A High Private's Account Of The Battle Of Sharpsburg
Paper No. 1
General Lee was often asked after the war which battle he was proudest of, and where he fought the greatest odds? He always answered at Sharpsburg. His army depleted by battles, hardships, unripe fruit -- all they had to live upon -- stone bruises, for not a man in a half a dozen had a pair of shoes -- straggling, the vineyards of Maryland, fair as the garden of the gods, tempted thousands to leave the ranks and wander in inglorious ease through the rich country. All these causes combined, dwindled the Army of Northern Virginia away to a mere frazzle, as General Gordon expressed it, and Lee fought the battle at Sharpsburg with skeleton regiments, brigades and divisions.
I copy from my note book. * * * * * * *
ON THE MARCH.
On the 20th day of August, 1862, our brigade (Kemper's) left Gordonsville to open the campaign against Pope. The orders were to leave all knapsacks behind, and to travel in light marching order with three day's rations in our haversacks, a blanket on our shoulders, and eighty rounds of cartridges in our boxes and pockets.
Little we knew then that it would be two whole mouths to a day before we beheld our scanty wardrobe again, and for more than eight weeks we would be without a single charge of underclothing, and that our attire on the return would shame the famous seven beggars of Coventry, and cause a decent scarecrow to look like a well- dressed gentleman beside us. There was not a single article of either kind in camp.
The regiment, though reduced a hundred or so by the battles around Richmond, had yet comparatively full ranks, and their esprit du corps was unimpaired. Indeed, they had gained that confidence in themselves and their officers that goes far to make a crack soldier and steady veterans; and veterans they were, with Blackburn's Ford, Bull Run, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and the seven days' fight emblazoned on their banners.
They knew what a soldier's life was by this time, and had got trained in every phase of it. In the cantonments at Manassas Junction, drilling six times a day; in the picket duty at Falls Church and Munson's Hill; in the bivouac at Fairfax Courthouse; in the winter quarters at Centreville; in the long marches from Manassas to Richmond, and thence to Johnson, on the York river; trench duty at Dam No. 1, at Yorktown; the rear guard at Williamsburg; the skirmish line on the road, holding the enemy in check; the builders of miles of fortifications; in the sudden dash and desperate battle of Seven Pines, and then to the glorious excitement of following up the retreating army of McClellan; and then the battle of Frazier's farm, had taught Kemper's men what war really was, and changed the raw levies, into gladiators who could meet death with a smile on their lips.
And so in the bright morning sunshine they jested as they received abundance of cartridges and limited rations which was in the same proportion as Falstaff's sack to his bread.
Down the road, past Orange Courthouse, from there to the Rapidan, where we camped. Thence to the Rappahannock river, where we remained two days, watching the enemy on the opposite side. Our rations now gave out, and how to live without eating became the problem that each soldier had to solve to suit himself
A long week of marching and countermarching ensued, in which we subsisted on green corn and apples; then a forced march of twenty eight miles to Thoroughfare Gap, on the hottest day I ever remembered, with the dull booming of the cannon on the other side of the ridge to quicken our wearied footsteps.
The next day, the 30th of August, we fought the battle of Manassas, and lost a fourth of our brigade. The history of that glorious day I will skip.
We got each a Yankee haversack and a full square meal, and I saw scores of soldiers, nearly famished, eating while they fought, indeed, it used to be a saying of our foes, that a rebel soldier would charge through hell to capture a Yankee haversack.
The night after the battle we drank a gallon of real coffee per man, and filled up on salt pork, boiled beef and canned vegetables, and groups of soldiers sat by the camp fires, and boiled, stewed, and fried, and ate off and on all night.
Hunger is a fearful thing, and we forgot for a time many a loved comrade who was shot in the battle.
On Monday the march was continued towards Fairfax Courthouse. The rain that had held up for the night now came down in streams. We ate our last mouthful this morning; indeed, but for the contents of the captured haversacks, which the men shared with each other, there would not have been enough to pick one's teeth after. Nearly all that day we tramped through the muck of the roads, that was ankle deep. There was a constant cannonading in our front.
It was late in the evening when we arrived at Chantilly, that stately old country house, where several of us had stood guard in the lovely autumn nights of 1861. It was raining in torrents, which fact prevented us from arriving earlier, to participate in the sharp action that our van had with Kearney's division. Indeed, we could not have been of any service if we had been present, for our ammunition was soaking wet, and there was not a gun in the division that would have gone off tanding, then, in the drowning summer's storm, we beheld the evidence so plain before our eyes of the sacked and ruined Chantilly; that sweet, lovely place which, for nearly a century, had been famous for all that makes a home prized and loved, and an estate cared for and valued.
