Sarah Emma Edmonds was a Civil War nurse, soldier (disguised as Frank Thompson), and spy. In this excerpt from her memoir, she recounts her experiences at the Battle of Bull Run (also known as First Manassas), July 21, 1861, and the events leading up to it and her exploits after the battle, returning to Washington, DC.
This extract is from Chapter II and III (pp. 29-54) from Edmonds' memoir published in 1864: Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: The Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields. Subtitles have been taken from the original text.
Also see: Female Spies of the Union | Civil War Nurses: Requirements for Women in the Nursing Service | Sanitary Commission (USSC) | Civil War Women's Fashion: CDVs | Clara Barton | Clara Barton Quotes | Dorothea Dix Quotes
MARCHING ORDERS received to‑day -- two days more, and the Army of the Potomac will be on its way to Bull Run. I find this registered in my journal July 15th, 1861, without any comment whatever. But I do not require a journal to refresh my memory with regard to the events of those two days of preparation which followed their announcement. The Army of the Potomac was soon to meet the enemy for the first time -- a great battle was to be fought. Oh, what excitement and enthusiasm that order produced -- nothing could be heard but the wild cheering of the men, as regiment after regiment received their orders. The possibility of a defeat never seemed to enter the mind of any. All the sick in camp now were to be sent to Washington, clothes changed, knapsacks packed, letters written home, packages sent to the express office, etc. After all was done, everything in readiness, and the sick men tenderly laid in the ambulances, Mrs. B. said: "Now let us go to every ambulance and bid the boys good‑bye." As we passed along from one ambulance to another, speaking words of encouragement to each soldier, many a tear would start from grateful eyes, and many a feeble voice uttered an earnest "God bless you," while others would draw from their bosoms some cherished relic, and give as a token of remembrance. Oh how hard it was to part with those men, with whom we had watched so many weary days and nights -- we felt that they had, truly, "become endeared to us through suffering."
A Young Patient
There was one patient, however, we did not put into an ambulance, and who was a great source of anxiety to us. He lay there upon a stretcher close by, waiting to be carried to a house not far distant. He was young, not seventeen, with clear blue eyes, curly auburn hair, and a broad, white brow; his mother's pride, and an only son. Two weeks previously he had been attacked with typhoid fever. The surgeon said, "You may do all you can for him, but it is a hopeless case." Mrs. B. had devoted most of her time to him and I was often called to assist her. He was delirious and became quite unmanageable at times, and it required all the strength we possessed to keep him in bed; but now the delirium of fever had passed away and he was helpless as an infant. We had written for his mother to come if possible, and had just received a letter from her, stating that she was on her way to Washington; but would she came before we were obliged to leave? Oh, we hoped so, and were anxiously looking for her.
Visit From His Mother
The ambulances started with their freight of emaciated, suffering men. Slowly that long train wound its way toward the city looking like a great funeral procession, and sadly we turned to our remaining patient, who was deeply affected at the removal of his comrades. He was then carried to the house above mentioned and a nurse left to take care of him, while we were obliged to prepare for our own comfort on the long weary march which was so near at hand. We had just commenced to pack our saddle‑bags, when we heard an unusual noise, as of some one crying piteously, and going out to learn the cause of the excitement, whom should we find but the mother of our handsome blue‑eyed patient. She had called at the surgeon's tent to inquire for her son, and he had told her that all the sick had been sent to Washington, he having forgotten for the moment, the exception with regard to her son. The first words I heard were spoken in the most touching manner -- "Oh, why did you send away my boy? I wrote you I was coming; Oh, why did you send him away!"
I shall never forget the expression of that mother's face as she stood there wringing her hands and repeating the question. We very soon rectified the mistake which the surgeon had made, and in a few moments she was kneeling by the bedside of her darling boy, and we returned rejoicing that it had been our privilege to "deliver him to his mother." Oh, how many, who come to Washington in search of loved ones, are caused unnecessary pain, yes, weeks of torturing suspense and fruitless search, in consequence of some little mistake on the part of a surgeon, a nurse, or some person who is supposed to know just where the sought for are to be found.
