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Griffith-Barksdaie-Humphrey Mississippi Brigade and its campaigns. [from the New Orleans, la, Picayune, mar. 30, Apr. 6, 20, 1902.]

By Captain James Dinkins.
The seven days battle around Richmond, in 1862, furnishes a text for study and discussion by critics and students of military science, which probably takes rank ahead of any of the operations of the war.

We often hear expressions that this or that campaign was ‘Napoleonic,’ but in my humble judgment there was more genius in the conception of the plan of the seven days battle, than in any movement Napoleon ever made.

A writer in the Boston Transcript several years ago, in commenting upon the different generals of the war, stated ‘McClellan was the greatest general developed on either side, and while he was not always successful, he never suffered defeat.’ This statement will not be sustained by a single man who served in ‘the army of the Potomac’ during the seven days battle. General McClellan was not only defeated at Richmond, but was routed in six of the engagements; nor is this fact a disparagement of him as a commander. We believe he displayed much ability, and was at that time the only general in the North who could have preserved the organization of the Federal army. The attack by General Lee's forces was irresistible; no troops with the arms in use at that time could have withstood his charges.

The records show that General McClellan's army numbered 156, 838 men and 264 cannon. He states that 29,511 of this number were sick during the battle, leaving him 127,527 effectives. General Lee's army numbered 88,967 effectives, and 166 cannon, which gave McClellan a superiority in numbers of 38,360 men and ninety-eight cannon. When we consider that General McClellan had nearly one-third more men than General Lee, and that the latter attacked and defeated him in strongly posted positions, it must be confessed to have been a wonderful achievement. Subsequent events showed that if General Lee's orders had been promptly executed it would [251] not be unreasonable to expect that a large part of McClellan's army would have been captured or destroyed.

For some days after the great battles, the Army of Northern Virginia camped along the bank of James river. Barksdale's Brigade bivouacked at Camp Holly, a locality once occupied as a camp by General Washington with his army. The soil along the James was quite productive and the extensive fields of corn, which was in roasting ear, afforded the greatest enjoyment to the troops. The government bought the crops and the soldiers were not long in stripping the stalks. Eight and ten ears was an average meal for a man. In Richmond every available place was used to shelter the great number of our wounded, and at nearly every country house wounded men were cared for by the devoted Virginia women.

The Federal Army returned from whence it came, and very soon General Lee transferred his forces beyond the Rapidan. After his defeat, McClellan was superseded in command by Major-General John Pope, who boldly announced that ‘he would take Richmond without delay.’ In his orders, which were read to the army, and which were extensively published throughout the North, he said: ‘The commanding general enjoins his army to discard such phrases as “base of supplies,” and “lines of retreat,” as unworthy of soldiers destined to follow one who has never seen anything but the backs of his enemies.’

Pope charmed the Northern people, as well as the Washington administration, by his bombastic talk. He even went so far as to assert: ‘Had I such an army as McClellan's before the Richmond battles, I would march straight to New Orleans.’

McClellan's army was withdrawn from the peninsula to make a junction with the Army of Virginia, in front of Washington.

The Army of Virginia numbered 50,090 effectives on August 7, while the Army of the Potomac numbered in round figures 100,000 men. Therefore, when General Pope began ‘The march on-to-Richmond,’ his fighting force numbered 150,000, which was 22,673 greater than McClellan's effectives before Richmond.

General Lee's army was reduced 15,000 on account of the killed and wounded in the seven days battles, leaving 73,967 for duty. When he departed from Richmond his strength was still further reduced 12,000 by the loss of McLaws' Division, and two brigades, under General Walker, left behind for the protection of the city. General Lee, therefore, carried with him 61,967 men to meet Pope and his army of 150,000. [252]

Stonewall Jackson led the advance across the Rapidan, and met a corps of Pope's army, under General Banks, at Cedar mountain, a point about nine miles south of Culpeper Courthouse, where he defeated Banks, driving him back to Culpeper, with a loss of 2,000 men, while the Confederate loss was about 1,300. Jackson remained in front of Culpeper a few days, then fell back to Gordonsville, unwilling to hazard an attack from Pope's superior force, which was rapidly advancing. General Lee in the meantime was hurrying forward with Longstreet and the two Hills, and joined Jackson at Raccoon ford, on the Rapidan river, August 20.

The defeat of Banks raised in the minds of the Washington government serious apprehensions for the safety of the city, and every available man was sent to re-enforce Pope. When General Lee crossed the Rapidan, Pope withdrew his army back to the north side of the Rappahannock, which was doubtless a judicious move, but it was inconsistent with his recent utterances, and not carrying out his own principles, which he explained to the Federal War Department in these words: ‘By lying off on their flanks, if they should have only 50,000 men, I could whip them. If they should have 80,000 men, I would attack their flanks and force them to follow me into the mountains, which would be just what you want.’ While the conditions were better for Pope than he expressed, yet, when the time came to put his tactics into effect, he made no effort to carry out his avowed purpose.

It seems, also, that General Lee was not much disturbed by apprehensions of Pope ‘lying off on his flank,’ but marched straight after him. Reaching the Rappahannock, he made pretense of crossing, while he sent Jackson thirty-five miles further to his left, to cross the river at Henson's mill.

Jackson did this, and bivouacked for the night at a little place called Salem. Continuing his march early the following morning, he reached Bristoe station, on the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, destroyed the depot and tore up the track. At the same time he sent Stuart to Manassas junction, where he captured a number of prisoners and two batteries, besides an immense supply of quartermaster and commissary stores. He also captured Catlett's station, with several hundred prisoners and Pope's baggage and official documents. His official papers bore the head lines, ‘Headquarters in the Saddle.’

