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Fifteenth Virginia Infantry.

(by Colonel E. M. Morrison.)

I am requested to write an account of the part borne by the Fifteenth Regiment of Virginia Infantry, Semmes's Brigade, McLaws's Division, in the battle of Sharpsburg, September 17, 1862.

Contrary to the custom of the best writers and the approved canons of polite literature, or any reliable narrative of a historical nature, I wish to submit in advance, or as prefatory to my sketch, a general reflection, also a sort of recapitulation, to wit:

Heine says: ‘We do not take possession of our ideas, but are possessed by them. They master us and force us into the arena, where like gladiators, we must fight for them.’ And it will not matter to the thoughtless spectator if the emperor turns his royal thumb down or up, we may either live or perish, grandly or ignobly, amid the most ennobling ideas that dominate our race.

From 1861-65, four memorial years, we fought it out on a line of ideas that took possession of our minds and hearts. In God's providence it may so happen that failure in a great and good cause may be crowned with untold blessings. If this be the philosophy of the situation, we must line up like men and join in the great rush and mighty tide of stupendous events.

It is entirely probable and surely quite possible for a man to forget many things of the past in which he took an active part; the elapse of forty years since the event took place; the absence of environments; the severing of associations, living at a distance from the scenes, are some of the things that lead up to, and contribute materially to, our forgetfulness, for of such is our human nature. Yet, after all, there will linger with us, like the sweet and pervasive odor of old-time lavender, intangible, invisible, the subtle essence of an existing, undying past, that will never entirely vanish. Along this line my thoughts were reminiscently roving Wednesday, Thursday [100] and Friday, October last, 25th, 26th and 27th, in old Petersburg, while among the old soldiers with whom I met and talked galore. It was the largest gathering of the ‘old boys’ since the war.

This reunion of old comrades, the indulgence of kindly thoughts, the hearty clasping of old hands, it all helps

To lift us unawares
Out of our meaner cares.

It is astonishing, when one takes a retrospect of events and incidents happening two-score years ago, how fragmentary they come to one's recollection, and how trifling events will ‘bob’ up when those of greater importance seem to be gone forever.

The kaleidescope of war memories.

For instance, I remember after the seven days fight around Richmond, from out of the great quantity of stores we captured and marched over, I had in my haversack a handful of coffee and four inches of spermaceti candle, and at Harper's Ferry just outside of which we were on the morning after the surrender, and after 11,000 or more prisoners marched by us we went into town, out of which I brought only four horses, which I never had an opportunity to use; and does a certain captain now living remember the very small piece of tobacco he swapped for a very large blanket with one of the prisoners and which had vermin enough on it to carry it into the Potomac, without throwing it in, which he did. I say it is astonishing how memory brings up these trivial things, in fact, war besides being ‘hell’ is a kaleidescope of events humorous and pathetic.

When the Army of Northern Virginia left the vicinity of Richmond to enter upon the first Maryland campaign, it was in excellent condition and the march through Virginia at that beautiful time of the year was a treat to the men who had for months been cooped up in trenches.

I have heard it said that there was much straggling in the army on that march and that General Lee's army numbered more within two days after the battle of Sharpsburg than it did the morning of the battle.

I do not recall that it was so with the Fifteenth Virginia Infantry, which I commanded as senior captain, after the loss of two field officers at Malvern Hill, one of them was the gallant Major John Stewart Walker, who was killed, and our gallant Colonel Thomas P. August, wounded. [101]

I know it was a continuous march, day after day, but I do not remember that any of them were forced until two or three days before Sharpsburg. We reached the battlefield of second Manassas two days after the fight and marched by heaps of dead, especially red breeched Zouaves.

Tommy Lipscomb and his kettle drum.

I do not know whether we were expected to be on hand the day of the battle or not. I do not recall any incident until we crossed the Potomac, except this rather funny one.

There was a certain man detailed to blow the fife, and had been one of our excellent drum corps, which the seven days around Richmond had reduced to two—Tommy Lipscomb, with his kettle drum, and our friend with the fife. Seeing no need of screeching at reveille, I directed his captain to give him a gun and send him back for duty with his company. He evidently did not like the ehange, for after carrying it for two days his gun was brought to me one morning with this written on a dirty piece of paper: ‘Major, take your d—n old rifle and go to h—l; I am going to Mosby.’ Which I suppose he did, for he was never any more with us, and it became a standing joke with the field officers of other regiments to ask me, most emphatically: “Where is——?” Answer: ‘Gone to h—l or Mosby.’

The whirl of events.

After crossing the Potomac, it was a continual ‘whirl’ of events. At Crampton's Gap supporting the Manly artillery, of North Carolina, and they did some good shooting at the enemy coming through Middletown. We could not get at them. Lower down the mountain we saw the lofty and lovely fight that Cobb's men put up. About night we were outflanked and nearly surrounded. A night's march somewhere, to Harper's Ferry, I believe; then a march to Monocacy Bridge; arrived a few hours after the fight; through Frederick City; a hard day's march; at 9 P. M. we bivouac in a wheat field. I remember the heavy dew and how wet we were. At daybreak on the march again. About 1 A. M. we unsling knapsacks, pile them in a field, and leave guard with them; every man fills up his canteen; forward, march, double-quick. The road wound around the base of a hill. We clear the base of the hill.