March Toward Manassas
The 17th of July dawned bright and clear, and everything being in readiness, the Army of the Potomac took up its line of march for Manassas. In gay spirits the army moved forward, the air resounding with the music of the regimental bands, and patriotic songs of the soldiers. No gloomy forebodings seemed to damp the spirits of the men, for a moment, but "On to Richmond," was echoed and re‑echoed, as that vast army moved rapidly over the country. I felt strangely out of harmony with the wild, joyous spirit which pervaded the troops. As I rode slowly along, watching those long lines of bayonets as they gleamed and flashed in the sunlight, I thought that many, very many, of those enthusiastic men who appeared so eager to meet the enemy, would never return to relate the success or defeat of that splendid army. Even if victory should perch upon their banners, and I had no doubt it would, yet many noble lives must be sacrificed ere it could be obtained.
Camp at Fairfax
The main column reached Fairfax toward evening and encamped for the night. Col. R.'s Wife of the Second _____, Mrs. B. and myself were, I think, the only three females who reached Fairfax that night. The day had been extremely hot, and not being accustomed to ride all day beneath a burning sun, we felt its effects very sensibly, and consequently, hailed with joy the order to encamp for the night. Notwithstanding the heat and fatigue of the day's march, the troops were in high spirits, and immediately began preparing supper. Some built fires while others went in search of, and appropriated, every available article which might in any way add to the comfort of hungry and fatigued men.
The whole neighborhood was ransacked for milk, butter, eggs, poultry, etc. which were found insufficient in quantity to supply the wants of such a multitude. There might have been heard some stray shots fired in the direction of a field where a drove of cattle were quietly grazing ; and soon after the odor of fresh steak was issuing from every part of the camp. I wish to state, however, that all "raids" made upon hen‑coops, etc. were contrary to the orders of the General in command, for during the day I had seen men put under arrest for shooting chickens by the roadside.
I was amused to hear the answer of a hopeful young darkey cook, when interrogated with regard to the broiled chickens and beef steak which he brought on for supper. Col. R. demanded, in a very stern voice, "Jack, where did you get that beef steak and those chickens?" "Massa, I'se carried dem cl'ar from Washington; thought I'd cook 'em 'fore dey sp'il'd"; and then added, with a broad grin, "I aint no thief, I aint." Col. R. replied: "That will do, Jack, you can go now." Then the Colonel told us how he had seen Jack running out of a house, as he rode along, and a woman ran out calling after him with all her might, but Jack never looked behind him, but escaped as fast as he could, and was soon out of sight. Said he, "I thought the young rascal had been up to some mischief, so I rode up and asked the woman what was the matter, and found he had stolen all her chickens; I asked her how much they were worth; she "reckoned" about two dollars. I think she made a pretty good hit, for after I paid her, she told me she had had only two chickens." Supper being over, pickets posted, and camp guards detailed, all became quiet for the night.
Fatigues of the March
Early the next morning the reveille beat, the whole camp was soon in motion, and after a slight breakfast from our haversacks the march was resumed. The day was very hot, and we found great difficulty in obtaining water, the want of which caused the troops much suffering. Many of the men were sun‑struck, and others began to drop out of the ranks from exhaustion. All such as were not able to march were put into ambulances and sent back to Washington. Toward noon, the tedium of the march began to be enlivened by sharp volleys of musketry, in the direction of the advance guard; but those alarms were only occasioned by our skirmishers, pouring a volley into everything which looked as if it might contain a masked battery, or a band of the enemy's sharpshooters.
Considerable excitement prevailed throughout the day, as we were every hour in expectation of meeting the enemy. Carefully feeling its way, however, the army moved steadily on, investigating every field, building, and ravine, for miles in front and to the right and left, until it reached Centerville -- where we halted for the night.
The troops now began to feel the effects of the march, and there was evidently a lack of that pic‑nic hilarity which had characterized them the day before. Several regiments had been supplied with new shoes the day before leaving camp, and they found by sad experience, that they were not the most comfortable things to march in, as their poor blistered feet testified; in many cases their feet were literally raw, the thick woolen stockings having chafed the skin off. Mrs. B. and I, having provided ourselves before leaving camp, with a quantity of linen, bandages, lint, ointment, etc. found it very convenient now, even before a shot had been fired by the enemy.
