A Gallant But Futile Charge -- The 69th at Bull Run

This article on the 69th New York at the 1st Battle of Bull Run is drawn from the book "The Irish Brigade and Its Campaigns," by Tipperary native David P. Conyngham, published in 1866. Conyngham served during the Civil War, for a time with Meagher's Irish Brigade, and finally as a correspondent for the New York Herald.

(Right: "New York's Bravest" by Don Troiani. The 69th New York State Militia and the 11th New York Fire Zouaves are depicted in action at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861 on Henry House Hill.)

The battle opened by an attack on the enemy's left at Stone Bridge, which Colonel Hunter had flanked by crossing higher up at Dudley Ford [Editor's Note: This is actually Sudley Ford.], driving the rebel general, Evans, before him, while Tyler was fiercely disputing the ford with Wheat's Louisiana troops.

Heintzelman moved towards Red House Ford, and proceeded at right angles with the river towards Stone Bridge, in order to cover the passage of Tyler's division.

Heintzelman crossed the ford, and was confronted by some Alabama troops in line. He cheered on his New York Fire Zouaves to the attack, but they were met by a withering artillery and musketry fire, which made them fall back. The Fourteenth Brooklyn made a better show, but were forced to give way, both suffering severely. Reenforcements were brought up, and the Alabamians and Mississippians were forced to retreat, and fall back towards Robinson House, suffering severely all the time. We had now secured Stone Bridge, Tyler had crossed and formed a junction with Heintzelman, our artillery was thundering away at the enemy's right and centre, and everything looked hopeful for the Federals.

Jackson's brigade and Hampton's Legion reenforced Evans, and were supported by artillery, which unmasked at different openings in the woods, and opened a deadly fire along our lines. The fighting on our right was desperate all the morning; and Beauregard, penetrating McDowell's intention of crushing his left wing, ordered up his reserves and re-enforcements from his right. He also ordered an advance of his right, in order to distract our attention from his left.

(Left: "Company K, 69th New York State Militia, Irish Zouaves, 1861" by Don Troiani.)

Johnston and Beauregard fiercely galloped to the left, to retrieve their disasters there. Jackson sat his horse calmly looking on, while his Virginia brigade lay down near him, waiting to be ordered into action.

Jackson had now formed a new line, which checked Hunter's advance. Keys' and Sherman's brigades were ordered up to support the latter, the Sixty-ninth N. Y. S. M. in advance. The column moved to the right, and drew up in a small open field, separated from Hunter's column by a belt of wood, which was filled with rebel batteries and troops.

The rebels were gallantly pushed back by Hunter; but, on reaching their batteries and being re-enforced, they made a fierce stand, meeting our repeated charges with desperate resistance. The incessant roar of artillery came from batteries at close range. Shell and round-shot ploughed through the ranks, and shattered the trees; thick volumes of smoke rose from the woods, and floated along the valleys.

The rebels had repelled charge after charge, regiment after regiment, when the Sixty-ninth was ordered to the assault. Stripped of knapsacks and overcoats, they swept up the hill, across the open field, on towards the wood, delivering fire after fire on their concealed foe. Batteries opened on them right and left, hurling grape into their very faces, while from the shelter of the woods a stream of lead was poured on them.

It was a gallant charge, gallantly led and gallantly sustained. After each repulse, the regiment formed and charged right up on the batteries. Meagher's company of Zouaves suffered desperately, their red dress making them a conspicuous mark for the enemy. When Meagher's horse was torn from under him by a rifled cannon ball, he jumped up, waved his sword, and exclaimed, "Boys! look at that flag--remember Ireland and Fontenoy."

Library of Congress
The widow Henry's house. Neither the widow nor the house survived the battle. She refused to leave and was by an artillery shell during the battle. She was the first civilian killed in the war.

The regiment bravely but vainly struggled to capture the batteries, and drive the enemy from the shelter of the wood. Colonel Corcoran rallied and charged with them in every assault. Lieutenant-Colonel Haggerty, a native of Glenswilly, County Donegal, and as fine a specimen of a Celt as Ireland could produce, fell shot through the heart; while beside him fell poor Costelloe, a recent arrival from Waterford, and a noble, amiable youth.

The regiment at length was ordered by Colonel Sherman to fall back to shelter. General McDowell, who was a spectator of the charge, rode up to the Sixty-ninth and personally thanked them.

Beauregard was fast pushing infantry, artillery, and cavalry to support his left. Blenker's brigade was ordered from our left to the right.

The fighting was fiercest about Henry's and Robinson's House, where we had Ricketts' and Griffin's batteries. This position was taken and retaken several times during the day.

Despite our repeated repulses and heavy losses on our left, the enemy were so hard pressed that they were about giving way, when troops were seen marching from Manassas Junction. They were the remainder of Johnston's army, under Kirby Smith. That gen-eral, with his fresh troops, was ordered to attack our right and rear: which he did, supported by Early's brigade and Johnston's whole line; while Longstreet, Jones, and Ewell pressed our left, and demonstrated on Centreville.

This vigorous assault, supported by a heavy artillery fire, changed the tide of events. Our troops, highly overestimating the strength of the re-enforcements, lost heart, and began to give way at several points. Our reserves seemed not available, or were on their march to support our right wing when the panic began to set in. To add to this confusion, the teamsters, who had moved up too close to the main body and lined the Warrenton road, became terror-stricken.

The news spread that the army was retreating, when the teamsters fiercely whipped their animals, soon blocking up the roads: citizens, of whom there were a good many looking on, rushed frantically forward, seizing any animals they could lay hands upon. These were soon joined by the panic-stricken army. To add to the horror of the troops, Jones's rebel brigade had attacked Centreville, and Blenker's reserves were retreating towards Washington.

Two masked batteries opened on the retreating masses, blocking up the road with wagons, caissons, artillery, ambulances, sick and wounded soldiers. Artillery horses had their traces cut, and were mounted by officers, privates, and civilians, who made flank movements through the fields.

Library of Congress

Ruins of Stone Bridge, Bull Run, Virginia One of the first of many battlefield photos by Irish-American Mathew Brady which would bring the war home to Americans.

 There was a regular mingling and confusion of soldiers without arms, members of Congress and editors without hats or coats, ladies in buggies, wagons, and on horseback; special correspondents, including Bull Run Russell, of the London 'Times,' almost scared to death, while behind all came the rebel cavalry, cutting and slashing.

The disaster of Bull Run, when properly considered, seemed natural and almost inevitable. Raw troops who had never been in a battle were hurled against strongly intrenched positions, well manned and gunned. They had by desperate fighting succeeded in driving the enemy from some of their strongest lines, when fresh troops were hurled against them at all points. As for the panic, it was first commenced by the teamsters and civilians; and the milltia, not knowing much more about a battle, became infected, and thus it spread to the whole army. Such a thing could not happen with an army six months in the field. It taught the country a lesson, and made the leaders lay their plans with more judgment in future. It was, after all, but a training-school to open men's eyes to the real necessities and responsibilities of war.

Selected Bibliography:

Conyngham, Capt. D. P. The Irish Brigade , New York: 1866. Reprinted by Olde Soldier Books, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com

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Tags: 69th, American, Bull, Civil, Conyngham, D.P., Run, War

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