A Rain of Cannonballs: The 8th New York at Second Bull Run

    Frustration and misery are the two words that best describe the mood of the Federal army in the wake of the defeat at Second Bull Run. "Never in my life have I felt as miserable as on this occasion," Lieutenant Gustav Struve of the 8th New York wrote. "I wished the ground might open under my feet and swallow me forever. With the rest of our regiment I thought the fault was with our Sigel, but soon it became evident that if McDowell was not a traitor, he must be the most miserable coward. He it was who lost the day."

    The 56 year old had seen much hardship and misery in his time; born as Gustav von Struve to a Russian diplomat living in Munich, Germany, Gustav attended some of the finest schools in Europe and earned a law degree during the 1820s. By 1833, he had moved to Baden and became active in politics, gaining a reputation for his embrace of radical socialist beliefs. As historian David Dixon noted, Struve was "an odd bird" even to his fellow German revolutionaries in 1848. He was an early proponent of vegetarianism, and wrote several works on phrenology. But his embrace of democratic ideals was sincere, and he dropped the "von" from his name just prior to the 1848 revolution. A close associate of Friedrich Hecker (who later led the 24th and 82nd Illinois regiments), Struve was repeatedly arrested for his political actions and when the May 1849 uprising in Baden failed, Struve escaped to Switzerland then emigrated to the United States.

    Settling in New York, Struve again took up his pen in editing a newspaper Der Deutsche Zuschauer and a more ambitious project he published in 1860 entitled Weltgeschichte (World History) which looked at world history through his unique radical prism. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Struve, a supporter of abolitionism, took up arms to put down the rebellion. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in Co. A of the 8th New York Infantry, also known as the First German Rifles, serving under Colonel Louis Blenker. He was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant then captain, but would later resign his commission rather than serve under Colonel Felix Salm-Salm, a Prussian. 

    The 8th New York had been the core regiment of General Louis Blenker's primarily German division, and the 8th had suffered heavily during the Battle of Cross Keys in June 1862. During the Second Bull Run campaign, the 8th New York was assigned to the First Brigade of the First Division of the I Corps of the Army of Virginia, along with the three other German regiments, the 41st and 45th New York, and the 27th Pennsylvania, all being under the command of General Julius Stahel.

    Struve's account of the disastrous battle was originally published in the Hartford Weekly Times in Connecticut and was translated from its original German by the Times. 

The gloom of an army in retreat is painfully evident in this depiction of Pope's army leaving the battlefield on the evening of August 30, 1862. Bandaged men clog the roads while others carried wounded comrades off in litters. In the foreground, one soldier tries to console a wounded comrade who is overcome with the sense of loss. Lieutenant Struve was among this crowd and wrote that he wished that the ground would open him up and swallow him forever; the defeat at Second Manassas was total and nearly broke the army's morale. The Union army suffered 14,462 casualties during the battle, roughly double the number suffered by General Lee's force of 50,000 men. But at least Pope's men were walking out under the command of their own generals; on the same evening 500 miles west at Richmond, Kentucky, approximately 5,000 men of General William Nelson's Federal Army of Kentucky were captured in the opening battle of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky. The beginning of September 1862 marked a low point in Union morale to be eclipsed only by the dark days after Fredericksburg in December 1862. 

Camp near Washington, D.C.

September 10, 1862

    Since my last of the 8th instant, written in pencil, this is the first free moment to communicate with you my personal experience during the late eventful two days' battle. We arrived on Friday evening after a forced march from Warrenton on Manassas Plains where several of our best officers were. We expressed a wish to see the Rebels make a stand. Up to that time they never had the advantage of the ground on their side, and therefore avoided the conflict. Nobody expected to see the commencement of the dance on the next morning at 6 o'clock. We slept that night as we had done almost regularly during the preceding fortnight, under arms, and a real night's rest was out of the question.

    The battlefield is very undulating and intersected by regular furrows and many pits, so that the commanding general must be well-acquainted with the locality in order to make a proper disposition of the various troops. Reconnoitering is also very difficult, in consequence of the woodland which covered the movements of the enemy. At 7 a.m., our brigade, consisting of the 27th Pennsylvania, 8th, 41st, and 45th New York regiments under General Stahel was ordered to the left wing where several regiments of the Rebels tried to advance and take position. Our company, Co. A of the 8th New York regiment, advancing as scouts, was received by a rain of bullets, and had to shield itself behind a hill till the whole regiment came to our assistance when the Rebels retired in a hurry, leaving two killed and eight wounded behind.