Preparations for Battle
Our surgeons began to prepare for the coming battle, by appropriating several buildings and fitting them up for the wounded -- among others the stone church at Centerville -- a church which many a soldier will remember, as long as memory lasts. Late that evening as I was returning from this church, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. B., I proposed that we should walk through the entire camp to see how the boys were employed, on this, the eve of their first battle. We found many engaged in writing by the glimmering light of the camp‑fire -- soldiers always carry writing materials on a march; some were reading their bibles, perhaps with more than usual interest; while others sat in groups, conversing in low earnest tones; but the great mass were stretched upon the ground, wrapped in their blankets, fast asleep, and all unconscious of the dangers of the morrow.
A Camp Prayer Meeting
We were about to return to our quarters in a log cabin built by the rebel soldiers, and which had been evacuated only a few days previous, when we heard several voices singing in a little grove not far from camp. We turned and walked toward the grove, until we could hear distinctly, the words of the following beautiful hymn:
"O, for a faith that will not shrink,
Though press'd by every foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
Of any earthly woe;
That will not murmur or complain
Beneath the chastening rod,
But, in the hour of grief and pain,
Will lean upon its God;
A faith that shines more bright and clear
When tempests rage without;
That, when in danger, knows no fear,
In darkness knows no doubt."
"Ah!" exclaimed Mr. B., "I recognize Willie L.'s voice there. I understand now; this is Willie's prayer meeting night, and notwithstanding the fatigue of the march and blistered feet, he has not forgotten it." We drew nearer to listen to and enjoy the exercises unperceived, for no sooner had the last words of the hymn died away on the still midnight air, than Willie's clear voice rose in prayer, filling the grove with its rich, pathetic tones. He prayed for victory on the morrow, for his comrades, for loved ones at home, and his voice grew tremulous with emotion, as he plead with the Saviour to comfort and support his widowed mother, if he should fall in battle.
Then followed a practical talk about being faithful solders of Jesus, as well as of their beloved country; of the necessity of being prepared at any moment, to lay down the cross and take up the crown. One after another prayed and spoke, until about a dozen -- and that included the whole number present -- had addressed the Throne of Grace, and testified to the power of the Gospel of Christ in the salvation of sinners. No one was called upon to pray or speak, no one said he had nothing to say and then talked long enough to prove it, no one excused his inability to interest his brethren, and no time was lost by delay, but every one did his duty, and did it promptly. We retired feeling refreshed and encouraged.
After ascertaining the position of the enemy, Gen. McDowell ordered forward three divisions, commanded by Heintzelman, Hunter and Tyler, Miles being left in reserve at Centerville. Sunday morning before dawn, those three divisions moved forward, presenting a magnificent spectacle, as column after column wound its way over the green hills and through the hazy valleys, with the soft moonlight falling on the long lines of shining steel. Not a drum or bugle was heard during the march, and the deep silence was only broken by the rumbling of artillery, the muffled tread of infantry, or the low hum of thousands of subdued voices.
The divisions separated where three roads branch off toward Bull Run, each taking the road leading to its respective position. Soon the morning broke bright and clear, bringing the two contending armies in plain sight of each other. The enemy was posted on heights that rose in regular slopes from the shore crowned here and there by earthworks. The woods that interfered with his cannon ranges had all been cut away, and his guns had a clean sweep of every approach. On our side the descent was more gradual, and covered with a dense forest. The roar of artillery soon announced that the battle had actually commenced.
My Place On the Field
Mrs. B. and myself took our position on the field, according to orders, in connection with Gen. Heintzelman's division, having delivered our horses to Jack for safe keeping, with strict orders to remain where he was, for we might require them at any moment. I imagine now, I see Mrs. B., as she stood there, looking as brave as possible, with her narrow brimmed leghorn hat, black cloth riding habit, shortened to walking length by the use of a page, a silver‑mounted seven‑shooter in her belt, a canteen of water swung over one shoulder and a flask of brandy over the other, and a haversack with provision, lint, bandages, adhesive plaster, etc. hanging by her side. She was. tall and slender, with dark brown hair, pale face, and blue eyes.
