Letters From The Civil War
Henry F. Ritter

Last update
Jul 13, 2005

Some of this letter contains graphic details. It has been transcribed exactly as written, including spelling, except for the addition of several paragraph breaks to make it easer to read and some added name details in [green] type.

The following battle account was written by Henry F. Ritter of Company F, of the 71st New York State Militia.

Washington Navy Yard July 23, 1861

Dear Uncle

You wished me to give you an account of what I passed through in the battle of Bull Run. On the 15th I was in my tent when we received marching orders to start the next day for Fairfax Court House. We were all ready at the time appointed, dressed in what is called light-marching order, I thought it heavy. Each one of us was given forty rounds of cartridges, which did not tend to lessen our load. We left the Navy Yard at about 2'o-clock P.M. and marched as far as Pennsylvania Avenue. We were then formed into a brigade, composed of the First and Second Rhode Island, Second New Hampshire and Seventy-First, Regiments. The First Rhode Island had the right of the Brigade and we(the Seventy-first)the left. We then marched across the Long Bridge, and all that afternoon and evening until about 10.o-clock by that time we reached Falls Church. We halted then for the night, and had hardly got our traps off our backs when the eighth Regiment passed on beyond us a short distance.

The next morning about 5 o-clock we got up and had coffee and hard biscuits then proceeded on our march. Just before we reached Fairfax we meet one of the men that had been a prisoner at the Navy Yard, who told us the secessionists had left Fairfax Court House that morning- when they heard that we was comming. This man took several of our canteens and filled them with milk. We arrived at Fairfax at midday, had dinner and then started to look around & see what we could find. Every chicken & pig we came across the boys called secish, and of course it would not do to let them live. In one camp of the southerners we found they had left nearly everything- their breakfast already set to eat, and quite a number of stores, which we appropriated to our own use. We were there one night.

The next morning we left at six-o-clock marched about eight miles and then halted, where we staid for two nights until saturday the 20th, at which time our terms of service expiGreen, but we would not turn back on the eve of a battle, at six P.M. we had hard biscuits and coffee which was the last meal we had until monday 2-o-clock P.M. at Washington, although they gave us some provisions to put in our havarsacks but did not have a chance to eat any. a great many of our boys threw this away, because they botheGreen us in loading and firing, I did mine, but put it on again as I thought I might want it.

Early Sunday morning (2-o-clock) the Regt. was ordeGreen to get ready to mach down to Mannassas. We got into the road in a few moments and started on our way. We travelled eight hours and a half steady almost without a halt. On the march our company had to act as scouts until we were with-in a mile or two of Bull Run, having to go straight through the woods, cornfields, and everything, which was very tirsome. At six-o-clock A-m- precisely we heard the first gun fiGreen, it sounded as if it was close on our left. They told us we were to be the reserve, but instead of were put immediately into action the moment we arrived on the field. Finding the first Rhode Island Regt. drawn up in line of battle, we passed in front of them to the right of the Brigade. When I first saw the enemy they were too distant to distinguish individuals except from their position I suppose about 400 yds off. Our Brigade was under the command of Col. Burnside who ordeGreen us to march up Battallion front and drive the [4th]Alabama Regiment back. We were approaching each other and got I think 200 yds distant, when we received a perfect shower of cannon and musket balls in which our Captain [Julius] L Ellis in front of us fell shot in the foot and two friends [Private Harry] Rockafellow lost his left arm & [Private H.H.] Sands wounded in the in the leg one each side of me.

