1861: Ezra Greene to Susannah (Westcott) Greene

This incredible letter was written by Ezra Greene (1838-1889) of Warwick, Rhode Island — a member of Co. H, 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers (2nd R.I.V.). Readers will remember that it was the 2nd R.V.I. that led the 21 July 1861 Federal attack on the Confederate left at Matthews Hill in the First Battle of Bull Run. While other regiments in Hunter’s Division floundered in confusion to get themselves into battle formation, the 2nd Rhode Island took and held possession of the high ground near the Matthews’ farmhouse for over a half an hour before they received any support.

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Two members of the 2d Rhode Island Infantry

After about four hours of fighting on the slopes of Matthews’ Hill, the Confederate troops withdrew across the Warrenton Road leading to a lull in the fighting. During this time, the used up troops of the 2nd Rhode Island — famished and weary from lack of food and sleep — retreated back into the woods near Sudley Church from whence they came. During this time, Ezra wrote that he returned to the battlefield to find his cousin, Peleg Card, who served with him in the same regiment. He found him on the field with a wound apparently so severe that Ezra made no attempt to remove him, electing instead to remain by Peleg’s side until he expired. Remarkably, as he lay by his mortally wounded cousin, Ezra fell asleep from exhaustion only to be awakened by a renewal of the battle an hour later, at which time he retreated from the field and followed the remnants of his regiment as they straggled back toward Washington.

Ezra was the son of Lawton Green (1811-1861) and Sarah Ann Card (1813-1904). Ezra learned the carpenter’s trade from his father and was a 22 year-old house carpenter when he mustered into Co H, 2nd Rhode Island Infantry on 5 June 1861. Company H was known as the Kentish Guards (being from Kent county) and were issued blue coats and grey trousers that no doubt added to the confusion in the fight at Bull Run.

Disenchanted with infantry service and disliking his commanding officers, Ezra shortly after the Battle of Bull Run volunteered for duty in the navy and was soon transferred.

The letter is addressed to Ezra’s “Granny” which most likely was Susannah (Westcott) Greene (1795-1881), the wife of Clark Lawton Greene (1787-1865). Ezra’s maternal grandmother died in 1844.

[Note: This letter is from the private collection of Richard Weiner and is published by express consent. Other letters by Ezra Greene — including this one — have been previously published on Kentish Guards, Rhode Island Militia. Readers might also enjoy seeing the Ezra Greene House. For another detailed eyewitness account of the fighting on Matthews Hill by Corp. Samuel J. English of Co. D, see his letter of 24 July 1861 posted on Bull Runnings.]

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The Thornberry children at Sudley’s Ford, Bull Run Creek (CDV courtesy of Matthew Fleming)

TRANSCRIPTION

Headquarters [Camp Sprague ¹]
2nd Regiment R. I. Vols.
August 4th [1861]

Dear Granny,

I have a few leisure moments which I feel disposed to spend in writing a short sketch of our Battle at Bull Run on Sunday, July 21st. We left our camp July the 15th. Where we was going, we knew not but we expected some fighting and we found it to be as soldier’s said, the hardest battle ever fought in America. The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment was in the engagement 4½ hours and it was hot work all the time.

We marched 9 miles the first day [16 July, and then] slept on the ground [at Annandale] — satisfied at that. Aroused at 4½, [on 17 July, we then] marched 9 more miles [on the Little River turnpike] to what is called Fairfax Court House where we arrived at noon [and] where we stopped until the next morning. We started [on 18 July] and marched 3 miles and halted till 4½ on account of a battle being fought 2 miles beyond by our cavalry. Then we marched 4 miles and halted for the night. Aroused at 6, [we] marched into closer quarters, pitched our tents of rails and brush, where we slept one night with comfort. [The] next night — which was Saturday night — we had orders to march at 2 o’clock a.m. [on 21 July.] ²

[We] was aroused at 1 and ordered into the line of battle without food or half enough sleep. We marched about 15 miles to what is called Bull’s Run — or otherwise Bloody Run — where the battle was at its height. ³ It was then 10½. We made a furious charge without fear of the consequences. We kept at our work — and hot it was — until 3 o’clock. Then we was forced to retreat but I did not leave the field until the regiment was about 3 miles ahead.