Chaplain B. sat upon his horse looking as solemn as if standing face to face with the angel of death. The first man I saw killed was a gunner belonging to Col. R.'s command. A shell had burst in the midst of the battery, killing one and wounding three men and two horses. Mr. B. jumped from his horse, hitched it to a tree, and ran forward to the battery; Mrs. B. and I following his example as fast as we could. I stooped over one of the wounded, who lay upon his face weltering in his blood; I raised his head, and who should it be but Willie L. He was mortally wounded in the breast, and the tide of life was fast ebbing away; the stretchers were soon brought, and he was carried from the field.
Seeing the disaster from a distance, Col. R. rode up to the battery, and as he was engaged in giving orders, a solid shot came whizzing by in such close proximity to his head, that it stunned him for a moment; but soon recovering, he turned up the side of his head and shrugged his shoulders, a peculiarity of his, and in his usual nasal twang, said, "rather close quarters," and rode away, apparently as unconcerned as if it had been a humming bird which crossed his path. But not content with admonishing the Colonel, the same shot struck my poor little flask of brandy which lay near me on a drum-head, shattering it as spitefully as if sent by the combined force of the Order of "Good Templars."
Fate of Skulkers
Now the battle began to rage with terrible fury. Nothing could be heard save the thunder of artillery, the clash of steel, and the continuous roar of musketry. Oh, what a scene for the bright sun of a holy Sabbath morning to shine upon! Instead of the sweet influences which we associate with the Sabbath -- the chiming of church bells calling us to the house of prayer, the Sabbath school, and all the solemn duties of the sanctuary, there was confusion, destruction and death. There was no place of safety for miles around; the safest place was the post of duty. Many that day who turned their backs upon the enemy and sought refuge in the woods some two miles distant, were found torn to pieces by shell, or mangled by cannon ball -- a proper reward for those who, insensible to shame, duty, or patriotism, desert their cause and comrades in the trying hour of battle, and skulk away cringing under the fear of death.
Water for the Wounded
I WAS hurried off to Centerville, a distance of seven miles, for a fresh supply of brandy, lint, etc. When I returned, the field was literally strewn with wounded, dead and dying. Mrs. B. was nowhere to be found. Had she been killed or wounded? A few moments of torturing suspense and then I saw her coming toward me, running her horse with all possible speed, with about fifty canteens hanging from the pommel of her saddle. To all my inquiries there was but one answer: "Don't stay to care for the wounded now; the troops are famishing with thirst and are beginning to fall back." Mr. B. then rode up with the same order, and we three started for a spring a mile distant, having gathered up the empty canteens which lay strewn on the field. This was the nearest spring; the enemy knew it, and consequently had posted sharpshooters within rifle range to prevent the troops being supplied with water. Notwithstanding this, we filled our canteens, while the Minnie balls fell thick and fast around us, and returned in safety to distribute the fruits of our labor among the exhausted men.
We spent three hours in this manner, while the tide of battle rolled on more fiercely than before, until the enemy made a desperate charge on our troops driving them back and taking full possession of the spring. Chaplain B.'s horse was shot through the neck and bled to death in a few moments. Then Mrs. B. and I dismounted and went to work again among the wounded.
Not long afterwards Col. Cameron, brother of the Secretary of War, came dashing along the line, shouting, "Come on boys, the rebels are in full retreat." The words had scarcely been uttered when he fell, pierced to the heart by a bullet. Surgeon P. was on the ground in an instant, but nothing could be done for him; his wound was mortal, and he soon ceased to breathe. There was no time to carry off the dead; we folded his arms across his breast, closed his eyes, and left him in the cold embrace of death.
Scenes on the Field
Still the battle continues without cessation; the grape and canister fill the air as they go screaming on their fearful errand; the sight of that field is perfectly appalling; men tossing their arms wildly calling for help; there they lie bleeding, torn and mangled; legs, arms and bodies are crushed and broken as if smitten by thunder-bolts ; the ground is crimson with blood; it is terrible to witness. Burnside's brigade is being mown down like grass by the rebel batteries; the men are not able to stand that terrible storm of shot and shell; they begin to waver and fall back slowly, but just at the right moment Capt. Sykes comes up to their relief with his command of regulars. They sweep up the hill where Burnside's exhausted, shattered brigade still lingers, and are greeted with a shout of joy, such as none but soldiers, who are almost overpowered by a fierce enemy, and are reinforced by their brave comrades, can give.