While Jackson marched to Pope's rear, General Lee diverted his attention by a pretended effort to cross with Longstreet's Corps. [253]

When Pope learned that Jackson was between him and Washington he advised General Halleck to withdraw every man from the peninsula and move them to the capital.

Finding, therefore, that no danger threatened Richmond, General Lee ordered McLaws' Division and two brigades under General Walker, which had been left behind, to join him. McLaws' Division was composed of four brigades, Kershaw's South Carolina, Semmes' Georgia, Cobb's Georgia and Barksdale's Mississippi.

We will now leave for a moment the main army, and see what McLaws had been doing. On August 10, the enemy moved from Harrison's Landing and threatened to attack Richmond. Barksdale was ordered to meet him, while the other brigades awaited developments. We, however, had no engagement, because the enemy withdrew, and the Mississippians returned to camp, some nineteen miles from Richmond.

In the march to intercept the enemy, Barksdale passed over the battle field of White Oak Swamp, where we saw a most harrowing sight. A fence extending from the road towards the river was built through thick woods, and as the brigade marched along, we saw several hundred Federal dead lying in a row. Some were killed while in the act of climbing, while others lay on both sides of the fence. Buzzards in great numbers had been feeding on them, and in many instances had stripped the flesh from their bones. Their clothing had been torn by these carrion fowl, and altogether the scene was one of indescribable horror. The poor fellows had been killed during the night of June 30, and were not found by the burying parties sent out after the battle.

A long ditch was dug and all were buried where they lay.

Some days after the return to camp, McLaws received orders to join the main army, and on August 27 we left Camp Holly about sunrise and at 2 o'clock we boarded the cars at Richmond and hurried to Hanover Junction. This was the terminus of the line, where we found tents stretched, the first we had seen for a year. Barksdale's Brigade arrived on the first train and quickly disembarking, the men promptly occupied the tents. As other brigades arrived and passed beyond, they eyed the Mississippians with envy, and many bright bits of repartee were exchanged. We distinctly heard the artillery duel preliminary to the great battle of Second Manassas, which occurred the following day, August 20, and the men were eager to join their comrades beyond the Rappahannock. They cheered and yelled and speculated about what was going on. Finally [254] they became quiet and all save the guards were soon lost in sleep. About midnight a fearful storm came up, the rain fell in torrents and the wind blew down the tents. The darkness was very dense, and the Mississippians, so delightfully situated an hour before, were struggling to gain their freedom from beneath the canvas. The storm continued for two hours or more, and the earth and everything on it in that neighborhood was drenched. The situation was not pleasant. The men needed rest and sleep to fit them to meet and endure the hardships ahead. But that faithful and characteristic side of the Confederate soldier, which enabled him to laugh in the face of misfortune and disaster, was never displayed to better advantage than on that dark and stormy night. Men would call out for one another, and kept up a merry exchange of pleasantries. Some would crow, others bark, until finally the entire camp began yelling, which was continued during the storm.

At dawn we began the march to Warrenton, where we crossed the river two days later, on a pontoon bridge, and found evidence of war on every hand. While continuing the march to Manassas Junction, we passed through the battlefield for five or six miles, on which the Federal dead lay along the road, in the fields and woods. Ambulance corps, litter bearers, and burying parties, from the Federal army, under flags of truce, were busy digging ditches and interring those ghastly relics. The weather was intensely hot, causing decomposition to set in and making the stench horrible. The bodies were badly swollen. The surroundings were calculated to strike the stoutestheart with awe. As Barksdale's Mississippians marched among the dead there could be heard expressions of sorrow and sympathy on every hand. They were ready to grapple with the enemy whenever called on, but as they moved among so many dead their hearts were full of pity.

After crossing the railroad the road changed direction to the left, and passing along the side of a hill, which extended into a woods, we saw a long line of fancifully dressed men lying dead on the field. We learned that during the battle Gregg's Texas Brigade lay in the sedge grass about two-thirds the way up the hill, and behind them was posted a battery which annoyed the enemy so greatly that the Pennsylvania Bucktail Zouaves were sent to capture it. The Federal regiment advanced, about 800 strong, in perfect order towards the battery, and when almost within talking distance, the Texans, with deliberate aim, fired. It looked to us as if this entire regiment had fallen dead in line. Some were pierced with two and three [255] bullets. We were told that not more than 100 escaped, and it was probably the greatest mortality which occurred during the war. The Zouaves wore red blouse pants and bright blue jackets. They also wore bucktails in their hats. Several men of the 18th Mississippi left the scene with bucktails in their hats, the writer among the number.

General Lee, in the meantime, had crossed the Potomac and marched into Maryland, and McLaws and Walker hurried to join him. Reaching Leesburg, where the Mississippians had spent the winter of ‘61-62, almost the entire population turned out to greet them. Old men and ladies, married and single, children and negroes, gathered along the sidewalks and in the streets, and with words of welcome recalled the happy associations of the time spent among them. It was a scene never to be forgetten, and from which it was difficult to stir the men. All order and formation were discarded, and officers and men mingled among the throng with mutual expressions of pleasure. The Barksdale Brigade, with the 8th Virginia, fought the battle of Leesburg the year previous and defeated the enemy, which endeared them to the hospitable Virginians.

