Reminiscences Of Sharpsburg
By Rev. J.S. Johnston, Mobile, Alabama.
The following incident, which came under the observation of the writer, who was a courier on the staff of Colonel Law, of the Fourth Alabama regiment, commanding the third (Bee's) brigade of Hood's division, Army Northern Virginia, has never, to his knowledge, been published, and is recorded here at the suggestion of a friend as an interesting reminiscence of the late war between the States, and as illustrative of the character of the beloved chieftain, the least incident of whose grand life is cherished by those brave men who for three years followed him on fields of glory, but to final defeat:
In the early morning of September 17, 1862, McClellan opened the battle of Sharpsburg (Antietam) by an attack in force on our centre, just at the junction of Jackson and Longstreet's corps. Hood's division was the left of Longstreet's corps; the commander of Jackson's right is not known to the writer. At 11 o'clock on the previous night Hood, who had covered the retreat from South Mountain, was relieved by a brigade which had just joined the army and had seen but little real service. The attack was so heavy that these troops soon began to waver, and couriers were sent in quick succession to Hood, who was a few hundred yards in the rear resting his weary and hungry men, to hold himself in readiness to move to the front to the support of the heavily pressed lines. Soon the order to "fall in" was given, and the division, nine regiments front, with no supports or reserves, and nothing between them and the Potomac, moved forward in splendid style. Up to that day that division had never known defeat. A part of it had made a glorious record at the First Manassas. The whole of it had taken part in the battle of Seven Pines; it was the first to successfully charge and carry the strong works at Gaines's Mill; it had made a splendid record at the Second Manassas, and demolished the Duryee Zouaves, who had requested that they might be pitted against the Texans to recover the honor lost at Gaines's Mill; it had held Fox's Gap, on South Mountain, against every attempt to carry it by Burnside's division; and on that day they moved forward in gallant style, making the air ring with the well known "rebel yell," and soon met the oncoming tide of Federals, flushed with victory, and rolled it back like a wave is shattered and beat back when it strikes a rock. Soon the field was strewn with the flying fragments of the attacking force, and the ground covered thick with the wounded and dead. The pursuit was continued for about a quarter of a mile when the victorious Southrons were in turn met by a fresh corps of Federals. The regiments had become scattered by the long charge, and were now in a corn field, where a new alignment was impossible. Retreat became necessary, and the order was given to "fall back." There was no rout, no frantic rushing to the rear, though the fire of musketry and cannon was fearful. The men fell back in squads -- often stopping to replenish their empty cartridge boxes from those of the dead and the wounded, and then turning and returning the deadly fire of the overwhelming numbers before whom they were slowly and doggedly retiring. When they reached the woods from which they had debauched about two hours before 4,000 strong, only 700 could be mustered to form a new line, to hold the Northern hordes in check until McLaws could come up from Harper's Ferry. Out of nine regiments but one field officer besides Colonel Law, who bore a charmed life that day, reported for duty; he was a major of a Texas regiment. The following fatalities are known to the present writer: Colonel Liddell; of the Eleventh Mississippi, had been killed the night before, in a heavy skirmish on this same ground. The Lieutenant Colonel, Butler, and the Major (name forgotten) both mortally wounded and left on the field. Colonel Stone, of the Second Mississippi, now governor of Mississippi, upper lip shot away, unable to talk, and yet only going to the rear under the positive orders of Colonel Law. Lieutenant Colonel (name forgotten) left arm shattered, yet insisting on staying, until ordered to the rear. Major Blair shot in the throat, with a buckshot against the windpipe, unable to talk, yet wanted to remain, but ordered to the rear. These 700 were formed into two regiments, one of which was deployed as skirmishers, behind a breastwork of rails made the morning before, along the Hagerstown pike; the other was held in reserve about one hundred yards in rear. After the Federals had shelled the woods furiously, they moved up in force, slowly and timidly, on the little handful of men holding them, supposing, of course, the' were encountering fresh troops, when they were met by the brisk fire of this skirmish line of iron hearted men. It was fully a half hour before they were compelled to leave their position. They then fell back on the supporting line, and here the same process was repeated; the Federals evidently afraid to make a decisive charge which must certainly have resulted in cutting the Southern army in two, and in the complete destruction of it, before it could cross the Potomac. When finally driven from their second position, and entirely out of the woods, which alone concealed the utter desperation of our situation, they were met by McLaws who soon succeeded in restoring the line to its original position.
Shortly after this repulse, Hood was accosted by General Evans, of South Carolina, who asked him, "Where is your division?" Hood replied, "Dead on the field."
After being relieved by McLaws, Hood marched the remnant of his division some distance to the rear, where it was deployed as skirmishers in the shape of a V, with orders to pass all stragglers, regardless of regiment or brigade or division down to the point of the V. In the course of two or three hours about 5,000 men had been collected at this point. They were then formed into companies, regiments and a brigade. It was, perhaps, an anomalous organization in warfare. No man knew any officer over him, nor even his file leader, or the man to the right or left of him. And thus was taken away every influence which gives men confidence and conduces to their greatest efficiency as soldiers. It was about four o'clock in the evening when this strangely constructed brigade was ordered to "fall in" to march to the front. A little after they had begun marching in column of fours by the right Hank, the men at the head of the column saw General Lee standing with bared head and calm but anxious expression under the shade of an apple tree close beside their line of march. As they passed he said, loud enough to be heard by several companies at a time, "Men, I want you to go back on the line, and show that the stragglers of the Army of Northern Virginia, are better than the best troops of the enemy." The effect as may be imagined was magnetic. "The Stragglers' brigade," as it was afterwards called, was thrilled with enthusiasm, and had they been called into action that day would have fully realized the expectations of their noble chief, But the battle had changed from our left and centre to the right, and nothing was required of this brigade but to remain as, a reserve to General Pryor, who occupied the line in their immediate front.
When night began to fall, these men, all strangers to each other, begun to long for their comrades, and so to become restive and uneasy among the strange faces which surrounded them; so that by nine o'clock there was scarcely one of them to be found in the line, excepting those who belonged to the division.
This speech of General Lee's, which I have never seen recorded, and which this reminiscence is written to preserve, is, I think, fully equal to that of Napoleon at the Pyramids of Egypt, "Soldiers! from those pyramids forty centuries contemplate your actions." The two speeches are eminently characteristic of the two men. The watchword and guiding principle of the Frenchman being "Glory", that of Lee, "Duty."
J.S. Johnston, Mobile, Alabama
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. VIII. Richmond, Oct., Nov. and Dec., 1880. Nos. 10, 11 & 12.
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