New London troops gave vivid reports from the war

You could call it hubris. You could paraphrase Proverbs 16:18: "Pride goeth before a fall." But even after the South took Fort Sumter, many in the North doubted the rebellion would last.

"A great and cautious national official predicted that it would blow over 'in sixty days,' and folks generally believ'd the prediction," wrote the poet Walt Whitman.

Then, on July 21 - 150 years ago today - came the First Battle of Bull Run.

So certain were the citizens of the North that it would be a rout that, The Daily Chronicle of New London reported, "A number of members of Congress and even ladies went to the neighborhood of Bull Run to witness the battle." Soon enough they found themselves running for their lives.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

Three companies of New London "90-day men," volunteers who'd signed up for three-month stints, were there, and in the days leading up to the battle, The Chronicle and The New-London Daily Star were filled with dispatches, almost always filed under pseudonyms - "Pequot," "Vox," "Ledyard" or "New London Volunteer" - written by local soldiers at the scene.

"We move towards Fairfax Court House at 3 p.m. to-day," wrote "New London Volunteer" on July 16 in The Star. "We are to engage the enemy at five hundred yards ... and no man must leave the ranks until the day is won. I have no time to write more now, but if your correspondent is not shot you will learn more soon."

But so, too, were the papers filled with local news.

"To-morrow all the town, and justly so, will be agog to witness the entsance (sic) of Nixon's Royal Circus and Barnum's Menagerie with 'Old Grizzly Adams,'" reported The Star on the 19th.

Indeed, according to the accompanying advertisement, which showed a bison on its hind legs before an Indian with a whip, Grizzly Adams "or The Wild Zanbee Hunter, as he is familiarly termed," would direct the performance of "Grizzly Bears, Laughing Bears, Climbing Bears, Dancing Bears, Singing Bears, Vaulting Bears, Bears that turn Summersaults, and do everything but speak."

For those of a more intellectual bent, The Chronicle noted on July 20, "A lecture will be given at the Universalist Church to-morrow evening by Dr. L. H. Smith, of Hartford, on 'the facts and philosophy, cause and locality of the spiritual spheres.'"

There were, too, the "human interest" stories, such as this one, from The Chronicle:

"A Romance of the War - For some six weeks past a young girl named Maggie Wilson, has been missing from her home at Brooklyn, N.Y., and all attempts to ascertain her whereabouts have proved unsuccessful. On Tuesday, however, a letter was received from a member of Colonel Townsend's New York Regiment, that the missing girl, under the name of Charlie Marshall, and dressed in male apparel, had enlisted in that regiment and had proceeded with it to the scene of the war ... "

And as for the war itself?

The "scene of the war" would include Bristoe Station, Centreville, Fairfax Court House and Manassas Junction (hence, among Confederates, the conflict would be called The First Battle of Manassas).

And, as the two armies jockeyed for position in the days leading up to the fight, the earliest reports from that Virginia field of battle reflected the prejudices (or the wishful thinking) of the North.

"The great humbug of the claimed superiority of southern over northern troops has already been completely exploded," The Chronicle reported on the day before the battle.

The rebels at Fairfax, said The Chronicle, "fled without firing a shot at the first notice that the federal army was advancing upon them - leaving their campfires burning and their dinners half cooked, and throwing away their side arms, canteens, haversacks and even belts, in order to be in the best trim for fast running."

This, it would turn out, was not an act of cowardice but strategy. The Union army was quick to follow the "retreating" rebels into an ambush.

New London readers would learn of this on Aug. 2, when The Chronicle printed an account of the battle filed by "Pequot." The letter was addressed to the newspaper's publisher, William O. Irish.

"Friend Irish: -

"Our march ... to Fairfax and Centreville is what every correspondent has pictured ... We came upon half made forts and entrenchments, abandoned camps with the food still cooking, and camp utensils lying about in confusion, and we flattered ourselves that the enemy were cowards and would not show fight.

"The sequel proved they were too sharp for us, and this apparent hasty retreat was only a bait to draw us farther into the trap."

Ironically, the first reports from the battle to appear in New London's newspapers portrayed it as a decisive Union victory.

The Chronicle stacked six headlines on top of its story:

EXCITING NEWS FROM THE SEAT OF WAR.

A GREAT BATTLE NEAR MANASSAS.

The Great Rebel Army Routed and Driven Back.

THEIR WHOLE LINE OF BATTERIES CARRIED.

