The Civil War, 150th Anniversary: A soldier's journey to the first Battle of Bull Run

Departure scene of the 69th Irish New York Volunteer Regiment and the Regimental flag

The regimental flag and an engraving of scene of departure of 69th New York Irish Volunteer regiment on 26 April, 1861
The regimental flag and an engraving of scene of departure of 69th New York Irish Volunteer regiment on 26 April, 1861 | Source

150 years ago, the 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment goes to war

On April 13th, 1861, a day after Fort Sumter was shelled by guns from Fort Moutrie by forces of the new Confederacy in Charleston Harbor, President Abraham Lincoln requested a call up of 30,000 volunteers to travel to Washington to defend the city from possible invasion.

The 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment left New York City on the 26th of April, 1861, and proceeded via the steamboat, James Adger, to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. The regiment arrived on May 3rd. The men of the 69th Regiment were put into service to repair the railroad that had been torn up by Reb sympathisers.

The 69th New York Irish Regiment marched to Washington on May 23rd and were encamped at Georgetown University campus until early June and then they marched out to the Virginia countryside just outside the capitol where they constructed a fort with pallisades. The fort was named after their commander: Colonel Michael Corcoran.

The 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment was sworn into the federal army and recieved training by federal officers and non com cadre. The 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment was assigned to the First Division commanded by Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman.

The 69th New York Irish Regiment recieved orders to march to Centreville, Virgina on 16 July 1861. The Union forces commanded by Brigadier General Irvin McDowell were assembled in the area of Centreville, Virginia, with hopes of capturing and taking control of the railroad junction at Manassas where forces of the Confederate army gathered under the command of Brigadier General P.G.T Beauregard to defend the junction.

Army Private Billy O'Shea was a typical infantry soldier serving with the 69th New York Irish Regiment. Standing at the bottom of the ranks, he was not made aware of the battle plan or command decisions that had been made with respect to what was to come in the following days. Private O'Shea followed the orders of his squad leader who was commanded by his platoon leader who took orders from the company commander. At the company level, individual soldiers were not privy to the big picture. It was with this set of conditions that Private O'Shea followed the orders of his immediate superiors and marched to battle with his fellow comrades in arms.

The map of a soldier's journey to war as a member of the 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment

The 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment traveled From the streets of Manhattan to the small village of Centreville Virginia and onward to the battlefield at Bull Run Creek on 21 July 1861
The 69th New York Irish Volunteer Regiment traveled From the streets of Manhattan to the small village of Centreville Virginia and onward to the battlefield at Bull Run Creek on 21 July 1861

150 years ago: A soldier's account of the Battle of Bull Run

The hardest part of being a soldier was the waiting. Even the veterans among us were restless to go on the march. No one told us for a certainty that we were going to move out on Sunday morning. I wandered the camps just to keep myself occupied on Saturday, the evening of July twentieth.

I could hear the same complaint from everyone about. We were all tired of waiting. We just wanted to get this thing done. "Let's get on to Richmond!" One soldier shouted aloud. "We'll hang Jeff Davis from his own flag pole with the stars and bars!" and that was followed by a chorus of hurrahs.

I could honestly say I still did not hold any grudge against these Rebs. I didn't feel any kind of anger that could bring me to kill any of them and that worried me. What would I do when I came face to face with one of these strangers? I knew if I was shot at, I would shoot back. But, could I be the one to start it? I had defended myself against Rory O'Toole and had to kill him at close range. I didn't want to go through that again. But I suppose I had no choice in the matter. If I had to think of something that would give me purpose to kill, maybe it would be to defend the flag, but a flag was not made of flesh and bone. I was not yet sure I could kill for an idea.

We were rousted from our sleep in the darkness of night. I had barely settled in and closed my eyes when I heard the shout from my platoon Sergeant, Seamus Cronin, to gather up and get ready to fall in.

There were only the glows of some lanterns to see from and I could hear the clink and rattle of so many muskets and canteens and other equipment being lifted and buckled; that along with coughs and growls from the men who had been roused from a sound sleep.

It was still so warm and there was a mist among the distant trees that hugged the ground as a grey twilight emerged from the darkness of night. I could see only the shapes of men moving about in the grayness of the early dawn. We formed up quickly and were told to remain silent. There was no bugle call. Captain Daley walked among us and gave us a talk. He told us to stay together in our squads. He performed a final inspection to make sure we had our forty rounds of ammunition and that our rations were packed away in our haversacks.