Private Johann Gassler, Co. C, 8th New York
    By 10 o'clock, we crossed the road and remained till noon under the cover of a ravine when we advanced again as scouts towards the top of the hill which had covered us against the fire of the artillery. Here I lost both of my comrades, right and left, who fell mortally wounded. The bullets fell thick, like hailstones among us, and it was evident that we had marksmen of the best class against us. We captured 40 of them in arms and ascertained that they had fired from a distance of from 300-500 yards, wounded twelve of our company. I don't believe that our fire hit even one of them, which encouraged them evidently while our men were discouraged by their excellent practice.

    About 3 p.m. we were pressed so hotly that our brave colonel ordered the whole regiment to advance and fire which relieved us. We held this position till 5 p.m. when we retired through the woods. There we saw two of our comrades severely wounded, one dying, and our captain asked for volunteers to take care of those men until the ambulance arrived. None of their old comrades came forward, so I chose a recruit to assist me in this act of humanity. The one man soon expired, and the other we endeavored to carry off. But after a few hundred paces we learned from cavalry passing through the wood that the enemy advanced in force on the road behind the forest so that immediate flight alone could save us from capture. In spite of the wounded man's prayer, not to desert him, we had no choice, but procured water for him and placed him in the shadow of a tree where we left him.

    We could not find our regiment that evening and were scarcely 500 yards out of the wood when we got into the fire of the enemy, nearly in our rear. But this did not last long; we heard a tremendous hurrah and soon ascertained that General Schurz had attacked the battery with a brigade and captured it by point of bayonet. This was the last important act of the day- the rest of the firing served merely to cover the retreat on both sides.

    The advantages of the day were on our side, though it was principally Sigel's corps only which met the enemy. We had taken several important positions to secure which the enemy had made his forced marches and enormous exertions. On our errand after our regiment, we reached the heights of Manassas where we had a romantic view of the battlefield. We passed McDowell's newly-arrived corps of 12-16,000 infantry with corresponding cavalry and artillery. In the direction from Centreville we observed a still larger body of troops moving onwards, whilst the report was current that numerous reinforcements were on the road from Warrenton. All this gave me the impression that we could thoroughly crush the Rebels.

Flank marker of the 8th New York

    We passed the night behind a fence and did not find our regiment till the next morning, too late to get our rations, so we obtained some crackers from our comrades for that eventful day. We rested till noon, and except a little cannonading at intervals, nothing disturbed us. The movements of the troops, the galloping of the cavalry and artillery alone was to the close observer foreboding of eventful hours to come.

    By 1 p.m., we were ordered to the center to cover a battery and now began a cannonading from ten to twelve batteries on each side to describe which is beyond my power. Our company had to advance as scouts and we got into a rain of cannon balls. A short time after, the enemy fired too high and now this noise of balls in their flight was really interesting. From the sound, according to the caliber of the cannon, and the kind of projectile, you can calculate the 6-lb, 12-lb, and 18-lb shells and distinguish the solid ball from hollow projectiles.

    After a half hour's work, we were called back to our regiment without having come into close contact with the enemy; but scarcely two minutes after we were ordered off again as the enemy's infantry appeared and prepared to storm our batteries. At about ten yards from our regiment, a 12-lb ball passed close over our heads and fell into the midst of our regiment. By instinct I had looked back and saw when the ball carried off the head of a man of the third company, passed right through the stomach of another of the 4th, cut off both legs of another in the fifth company, and severely wounded four more men! This sight was horrible. Another regiment which had been ordered to storm a battery before us fared still worse.

Major General Franz Sigel

    Scarcely had we taken our position behind the battery when they carried at least 200 severely wounded men past our place, among them a colonel. The sight of the wounds was such that several of our old soldiers fainted and fell to the ground. We expected to be called for similar work yet we remained on scouting duty until 5 p.m. Now suddenly a terrific musketry fire on our left indicated that our left wing was pressed back and soon we were fired at from a hill in our rear, where shortly before was posted one of our batteries. Our position now became untenable; we could not direct our guns to that spot because a little beyond, masses of our troops were still engaged with the enemy. Orders were consequently given to retreat towards Bull Run which was done in perfect order.

    Never in my life have I felt so miserable as on this occasion. I wished the ground might open under my feet and swallow me forever. With the rest of our regiment, I thought the fault was with our Sigel, but soon it became evident that if McDowell was not a traitor, he must be the most miserable coward. He it was who lost the day. 


Letter from First Lieutenant Gustav Struve, Co. A, 8th New York Volunteer Infantry, Hartford Weekly Times (Connecticut), September 20, 1862, pg. 3


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