We crossed the Potomac near the Point of Rocks and marched to Frederick City. The Federal army was drawn back within the lines of fortifications at Washington, leaving in General Lee's hands 9,000 prisoners, 1,000 dead and wounded, forty pieces of artillery and 30,000 stands of small arms as the result of Second Manassas. It was stated that fully 50,000 stragglers reached Washington ahead of the army. All the bright anticipations which Pope had caused by his effusive bombast, were cast to the earth. Exit Pope!

When General Lee put his army in motion after the seven days battle before Richmond, there was no purpose of crossing into the enemy's country on a campaign of invasion. His object was to call away from the peninsula the Army of the Potomac. His rapid march to meet Pope, who moved south from Washington, with what was called ‘The Army of Virginia,’ had the effect which he hoped for. The Federal government, bewildered by General Lee's manoeuvers, halted between conflicting opinions for some days. But when Jackson defeated Banks at Cedar mountain, on August 9th, the liveliest apprehensions were created in Washington, and General Halleck ordered McClellan to hasten with all possible speed with his army to the capital. Thus relieved from further care for the [256] safety of Richmond, General Lee found little trouble in crushing Pope.

The success of the campaign was remarkable. It was more; it was wonderful. On June 28th, McClellan, with 127,000 effective men, heavily entrenched, stood in front of Richmond, opposed by General Lee with 88,000 men. The latter attacked the Federal forces, defeating them, and inflicting a loss of 25,000, according to McClellan's own estimate. On August 7th, General Lee sent Jackson across the Rapidan, and by the 20th had transferred the remainder of his troops, except McLaws' Division and two brigades under Walker, which were left to defend Richmond. He met and defeated Pope in the final grapple of August 30th; he shattered the Federal army so completely that nothing but the coming on of night, which was so often looked for with passionate longing, saved it from destruction. The loss on both sides was very heavy. The Confederate loss was estimated at 10,000 killed and wounded. No official statement of Pope's loss was ever made, but it could not have been less than 20,000, including 9,000 prisoners.

From the vicinity of Richmond, on June 26th, the theatre of operations was transferred to the front of Washington. The success of the campaign suggested to General Lee, doubtless, the idea of crossing into Maryland.

It seems stange, indeed, that an army so large in numbers, and so perfectly equipped as the Army of the Potomac, should be reduced to the humiliation of a defensive position by an inferior force. I ask any man who served in Virginia, matters not whether he was Federal or Confederate, if General Lee's army had numbered 150,000, with the equipment McClellan had, could any force or circumstance have placed him on the defensive?

In a previous sketch we left the army encamped in the vicinity of Frederick, Md., where it remained for a few days. While there General Lee issued a proclamation inviting the Maryland people to join the Confederate army, but received no practical assistance, which was a disappointment to all. After crossing the river, the Confederates were in their jolliest mood, and, although numbers were ragged and barefooted, they sang ‘Maryland, My Maryland,’ as they marched through the country, but a majority of the people we saw were unaffected by the demonstration.

At this time General McClellan was restored to the command of the Federal army; and began the march from Washington to meet General Lee on Union soil. [257]

General Lee, learning that the garrison at Harper's Ferry had not been relieved, formed plans for its capture, and when McClellan reached Frederick, General Lee was two days march distant. Jackson, with his own corps and McLaws' and Walker's divisions, was sent to capture Harper's Ferry. Jackson crossed above and Walker below the town, while McLaws moved by way of Middletown and attacked Maryland heights. Walker took possession of Loudoun heights, while Jackson attacked the town from the rear. In the meantime, General Lee moved to Hagerstown and awaited results. He expected Harper's Ferry would be reduced, and the army concentrated again before McClellan could reach him, but, through an act of carelessness on the part of some one, a copy of General Lee's order for the movement fell into McClellan's hands at Frederick, which enabled the latter to act intelligently and quickly. General Lee was advised of the rapidity of McClellan's movement, which seemed to have as its object to cut him off from Jackson.

McClellan, by the knowledge he possessed, should have been master of the situation, and would have been had he put the energy into his movements which Lee or Jackson would have shown.

McLaws left Frederick on September 10, and reached the foot of Maryland heights on the night of the 12th. Barkdale's Brigade moved forward the following morning, engaged the enemy and forced him back gradually. The ground was very rough, and in many places precipitous. Great boulders here and there had to be flanked, and the passage of other obstructions, like gulches and irregular formations, made the progress necessarily slow, with the enemy in front. From the top of the heights the enemy maintained a continuous fire from twenty or more cannon. The shot and shell, striking the boulders, would shatter the surface, throwing fragments of rock everywhere. The small particles would fall about us like hail. Many witty and amusing interchanges passed between the Mississippians as the rock rained down above them.

It was necessary to drive the enemy from Maryland heights, and Barksdale's Brigade pushed forward over the rocks, under fire every inch of the way for two days and nights, without food or water. The mountain was very steep and rocky, but the advance was made with much spirit, the light footed Mississippi boys leaping and springing up the slopes and ledges with the nimbleness of squirrels. The enemy's artillery, although handled with animation, did little hurt or damage, but their riflemen, fighting from behind rocks and trees, opposed a strenuous resistance. The Mississippians, however, [258] although barefooted and hungry, forced them back step by step until the crest was reached.

The guns belonging to the Richmond Howitzers, and attached to the brigade, were pushed up when possible, but when the formations would not permit, the wheels were removed and each piece lifted or pulled by long ropes to the desired position, when the guns would be again mounted. It was an arduous task, but there was no faint-heartedness among the men.