We moved forward along the road called Warrenton Pike for a few miles and then across a broad meadow to the south. We reached the sloping banks of Bull Run Creek by the time the sun arose above the morning mist. The silence of the morning was interrupted by the sounds of marching men, the galloping horses, as well as the grinding of the wheels of the artillery caissons over the ground.

By the first light of the sun's rays, I could tell it was going to be another hot day. The mist was a hot steam and not a cooling fog like those that would creep up around August Island, back in Maine. This was such fine farm country. The rolling green meadows reminded me a little of my own homeland. But the rising heat reminded me that this was a foreign place.

We were ordered to march down to a sloping meadow that stretched out from the left side of a distant stone bridge that crossed Bull Run Creek. The squad leader told us that the narrow ford ahead was shallow enough to wade across but banks were steep on the other side and lined with thick brush and trees so that I could not see what lay beyond the creek bed.

We settled about the ground to wait once more. There were grumblings among the men as the sun rose higher in the sky and soon we were weighed down by the heavy air and the heat of the day. The morning had passed and the sun glared from on high and we still waited.

Suddenly the boom of artillery guns echoed out from across the creek and then I could hear the crack and pop of musket fire and the air became filled with the smell of gunpowder. We were all standing and watching the trees on the other side of the creek. Smoke was rising above the highest branches. The noise of war grew louder and it sounded as if it was headed toward us.

The bugle finally sounded and we formed up. The order was given to move forward across the creek in single file. I looked about for my brother Eamon. I thought I caught a glance of him but then he disappeared as the company moved forward. Everything was happening so quickly. Before I knew it, I was knee deep in the cool waters of the slow moving creek, sloshing about and trying to avoid the tangle of tree branches and twigs that lay beneath the water.

It was a steep climb up the opposite bank of the creek. Water filled my shoes and it made slushing sounds as I left the creek and struggled up the rugged bank. I looked forward and could see just a bit of the green of our regimental flag as the advance parts of our regiment passed through the thicket of trees at the top of the creek bank.

There was flat land atop and beyond the steep bank. After I pushed my way through the thickets, there lay before me a landscape riddled with torn up grass and the sprawled bloodied bodies of men and horses lying about in strange positions. It appeared as if some mighty force had picked them up and tossed them about like so many rag dolls. There was a smell to the air that brought back memories of Horseshoe Creek. And I thought I was seeing those dead bodies of the miners lying about the burned wagons. It was a foul, sickish sweet smell of shed blood and freed bowels.

Our company reformed itself amongst the carnage and the artillery guns boomed louder and shook the ground under my feet. Men were running away in the distant field and I realized that they were Rebs in retreat. There was one man who still hadn't reached his company and was standing out in the open. Lieutenant Colonel Haggerty from our regiment rode forward on his horse toward the Reb who aimed his musket and shot the Colonel.

As the Colonel fell from his horse, there was a loud cry from many in the regiment and a volley of shots were fired from some of us and the Reb fell to the ground. There was an order to cease fire. I had no time to react so I had not yet positioned myself to shoot.

None of us in the field knew what plan the generals had for our regiment. So I just followed the order of my platoon sergeant and marched forward in formation past the dead boys. I couldn't admit to anyone that I was still not angry enough to kill these strangers. I was waiting for that feeling to come to me. I wanted to share the ire of my comrades against the Rebs.

We were being held back, away from the main action that was occurring at the ridge of the distant hill. The view ahead was obscured by smoke but I thought I could see part of a fence and the wheel of cannon.

One after another, some units in advance of ours marched up the hill and clashed with the Rebs. The sound of the artillery guns became deafening and I winced with every explosion. The ground around us was ripped open by the exploding shells.

There was confusion ahead. Tangles of men and the steel of bayonets glistened in the sun. The powder in the air grew thicker and the heat was like fire that surrounded us. I sweat like I was in fever and my throat was so dry that I couldn't swallow. Again we waited. But it became more difficult to protect myself from what was flying about me.

One Reb unit after another was being driven back down the other side of the hill. Lines of soldiers moved ahead of me in a wide wave of blue and gray and the red coats of the Zoaves. The moment finally came when the bugle sounded and we moved forward. My ears were ringing from the loud explosions of cannon and artillery.