Behold Sharpsburg.

Behold Sharpsburg, now the historical, as the Federals put it, the ‘Antietam’ battlefield. Up to that moment I do not believe we knew the battle was on in our immediate front. The field that we fought over was enclosed by a chestnut rail fence, and near its corner a gate, and near the gate a small but beautiful tree. The head of the regiment filed through the gate on the run, rapidly swung into position as best we could, forming on the regiment to our right and firing as we came into line. As we got close to them, one hundred to two hundred yards, I should say, we could see individual men, officers, I suppose, running backward and forward through the smoke.

In line. General Paul Semmes on a pile of rocks cheering the men.

As we got into line and commenced firing with much precision, I heard the greatest cheering a little to my right, and recognized General Semmes (gallant old Paul Semmes, brother of Raphael, both born fighters) standing on a pile of rocks, swinging his hat and cheering ‘to beat the band.’ I rushed up to him. ‘General, are they retreating?’ says I. ‘No,’ says he. I rushed back, naming myself a fool, but that brave old man and two officers or orderlies with him kept making so much fuss, I was compelled to see what was the matter. Just here I must digress only briefly to say a word for General Paul Semmes, our gallant old brigadier. General M. D. Corse became our brigadier when General George E. Pickett's division was formed. Paul Semmes was the brother of Raphael Semmes, the Confederacy's great sea fighter. All survivors of the ‘Old Fifteenth’ well remember General Paul Semmes, our first brigadier. He fell at Gettysburg, and, like Marmion—

With dying hand above his head,
He shook the fragments of his blade,

and died like the bravest of the brave for his beloved Southland.

Beautiful loading and firing and ‘the Rebel yell.’

My men were behaving beautifully, loading and firing as deliberately as if on a drill, but the ‘old rebel yell’ they were putting up in their intense excitement.

Men never battled in a nobler cause in all the ‘tide of time.’ [103] As we continue to grow older in years and reminiscences, the memory of the past becomes dearer and more sacred.

I should say the regiment carried in about 114 men, and, although they were not in action very long, perhaps some three or four hours, they suffered a loss of 58 per cent. Their names ought to be on record somewhere. ‘Marse Robert’ had no braver or more devoted band of gallant men than they who composed the Fifteenth Virginia Infantry. Its old commander often dwells in fondest memory on the dear ‘old boys,’ and their many deeds of true heroism in those memorable days of trial and suffering. Many times in the past two-score years his heart has melted and his eyes dimmed with kindly tears in sad and tender recollection, and now he most earnestly and lovingly wishes he had the capacity to portray for their posterity their patriotic devotion to duty, and the suffering and sacrifices they endured to uphold a cause they knew to be right. Ah! surely it was right, time has only the more firmly grounded us in our convictions; nothing has occurred in the past two-score years in anyway calculated to change our views and opinions about our ‘Lost Cause’ with every idea and principle it involved and embraced, and for which we contended and suffered; it ever remains with us a sweet and sacred memory. It is true to-day we are all American citizens, living under one flag, and giving allegiance to one government; but we are still very human, and while we may forgive many wrongs and cruel things, we can never forget the old, old days, for then it was we willingly, bravely, risked our all in a common cause in the hopeful lusty days of our youth. It will never enter our minds and hearts in our mature years that our cause was anything but right and just; and so we will continue to believe as our shadows lengthen in the sunset of life ere we join our dear old comrades who have gone hence.

So shall a light that cannot fade
     Beam on us from on high,
And angel voices say to us
     These things can never die.

Before closing my random and reminiscent sketch, I wish to say

A word about our artillery and ‘the boy battery’ of Parker.

Therefore, I crave pardon for another digression not entirely irrelevent. [104] It may be proper to credit the “old Fifteenth” with several contributions made to the gallant Parker Battery, which distinguished itself in the great Sharpsburg fight. The intrepid first commander of the heroic battery, Major W. W. Parker, before Captain J. Thompson Brown became the captain, had been an officer in the Fifteenth Virginia; also, Privates Thomas L. Alfriend, Robert Bidgood, and perhaps others I cannot recall just now. The ‘Boy Battery’ first won fame under the knightly and valiant Parker. It sustained its reputation under Captain Brown, and became one of the famous batteries of the Confederate army. The many fields it fought on were enriched with the brave young blood of its heroes. ‘The Boy Battery’ at Sharpsburg and the Lexington cadets at New Market should stand as prominent in the annals of our Civil War as did the twin heroes, Castor and Pollux, in the enchanting realm of Roman mythology. Old Virginia is proud of her artillery record, and even now in these piping times of peace and patriotic devotion to our common country she is ever mindful, and lovingly recalls the fact of furnishing fifty-three (53) famous batteries, not including heavy artillery, in that grand old army that wore the gray. They were ever fearless batteries, that hurled shot and shell with unerring and deadly precision into the ranks of the enemy on many victorious fields.

The writer is fully aware he has written in a rambling manner, and for such an offense he pleads in extenuation the natural time-honored privilege that is kindly granted to age and the reminiscent period.

When two-score years are added to age, forbearance and indulgence are quite in order, then it becomes every chivalrous nature to reckon kindly with old friends and comrades,

Who stood together, time and oft,
When valor won in battles fought.

E. E. Morrison, Lieut. Col. 15th Virginia Infantry.

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