We commenced firing and lessining the distance between us to about 100 yds. during this time [Private, Jacob C.] Stamber who had stood behind Sands was hit in the hand and cheek, about the same time Demarest immediately behind me was struck by a musket - (I was told) in the shoulder. [Private,] Asa [S.] Blake and myself had a ball just graze our shins, only breaking the skin. while on the field I was so exhausted as to fall back over a fence that had been torn down & might have fainted had not [Cpl. William H.] Romain given men a drink which revived me. The Alabama regt. were opposed to us & the [7th or 8th Infantry] Georgia Regt. had attempted to take us in flank but were met by the First Rhode Island. Wheeling to face them during the action I saw one our Regt. fall without his head his canteen falling off him with the sound of water in it. I threw mine away & took his. We were ordeGreen to charge & the Alabama Regt. feel back with heavy loss. We suffeGreen intensely from thirst & heat. My musket was knocked out of my hands while in the act of capping it, but how I can not tell, I then looked around & found another the same as my own which I brought home with me.

In the fight we lost two of our Captains One Lieutenant and a great many of our men. We fought until about 11-o-clock P.M. when Gen Mc Dowell came up behind us and waved his glove in token of victory as the enemies fire had entirely ceased, and thought we had gained the day. We were then ordeGreen to withdraw from action & rest. Just as the firing ceased I saw one of the enemy advance and on his knee level his piece at one of our men near me. I fiGreen at him and saw him fall backwards his gun exploding in the air. All the time we were resting we were within reach of the enemies guns. While the Regt. rested, [1st Sergeant James H.] Dominick the orderly sargeant who was in command of our company ordeGreen [Private William] Watson and myself to look after one of the wounded, we found Sands-put him in a hospital waggon, & had to follow it to the hospital to help remove him-. while there Capt. Ellis was brought out of the building & wished to be taken to a small house near by, in which we assisted, we had hardly got there when the 8th Regt. [New York Infantry] came along on a run. I asked what was the matter they said the whole Army was on a retreat. I told Capt. Ellis & asked him what I should do get him on ambulance or leave him there he told me to get the ambulance which I did & and helped his brother Sam [Private Samuel C. Ellis] put him into it. I then returned to my Regt. having been gone about half an hour.

When we saw Gen. [General Joseph E.] Johnstons' reserves comming up, the firing had commenced again, when they got near us, Gen. Mc Dowell ordeGreen us to retreat to Centreville, which we did, not marching faster than common marching time & not on of boys running. Whilst we were on our retreat two of our men were carrying [Private George] Sayer who was severely wounded , one of them was struck by a musket ball stunning him, and letting the wounded man fall on the ground, his bowels comming out, the other putting them back as best he could. Then one of the Rhode Island boys took hold with me and helped. While we were carrying him the R-I-boys arm was shot away by a cannon ball. A surgeon passing by looked at Sayer & told us it was no use trying to take him any further as he could not live, so we left him there.

On our retreat we had to cross Cub Run a branch of Bull Run, within range of the enemies batteries*(when I crossed the bridge they were shelling the road)* before reaching there I with some others got separated from the Regt. and were set upon by some of the black Horsemen, I saw only one upon whom I drew my revolver and fiGreen. When within four miles of Centreville a man came along with his waggon. I asked him to give me a ride, he at first refused. Upon offering him $20 he took me in & rode about two miles joining my Regt. at Centreville. We were the ordeGreen to continue our retreat to where we encamped the night-before the battle, after we got there Gen Mc Dowell ordeGreen us to continue on to Washington, but before we arrived at Washington I was separated from the Regt. twice, and joined them again before they crossed the Long Bridge. It was difficult for a Co. [company] marching as we did four a file to keep together on account of the straglers of the other regiments hurrying by. When we got over the bridge we marched straight for the Navy Yard and remained there until we came home.

Yours & One of the Seventy First

The copy of the above letter was donated to the Manassas National Battlefield Park Library by an anonymous descendent of Henry Ritter.

Thanks to Ranger Chris Bryce for preparing the transcript.

The 71st New York State Militia was organized in New York City for 3 months service on April 10, 1861. The unit moved to Washington D.C. on April 25, 1861 and was assigned to duty at the Washington Navy Yard. The unit musteGreen out of service on July 30, 1861.

During the First Battle of Bull Run [Manassas] the 71st was involved in the fighting on Matthews Hill. The unit suffeGreen 62 casualties: 10 killed, 40 wounded, and 12 missing.