The participation of the United States Marine Corps at the First Battle of Bull Run is one of the lesser known aspects of the engagement. The few hundred Marines who found themselves on the field of the engagement had never expected to be there. They had enlisted to perform duties on U.S. Naval vessels, but had been commandeered for temporary field service in the field on 15 July 1861, when it was requested that four companies of eighty men each be made available from the Marine Barracks in Washington D.C. (you can read more about that here). Six days later they found themselves attacking Confederate positions in the first major battle of the Civil War.
The Marines who participated in First Bull Run could hardly have been rawer. The reason they were in the Marine Barracks is that they were still in training– the vast majority of them had been in the service only a handful of weeks. A not inconsiderable number of them were Irish American– unsurprising given the Irish propensity for enlisting in this branch of the service. Indeed, it is apparent from both the letters shared below that a number of the recruits had previously seen service in antebellum militia companies, one of whom was the Irish Volunteers. If you would like to find out more about the specific actions of the Marines at Bull Run, you can check out the video below and explore the Marine resources over at Bull Runnings, which includes the official report of their commanding officer here.
The first letter shared below was written by Marine John Reilly. I will be returning to John’s story in a later post, to discuss aspects of Irish American identity and Irish chain migration through England. However, suffice to say here that John was an Irish American from Philadelphia. 21-years-old at Bull Run, he had worked as a laborer before he joined up on 2nd June 1861. At the time of the battle, he had been a Marine for a little under 49 days. John did not survive the 21 July 1861. His parents supplied his last letter to the Pension Bureau after the fighting in an effort to secure a pension. Written on 10th July, it was composed five days before the Marines were ordered to assist the army, and only eleven days before his death. All the more poignant for the fact that it betrays no indication of what was to come, it is reproduced here for the first time:
July 10th Washington D.C.
Dear Father & Mother
I send you these few lines to let you know that I am in good health and well satisfied with the life of a Marine. I never had work since I was able to work that I like as well as this. We only have three hours drill a day we raise at half past 3 oclock in the morning and drill one hour and a half before breakfast and the same in the evening. I do not think I will be here over four months at furthest before I be sent on board some ship. They are sending them off as soon as they are drilled to Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston and Portsmouth N.H. As long as we stay about Navy Yards we cannot save over nine dollars per month we have to pay 15 cents a month for washing and 20 cts for to support the Naval Asylum and we get out on liberty every four days for about five hours. I was on liberty on Monday afternoon and I went to Col. Smalls Camps and see a few that I was acquainted with. If I be here in the beginnins of October I will try to send you some money and my likeness for we get paid every three months while we are here. The first of this month was pay day so that the next pay day will be on the first of October. I feel better here than I have felt for the last four years we have nothing to do but lay about the barricks from sick oclock in the morning until five oclock in the evening and then we have to drill for one hour and a half and then go to bunk at nine oclock. We will be drilled better in one month here than the Volunteers would in six months we get prety good living here good wheat flour bread every meal fresh beef every other day with soup. Any body that want to go to Church can go every Sunday to any they want to. We go swim once a week.
No more at present
From your affectionate son
John E. Reily
Write soon and direct your letter for John E. Reily, Marine Barricks, Washington D.C.
A battle marker remembering the service of the U.S. Marines at Bull Run was unveiled at the 150th commemorations of the engagement in 2011.
What did John Riely and his comrades experience? Only ten days after the battle another Irish American Marine who fought at Bull Run had his letter home to Pennsylvania published in the Pittsburgh Daily Post. His name was William Barrett. William’s evocative account has the freshness of one composed while the memory of the engagement was still fresh, and captures something of the horrors he witnessed–as well as his own close escape:
Letter from a Marine who at Bull’s Run
I was in the fight at Manassas Gap or Bull’s Run, as it may be called. The place has two names but I think Bull’s Run is the right one, by the way they treated us there. Out of our band of 320 marines that entered the field we only brought about 150 home with us. We were the first called to assist the Sixty-ninth. We faced them on the left of the battery, and when about fifty yards from it our men fell like hail stones. I had only fired three shots when my musket received a ball right at the lock, which put me back about three feet. As soon as I cam to my ground again two men were shot down on my right and one on my left; about this time I began to look very warlike. As for my part I thought I would lose all presence of mind in such a place, but it was quite different; I was as cool as a cucumber. Then we got orders to retreat and the Sixty-ninth and Ellsworth Zouaves played on them again. This was the time they suffered; they only stood a few minutes when they retreated without orders. Then we were again called on to face the enemy, fifty thousand strong, while we had only about 200. This time we got the Seventy-First to relieve us, but to no purpose; we had to retreat. Then it was a general retreat all round; every one looked out for himself, but they took the short road and caught us again. If you had seen us swimming across Bull’s Run, you have thought there was something after us then. We had to come to Washington, a distance of forty five miles, in our wet clothes, which were badly used up.
The route we took in going to Manassas Gap was by Arlington Heights and thence by Fairfax Court House, where several batteries had been erected. This was the first time we knew we had to fight; they never told us where we were going till then. When we were about a mile from the place they got us to load our muskets. We were the first up to the battery, where we were drawn up in line of battle, when we found that the rebels had fled to Manassas. Then the cavalry were sent in hot pursuit of the enemy, but failed to overtake them. We camped in Fairfax that night, and the boys enjoyed themselves by burning down the houses of the secessionists. Next morning we took the march again, and went to Centreville by night; here we encamped two days.
On Monday morning at three o’clock we marched to the field, and as well as I can mind it was ten or eleven o’clock when we got there. It then looked very hot. The Seventy-first was the only regiment then at them. When we arrived, just as we got out of the woods in the rear of the battery, we lost three men by cannon balls. I could not describe to you what the battle field looked like. At the time of the retreat we ran over the dead and wounded for a mile from the battery and to hear the wounded crying for help would have made the heart of stone ache. All along the road we had men, only wounded a little, who, when the long march came, had to give out and lie down to die. For ten miles this side of the field they could be seen lying here and there on the road-side.
Only four or five of the Pittsburgh boys, that I know of, were killed. One young fellow, named Frank Harris, who joined the Irish volunteers in Pittsburgh, was my right hand man; going up to the battery he did not fire a single shot; he was one of the first to fall.
there were but few of the marines who were not wounded. I believe there are not thirty in the barracks who are not wounded more or less. I think they intended to fix me when they hit the lock of my musket. You could hear the ball playing “Yankee Doodle” around your ears, but could not move . It was about as hot a place as I ever want to be in. I saw a horse’s head taken off by a cannon ball at the time of our retreat; but he kept on ten or twelve yards before he found out that he was dead, then dropped and the poor fellow that was on his back had to take the hard road for it.
I cannot tell you any more about the battle at present, as I am very tired, have not slept any for forty-eight hours and marched from forty to fifty miles, fighting our way. I wish you would send me a Pittsburgh paper with an account of the battle, that I can see the difference in it.
As these letters remind us, the Irish experience of Bull Run encompassed much more than just the 69th New York State Militia– indeed the Irishmen of the 69th were surrounded on every side by units that contained large numbers from Irish American communities. It is also a reminder of some of the desperate measures that war engenders, when young men who had barely donned uniform had to be thrown into the meat grinder, some never to re-emerge.
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Pool-Camp, Suzanne & Camp, Dick 2012. The Marine Battalion at the First Battle of Bull Run.
Pittsburgh Daily Post 31 July 1861.
John Riley Navy Widow’s Certificate.