The regimental and company officers displayed the greatest courage and energy in conducting the movement up the rough mountains, but whether storming Maryland heights or charging the enemy's strong lines on numerous bloody fields, the soldiers of Barkdale's Brigade were an inspiration. Active and heroic as the officers were, they seldom had an opportunity to lead. The men as a rule were planters, or sons of wealthy planters, whose teaching and traditions led them to noble and heroic deeds and desperate ones if need be.

Finally, when we reached the summit, the enemy formed along the high bluff for a final struggle. The 19th and 21st Regiments, in the center, as if by a common impulse, raised a yell and dashed forward. The 17th on the right, the 13th on the left, opened fire and joined in the charge. The enemy broke in disorder and ran down the narrow defiles leading to the river. The Confederates crowded around the precipice and fired plunging shots into the troops in town. The enemy tumbled their cannon over the bluff and into the river, leaving nothing behind but camp fires and scraps of bread, meat and a few onions, which the Mississippians scrambled over, and hurried here and there in search of more.

Maryland heights is the key to Harper's Ferry, and it may not be amiss to describe, even in a casual way, the picturesque little town.

A mountain known as ‘Elk Ridge’ runs north and south through Virginia and Maryland, but is cut in twain by the Potomac river. Maryland heights form the steep bank on the north and Loudoun heights on the south side of the river. Between Harper's Ferry and Loudoun heights the Shenandoah empties into the Potomac, and behind them lie Bolivar heights, which, though less pretentious than the other two, slope off gradually and smoothly, forming a beautiful valley. Harper's Ferry rests in the beautiful valley, or, more properly, the basin formed by the three heights and looking down on the town from either, gives the appearance of a Lilliputian [259] settlement. The distance between the crest of the heights is about two miles, and from either a plunging fire can be sent into the town. Therefore, when the Mississippians opened on the place from Maryland heights, Walker from Loudoun and Jackson in the rear, the enemy quickly asked for terms.

In the meantime McClellan was pushing his heavy columns to the relief of the garrison. McLaws hurried Cobb's and Barksdale's Brigades back to ‘Crampton's pass,’ some six miles distant, to hold him in check. Arriving in front of the pass, we formed line across the valley and awaited events. The Federal infantry was in plain view on the side of the mountains, their guns stacked in line of battle, and Barksdale's men were there to meet them. Signal guns were fired by the enemy to give information to the garrison that they were approaching, but Jackson was not the man to parley in such an exigency. General White surrendered the entire force of 11,000 men, seventy-three pieces of artillery, 20,000 stands of small arms and a large quantity of military stores early in the day of September 15. The news was communicated by signal flag, and General Barksdale galloped along the front of the brigade and announced to each regiment: ‘Harper's Ferry has surrendered.’ It is unnecessary to state that the Mississippians yelled. That was a part of their daily exercise which never failed to give the enemy the shivers.

Barksdale returned to Harper's Ferry, and the enemy's cavalry made a show of dogging the rear, but a volley from the 18th Regiment, which acted as rear guard, sent them scurrying back.

We reached the river and spent the night along its bank on the Maryland side. The following morning we crossed on a pontoon bridge. The other brigades crossed the previous day. The garrison was paroled and allowed to return to their homes. We stood in the streets of the town all day, and about 10 o'clock received small rations of beef, no salt or bread, and if there is one thing more unpalatable than all others, it is fresh beef without salt. After noon we received three hardtacks to the man, which was a poor return for the desperate work of the last three days.

We left Harper's Ferry about 4 P. M., marching in the direction of Winchester. Ignorant of the conditions which confronted the army at Sharpsburg (conditions due to the misfortune of General Lee's campaign order having fallen into the enemy's hands), and believing that we had earned a rest, and were, therefore, headed for the beautiful Valley of Virginia, the men were in fine spirits and [260] joked each other about numerous incidents of the campaign. They moved along at a lively gait, and when night came on, sang plantation songs, such as ‘Rock the Cradle, Julie,’ ‘Sallie, Get Your Hoecake Done,’ ‘We're Gwying Down the Newbury Road’ and others. The brigade was strung out for a mile or more along the road, and the woods echoed with their melodies. The troops had passed through a trying campaign, comprising many hotly contested battles, and marched several hundred miles with very scant rations. The scenes they passed through the last two months, left memories which can never be forgotten; not a man in the division but had lost a dear friend, or maybe a relative, whose bodies lay in long trenches and without shrouds. Ordinarily, this would be a solemn and mournful retrospection, but those were not ordinary times, nor ordinary men. The times were eventful, and the men were heroes who realized that there was no sentiment in war, and that they must meet the trials and bear the sufferings incident to hostilities between two great armies with cheerful spirits. As memory takes us back to those scenes, we are amazed at their fortitude and endurance.

On they marched, singing at the top of their voices, thinking of the ‘ashcakes’ and ‘apple butter’ we had heard about around Winchester, Strasburg and other places in the Valley, when suddenly we arrived at a fork in the road and the column filed to the right. As each regiment changed direction the noise of singing and jesting would cease. The men realized the war was not over, and that we would again cross the Potomac river. Within half an hour not a sound could be heard, except the tramp of the column and the din of the moving artillery. All the humor and bright anticipations of an hour ago were gone. The men were silent. Very soon the pace was quickened, and orders were given, over and over, ‘Close up;’ ‘close up.’ The step grew faster and faster, and mounted officers rode along the column with words of encouragement, calling on the ‘boys’ to ‘close up.’ The gait continued to increase, until finally all were going in a trot, and hundreds could not keep it up, but fell down exhausted by the roadside, where they remained until morning.

