13th PA Reserves,
Sept. 21, 1862 [Washington Reporter & Tribune: 10-30-1862].
Camp Parole, Annapolis, MD. –
Dear Sister: I wrote you about a month ago from near Cedar mountain, when we were hourly anticipating a general engagement with Jackson’s army; but it soon became apparent, it now appears, that our General’s found that the whole rebel army was fast concentrating to overwhelm us. Consequently Pope was forced to fall back. We marched by night – our train was about 7 miles long; but all was accomplished in good order – if a wagon broke down it was burnt, if a horse gave out he was shot. We marched across the Rappahannock and destroyed the bridge. The enemy found that we left a little too soon for them; but the next day we were thundering at each other across the Rappahannock.
Here we halted several days. Each day our reinforcements continued to arrive. While there Col. Kane joined us again, not yet well form his last wound. He had to be helped to mount his horse, and had to use a cane in walking. On the 22d of August our wagon train was again started backward, and we were detailed to guard it. We arrived safely at Catlett Station, 12 miles from Manassas Junction by evening. Little did we dream, as we moved leisurely along, supposing we had left all active war behind us, that an army of eight or ten thousand cavalry with three cannon were pushing forward from another direction to intercept us. The night set in with a most uncommon storm of wind, rain and terrific thunder and lightning. Our camp was soon flooded.
Just as the storm had fairly set in, the enemy charged upon us with savage yells. I had just succeeded in getting my tent up, had changed my clothes, and made a cup of coffee to warm my blood – my pants and shoes were off; I pulled on my shoes and hat, seized my rifle and ammunition and ran without pants or coffee. It was dark as pitch except when the lightning lit it up, or a blaze of fire streamed from some rifle near. The enemy were already upon us, and some were fired on in their tents. The rebels halted a few minutes to rifle the wagons of M’Dowell’s staff, which were in our camp. Kane rushed from his tent and continued to rally us with a loud voice, “Fall in Bucktails! Rally around me! Rally in the thicket! Rally around your Colonel! Fall in! Fall in Bucktails!” he kept calling, as the cavalry pushed us further and further into the timber.
Our rifles were wet, and some time elapsed before we could get them in working trim; but soon we made a stand and commenced returning the fire. But the firing was all at random; and by this time the enemy had surrounded the woods. They, however, fell back, out of range of our rifles.
Some of us got among some fallen timber, and were cut off from the main body as they moved back in the thicket. In trying to get back I came upon the secesh, and slipped among the bushes – they missed me, but captured two others who were with me; I then crept out down a gutter and cut across the field. I soon found myself up to the arm pits in water; I backed out, and while passing near an old house, three armed men halted me, they thought me a rebel by my white drawers – they were our own boys – the house contained eight or ten Union soldiers, belonging to the train as guards – they heard the firing and saw the light of the burning warehouse and wagons. They had gone to the house for shelter before the fight commenced. Being the only sergeant in the house, I took command and ordered that we should fall back a mile or two in the woods – reconnoitering at daybreak to ascertain the state of affairs, and then act accordingly; but before we got away, the cavalry dashed up to the house – the boys all said fight, and stood ready by the windows.
I called to them not to fire, and went to the door. The rebel Lieutenant ordered me to surrender. I answered, I wished first to know how many men he had to back up his demand. He replied, “two brigades.” I had seen a large force, and believed it would only be a useless slaughter to fight them, as the building was only an old frame shell – only the thickness of boards. However, I parleyed a moment or two. Then we bargained that he should not fire upon the house till I had gone in and made the boys surrender. The ruse succeeded like a charm. After blundering about, calling for the boys, and pretending to be trying to get a light, they all vanished by a back door and got off safely. I then returned, and expressed my surprise at not finding the boys.
They mounted me on a horse, and I came with their retreating forces towards Warrenton; we marched all night and next day; I only rode about one hour; I had no pants or hat – we were taken on Friday night. Saturday night I slept a little, sitting against a tree. The next day I got a pair of pants, but did without a hat for twenty-two days. We fared hard – we only getting something to eat by begging of the secesh soldiers. We were marched fifty miles to the Rapidan – we passed Jackson’s army, and I saw Jackson twice. One day they gave us some fresh meat without salt, and allowed us to gather some roasting ears; but most of our food was given to us by Jackson’s soldiers, who took pity on us and often gave us all they had.
At Rapidan, we took the cars and rode the balance (80 miles) to Richmond. The first night we passed in a loathsome building; few of us had any blankets, and the floor was covered with filth – we scarcely had room to lie down. The next day we were marched out to Bell Island, to the rear of the city, and on the southern bank of the James river. Here, on a small patch of low, sandy ground, over five thousand prisoners of war were fearfully crowded.
A true history of the treatment of the Union soldiers on Bell Island, by the rebel government, would forever disgrace them in the eyes of all nations. Common decency prohibits me from telling the whole truth – it is too horrid for hearts refined. I tell not the worst when I say I saw men starved to death, whose last words were, “bread, bread.” Strong men sickened and died without nursing, without medicine, in filth and vermin. Men lay down on the bare ground at night and were found dead, never having been reported sick. The most they even pretended to give us was a half-pound loaf of bread per day, with a pint of miserable soup, or a little fresh meat – the meat was not marketable. We frequently missed our poor rations – sometimes we did not get our breakfast till afternoon; then we got our second meal, if it came at all, about 8 o’clock, P.M. Hundreds died. About one-half of our number were sick – scurvy and fever abounded; but we escaped at last, and are beginning to feel strong again, except those whose constitutions are forever ruined. I have managed to wash up my clothes, piece by piece – we could get no soap when prisoners.