First Bull Run "Death began to make sad havoc in our ranks": William Thompson Lusk at Bull Run

Andy Cardinal

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Feb 27, 2017

William Thompson Lusk of the 2nd New York wrote the following on July 28, 1861. In reading of his experiences at Bull Run, it is interesting to see the change in his point of view as the reality of war became apparent to him.

"We too have breathed into our nostrils the smoke of battle, we too have listened to the voice of the cannon, we too have seen the finest of pagents, the most splendid of dramatic spectacles—the death struggle between armed arrays of men. We, who only yesterday were numbered among the "Sons of the Muses," find ourselves today counted among the full-fledged "Sons of Mars." We have fought, suffered, and survived to tell our tale....

"We cross Bull's Run, and see men cutting trees by the bridge. We ask their reason. "It is to cover a retreat," they tell us. "Ho! Ho!" How we laughed at the thought of our retreating! What innocent woodmen those were that could talk of us defeated! It was a bonnie sight to see us then, eager for battle, dreaming of victory. Some three miles we marched on, and then were drawn in the woods in line of battle. In line we advanced till we came to the edge of the forest, where we were told to lie down to avoid the range of the enemy's cannon.... How glorious, we thought, this firing on the foe, and ourselves in seeming safety! How we laughed when afar we could see an exploding shell scattering the enemy in confusion, who for a short moment were thus forced to show themselves on open ground....

"About 11 o'clock two horses came galloping riderless toward us. While surmising whence they came, we were called to rise and march to battle. We sprung from the earth like the armed men of Cadmus. On we rushed by the flank, over fields, through woods, down into ravines, plunging into streams, up again onto rising meadows, eager, excited, thrilled with hot desire to bear our share in routing the enemy. We cheered, and yelled, pressing onward, regardless of shells now and then falling among us, thinking only of a sharp fight and a certain victory. At last we reached the lines of the brave boys of the 69th. Here the American banner was planted, so we shouted lustily, for the spot had not long since been wrung from the foe.

"From many a point not long since covered by secession forces, the American banner now floated. What wonder we felt our hearts swelling with pride, and saw, hardly noticing, horse and rider lying stiff, cold and bloody together! What, though we stepped unthinking over the pale body of many a brave fellow still grasping convulsively his gun, with the shadows of Death closing around him! We were following the foe, I have said, and were dreaming only of victory. So we were marched to the edge of a slope which sheltered us partially from the aim of the enemy's artillery. Here lying prostrate, shell after shell flew over our heads, or tore up the ground around. Now we could feel the hot breath of a cannon ball fan our cheeks; now we could see one fairly aimed, falling among our horses, and rolling them prostrate; and now again one of these messengers would come swift into the ranks of one of our columns, and without a thought or a groan, a soul was hurried into eternity.

"After about an hour in this trying position, we were called up and turned into the road, where Death began to make sad havoc in our ranks. Surely aimed, the shot of the enemy fell among us. We could not see the foe, and then it was terrible to see our own boys, whose faces we knew, and whose hands we had pressed, falling in Death agony. We heard, while marching stealthily, a great shout, and looking we saw a hill before us, covered with the Ellsworth Zouaves. A moment more, and from the top of the hill, from unseen hands blazed a terrible discharge of arms. It was one of those masked batteries, which have so often brought us misfortune. Bravely fought the Zouaves, but they had to fall back from that hellish fire. Other Regiments made the charge but only to be repulsed with ranks thinned and broken. At length our turn came. Up we rushed—our brave Colonel with us....

"Tall men were mowed down about me. Wounded men begged their comrades to press on, and not to risk anything by lingering near them. We were only some twenty yards from a battery, belching forth a thick heavy hail of grape and canister, shell and fire of musketry. With unerring accuracy the enemy's riflemen singled out our officers and mighty men. Suddenly we saw the American flag waving over the battery. "Cease firing" was the order given, and for a short moment we believed the battery was ours. It was the enemy though that had raised the flag to deceive us. As we lowered our arms, and were about to rally where the banner floated, we were met by a terrible raking fire, against which we could only stagger....."

Source: War Letters