The fences were all levelled, the outbuildings were demolished, the splendid park cut down -- every shade tree was felled by the axe, even the fruit trees were hacked down out of mere wantoness. As for the house, it was hardly habitable, the furniture was smashed to kindling wood, the windows dashed to pieces with the butt end of the muskets, the plastering from the walls knocked off, and the rooms so defaced and defiled that it discounted a hog pen in filth. In this space lay many wounded and dead, among others General Phil. Kearny, the most brilliant, chivalrous, dashing officer in the Yankee army. His body was sent by order of General Lee to the Yankee lines under a flag of truce. He was killed in a charge, and rode in the advance with his hat in the air and the bridle held in his teeth, for he had but one arm, the other he lost in the Mexican war. He was a brave ideal of a soldier. Most of our soldiers viewed his dead body.
In the wet, showery, drowning rain, we had to spend the night. There was but little distance between the two armies -- one flushed with victory, the other sullen from defeat, but both at this moment equally limp, wet, hungry and miserable. But for the pouring raindrops, the sharp Halt! and challenge of the enemy's pickets could easily have been heard.
"From camp to camp, from the foul womb of night
The hum of either army stilly sounds
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whisper of each other's watch."
It is said by those fishermen who ought to know what they are talking about, that eels at length learn how to get used to being skinned and after awhile rather enjoy the operation. So it is that by continuous hardening soldiers learn to sleep in a drowning storm, in a mud puddle as sweetly as a citizen comfortably tucked away in his bed of down. They sleep in a rain that, were they not enured and seasoned, would make every man ill from the exposure.
Next morning we awoke so stiff and rigid that it took us some time to straighten our limbs. Our bodies were chilled through, but to our great delight the sun's warm beams darted through the rift in the clouds, and dried the wet clothes, but still our situation was deplorable. Not a mouthful did we have, some few had a ration left which they would swallow secretly; the haversacks were all turned wrong side out, and the very dust of the crackers were scraped out and devoured.
That day some thieving Reb stole my oil cloth that I left drying on the bushes, and though I hunted clean through the brigade, I could not find it; I had no blanket, and that night I was in a woeful fix, for the ground was still damp, the nights cool; as a makeshift, I begged a newspaper -- a copy of the New York World -- and laid on that, and as it kept the moistened earth from my person it answered quite well, and for two weeks I had nothing to lie on but this newspaper; I would fold it up with great care every morning, but one night it rained, and there was nothing left of it. Anyway I have always had a tender feeling for the New York World ever since.
On the morning of the 3rd we took up the line of march with the head of the column striking northward, passing by Frying Pan Church -- which name is suggestive of some hot gospels, and a place where doubtless the doctrine of total damnation of man was preached.
Still no signs of our commissary wagons, and not a mouthful of food did we have all day.
The 4th found our column halted and green corn served out.
The 5th and 6th we marched towards Leesburg, passing through on the 7th, and crossed the Potomac near Shepherdstown.
On the 8th we struck up the refrain of "Maryland, My Maryland!" and camped in an apple orchard. We were hungry, for six days not a morsel of bread or meat had gone in our stomachs -- and our menu consisted of apples and corn. We toasted, we burned, we stewed, we boiled, we roasted these two together, and singly, until there was not a man whose form had not caved in, and who had not a bad attack of diarrhoea. Our underclothes were foul and hanging in strips, our socks worn out, and half of the men were barefooted, many were lame and were sent to the rear; others, of sterner stuff, hobbled along and managed to keep up, while gangs from every company went off in the surrounding country looking for food, and did not rejoin their commands until weeks after. Many became ill from exposure and starvation, and were left on the road. The ambulances were full, and the whole route was marked with a sick, lame, limping lot, that straggled to the farmhouses that lined the way, and who, in all cases, succored and cared for them.
But we Bred better in the rich fields of Maryland.
In an hour after the passage of the Potomac the command continued the march through the rich fields of Maryland. The country people lined the roads, gazing in open eyed wonder upon the long lines of infantry, that filled the road for miles, and as far as the eye could reach, was the glitter of the swaying points of the bayonets. It was the first ragged Rebels they had ever seen, and though they did not act either as friends or foes, still they gave liberally, and every haversack was full that day at least. No houses were entered -- no damage was done, and the farmers in the vicinity must have drawn a long breath as they saw how safe their property was in the very midst of the army.
On the 10th the Seventeenth defiled through the long avenue of Frederick City, and we were rather disappointed at our reception, which was decidedly cool. This wasn't what we expected. It is true the streets were generally well filled with citizens, and the balconies and porches too, but there was positively no enthusiasm, no cheers, no waving handkerchief and flags -- instead a deathlike silence -- some houses were closed tight, as if some public calamity had taken place; there were many friendly people in the windows and doors, but they seemed afraid to make any manifestation of their feelings -- only smiling covertly.
