On July 26, 1861, from Arlington, Virginia, Alpheus wrote home, describing about the federal debacle on July 21.
I suppose that before you receive this you will have learned from the papers that we have suffered a defeat. The causes which led to this are several. In the first place we were over confident of success, and underrated the enemy. A large portion of men thought they had nothing to do but to make a triumphal march through the country, and many began to think there would be no fight at all. That illusion is pretty well disposed of, and the men who were loudest in their braggadocio were the first to run from the field of battle.
In the next place we were out-Generaled. The position of the enemy was as strong as nature and the best of military skill could make it, and he had his batteries so covered [masked] and concealed that it was impossible to tell where they were until they opened on you. Then the batteries were placed one above another so that when driven from one he fell back into another and so on for miles.
Some of the regiments behaved well and did all that could be expected of men; there were others who disgraced themselves and the country. At 2 o’clock we had the day and everything was favorable but at this time the enemy got large reinforcements from Manassas Gap while we could not reinforce without endangering our left wing and having our retreat cut off.
The Fire Zouaves and two or three other regiments charged and carried battery after battery, and suffered terribly, but was of no use, when they carried one they only found another in their faces.
Our Brigade was posted on the left wing with the view of preventing the enemy from turning that wing. All day long we lay under the brow of a hill listening to the fierce conflict going on at our right. Occasionally we sent our skirmishers into the woods to wake up the enemy, and as often as they showed themselves our batteries would open on them. This was about all the share we had in the battle until about 5 o’clock when the news came that the right wing was defeated, when instantly the woods and ravines in our front were alive with the enemy. They rushed forward with the view of taking our field pieces and driving us back so as to take possession of the road about a mile in our rear and thus cut off the retreat of our right wing. But after trying it about fifteen minutes they gave up and fell back into their batteries. At this time we were all ordered back to Centreville, a small village about five miles from Fairfax; here we met the column of fugitives, and such a sight! everything was confusion and not the leat [sic] show of order remained; regiments, officers and men all mixed up and running for life. Most of them had thrown away their arms and accouterments. Many had nothing on but their shirts and pants. The sun was pouring down terribly, and the atmosphere was thick with dust.
The regiments that were not entirely broken up took up position in line of battle to beat back pursuit, but after the attack on our left the enemy fell back to their entrenchments and lay there without any attempt to disturb us. After dark the different regiments were formed into two squares and we lay down on the ground as we supposed for the night, but about 11 o’clock we were waked [sic] up with as little noise as possible and ordered to retreat to Fairfax. Our regiment formed the rear guard. We reached Fairfax about sun rise, supposing that we here to get rest and something to eat, but we fund [sic] nothing but orders to continue on to Arlington Heights. — About 9 o’clock [Monday] it began to rain and continued all day and I was soon wet to the skin. For three days and nights the only rest I had was to throw myself on the ground in my shirt sleeves without covering of any kind and sleep as I could; and when you consider that we fought a battle and marched about forty miles without food or rest and at night when we came to this place wet to the skin and our only bed was some hay we pulled from an old barrack, I think you will say that we have had something of a time.
I could write for a week of the incidents of this trip, but forbear. My health for a day or two is improving and I hope to get my strength soon.
Although Alpheus’ health remained weakened, he apparently remained on duty with the Regiment throughout the winter and was present during the opening phases of McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign in the spring of 1862.
Alpheus M. Hill is my 3rd great grand uncle. He was 41 years old when he enlisted on May 13, 1861. He had lost his wife in 1855, and his little boy in 1856. He wrote the above letter to his sister, Frances. A second letter was written to his sister, Delia, which I will share tomorrow.
The above is a reblog from The Men of the 3rd Michigan Infantry: The Life Stories of the 1,411 Soldiers who Served in the 3rd Michigan Infantry Between April of 1861 and June of 1864. Alpheus M. Hill was posted on February 25, 2009.
My thanks for the many hours of research represented on this website.