.  It is impossible at present for me to write to each individual separately, so I avail myself of your generosity to favor them and me.  One of the most provoking things that has occurred, is the fact that our soldiers are missing, and we cannot even satisfy ourselves what has become of them, much less tell our dear friends the particulars of their drowning, imprisonment or death.

We are compelled, then, to state in general terms, that in Capt. Studley’s company (D), only two persons, viz, John W. Smith and Charles H. Gott are known to have been killed on the field.  The names of the wounded are very correctly stated in the Spy of 28th October.  The fate of the missing is almost as much of a mystery to those of us on the ground and in the vicinity, as those hundreds of miles distant.

Large sums of money have been offered for the bodies of missing officers and men, all up to the present time of no avail.  Neither can the river of the “sacred soil” of Virginia be visited under any pretense whatsoever without encountering bullets from  confederate rifles.  It is fondly hoped that our prisoners will be allowed the same privileges that we allow the rebels. Colonel Devens fed rebel prisoners from his own table, allowed them to write to their friends and relatives, and actually forbid any language that would even wound their lacerated feelings, appealing to his men in the following language, “Do not, for heaven’s sake imitate the conduct of the wretches in Richmond who have abused our prisoners; these men are prisoners and shall be treated kindly and humanly.” Good!

Various reports are in circulation in regard to our missing fellow soldiers, and we are in a painful suspense, for none of these stories are worthy of record.  Company D. mustered sixty fighting men in round numbers, only about one half of whom returned after the battle.  This proportion runs through the whole regiment nearly.  The survivors mourn daily the loss of the officers and soldiers who have so nobly and bravely and patriotically marched side by side and shoulder to shoulder with us.  May we be so happy as to attain their skill in arms, imitate their virtues, and leave as good a name on the page of history behind us.

As I am frequently called upon to give a little statement of the manner in which the battle affected me, I state in my own way the following.  About midnight of Monday Oct. 21st, the ‘long roll” called the fifteenth regiment for the first time into line of battle.  Marching with overcoats and blankets about eight miles in three hours, we arrived at the Potomac ; after considerable delay in crossing by poleing scows and batteaux, we attained the Virginia shore, landing in slippery mud.  We ascended  the high bluff by a zig zag path the bluff being very steep and difficult the rocks sometimes being almost perpendicular.

After various labors and delays, we at last found ourselves drawn up in the order of battle.  Commencing the attack with two howitzers and one brass field piece, we soon received the fire of the rebels, not even hearing the rustling of a leaf or the word of command.  The first estimation we had of their presence  was the crack of the confederate rifle, leading one to conclude that they make it a point to fire on the very first sight of the heads of any Union troops.  We stood and took their fire like regular United states Troops.  Rebel prisoners remarked to us that “if all had stood fire like these with light blue pants, they would have been driven from the field,” and that we killed more of their men than we had in numbers of our own.

It is a most difficult task to state one’s feelings and sentiments after being engaged in a very hotly contested battle, where the very ground was shaken with the thunder of heavy artillery, and the very air you breathe rent with the lightning of murderous rifles, and the senses almost benumbed and bewildered and stunned with the effects of gunpowder, the rattle and clangor of arms, and the voices of angry men and officers pitched to the highest degree of anxiety, are well calculated to confuse the intellect and defy the power of language to express.

Before the battle commenced I sat down and leaned against a small oak tree, and read the 67th Psalm, and I remember how we looked upon each others eyes, to see the effect upon one another, and I do not hesitate to say that the true Christian man is the man of true courage.  When I hear men tell about “no fear on the field of battle” I simply say that such a man is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  The fear of death haunts all, and all the difference there is between the coward and the man of courage is, that one allow the animal passion of fear to predominate, and the other keeps the “fear of God before his eyes,” and a pungent sense of duty uppermost.

I loaded my musket lying on my side and breast, charging the cartridge with the piece horizontal, and then lifting it to perpendicular to allow the powder to drop down to the breech, and then raising on my knees to fire again, dropping flat.  A little persimmon tree three inches in diameter was cut, and marred, and hit from all directions only a few inches from the ground, within twenty inches of where I lay, its leaves and branches cut like lightning and dropping all around me. Thousands and thousands of leaden hail fly around us and over us, killing and wounding those close by, screaming and whistling through the air, reminding us every moment of eternity, your sins, of friends and home, and the abounding mercy of God.

Being at last compelled to leave the field, I sought refuge in the cleft of a rock, where it was twenty feet in perpendicular height.  Rebels came all around me and fired over me, and passed by me, and when darkness came forth and favored my escape, and after thinking the whole matter over, concluding that I would prefer the bottom of the Potomac to being a prisoner of Jefferson Davis.  I reached the shore, and following the trunk of an oak tree lying in the river towards Harrison 's Island .  A stick seemed to come into my hand. My first thought was to use it for propelling a raft across the river, and while waiting for the raft to be built, concluded that if sent over it would soon be swamped like the boats preceding it.

While waiting and thinking what to do, in individual in piteous tones asked me to give the stick to him, and, not complying immediately, he again asked me for it.  Finally I consented that he might have it, but for some reason he did not accept it, or even thank me for the offer.  About this time the moon began to rise brightly in the east, lighting every object with a dreaded light.  I then stepped into the water, I laid my breast on that, when those close behind me stripped themselves  of all their clothing, following me closely, and gaining upon me, making hideous and unearthly cries for help.

I turned my stick from right angles to parallel with my body.  Having all my uniform on and buttoned up closely I made slow progress.  The moon was obscured by a small black cloud about this time, which saved me from being seen in the water.  As strange as some may think it, I could not keep out of my mind my resemblance to the sword fish, and the only way I could be satisfied that I made any headway was by the gentle ripple at the end of my sword ( if you call me a fish. )

Swimming away downstream with the heavy current, I reached the welcome shore of Harrison’s Island, not even cold or exhausted, or feeling in any degree unhappy, for I felt that my prayer had been answered, “Lord! save or I perish!”  Wandering towards the place where the wounded were cared for, an individual approached me, and offered me something to put on, after congratulating me on my most wonderful escape, taking a coat from his own back, which he had pulled out of a lot of hundreds thrown promiscuously into an outhouse, and which had been resorted to during the day for the comfort of the wounded, when to my perfect surprise and confounding astonishment, I had received my own overcoat, which my friends had so nicely wrought inside of the back with my name, and the regiment to which I belonged.  And my friends astonishment exceeded, if possible my own.

The results of this terrible battle are too well known in your intelligent community to need anything further from me, and I conclude by stating that none need to hesitate about addressing me about it, for I am glad that the Lord has put me in any position where I can do any good to any of my fellow creatures, or be an instrument of doing His will, living daily a holy and righteous life.  Such an individual, no matter no matter what his circumstances may be, will be filled with joy and peace passing understanding, causing him to exclaim, in the language of the Apostolic Doxology

“Now into Him who is able to keep us from falling ,and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, be glory and majesty and dominion and power forever.”



15th Massachusetts VI