The marching soldiery did not imitate the cautious silence of the Frederick Citizens; they had foil haversacks, and therefore light hearts, jokes, witicisms, and badinage flew from lip to lip, and some one striking up a song, it was chanted by the brigade, and in that way we went through the most loyal city in Maryland.
The following intercepted letter, from a Union lady in Frederick to a friend in Baltimore, thus speaks of the passage of our army.
Frederick City, Maryland, September 13th, 1862.
I wish, my dearest Minnie, you could have witnessed the transit of the Rebel army through our streets a day or two ago. Their coming was unheralded by any pomp and pageant whatever. No bursts of martial music greeted your ear, no thundering sound of canon, no brilliant staff, no glittering cortege dashed through the streets, instead came three long dirty columns, that kept on in an unceasing flow. I could scarcely believe my eyes; was this body of men moving so smoothly along, with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two dressed alike, their officers hardly distinguishable from the privates -- were these, I asked myself in amazement, were these dirty, lank, ugly specimens of humanity, with shocks of hair sticking through the holes in their hats, and the dust thick on their dirty faces, the men that had coped and encountered successfully, and driven back again and again our splendid legions with their fine discipline, their martial show and colour, their solid battalions keeping such perfect time to the inspiring bands of music? I must confess, Minnie, that I felt humiliated at the thought that this horde of ragamuffins could set our grand army of the Union at defiance. Why it seems as if a single regiment of our gallant boys in blue could drive that dirty crew in the river without any trouble. And then, too, I wish you could see how they behaved -- a crowd of boys on a holiday don't seem happier. They are on the broad grin all the time. Oh! they are so dirty! I don't think the Potomac river could wash them clean; and ragged! -- there is not a scarecrow in the cornfields that would not scorn to exchange clothes with them; and so tattered! -- there isn't a decently dressed soldier in their whole army. I saw some strikingly handsome faces though; or, rather, they would have been so if they could have had a good scrubbing. They were very polite, I must confess, and always asked for a drink of water, or anything else, and never think of coming inside of a door without an invitation. many of them were bare footed. Indeed I felt sorry for the poor, misguided wretches, for some were limping along so painfully, trying hard to keep with their comrades. But I most stop. I send this by Robert, and hope it will reach you safely. Write to me as soon as the route is open. * * * * * *
Confederate currency now suddenly rose in value, orders having been issued, that the storekeepers in the town should keep open their stores, and sell their goods for the "dam Rebel issue," as one of them called our Confederate "promise to pay." In an hour or two a store would be completely cleaned out, not a thing was left behind, the shopkeeper having enough of the notes to paper his walls. Some of them though put the money carefully by, determining if it should by chance turn out ever to be of any value, that they would have a good amount.
Another day's march brought us to Hagerstown, where the corn fields and orchards furnished our meals. The situation, in a sanitary point, of our army was deplorable. Hardly a soldier had a whole pair of shoes. Many were absolutely barefooted, and refused to go to the rear. The ambulances were filled with the footsore and sick. Not a man among all the troops had had a change of underclothing since the army left Gordonsville, a month ago, and the consequence was that they were dirty, tattered and infested with vermin; and now I will devote a great many lines to this subject, which the fastidious had better skip.
I am writing of the lights and shadows of a soldier's life, and the two twin evils of vermin and the camp itch were important institutions. They followed Johnny Reb everywhere, staid by him, refused to leave, resisted every effort of force, opposed ever attempt at compromises, and they tarried with him until he doffed the gray uniform for a citizen's suit. Then only did both disappear and vanish out of sight and mind.
These insects, which in camp parlance were called graybacks, first made their appearance in the winter of 1861. At first the soldier was mortified and almost felt disgraced at discovering one of these insects on his person; their crawling made his flesh creep, and energetic efforts were made to hide the secret and eliminate the cause. At first the soldiers used to steal out companionless and alone, and hide in the woods and bushes, with as much secretness and caution as if he was going to commit some fearful crime. Once hid from the eyes of men, he would pursue and murder the crawling insects with a vengeful pleasure, thinking that now he would have peace and comfort of mind, ad be able to hold up his head once more before his fellow men. On his stealthly way back he would be sure to run in on a dozen solitary individuals who tried to look unconcerned, as if indeed they were in the habit of retiring in the dim recesses of the forest for private meditation.