About daylight we reached Shepherdstown and crossed the river to the Maryland side, but only a small proportion of those who began the march from Harper's Ferry were with us. The march was one of the most trying and fatiguing undertaken during the war. The writer was a member of Company C, 18th Mississippi, and remembers that of the fifty-eight men and officers who began [261] the march, only sixteen men and one lieutenant went into the battle at Sharpsburg. Other companies, of course, suffered similar diminution.

The river at Shepherdstown is over half a mile wide and very shoal. A gallant little Irishman belonging to Company C, 18th regiment, Tom Brennan by name, never played out, therefore was one of the seventeen men who crossed the river. Tom was small in stature, but brave as Forrest. In wading across he held his gun, shoes and cartridge box on his head, to prevent them from getting wet, and when within about twenty yards of the shore he halloed out: ‘Boys, I am over, dry shod;’ but as he made the announcement he stepped into a deep hole and went under, head and ears, gun and all. When he arose, as if finishing the remark, he said: ‘When I get on some dry Yankee shoes.’

We soon arrived at Sharpsburg. The battle was raging. We halted in the roadway of the little town for a moment's rest, but it was a very short time. General Kershaw, who was in command of the division, came galloping back to hurry us forward. He had preceded our arrival to ascertain what he was expected to do. We double-quicked about a mile and halted in the edge of a beautiful wood. Owing to so many men having fallen out, Barksdale's Brigade was not over 800 strong, which was about the avergage for the other brigades also.

General Barksdale rode in front of the line and addressed the men in stirring words. He said: ‘The enemy is driving back our center. We must check them. Stonewall Jackson and General Lee expect you to do so. I have promised that you will, and I want every man to do three men's duty. If there is a man before me who cannot, let him step out. I will excuse him.’ Not a man moved. It was a trying ordeal, but the endurance that stood the men so well on the march from Harper's Ferry upheld them now. Shells were flying about us, chipping limbs and often striking the ground and ricocheting, throwing up heaps of earth.

General Barksdale then said: ‘Leave everything, except guns and cartridge boxes, under that tree.’ There were not over 100 blankets in the brigade.

About that moment, General D. H. Hill galloped to a point about fifty yards in advance of us and halted. Quickly adjusting his field glasses, he let go his bridle reins and watched the Federal line. Soon he was joined by his adjutant-general, Major Ratchford. They had not occupied the position exceeding a minute when a [262] shell or shot struck the general's horse in the breast and passed entirely through the animal. The horse fell without a quiver. Disengaging his feet from the stirrups, the general stepped a few paces away without removing the glasses from his eyes and without the slightest emotion. That was characteristic of D. H. Hill. Nothing could disturb his poise.

“Left face; forward march,” rang out in clear tones along our line. We moved across a plowed field for a mile or more, at double-quick. The South Carolina Brigade was in front, followed by Cobb's Georgia, Barksdale's Mississippi, and Paul J. Semmes' Georgia Brigades in the rear. We saw the South Carolinians front into line by the Dunker church and lie down. Cobb formed on their left, Barksdale on his left, and Semmes to the left of Barksdale. As the division advanced to position we passed General Lee. He was riding a little black horse, and halted near a battery which was actively engaged. The Mississippians yelled, and General Lee, reining his horse about, watched us go by. The shells were as thick as blackberries, but he seem to give them no heed.

As we passed along, a spotted cow passed through the ranks. She ran with all her might, her tail high in the air. A shell struck the earth in front of her and, exploding, threw up a volcano of dirt, making a hole into which she plunged, but scrambled out and continued her race. Kit Gilmer, of Company C, 18th Mississippi, hallooed out: ‘Boys, she is a Confederate. She's going south.’

The Mississippians lay behind a rail fence for about five minutes. We could distinctly see the enemy advancing and our line giving away. The fence was thrown down, two panels together and during the short time we lay there it was almost shot to splinters. We heard cheering on our right, which came from the South Carolina Brigade and Cobb's Georgians. They were charging the enemy's victorious limes. General Kershaw galloped along where Barksdale's men lay and said: ‘Press forward, Mississippians.’ General Barksdale had dismounted, but, moving quickly forward, led the charge. In the meantime the overpowered troops in our front, who had been desperately engaged for two hours and were out of ammunition, passed to the rear.

The Mississippians rushed at the enemy with yells and bayonets and almost charged into their ranks before they gave away. We were now in large timber, and at the crest of the ridge the enemy had thrown together some logs, behind which they halted for a death struggle. The woods were raked by grape and cannister, as [263] well as rifle balls, but there was no hesitation. Barksdale's men went over the logs and shot the enemy as they ran down the slope. At the same time the Georgians and South Carolinians had hurled back the enemy in their front; McClellan's line fell back, and the day was saved. McLaws' Division had met General Lee's expectations. But for their timely arrival the situation would have been different.

The battle of Sharpsburg was fought Sept. 17, 1862, although there was heavy skirmishing during the 16th. The Federal army numbered little more than 100,000 men, while General Lee was unable to bring to bear quite 40,000. General Lee stated in his report: ‘The arduous service in which the troops had been engaged, their great privations of rest and food, and long marches without shoes over mountain roads, had greatly reduced our ranks before the action began. These causes compelled thousands of brave men to absent themselves, and many more had done so from unworthy motives.’