After the regiment went out into the woods and halted to rest, I went back through the field to where Peleg Card † lay wounded. The shots flew thick and fast around me then. Peleg lived about 1 hour. I then lay down and slept ¾ of an hour. While I lay there, a cannon shot struck within a few feet of me. It was then 5 o’clock. The regiment was gone an hour and the enemy’s cavalry was close behind me. I was alone. I seized a rifle and 25 cartridges and started — intending to fight if I must. A great many [soldiers] threw their guns away but I brought [mine] home, tired and footsore. All we had to eat was hard bread and no sleep for 38 hours.

A soldier’s life is a hard life and a lousy one. Our work is hard or else we have none at all. It is like being in state prison for we cannot leave the ground and have to do as the officers say and when they please.

From your affectionate grandson, — Ezra Greene

Camp Sprague, Co. H, 2nd Regiment Rhode Island Volunteers, Washington D. C.

[In the margin at the top of the first page, the following note was written:]

This letter has the account of Peleg Card’s death. Ezra Greene was with him at the time. — H. L. Greene 1928 ‡


¹ Camp Sprague was located near Gales’ woods or G. Keating’s Farm, east of North Capitol Street in Washington D. C.

² The 2nd Rhode Island Infantry was ordered to rendezvous on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D. C., at 1:30 PM on 16 July 1861, and proceeded across the Potomac River at the Long Bridge, Washington, D. C., at 3 PM on 16 July 1861. The regiment was ordered to proceed by the Columbia Turnpike to the Little River Turnpike at 4 PM the same day and arrived at Bailey’s Crossroads, Fairfax County, via Fort Runyon, near Columbia Springs, Alexandria County, Virginia, at 7 PM on 16 July 1861. They were then ordered to Fairfax Courthouse in the morning on 17 July 1861, and arrived by the Little River Turnpike via Annandale at 1 PM the same day. The regiment was ordered to Germantown, Fairfax County, Virginia, in the morning on 18 July 1861 and proceeded there by the Warrenton Turnpike, arriving at 4 PM the same day. They arrived at Camp Bush, near Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 7 PM on 18 July, 1861. They were then ordered to Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia, at 2 AM on 21 July, 1861, and arrived at 4:30 AM the same day. The regiment was ordered to Sudley Ford, on the Bull Run River, at 5:30 AM on 21 July, 1861, and arrived at 9:30 AM the same day.

³ Greene’s letter tells us that the 2nd Rhode Island — in the lead of Hunter’s flanking column — did not arrive at Sudley’s Ford until 10:30 a.m. which was some 3½ hours after McDowell had expected them to arrive [other reports claim Hunter’s column reached Sudley’s Ford at 9:30]. By then the diversionary force under Tyler at the Stone Bridge on the Warrenton Road had been skirmishing with a portion of Shank Evan’s command for over four hours.

† Peleg W. Card (1841-1861) was Ezra’s cousin. He was the son of Gideon B. Card and Sophia A. Tarbox of Coventry, Rhode Island. He was mustered into Co. H, 2nd Rhode Island on 19 June 1861 and was killed at Bull Run on 21 July 1861. Through Ezra’s other letters, we learn that Peleg and Ezra were messmates.

‡ The docketing that appears in the margin of this letter seems to have been made by “H. L. Greene” in 1928. There were two people by that name appearing in the Providence Rhode Island Directory of 1928. They were Harry L. Greene — a foreman at 185 Eddy with a residence at 58 Warrington; and a Helen L. Greene with a residence at 393 Morris Avenue. I assume it was one of these two who inherited the Greene letters.

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