Ai B. Thompson, a 28-year-old lieutenant in the 2nd New Hampshire Regiment of the Union Army, fought in the first battle of the Civil War. Only he probably wouldn’t have called it ‘fighting.’
That battle was the Battle of Bull Run. On July 21, 1861, Confederate forces routed Union troops that tried to cross Bull Run, a tributary of the Potomac River. Hundreds of spectators, some with picnic baskets, rode the 15 miles from Washington, D.C., to watch the battle. They fully expected a victory.
The 2nd New Hampshire Regiment didn’t get much of a chance to fight. “They were nowhere and did nothing,” wrote Thompson in a letter to his father in Concord, N.H., three days after the battle. The regiment drew up in line awaiting orders, he wrote. But no orders came, ‘all the while cannon balls and shells flying and bursting about our ears.’
2nd New Hampshire
Both sides were poorly trained and poorly led. Thompson was disgusted with the leadership of the Union Army and of his regiment. Every order they did get was a blunder, and every movement was a failure. He wrote,
There was no fault in the men thank God: they are brave fellows as ever heard the music of whistling bullets, and it was too bad to expose them to be cut down and mangled, when they could not return the enemy’s fire.
Gen. Irvin McDowell commanded the Union forces though he had no combat experience. McDowell had buckled to pressure to march to Richmond and capture the enemy’s capital. His troops were met at Bull Run by a Confederate army as ill trained as his own. Irvin ordered a surprise attack on the enemy’s left flank, which at first put the rebels on the defensive. But under Gen. Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Confederate forces held their ground, and soon reinforcements came by train from the Shenandoah Valley.
Regiment after regiment of our troops advanced up the hill in solid column towards the enemies batteries and discharged volley after volley into the rebel ranks but everyone retreated in disorder and confusion leaving many dead and dying on the field. With painful anxiety I watched the successively retreating columns. Till I saw the bloody Zouaves advancing up the hill in the face of the enemy’s fire … and then I thought of victory. But the Goddess of victory perched not on their banner; they too retreated in great disorder, leaving three hundred of their brave fellows dead or dying in the field.
Ai B. Thompson
After the battle, Gen. George McClellan replaced McDowell.
According to A history of the Second regiment, New Hampshire volunteer infantry, in the war of the rebellion, this is what happened to Lt. Ai B. Thompson:
In August, 1861, was promoted to Captain 18th U.S. Infantry, and distinguished himself at Perrysville and Murfreesboro. Brevetted Major for gallantry, and was retired for disability from wounds. Department Commander of the G. A. R. in 1888. Elected Secretary of State for New Hampshire in 1877, which position he held until his death, which occurred at Concord Sept. 12. 1890.
First Battle of Bull Run, by Kurz & Allison. Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons. With thanks to War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars by Andrew Carroll. This story last updated in 2023.