D. H. Hill said: ‘Had all our stragglers been up, McClellan's army would have been completely crushed or annihilated.’

As it was, McClellan's army was so completely shattered he did not resume the action on the 18th. Sharpsburg was one of the severest battles of the war. The Confederate loss in killed and wounded numbered 10,000, while the Federal loss exceeded 15,000. General Lee recrossed the Potomac during the night of the 18th and the following day McClellan sent Porter's Corps of 15,000 men across the river, but they were driven back with great loss by A. P. Hill.

The Army of Northern Virginia camped in the beautiful valley of the Shenandoah, in the vicinity of Winchester, for two weeks, during which time McClellan was removed and Major-General A. G. Burnside assigned to the command of the Army of the Potomac. This was the end of McClellan's career.

The precentage of loss in Barksdale's Brigade at Sharpsburg was about seventy in killed and wounded, and some companies suffered eyen greater loss. For example, Company C, 18th Regiment, entered the combat with seventeen men, including a lieutenant, and of this number five escaped—Sam Finley, William McKee, Pleasant Smith, James Burns and the writer. Every field officer in the brigade was wounded or killed. Major James Campbell commanded the 18th Regiment, and fell just before reaching the crest of the ridge, but recovered from his wounds and was killed at Gettysburg. [264]

Our wounded were placed in a barn, about a mile from the battlefield. Straw was strewn on the floor, where they lay awaiting such attention as the surgeons could give. Among the wounded from Company C was Kit Gilmer, from Madison county, whose leg was broken by a minie ball. Kit was attended by his servant, Ike. When we passed the barn on the march to recross the river, several men ran in to say ‘good-by.’ There were no possible means of taking the wounded along. Kit Gilmer resolved to accompany the command, even with a broken leg, and said to Ike, ‘I expect you to take me across the river.’ That evening, as soon as the darkness permitted, Ike quietly led a horse from the farmer's stable, and taking his young master in his arms, placed him on his back. Ike mounted behind, and to our great astonishment and delight when we reached Winchester, we found them awaiting us. A strange sequel is that Ike went back with the horse and remained with the Federal army until the battle of Fredericksburg, when he returned to serve the remainder of the war with ‘Mars Kit,’ and is now living in Madison county, Miss.

Gallant Kit, after numerous subsequent wounds, survived the war and died about fifteen years ago at his old home.

Soon after camping near Winchester the weather turned very cool. The men had few blankets, and to add to the hardships and horrors of the situation, small pox broke out. Great numbers of the men had either small pox or varioloid, but they never thought much of the danger, and few, if any, who remained in camps died from the effects.

After the Maryland campaign the Army of Northern Virginia camped in the valley, near Winchester.

McClellan again took possession of Harper's Ferry, and, crossing his main army on pontoon bridges at a point some five or six miles below, began to move south about the 1st of November, along the east side of the Blue Ridge mountains.

He made several threatening movements on the different passes, evidently with the expectation of compelling General Lee to remain in the valley, and doubtless thought by doing so he would be able to cross the Rappahannock before General Lee was aware of his purpose.

McClellan marched directly to Warrenton with the bulk of his army, but after arriving there discovered that a strong Confederate force awaited him at Culpeper. General Lee managed this movement with so much success that McClellan was evidently bewildered. [265] He knew the force was at Culpeper, and he also learned that a large body yet remained on the west side of the Blue Ridge.

McClellan's army at that time is set down at 131,000 effective men, and, believing he was strong enough to interpose between the several divisions of the Army of Northern Virginia—one at Culpeper, the other at Winchester and Strasburg—he began a hurried march to do so, but very soon after turning his column northwestward, he was removed from command of the army and Major-General A. E. Burnside appointed in his stead.

It is very unusual for a new commander to carry out the plans of his predecessor. Indeed, we do not know of such a precedent.

Burnside, therefore, returned to Warrenton with the whole army, where he remained about ten days, during which time he was busily engaged in maturing plans for his first campaign and endeavoring to get his reins well in hand.

Thus matters rested until about the 13th of November, 1862.

The Army of Northern Virginia (except Longstreet's corps, at Culpeper), camped on the west side of the Blue Ridge, along the beautiful Valley, while on the east, or opposite side, camped the Army of the Potomac.

Barksdale's Mississippi Brigade camped near the historic little city of Winchester, where numbers of the men had varioloid or smallpox. The negro servants with the brigade, of whom there were a number, suffered severely, and in numerous cases never recovered from the effects. We had no tents, of course, and very few blankets, but wood was plentiful and big log fires supplied the deficiency.

About the 1st of November it began to sleet and snow, during which time it was not unusual to see men broken out with smallpox walking about, visiting friends or other messes.

The rations furnished were entirely inadequate to satisfy our appeties. Therefore, the men roamed about the country in search of food. The people were hospitable and liberal and seemed glad to share what they had with us. Among the good things we found was what the Virginians call ‘apple butter,’ made by cooking the apples into a marmalade, then boiling it in cider, a delicious dish even now. The appetite of a soldier who had passed through an arduous campaign of four weeks, over mountains and rivers, with scant rations, and in many cases without shoes, engaged almost daily in combat, has no parallel in peace. [266]

It would, therefore, be impossible to convey the pleasure we found at Winchester.

During the period the army was in Maryland and Pennsylvania there were no depredations of any kind. General Lee issued orders that no private property should be disturbed, and not an apple must be plucked. Frequently, on the march, we passed orchards loaded with apples, but, so far as my belief and observation goes, nothing was molested; and yet the men never had a good square meal at any time during the two weeks the army was in the enemy's country. The condition of the soldiers, therefore, can be well understood.

