John Pelham's Impressions of First Manassas
On July 21, 1861 was fought the First Battle of Manassas. This was John Pelham's first view of combat. The extract of a letter Pelham wrote to his father appeared in the Jacksonville, Ala., "Jacksonville Republican" on August 8, 1861. Associate member Marion Rogers submits this letter for "The Cannoneer". Her copy came from the Calhoun County War Memorial Library of Anniston, Ala.
July 23, '61.
I just write to let you know that we have had one of the most desperate battles ever fought on American soil. It was the most desperate -- the enemy fought long and well, but victory is ours; it was a splendid victory too. Jeff Davis made his appearance on the field, just as the last of the Yankees were in full retreat. I was under a heavy fire of musketry and cannon for about seven hours, how I escaped or why I was spared a just God only knows. Rifle balls fell like hail around me. Shells bursted and scattered their fragments through my Battery -- my horse was shot under me, but did not give out till the fight was almost over. I was compelled to take one of my Sergeant's horses and ride through. At one time I dismounted and directed the guns -- one of the gunners asked me to dismount and shoot the Federal's flag down. I did so -- you ought to have heard the cheers they gave me. I directed all my guns three or four times apiece. My men were cool and brave and made terrible havoc on the enemy. They fought better than I expected they would. The highest praise is due them. We shot down three U.S. flags and dislodged the enemy from several positions. I was complimented several times on the field of battle by general officers and a great many times after the battle was over by other officers.
You may want to know my feelings -- I felt as cool and deliberate under the shower of lead and iron as if I had been at home by our fireside -- I did not feel fear at any moment; I can't see how I escaped -- a merciful Providence must have been watching over us and our cause. We slept on our arms last night but were not disturbed. The battle began about 8 o'clock but did not become general until 10 o'clock. We fought desperately about 9 1/2 hours, but I was under fire only about 7 1/2 hours; the enemy attacked our left flank and then tried to turn it. We had to change our line of battle and fight them on their own ground.
We whipped old Scott on Sunday -- his great fighting fortunate day on ground of their own choosing in open field. They poured down overwhelming numbers on us. I firmly believe they had three to our one -- but I don't know positively how many they had -- certainly between 50,000 and 100,000 men. A great many prrisoners told us, they expected confidently to whip us here and then go to Richmond. We have got about 1000 prisoners and the cavalry are bringing them in continually. We took the celebrated Rhode Island battery of rifled cannon, also Sherman's great battery of the same kind of guns -- also the West Point battery that I have drilled with so often.
They say we have taken 90 pieces of Artillery -- I have not seen all of them, but I have seen a great many. They had the best Artillery trains and equippage I ever beheld, but We have them now: I have no idea how many small arms we took, a great many. The victory was splendid and complete. Col. Forney's Reg't was not engaged -- but the 4th Ala. Regt. was cut all to pieces. They fought desperately. The Col., the Lieut. Col., and Major were all shot down but neither of them are mortally wounded. I don't know what the intention of our General is but I hope I will be able to write to you from Washington City before many weeks. Johnston's forces were encamped at Winchester, but we all moved down here on getting a dispatch from Beauregard. We got here the evening before the fight -- Beauregard repulsed them with considerable loss a few days ago.
I have seen what Romancers call glorious war. I have seen it in all its phases. I have heard the booming of cannon, and the more deadly rattle of musketry at a distance -- I have heard it all nearby and have been under its destructive showers; I have seen men and horses fall thick and fast around me. I have seen our own men bloody and frightened flying before the enemy -- I have seen them bravely charge the enemy's lines and heard the shout of triumph as they carried the position. I have heard the agonizing shrieks of the wounded and dying -- I have passed over the battle field and seen the mangled forms of men and horses in frightful abundance -- men without heads, without arms, and others without legs. All this I have witnessed and more, till my heart sickens; and war is not glorious as novelists would have us believe. It is only when we are in the heat and flush of battle that it is fascinating and interesting. It is only then that we enjoy it. When we forget ourselves and revel in the destruction we are dealing around us. I am now ashamed of the feelings I had in those hours of danger. The whistling of bullets and shells was music to me, I gloried in it -- it delighted and fascinated me -- I feared not death in any form; but when the battle was won and I visited the field a change came over me, I see the horrors of war, but it is necessary: We are battling for our rights and our homes. Ours is a just war, a holy cause. The invader must meet the fate he deserves and we must meet him as becomes us, as becomes men.
This article first appeared in Volume 2, No. 1 of The Cannoneer.