Letter – Frederick Townsend, 16 August 1861


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Letter written by Colonel Frederick Townsend of the 3rd New York Infantry, to Brigadier General Ebenezer W. Pierce, from the New York Hotel. Townsend is writing in response to a letter published by Pierce in the August 5, 1861 Boston Evening Journal about a retreat at Big Bethel. Townsend disputes Pierce’s claim that the retreat was his idea, instead stating that he was the only colonel who did not advise Pierce to retreat. Townsend requests that Pierce correct his previous statement and explains that he advanced upon the batteries as suggested by Captain James Haggerty, despite his original orders to sustain Colonel Duryea. Townsend spotted bayonets across the field and, assuming they belonged to approaching Confederate forces, ordered his men back to their former position. When the regiment came into sight, however, he discovered they were two of his own companies that had been separated from the regiment.

On a separate cover, Townsend wrote that he never sent the letter for fear of causing a controversy in the newspapers. He has retained the letter for “future reference should the occasion require.”

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New York Hotel

August 16th 1861

General E. W. Peirce

Dear Sir

I am more than surprised that in a communication (in reference to the Big Bethel affair) recently published by you, in reference to the Big Bethel Affair you should state that you reluctantly consented – or acceded, I believe is the word – “to a retreat which was sounded first by Colonel

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Townsend, and followed by Col. Duryea.” Can you have forgotten a remark which you repeated in the presence of the Lt. Col. of my regt. the day after the affair, and in my tent, that I “was the only colonel” who did not advise you to retreat[?] And have you forgotten that ten minutes before you gave me the order to retreat I asked you to let Lieut. Greble take his guns where my regt. had been and have an assaulting column formed in three lines, and so make

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an effort to capture the battery (a plan assented to by Lt. Greble), and that you remarked to me that you were out of ammunition? Does this look like a disposition on my part to retreat? Have you forgotten too, sir, that I, moved by your apparent anguish, befriended you by stating to Genl.Butler that “I did not believe you were a coward, as had been represented, for I had twice spoken to you while under severe fire, and that you were perfectly calm.” And that you repeatedly assured me that I was your only friend, and that if I stated  this

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fact to Genl. Butler you would be under lasting obligation to me? And have you forgotten still further that I assured Genl. Butler that your first disposition of battle was well made – under the circumstances – and how you made use of this remark in a letter which you published in your own vindication[?] And have you forgotten too that when I (by your own express direction) moved to the rear, Col. Duryea had already marched off his regiment[?] How then could I have been followed by Col. Duryea? It is impossible for you to make it appear that I “sounded the retreat;” the contrary is susceptible [of] the fullest proof. I therefore

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ask it as a matter of simple justice that you should correct the erroneous impression (in reference to myself) conveyed in the communication referred to, in reference to myself

If you consider my sending my retaking colors back into the road (my second position) my second position which I had left in order to advance upon the battery, and directing the regiment to fall in upon the colors, as indicative of a disposition on my part to retreat from the battlefield, permit me to say that you were

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never more mistaken. I had advanced upon the batteries at the suggestion of Capt. Haggerty of Genl. Butler’s staff, who desired me “to feel the enemy’s right.” I told him that my original written orders were to sustain Col. Duryea, that I had just ridden up to him and he desired me to move my regiment (which was being in a lane on a line with his regiment to the left of the guns where it had been placed by your directions for about twenty minutes on a line with Duryea’s regt. and to the

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left of the guns) to move it close up to the guns and help him to sustain them. And that however But I would notwithstanding do as he Capt. Haggerty suggested, though I felt I was not altogether in the line of my duty in so doing. On reaching my advanced position through a severe fire, close to the shed and after remaining there some fifteen or twenty minutes, on looking to my left, I discovered bayonets gleaming in the adjoining field, as they

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projected here and there above the dense copse separating the two fields, and supposing it to be an effort on the part of the enemy (said to be, by Capt. Kilpatrick, 4000 strong) to cut me off as I being so far in advance of our guns and fearing their loss, I concluded that my duty required me to hasten with all dispatch back to the road my second position with a view to defeat the supposed intention of the enemy. For this purpose, and this purpose alone, I retired to my old position on the left of Duryea & the guns. I directed the color bearer to take the colors on the

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double quick back to the road I had left, and then faced the regt. about, directing it to reform upon the colors at double quick. I succeeded in reaching the road sooner than the supposed enemy where the regiment came promptly into line, when to my amazement, I found the supposed enemy to be two of my own companies which had gotten separated from the regiment by the copse when the regiment commenced the march in line of battle up the [fi]eld. I should state

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that before the regt. marched up the field, I, having detached two companies to deploy as skirmishers and after they were deployed well up to the sheds, I went up the field alone to the place where they were deployed to see whether it was advisable to bring up the remainder of the regiment, with the view of taking the battery. Concluding that there was a possibility of capturing it, provided the regiment should get up to this place where the skirmishers were before the battery became full from details furnished from their left battery – I rode down the

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field about two thirds of the way, and gave orders for the regt. to advance in line, which not being heard, I succeeded in making the Lt. Col. understand what I wanted by the motions of my sword, when he moved the regt. over the fence into the field. I waited where I had halted until it came up to me, and I putting myself in front of the color and led my men off the field, supposing of course that the Lt. Col. had gotten the whole [regiment]

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On returning to the road, I closed the regt. upon the guns as Col. Duryea had before desired and awaited orders and I had not for one moment the idea of retiring. It was at this time that I had the conversation with] suggested the plan of carrying the battery to Lt. Greble in the presence of witnesses. I had not for one moment the idea of retiring & didn’t retire until I got the order from you some two minutes after. You know the balance. Your reply at an early period to this communication will


Very [Respectfully]

                           Fred Townsend

-Written on a separate cover-

A letter to Genl. Pierce Cmdg. Off. at Big Bethel. I did not send it because I thought that it might lead to a newspaper controversy after my departure for the west – and being in Ohio, I should have but a poor chance at the public mind. I retain it, however, for the purpose of future reference should the occasion require.

Frederick Townsend from Albany, NY had enrolled as colonel of the 3rd New York Infantry April 25, 1861 at the age of 34. After serving at the Battle of Big Bethel he resigned on June 26, 1861 to accept appointment as major of the 18th US Infantry. Townsend was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the 9th US Infantry on April 20. 1864, and resigned from the army on March 26, 1868. He was breveted lieutenant colonel for Stones River, colonel for recruitment, and brigadier general for war service. He died Sept. 11, 1897.

Ebenezer Weaver Peirce, was a brigadier general of Massachusetts Militia, in the service of the US April 22, 1861, mustered out July 22, 1861. He subsequently became colonel of the 29th MA Infantry, December 31, 1861 and was discharged November 8, 1864.