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“so Eager Were We All …”
A boy who fought at Bull Run tells of prebattle excitement and bewilderment on the field
June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Lewis Herbert Metcalf was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1835, and he died in i8j), and during his brief life he knew one great and terrible day—July 21, 1861, when he fought as a Union Army private in the First Battle of Bull Run. A few years before his death he wrote his story of the battle; after gathering dust on a shelf for more than a century it is printed here (slightly condensed) for the first time.
Its innocent freshness makes it one of the most appealing of the Civil War’s innumerable I-was-there reminiscences. What happened to this young soldier at Bull Run stood out in his mind and becomes vivid in his writing largely because this was his only battle. Early in the fight he was wounded. He was captured, suffered amputation of a leg, and presently he was back in his home again, a disabled veteran out of the army for good. He had no later battles with which he could compare his Bull Run experience; his hours under fire were set apart, without the traditional old-soldier’s knowledge to put them into perspective. He did not try to give a full account of the battle. He simply told what he saw.
As Stephen Crane pointed out in his Red Badge of Courage , the private soldier in battle never sees more than a fragment of the whole, and confusion is of the essence of it. That was especially true at Bull Run, in which soldiers pathetically unprepared for war served under generals who were still learning their trade. The battle was hopelessly bungled, and it went according to no coherent pattern.
A word or two about Metcalf’s regiment may be in order. He served in the nth New York, briefly famous as the “Fire Zouaves”—a regiment recruited from the volunteer fire companies of New York City, led originally by Colonel Elmer Ellsworth. Big things were expected of this regiment. It wore the baggy red pants, trim jackets, and ornamental sashes copied from the French Zouave regiments; as firemen its members were supposed to be more than ordinarily brave and indomitable; and Ellsworth, a protégé of Abraham Lincoln, was a flamboyant character who had attracted much publicity. But Ellsworth lost his life before Bull Run, during the occupation of Alexandria, Virginia, being replaced by Lieutenant Colonel N. L. Farnham; his regiment discarded its gaudy uniforms in favor of the regulation blue; and eventually it became just another regiment.
Metcalf s story was made available to AMERICAN HERITAGE by his granddaughter, Mrs. E. F. Stoneham of Lewfields, New Hampshire. The original manuscript is now owned by Murray S. Danforth, Jr., of Providence.
I awoke shortly after twelve o’clock, my sleep having been disturbed by the voice of one of our sergeants who passed down the row of sleepers telling them that letters had arrived from home. The sight before me when I arose from the ground was one which, though often seen by a soldier, is always interesting. Twenty thousand men were gathered together in that valley covering the slope of the hills on both sides. In every camp large fires were burning, around which groups were sitting or standing reading newly received letters and papers or busily engaged in cooking food for the coming day.
We had bivouacked there two days and, having no tents, had managed to protect ourselves from the sun during the day by building bower houses of small trees which we cut in a neighboring wood, and which had served as a slight shelter against the rain which had fallen the night before.
Orders had been issued the evening previous for the army to march at two o’clock in the morning. Three days’ rations had been supplied; ammunition furnished; and all were prepared to start. Through all the camps everyone seemed stirring, though it wanted two hours of the time, so eager were we all to meet the foe. Many had not slept at all. Some had spent the night before the campfires writing to the loved ones at home, letters which for aught they knew might be the last. Others whom excitement forbade to sleep had spent the night in storytelling and suggesting plans of private action on the morrow.
As I wandered through the camp visiting several campfires, I found every man full of resolution. Once aroused I could not sleep again amid all the hum and bustle of the camp. So, taking my canteen, I started for a spring to fill it with water. I had to pass through several camps before reaching it, and found nearly everyone stirring. Here and there would be groups of privates surrounding some officer who was regaling them with latest news of which the very latest seemed to be that General Butler had captured Richmond and the Rebels had been surrounded by General Patterson.∗ All that we had to do was to give Beauregard a thrashing in order to end all the troubles. Not a thought of defeat or reverse of any kind entered our minds. We had only to go forth to conquer.