The satisfaction he felt would not last long, in a day or two his body would be infested again, and then, desperate, he would try every expedient -- all to no purpose, it was simply impossible to exterminate them. The men would boil their clothes for hours, in a hissing, bubbling cauldron, dry and put them on, and next day these confounded things would be at work as lively as ever. Even at Fort Warren where underclothing was so plentiful that each man had an entire change for every day in the week, it was found that these pests skirmished around as usual, though where they came from and how they arrived were mysteries never solved. The salamander graybacks had more lives than a cat, and bred and propagated faster than a roe- herring. Once lodged in the seams of the clothing they remained until time mouldered the garments. You might scald, scour, scrub, cleanse, rub, purify, leave them in seathing liquid, or bury the raiment in the ground, but it was wasted labor, for the insects seem to enjoy the process and increased and multiplied under it. On this march particularly, when the troops had no change of clean clothes for weeks, the soldiers were literally infested with them, many used to place their under raiment, during the night, in the bottom of some stream and put a large stone to keep them down; in the morning they would hastily dry them and get a temporary relief. Every evening in Maryland, when the army halted and bivouaced for the night, hundreds of the soldiers could be seen, sitting on the roads or fields, half denuded with their clothes in their laps busily cracking, between the two thumbnails, these creeping nuisances -- a hundred full- fledged fathers of families was not considered an unusual number in one haul. To have a daily examination and execution was a habit just as regularly and naturally indulged in as washing our face and hands.
In our march along the turnpike, there was not left a ear of corn, or a green apple, in the bordering fields; the soldiery made especially of cooking these vegetables, eating them raw, roasted, boiled, and all mixed in a kind of soup, filling themselves full, but still longing for the meat and bread diet. The actions of the citizens of Hagerstown showed in vivid contrast to Frederick City, for not only were the men and women outspoken in their sympathy for the Southern cause, but they threw wide open their hospitable doors and filled their houses with the soldiers, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, as well as their limited means allowed. I saw a citizen in that place absolutely take the shoes off of his feet, in, the streets, and give them to a limping barefooted soldier.
On the morrow, instead of advancing northward the order came to right about face, and march back on the same road we advanced up the evening before; back the brigade retraced its steps, and about 4 o'clock that evening, on the 14th, took position in a cornfield on a sloping hill. A savage attack came from the enemy on our left to break the line, but was repulsed; the musketry firing and cannonading was for a short time very severe; no determined infantry charge was made upon our brigade, though several Yankee batteries shelled the line, and a feeble attack made, which was easily checked, for the regiment was in place behind a fence. The Seventeenth only lost about half a dozen wounded.
That night, or rather at early dawn of the 15th, the brigade marched towards Sharpsburg; the men had not a mouthful to eat, and squads from the different companies obtained permission to forage for themselves and comrades. I was on one of these details; leaving the road and striking across the fields, we entered into a yard in the centre of which stood a fine brick mansion; we knocked at the door -- there was no response, and then after waiting awhile we entered and found to our astonishment that it was deserted. The inmates had fled in anticipation of a battle -- the fighting at Boonsboro a few hours before had evidently frightened them away. Not an article had been carried off -- the parlor door was open -- there stood the piano, the pictures depended from the wall, the curtains hung as gracefully as if some hand has just arranged its fold; we entered the dining room -- there rested the cat on the windowsill -- everything seemed so natural, it was difficult to realize that the hostess would not enter and welcome us in a few moments.
We had no time to linger, the cannon sounded their warning note; besides, we had come to get something to eat, and not to make any voyage of discovery. So finding nothing in the pantry, nor in the kitchen, we went to the spring and filled our canteens with water, then to the dairy at the foot of the hill, and discovered several buckets and cans of milk which had been placed there last night by some visible means; we filled our canteens with the lacteal fluid, and noticing the loft, a room over the dairy, we climbed up. found it a perfect storeroom. Several barrels were on stands, and on investigating the contents of one, it was found to be cider, and then the canteens were emptied of milk and filled with the juice of the apple. Then an exclamation from one of the party brought us over to him, and he showed us a barrel of apple brandy. That cider in the canteens was soon poured on the floor, and the apple jack took its place. An animated discussion took place. The whole squad, except the sergeant, wanted to carry the barrel and leave everything else behind, but then came the difficulty about obeying orders. The discussion waxed high, and to end the matter the sergeant stove in the head of the barrel with the butt of his musket, and the precious liquid that would have made glad, for a time at least, the whole brigade, poured in a useless stream upon the floor.
In the room was half a dozen tubs of apple butter, which we confiscated for the use of our comrades, and carried it off with us. Starting towards the reflected steel, that flashed in the sunlight like a beacon to the mariner, showing us where our troops were marching, we hurried after and soon caught up with them. I will drop for a second the character of a veracious chronicler, and not mention how many lips were glued long and lovingly to the mouths of those canteens. The owner's health was honestly drunk, however, none asking or caring whether he was Yank or Reb.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. X. Richmond, Va., Oct. And Nov., 1882. Nos 10-11
This page last updated 11/26/06