About the 7th of November we moved to the vicinity of Strasburg and camped along the side of the mountain in a beautiful wood. Barksdale's Brigade halted and stacked guns. The men were soon industriously employed collecting wood, and every mess had a pile. Unexpectedly, and in less than half an hour after we halted, orders were given to ‘fall in.’ We moved about a mile further on, leaving our wood to fall into the hands of some other brigade. The boys were in an ugly humor over their bad luck, but finally halting in one of the prettiest spots in the Shenandoah Valley, we found on every side cords of dry wood. The Mississippians were happy, and ran here and there claiming cords and exchanging congratulations for the move.

Suddenly, and before we had settled in camp, we heard cheering ahead. It grew louder and nearer. It sounded as if the whole army was charging. Men wondered what it meant. Officers walked to and fro with anxious faces, and all awaited with uncertainty, and some anxiety, to learn the cause. The yelling became more and more distinct, but we heard no firing. What could it mean?

Finally we saw, about half a mile distant, beyond the valley of a little stream, on a plateau or table land, hundreds of men running and scurrying back and forth, their hats raised above their heads, waving and gesticulating, apparently in the wildest state of excitement. Barksdale's men were anxious to join in the melee, whatever it was, but the officers, for prudential reasons, held them to their places.

The 13th Mississippi was ahead, or further south, followed successively by the 17th, 21st, and 18th regiments. Very soon we saw the boys of the 13th running back and forth, throwing rocks and sticks and yelling madly, but we could not yet divine the cause. [267] Quickly the 17th and 21st boys went crazy, running helter-skelter, falling over rocks and tumbling over each other. Soon the vision flashed on the 18th regiment. It was a red fox, running for his life; but headed off at every turn, he jumped from place to place, dodging his pursuers.

A. P. Hill's Division, four miles away, while going into camp, aroused the fox and the chase began. He passed through the ranks of 30,000 soldiers successfully, but when he reached the 18th Mississippi his tail was dragging. He was suffering, doubtless, from the blows of numerous missiles, his tongue was hanging out and he was the picture of defeat and despair. He was killed by a member of Company G, called the ‘Haymar Rifles,’ from Yazoo county. Colonel Haymar, for whom the company was named, was at the time visiting the regiment. He was presented with the skin, which he took back to Mississippi and had it made into a cap, and afterwards wore it on a second visit to the company the following spring. In all likelihood, it was the most exciting fox chase in the annals of such sports.

About the 13th of November we received orders to march, and hurried with all speed towards Rapidan station. Burnside had moved from Warrenton, destined for Richmond. Then began a race between the two great armies which ended at Fredericksburg. McLaws' Division, composed of Kershaw's South Carolina, Semmes' Georgia, Cobb's Georgia and Barksdale's Mississippi Brigades, was under Jackson at that time. It was not a question if could we reach Fredericksburg ahead of Burnside. We were obliged to do so. The weather was very severe. Before reaching Rapidan we crossed two rivers, the North Anna and South Anna, which formed a junction about a mile below where we crossed. Arriving at the North Anna, the men removed their shoes and stripped off their trousers. We were told that the south fork was but a short distance ahead, therefore all decided to carry shoes and pants under their arms until they had forded the South Anna.

The 18th Regiment was leading.

Soon after crossing the first river, the road wound around a hill; through a skirt of woods we entered a cut in the hill and the road changed directions to the right, when suddenly the head of the column came running back, the men in fits of laughter, but seeking places to hide.

The colonel and his staff were left without followers. They rode back also, their faces wreathed in smiles. [268]

Those of us who had not emerged from the cut had no idea what the cause was, but soon the word was passed along: ‘Put on your breeches, quick.’ Between the two rivers there is an elevated plateau, about fifteen acres in extent, which rises some ten feet above the surrounding surface.

It was almost square. On the plateau stood a little village, the most picturesque place the writer remembers ever to have seen. Around the bluff of the little village there was a plank fence, along which the entire population stood, waiting to see Jackson's foot cavalry pass. Therefore, when the head of the column came in view of the people, the boys fled in disorder.

We finally arrived at Rapidan and crossed the river. I think it was the 15th of November. After reaching the south bank the brigade halted in a scrubby woods, and stood on the roadside while a brigade of cavalry passed. The Mississippians indulged in every species of exasperating criticisms, and declared there were no Yankees ahead, otherwise the cavalry would not be marching to the front.

The men were in a laughing mood, notwithstanding sleet was falling and the ground was covered with snow.

After the troopers had gone, we resumed the march. While watching the cavalry pass our clothing was freezing. It may seem strange how men endured the cold, but they did. The march was kept up almost constantly until we reached Fredericksburg, where Barksdale's Brigade went into camp along the edge of a woods, but were not allowed to build fires. It was a desperate night. The. ground was covered with snow to a depth of several inches and the trees with sleet. Very few men had blankets, and the boys huddled together in piles to prevent freezing.

A few days after reaching Fredericksburg, Barksdale's Brigade moved into the city and picketed the river from a little place called Falmouth to a point below, where Deep Run creek empties into the Rappahannock. The Federal army was camped on the opposite shore.

It has been said that ‘Military history is the repository of inspirations and of genius, and also of excessive follies.’ It may also be said, therefore, that it would be difficult for a commander to commit a blunder which cannot be matched by precedent.

What General Burnside expected to accomplish by taking up position opposite Fredericksburg we do not know, but certainly he did not anticipate such a result as followed. It may be that he expected [269] to cross the river before the arrival of the Confederates, and doubtless could have done so under cover of his 200 cannon when he first reached the scene, because the river was low and fordable, but from prudential reasons, or otherwise, he did not attempt it.