I just wanted to get it over with, what ever was to happen. I avoided looking at the ground about me and kept my eyes forward. I watched as the colors moved ahead. The green banner was lifted high and then fell from view. Through the smoke and confusion of bodies, I saw the green flag rise and fall two or three times. I wasn't in a position to see what had happened ahead of me as we approached the crest of the hill.

There was a crude fence ahead that was partly smashed and splintered. There was no time to think. I did what I was told. I chewed the end of my cartridge, loaded, aimed forward and fired through the malaise of men without picking out any target. I heard groans and cries from men about me as they fell. Suddenly I found myself face to face with the enemy. We charged on the Rebs with a cry that Seamus had demonstrated back in Fort Corcoran on the night of our last frolic."Faugh A Ballagh!" he shouted. I knew it to mean "Clear the way!" and it could have rivaled the blood curdling animal shouts of the Rebs that came after us. My throat was so parched, I could hardly utter a sound, but the chorus of cries that surrounded me stirred something deep from within me. I looked left and thought I saw my brother Eamon's face for just a second and then I thought I saw him fall away. God no, I thought. I aimed my musket again and fired it toward the Reb who stood not three feet away and watched him clutch his stomach and fall forward.

I had a sense that the tide was turning. There were so many Rebs coming over the hill toward us. If we kept to our positions, we surely would be overrun and all killed. I began to step backward instead of forward. The steps became faster as the swarm of Rebs surrounded us on three sides. I heard Captain Daley call for us to fall back.

Musket balls whizzed by my head. I felt no pain so I supposed that I wasn't hit. I lurched back down the hill, running backwards and tried to keep myself from tumbling down on my head. While I was descending the hill, I was thinking, what did this mean? Was it over? Had we lost the war?

I turned to look up at the hill that was overrun with Rebs. They were coming down after us with their muskets aimed at our backs. I reached the bottom of the hill and turned to look up again. I saw Colonel Corcoran and a smaller group of men from our regiment head back toward the Reb swarm in an attempt to stop the tide of retreat. They were soon surrounded by the enemy.

There was such confusion at the bottom of the hill. I had lost sight of my unit. I did not recognize any of the faces of the men that surrounded me. I gazed over to the right and saw my squad leader, Sergeant Seamus Cronin, sitting on the ground with blood steaming from a gash above his left eye. I ran toward him.

He gazed up at me and didn't appear to know who I was or where he was, but he did have the presence of mind to pull a red bandana from his neck and tied it around his forehead to staunch the blood. There was no one about to help the other wounded that were scattered and lying on the ground around me.

I reached down to pull Seamus up just as the ball from a musket whizzed by his shoulder. We both crouched down. He fell again and I had to pick him up and practically carry him backward away from the musket fire. We made it back to the creek bed. Other men stumbled about us trying to get away. I looked about for other members of our platoon. I had lost sight of Sean and his brother Malachi. I thought I had seen them both follow Colonel Corcoran back up the hill before they were surrounded.

"I can't find my brother," I said aloud.

Seamus was holding his head in his hands and groaning aloud in pain.

The anger finally came to me but it was too late to be of any use. I looked back toward the hill. I felt such a sick gnawing in my stomach. I felt I should go back to find my brother, but the Rebs were all about the ground and they were still coming toward us. I had to lead Seamus out of the creek and back up over the slope where we had waited just a few hours before.

Officers from other regiments were calling for us to form up our ranks but the calls were ignored by most of the retreating boys. They moved quickly in all directions out into the open countryside, away from the scene of battle. Some were wounded and collapsed on the ground while others staggered about and dripped blood from their wounds, leaving trails of blood spots on the dusty road or on the grass.

Seamus staggered at my side. I had my arm around his shoulder to support him but he began to groan louder and said he could walk no longer. He stopped in the middle of the road. I called out for help. There was no help for the wounded. There were no doctors about. and There was just one ambulance that had been allowed to follow our regiment into battle and I could not see it from where we rested at the creek bank. I heard so many confusing commands and then I spotted Colonel Sherman on horseback many yards away. I couldn't hear what he was shouting. There was such a panic among the men and everyone was running away from the scene of battle.

"Where is Colonel Corcoran? Have you seen him?" Seamus asked me in a weak voice.

I answered him by pointed back up toward the direction of the hill.

