George Rollins was a 19-year-old student from the town of Vassalboro when he enlisted in Co. G. the 3rd Maine Volunteers in 1861. No doubt he thought going to war would be a grand adventure. It would also be a chance, as he wrote, to give the rebels “a stern rebuke.” At first the experience was a lot of fun. Rollins marveled at the crowds that showed up to greet the regiment when it marched through Boston. He enjoyed the steamboat trip to New York and boasted to his parents that he didn’t even get seasick. He thought Washington, D.C. was “a splendid place” and he had a “grand time” exploring the Navy Yard. He enjoyed army life.
On July 16, 1861, the regiment, under the command of Colonel Oliver Otis Howard, and the rest of Irvin McDowell’s Army of Northeastern Virginia marched away from Washington to do battle with the Confederates behind the Bull Run around Manassas. After the battle, young Rollins wrote a long letter home to his parents describing his experiences. (The original is in the collections at the Army Heritage Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.)
You have heard ere this that I have had a chance to smell powder and also of the disasterous retreat afterward. You probably were very much surprised at the defeat of our troops, but not more so than we were. Troops never marched to battle more confident of victory than we but disappointment and defeat was our lot for that day. Our brigade, consisting of the 3rd, 4th, 5th Me. And 2nd Ver. Regs under Gnl Howard, belonged to McDowell’s command and were encamped near Centreville. Sat. afternoon rations for three days were given us with orders to march at two o’clock Sun. A.M. At that time we were off with light hearts, although knowing that many of us would lie on the battlefield before night. We had been drilling and working for some time for the sole purpose of giving the Rebels a stern rebuke for their behavior, and now that we were likely to attain our object, it did not behoove us to be down hearted. It was a beautiful cold morning and every thing seemed to favor our start. The road for miles was filled with soldiers. Artillery, Cavalry, Infantry, all marching with the determination of conquering at all odds, not doubting their capability. After going about four miles beyond Centreville our brigade halted for the purpose of cutting off the retreat if any should be made. About this time cannonding could be heard at some distance to the right and news of advantage being gained by our troops kept coming to us and we were getting anxious to help them when an order came for us to proceed and off we started at double quick. The blankets began to fall, and everything impeding the progress of the men was cast aside as worthless. Men soon began to fall out from exhaustion, our [?] marching being to much for them. It was seven miles to the battleground and one of the Captns said that we marched it in one hour and one quarter. We kept hearing that our men were gaining the day and we would be there just in time to give the Rebels a farewell shot but as we neared the field different words were being brought us and as we came upon the field we met our men in retreat. All this didn’t stop us, but on we went. Shells began to burst about us and cannonballs served to make us dodge a little but not to stop our progress for we hadn’t had a shot at the enemy yet. While forming in line of battle a new [?] battery opened upon us cutting us up rather badly. After forming we went up a rise of ground and came upon the enemy lodged in the woods and to our right in a battery. We made a stand and fought the best we could with that battery raking us on the right and musketry playing upon us in front. Our men fought well and stood fire like heroes but it was of no use. All the other troops had left, and the Rebels were coming upon us in overpowering numbers so the order to retreat was given and we turned our back to the enemy. I don’t wish to say anything of what I saw on the field. God grant that I may never see the same again. Our retreat was all confusion and turmoil. There was no commander but all started for Centreville in a mass. When I got within about three miles of that place I thought I must stop not being able to go further. So with one of the students (Saml. Hamblin) I went into the woods. After going some distance we came to water which so refreshed us that we concluded to push on so as not to fall into the hands of the enemy. We got into cap at Cn’ville about ten P.M. just ready to drop with fatigue. We laid down but our limbs ached so bad that sleep was not thought of we had laid a short time and got a little rested when it was said that we were pursued by the enemy and the Regs. were all retreating to Washington and Alexandria. It was hard for us but had to be endured or we must be taken prisoners. I can’t tell what I suffered that night but it nearly [?] me I got into Alexandria at nine oclock the next morning without shoes, and with feet blistered and limbs sore. The first thing I did was to write a line to you that you might not be worried about me. For two days I could hardly move without groaning. We are now at our old encampment about four miles from Alexandria.
I am as well we ever now and have regained my courage considerably. I don’t hope to get home now til the three years are up. I have yet to see many more battles and endure many hardships before this war is brought to a close.
There are many conflicting accounts of the battle. General McDowell is blamed I think, and is thought to be a trater by some. There was evidently an unnecessary effusion of blood. You will have a better chance to learn the particulars than I shall.
Tell mother not to be deeply concerned about me. God has preserved me so far and will in time to come. We are now fitting up for a new start write soon.
Give my love to all at home. God only knows how I would like to see them.