BRILLIANT CONDUCT OF THE NORTHERN TROOPS

A GREAT UNION VICTORY

When dispatches describing the real situation began coming in, they were filled with poignant descriptions of the suffering of the wounded. The Chronicle described the scene at a farmhouse, its yard littered with wounded men:

"The flowers no longer bloomed in the garden, but crushed and broken, they gave forth their fragrance under the bruising feet of the soldiers. Where the roses grew in the morning dead men lay at noon."

And William Spittle of New London, 1st Lieutenant of the First Company of New London Volunteers, wrote to the The Star: "It was one of the bloodiest battles on record ... I have been told by men who were in all the battles of the Crimea, that the battle of Sunday last was more severely contested than any battle of the Crimea."

Spittle, a 90-day man like the rest of those in his regiment, had many more and more serious battles before him. He would go on to re-enlist and serve in the 21st Regiment of Connecticut Volunteers for the duration of the war, rising in the ranks to major and then to captain before it was over.

The Union troops found themselves being fired upon by masked batteries both before and behind, a brutal crossfire that flattened them.

"The fire was terrible, and we lost eight or ten men killed and as many wounded within fifteen minutes," wrote Pequot. "The sensation of lying flat on the ground to avoid a shower of shot, shell and canister cutting through the trees about breast high, is anything but pleasant, although very exciting. The third shot killed one of our lieutenants and a poor little drummer boy, whose scream of agony as the shell tore him in pieces still rings in my ears."

And when the Confederate cavalry "came along the road sabreing and shooting every body," he wrote, "a terrible panic was created ... Here legs did their duty, and a good pair saved one life as I can testify."

The retreat became a stampede.

"The road to Centreville was a scene of the wildest confusion and disorder," wrote Pequot. "Baggage and ammunition wagons loaded, were thrown over the embankments; ambulances filled with wounded soldiers were pushed aside, heavy pieces of artillery were lying by the road, the gunners having cut loose the horses and ridden them away, and the ground was covered with muskets, knapsacks, haversacks, blankets, canteens, &c. The rout was complete, and all discipline was lost. Every impediment to flight was cast aside, and it was every man for himself."

One of those men was George Haven, a skinny New London boy of 17 who signed up with Company E, 2nd Connecticut Infantry. Weighing only 120 pounds, he struggled under his heavy knapsack.

"For three months I had tried the life of a Union infantryman, and found it hard. One hundred and twenty odd pounds of bone and flesh had failed to bear the burdens of a foot soldier, even though good comrades were ever ready to lighten the load of a seventeen year old boy," he would write in his memoirs.

"My feet had carried me to Bull Run with labored pace, and brought me back at a faster gait. Immediately following the experience, it seemed as if the glory of war had permanently departed. But youth cannot sit idle in the presence of great events; and soon after the expiration of my enlistment had restored me to the ease of civil inaction, I joined the cavalry."

Specifically, Haven joined Company C, 1st Connecticut Cavalry, and would fight the rest of the war on horseback.

While the New London papers carried reports of the heroism of the three Connecticut regiments, they also were quick to apportion blame, both suggesting that newspaper editorials had pushed the generals to plunge into the battle unprepared.

People laid much of the blame on Gen. Daniel Tyler of Brooklyn, Conn.

"The soldiers bestow great blame on General Tyler, who may be brave but certainly lacks judgment and places little value on the lives of his command," wrote Pequot. "A captain of the 2nd informs me that in the retreat the General threw away his sword - travelled off as fast as his horse could carry him."

Meanwhile, it was a badly beaten army that streamed back into Washington over the next several days.

"The defeated troops commenced pouring into Washington over the Long Bridge at daylight on Monday, 22d," Whitman wrote. " ... all the men with this coating of murk and sweat and rain, now recoiling back, pouring over the Long Bridge - a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.

"Amid the deep excitement, crowds and motion, and desperate eagerness, it seems strange to see many, very many, of the soldiers sleeping - in the midst of all, sleeping sound. They drop down anywhere, on the steps of houses, up close by the basements or fences, on the sidewalk, aside on some vacant lot, and deeply sleep.

"Meantime, in Washington, among the great persons and their entourage, a mixture of awful consternation, uncertainty, rage, shame, helplessness and stupefying disappointment ... The dream of humanity, the vaunted Union we thought so strong, so impregnable - lo! it seems already smash'd like a china plate."

But perhaps Pequot put it best.

"This battle has learned us all a lesson - that we have underrated the means and spirit of the South ... The story could be condensed in a few words. 'We went, we saw, and we were badly beaten.'"

k.robinson@theday.com

Editor's note

This is one in an occasional series about the Civil War and its effects on the region.

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