"…and Captain Daly?"

I shook my head.

"We have to find the boys of the regiment," said Seamus.

Just then, a wagon came rolling across the meadow toward us. I stood up, shouted and raised my arms to get their attention.

"That's not our ambulance," said Seamus.

The wagon approached us pulled by two very nervous horses. One soldier jumped down from the buckboard and came toward us.

I helped Seamus get to his feet.

"I can't help your man. He's not from our regiment. You are boys from the Sixty Ninth aren't you? I saw them form up down there by the ford in the river. You should take him down there."

I stared at Seamus's face. It was gray and blood was seeping through his bandana. I didn't think he could go any farther.

"You can't just say you won't help," I said. "Aren't we all part of the same army? He can't go any farther. You have to take him on your wagon."

"I'm just following orders," said the soldier

"You're the only wagon in sight. You’ll take him on. I don't give a damn about your orders," I said.

A shot rang out and a musket ball whizzed between us. We both ducked down and I pulled Seamus down with me. He fell into the grass.

"You've got to take him," I said.

"Alright, alright we'll take him. But you'll have to stay behind. We don't have room for you. You aren't hurt. "

"Don't leave me alone," said Seamus. "Take me back to the regiment."

"You can't go any farther,” I said. "You'll bleed to death."

"I can't see," said Seamus and he waved his hands about. "Christ, I can't see!" he shouted. "Billy, where are you?"

"I'm right here. You're going with them on the wagon. They'll take care of you."

"Come with me," Seamus cried out.

"I can't. They won't allow it."

"Then I won't go."

"You have to go," I said.

"This is Sergeant, Seamus Cronin, Company H of the Sixty Ninth New York Volunteers," I told the soldier. "Please do what you can for him."

I hated to leave Seamus. But there wasn't anything else I could do for him.

"We are from the 28th Rhode Island. General Burnside's our commander."

"Where will you take him?"

"Back to Washington City," the soldier replied.

"No," said Seamus. "Take me to Fort Corcoran."

"We’re not running a cab service. You'll be taken to a field hospital. Your friend can find you there," said the soldier.

I patted Seamus on the arm. "I'll let Captain Daly know what has happened to you. You go with them."

We both had to coax Seamus to the back of the wagon and someone else helped him climb up and then the other soldier mounted the buck board and they rode away. I caught a last glimpse of Seamus as he sat bent over on a bench in the back of the wagon.

There was so much confusion about. How was I going to find the unit again? It was obvious that the Rebs had turned the tide against us. More and more soldiers were running away. I followed the retreating soldiers across the fields away from Bull Run Creek. There, at the other end of the field, I spotted some women dressed in their Sunday finest. They were running through the grass clutching at their wide wobbling hoop skirts with one hand and holding their parasols with the other. They were led rushing beside their men who were dressed with their tall hats and fine frock coats; tails blowing upward. They struggled to reach their carriages that were parked along the road that led to Centreville. Left behind in the grass of the meadow lay rumpled blankets and turned over picnic baskets.

There was a jam of wagons at the next bridge over the next stream. We had crossed it earlier that morning. Some had called it Cub Run. As I came upon the scene of panic, I heard someone shout that the Reb Black Horse Cavalry were coming this way.


The Bull Run account is a dramatization of a soldier's experience based on a combination of actual eyewitness accounts of the Battle of Bull Run

Private Billy O'Shea is a fictional composite character created by the author of this HUB, John E. Sheehan. Billy O'Shea's eyewitness account of the battle encompasses the recollections of several actual members of the 69th New York Irish Regiment acquired from diaries and letters and other sources through extensive research. All events that took place during the battle and this account are taken from true events.

This excerpt is part of a larger story of the life of Billy O'Shea from Book Three of a four volume set of books written by John Sheehan. This excerpt is offered in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Bul Run and the contribution of Irish Americans during events that took place during the long bloody war to save the Union.

The four book Billy O'Shea saga chronicles the life of an irish emigrant from the time of the Great Irish Famine to the California Gold Rush through to the Civil War. This four book series comprises the epic titled: Billy 'O, Lost in the Promised Land. The series is available for sale as e-books at Amazon Kindle Book Store and as nook Book at Barnes and Noble. A link is made available below that will allow you to peruse the entire series should you wish to read the rest of his amazing story that is intertwined with the actual events of American History.


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