Onward they go, close up to the cloud of flame and smoke rolling from the hill upon which the rebel batteries are placed -- their muskets are leveled -- there is a click, click -- a sheet of flame -- a deep roll like that of thunder, and the rebel gunners are seen to stagger and fall. The guns become silent, and in a few moments are abandoned. This seems to occasion great confusion in the rebel ranks. Regiments were scattered, and officers were seen riding furiously and shouting their orders, which were heard above the roar and din of battle.
Capture of Batteries
Captain Griffin's and Rickett's batteries are ordered forward to an eminence from which the rebels have been driven. They come into position and open a most destructive fire which completely routs the enemy. The battle seems almost won and the enemy is retreating in confusion: Hear what rebel Gen. Johnson says of his prospects at that time, in his official report: "The long contest against a powerful enemy, and heavy losses, especially of field officers, had greatly discouraged the troops of Gen. Bee and Col. Evans. The aspect of affairs was critical." Another writes: "Fighting for hours under a burning sun, without a drop of water, the conduct of our men could not be excelled; but human endurance has its bounds, and all seemed about to be lost." This goes to prove that it was a desperately hard fought battle on both sides, and if no fresh troops had been brought into the field, the victory would assuredly have been ours.
But just as our army is confident of success, and is following up the advantage which it has gained, rebel reinforcements arrive and turn the tide of battle. Two rebel regiments of fresh troops are sent to make a flank movement in order to capture Griffin's and Rickett's batteries. They march through the woods, reach the top of the hill, and form a line so completely in our rear as to fire almost upon the backs of the gunners. Griffin sees them approach, but supposes them to be his supports sent by Major Barry. However looking more intently at them, he thinks they are rebels, and turns his guns upon them. Just as he is about to give the order to fire, Major B. rides up shouting, "They are your supports, don't fire." "No, sir, they are rebels," replied Capt. Griffin. "I tell you, sir, they are your supports," said Major B. In obedience to orders the guns were turned again, and while in the act of doing so, the supposed supports fired a volley upon the gunners. Men and horses went down in an instant. A moment more and those famous batteries were in the hands of the enemy.
Panic and Retreat
The news of this disaster spread along our lines like wildfire; officers and men were alike confounded; regiment after regiment broke and ran, and almost immediately the panic commenced. Companies of cavalry were drawn up in lime across the road, with drawn sabers, but all was not sufficient to stop the refluent tide of fugitives. Then came the artillery thundering along, drivers lashing their horses furiously, which greatly added to the terror of the panic stricken thousands crowded together en masse. In this manner we reached Centerville where order was in some measure restored.
Wounded at Centerville
Mrs. B. and I made our way to the stone church around which we saw stacks of dead bodies piled up, and arms and legs were thrown together in heaps. But how shall I describe the scene within the church at that hour. Oh, there was suffering there which no pen can ever describe. One case I can never forget. It was that of a poor fellow whose legs were both broken above the knees, and from the knees to the thighs they were literally smashed to fragments. He was dying; but oh, what a death was that. He was insane, perfectly wild, and required two persons to hold him. Inflammation had set in, and was rapidly doing its work; death soon released him, and it was a relief to all present as well as to the poor sufferer.
I went to another dying one who was bearing patiently all his sufferings. Oh, poor pale face! I see it now, with its white lips and beseeching eyes; and then the touching inquiry, "Do you think I'll die before morning?" I told him I thought he would, and asked: "Has death any terrors for you?" He smiled that beautiful trusting smile which we sometimes see on the lips of the dying saint, as he replied: "Oh no, I shall soon be asleep in Jesus"; and then in a low plaintive voice he repeated the verse commencing,
Asleep in Jesus, blessed sleep.
