The Battle of Big Bethel - A Union account including the m...Click the image to load the highest resolution version.
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DescriptionThe Battle of Big Bethel – A Union account including the map of the Battle Field by Capt. John Frederick Pierson, CO. H, 1st N.Y. Infantry – "I stepped over a hand; It was neatly taken off just above the wrist and lay there with fingers extended and ring on....".
Capt. Pierson wrote some of the longest, most descriptive letters we have read... and this one is no exception. The 7 page letter is in nice dark ink on blue stationery. It is headed, "Head Quarters Co. H, Camp Hamilton, June 11th, 1861".
"Since being here I have had many stirring scenes. We are about one and one half miles from Fortress Monroe, and surrounded with Secessionists."
"Scouting parties from our own and other Regiments are continually going off and generally have a brush. We are forced to keep a Picket Guard out some 3 miles from our encampment all the while. I find I have a hard set of men in my Company and am forced to work hard to make any kind of soldiers of them."
"I have had my wish Dear Dev. I have smelt gunpowder. I have had a, or rather been in an engagement and a bloody one, too."
"I have but a little time now to spare but will try and describe this fight. Imprimis (Latin meaning to begin with) you must understand the topography of the country. Know then that Yorktown is 29 miles from here, and is the great rendezvous of the Secessionsist's, that about 15 or 16 miles from there the road to Yorktown runs between two marshes and bends to the left. Right on this bend and flanked by these marshes, the Rebels have thrown up a strong fortification. This diagram will more readily explain the situation."
[HAND DRAWN MAP]
I was awaked by the Roll of the Drums, the "General Assembly" was beating; I jumped up, ran to my company's quarters about 1/2 mile distant and forming, the men gave to each, as per orders, 16 rounds of cartridge & with rations for one day; and then marching them on the parade ground, took my position in the already formed Regiment in line of battle.
"We were told that our pickets had been driven in by the Rebels. We marched to York River (see above), but getting no conveyance to get across, we returned to camp (the bridge over York River from Hampton had been burnt down)."
"Next morning we left at 6 o'clock and crossing the river in barges, marched some 12 miles when we overtook a number of wounded soldiers & learned that as the 3rd Regiment, Col. Townsend, were marching along another Regiment which afterwards proved to be the 7th German, Col. Bendix, came suddenly from a bye road on them and attacked them. Col. Townsend's Regt. and in turn mistaking them, the 7th, for Secessionists returned the fire and a conflict of some 20 minutes ensued before the mistake was discovered. Many on both sides were wounded and killed."
"Advancing on a few miles, we heard the loud report of artillery and before long, the sharp but more disconnected fire of musketry. Soon we came up to the Batteries & the Col. gave orders to "Flank to the right, come into line by Company front and by column of Companies charge bayonets."
"Without firing a shot, I made a little address to my men, had a few solemn thoughts about coffins, shrouds, and the river Styx, and felt prepared to go in. On we went directly up the road, facing full the Batteries. Suddenly crash went a discharge from the Secession Battery; down we all fell on our faces and fast & thick flew the shell, ball & canister over our heads and all around us."
"It commenced to get quite interesting, I assure you. We rose again, but no sooner up than back to mother earth for balls came tearing along and one round shot striking the limb of a tree over our heads, parted it like a pipe stem, and I hardly had time to shout to my men to "stand from under. They were lying down when down it fell nearly burying us. It was no use to take Company front & charge bayonets there and then, so we filed into the woods by the side of the road..."
"I STEPPED OVER A HAND; IT WAS NEATLY TAKEN OFF JUST ABOVE THE WRIST, AND LAY THERE WITH FINGERS EXTENDED AND RING ON."
"It was ominous. Now the balls, shells, round shot, etc. tore all around us. We marched right on through all and passing up the lane, on a parallel with the Batteries, formed line of battle and coming to a charge bayonets, awaited orders, a rail fence stood in front of us."
"In one moment down came the fence and making a little breastwork of it, we lay flat on the ground facing the fire, but it was a bad thing that forming line of battle that a few deploying in front of & in full view of the enemy and we lost some men."
"A man, a 1st Sergeant in the Co., preceding me received a ball back of his shoulder which passed through him. He fell on his face and as passing over him, I stopped a second to take a look at his poor quivering body. A ball or rather a shell whizzed past me, a few inches ahead and striking the fence in the rear of us, went through two boards and for all I know hasn't stopped yet."
"Another of our men had his leg taken entirely off close to his body, while ANOTHER BEING STRUCK IN THE BACK BY A SHELL THREW UP BOTH HANDS, AND COMMENCED YELLING, "O KILL ME, KILL ME!" Which agonizing shriek we could hear even above the roar of the artillery and the din of the conflict."
"We maintained our position for an hour and forty minutes, placed thus right in the teeth of their guns, and had they only fired a little lower, all of us would have been cut to pieces, our close proximity to the guns of the enemy saved us, nothing else. Their shots mostly passed in the air over our heads, but still, I saw many of them strike all around me."
"Col. Duryees, Regt. of Zouaves, or rather 2 Companies of them, charged the batteries three times but were each time repulsed with great loss of life."
"We only had 2 pieces of artillery on our side and ammunition for them was soon exhausted..."
"What... could Infantry do against Rifled Cannon behind entrenchments... Nothing and worse than nothing!"
"I saw many of the men lying dead around me, stepped over the bodies of several and of one Zouave in particular I will always bear remembrance. HE LAY STRETCHED BENEATH AN APPLE TREE FACE UP, TEETH SET, EYES PROTRUDING AND EVEN FISTS CLENCHED; HE HAD JUST DIED AND POOR DEVIL, HE EVIDENTLY HADN'T YIELDED UP THE GHOST TILL HE POSITIVELY COULDN'T HELP IT."
"I have little more time to myself. I will only add that for the time mentioned we maintained our ground and then retreated and returned to camp. We had marched 36 miles (and had a fight thrown in between) during the time between 6 o'clock A.M. and 5 o'clock P.M. same day. How's that? Genl. Butler says that the Batteries we attacked must be taken before Friday, and so I look for another good healthy bloodletting eon tomorrow afternoon."
"I saw several shot down by me, one poor Zouave very tired & faint went behind a little barn and leaned his head upon his rifle to rest when popped, passed a ball through both sides of the building and striking him in the breast, he fell dead."
"At the Fort this A. M. the Hospital presented a dreadful and sickening sight. All these particulars I mention because I think and dream of nothing else."
"I have been turned out nearly every night and hardly ever get a chance to turn in. I have slept on nothing but some boards since leaving home with a blanket around me, and am fast getting in good condition. I hope not to share the luck of the man who learnt to live on nothing but just as he learnt died."
"Remember me to all my friends and for Charity's sake, write to me often. A letter from the North is like a straw to a drowning man... Yours till a bullet makes me the Lord knows who, J. Fred Pierson"
Condition is fine with some stains and toning. From the Calvin Packard Civil War Battlefield Letter Collection
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