While I stood beside him thus, some one tapped me on the shoulder. On turning round I was beckoned to the side of one who was laid in a corner, on the floor, with his face toward the wall. I knelt beside him and asked : "What can I do for you, my friend?" He opened his eyes, with an effort, and said, "I wish you to take that," pointing to a small package which lay beside him, "keep it until you get to Washington, and then, if it is not too much trouble, I want you to write to mother and tell her how I was wounded, and that I died trusting in Jesus." Then I knew that I was kneeling beside Willie L. He was almost gone -- just ready "to lay down the cross and take up the crown." He signed to me to come nearer; and as I did so, he put his hand to his head and tried to separate a lock of hair with his fingers, but his strength failed; however, I understood that he wished me to cut off a lock to send to his mother with the package. When he saw that I understood him he seemed pleased that his last request was complied with.
Death of Willie L.
Chaplain B. came and prayed with him, and while he was praying, the happy spirit of Willie returned to Him who gave it. Heaven gained in this instance another soul, but there was mourning in that widowed mother's heart. I thought, oh, how appropriate were the words of the poet to that lonely mother
Not on the tented field,
O terror-fronted war!
Not on the battle-field,
All thy bleeding victims are;
But in the lowly homes
Where sorrow broods like death,
And fast the mother's sobs
Rise with each quick-drawn breath.
That dimmed eye, fainting close -
And she may not be nigh!
'Tis mothers die -- O God!
'Tis but we mothers die.
Our hearts and hands being fully occupied with such scenes as these, we thought of nothing else. We knew nothing of the true state of affairs outside, nor could we believe it possible when we learned that the whole army had retreated toward Washington, leaving the wounded in the hands of the enemy, and us, too, in rather an unpleasant situation. I could not believe the stern truth, and was determined to find out for myself. Consequently I went back to the heights, where I had seen the troops stack their guns and throw themselves upon the ground at night-fall, but no troops were there. I thought then that they had merely changed their position, and that by going over the field I should certainly find them. I had not gone far before I saw a camp fire in the distance. Supposing that I had found a clue to the secret, I made all haste toward the fire; but as I drew near I saw but one solitary figure sitting by it, and that was the form of a female.
An Insane Woman
Upon going up to her I recognised her as one of the washerwomen of our army. I asked her what she was doing there and where the army had gone. Said she : "I don't know anything about the army; I am cooking my husband's supper, and am expecting him home every minute; see what a lot of things I have got for him," pointing to a huge pile of blankets, haversacks and canteens which she had gathered up, and over which she had constituted herself sentinel. I soon found out that the poor creature had become insane. The excitement of battle had proved too much for her, and all my endeavors to persuade her to come with me were unavailing. I had no time to spare, for I was convinced that the army had really decamped.
Hiding From the Enemy
Once more I started in the direction of Centerville. I had not gone more than a few rods before I heard the clatter of horses' hoofs. I stopped, and looking in the direction of the fire I had just quitted, I saw a squad of cavalry ride up to the woman who still sat there. Fortunately I had no horse to make a noise or attract attention, having left mine at the hospital with the intention of returning immediately. It was evident to my mind that those were the enemy's cavalry, and that it was necessary for me to keep out of sight if possible until they were gone. Then the thought came to me that the woman at the fire knew no better than to tell them that I had been there a few minutes before. Happily, however, I was near a fence, against which there were great piles of brush, and as the night was becoming very dark and it was beginning to rain, I thought I could remain undetected, at least until morning. My suspicions proved to be correct. They were coming toward me, and compelling the woman to come and show them the direction I had taken; I decided to crawl under one of those brush heaps, which I did, and had scarcely done so, when up they came and stopped over against the identical pile in which I was concealed.
One of the men said "See here old woman, are you sure that she can tell us if we find her?" "Oh, yes, she can tell you, I know she can," was the woman's reply. They would go away a little distance and then come back again; by and by they began to accuse the woman of playing a false game; then they swore, threatened to shoot her, and she began to cry. All this was an interesting performance I admit; but I did not enjoy it quite so much, in consequence of being rather uncomfortably near the performers. At last they gave it up as a hopeless case and rode away taking the woman with them, and I was left in blissful ignorance of the mystery which they wished me to unravel, and for once in my life I rejoiced at not having my "curiosity" gratified.
I remained there until the last echo of their retreating footsteps had died away in the distance; then I came forth very cautiously and made my way to Centerville, where the interesting intelligence awaited me that Mr. and Mrs. B. had gone, and had taken my horse, supposing that I had been taken prisoner.