About December 8th the river rose, and he decided to bridge it. During the delay, our forces were actively engaged building earthworks and rifle pits, which crowned the heights and surrounding country by the 10th of the month. Burnside, however, made strong demonstrations above and below the city, which necessarily called to each point a part of General Lee's force. Burnside evidently expected to surprise General Lee at Fredericksburg and defeat us before A. P. Hill and Jackson could return, but the obstructions in his pathway were sufficient to delay his passage until they were there.

Fredericksburg is not a strategic point. On both sides of the Rappahannock there are hills which run parallel with the river. On the south side there is a valley from 600 to 1,500 yards wide before the hills are reached, while in the north shore the ridges are near the river. Stafford heights on the north side command the city, and also the river, for two miles in each direction It will, therefore, be understood that the Confederates could not prevent the crossing of Burnside's army, but what they could do and did do, after he had crossed, constitutes a bright page in the world's history. As before stated, Barksdale's Brigade occupied the city and built rifle pits along the front. Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fiser, of the 17th Mississippi, with his own regiment, four companies of the 18th and three or four from the 21st Regiment, occupied the immediate river front as a picket line, where he also dug rifle pits. It was the evident purpose of General Burnside to make his main attack on the city. Major-General Lafayatte McLaws, with his division, was assigned to that important position, and Barksdale was given the post of honor for the division.

During the night of December 10th, the enemy began to lay his pontoons. We could distinctly hear the noise of launching the boats and laying down the planks. The work was prosecuted with wonderful skill and energy, and by 3 o'clock A. M. of the 11th we could hear them talking in undertones. General Barksdale directed us to remain quiet, and offer no resistance until the bridge approached our shore. About 4 o'clock a battery posted on the ridge back of the town fired a few shots at the bridge, then the Mississippians poured a concentrated fire on it. The bridge was doubtless [270] crowded with engineers and workmen who suffered severely. The pickets immediately along the river, under the gallant Fiser, from their rifle pits maintained such a destructive fire that the enemy was compelled to abandon the work. Very soon, however, they returned and made repeated efforts to complete one bridge, but the fire of the Mississippi boys was too deadly, and the enemy was forced to withdraw.

When daylight dawned a heavy fog hung over the scene, and the vision was as much obscured as it had been during the night. About 10 o'clock of the 11th, Burnside, annoyed because a few skirmishers were able to prevent the completion of his bridges, and, therefore, delay his passage of the river, ordered his chief of artillery to batter down the city. His purpose was to drive the Mississippians from their rifle pits and hiding places.

Assuredly General Burnside knew the wide destruction which would follow his order. Several thousand women and children sat in their homes, exposed to that storm of iron. Looking back upon the event of nearly forty years ago, it seems that the necessities did not not warrant the destruction of that city, and we now regard it as a savage act, unworthy of civilized war. But Burnside concentrated 200 cannon on the city. Suddenly, as it was unexpected, the flash of these guns, followed by the explosions, hurled at the same instant 10,000 pounds of iron into the city. Tire shells exploded in and over the town, creating the greatest consternation among the people. The bombardment was kept up for nearly two hours, and no tongue or pen can describe the dreadful scene. Hundreds of tons of iron were hurled against the place, and nothing in war can exceed the horror of that time. The deafening roar of cannon and bursting shells, falling walls and chimneys, brick and timbers flying through the air, houses set on fire, the smoke adding to the already heavy fog, the bursting of flames through the housetops, made a scene which has no parallel in history. It was appalling and indescribable, a condition which would paralyze the the stoutest heart, and one from which not a man in Barksdale's Brigade had the slightest hope of passing through.

During that hail of iron and brick, I believe we can say that there was not a square yard in the city which was not struck by a missile of some kind. Under cover of his bombardment, Burnside undertook to renew his efforts to complete the bridges, but the matchless men of Barksdale's Brigade, acting under the immortal Lieutenant-Colonel Fiser, concealed in their pits along the river bank, poured [271] a volley first and then a concentrated fire on the workmen and drove back all who survived their deadly aim. During this time the flames were blazing from every quarter, and ladies and children were forced to flee from their cellars to escape death by fire, even at the risk of being stricken down by shells and bricks.

The horror of the occasion was heightened by the veil of fog, which obscured all objects fifty yards distant. About half an hour after the bombardment had ceased, the fog cleared away, leaving a picture which riveted every eye and sickened every heart. Mansions that for years had been the scenes of a boundless hospitality and domestic comfort, lay in ruins and smouldering ashes. Blackened walls and wrecked gardens were all that were left of numerous happy homes. The memory of those scenes will be hard to efface.

Defeated at every turn, the Federal commander abandoned his bridges for the time and began to cross in boats. He directed a destructive rifle fire against the Mississippians along the river bank, and also against those in the city. Colonel Fiser continued to dispute this passage, and many of the boats were forced to return to remove their dead and get others to take their places.

After a large force had been landed above and below, Colonel Fiser was ordered to rejoin the brigade in the city. The enemy soon formed line and dashed at the Mississippians, determined to drive them from their rifle pits and other places of shelter. They moved forward in splendid style, and perfect military order. Soon the advance was followed by a second and third line. It was a magnificent sight, which won the admiration of the Mississippians. There was no nervousness nor hesitation. They may have thought that all the troops in the city were killed, but, matters not, they were a fine body of men.

Barksdale's Brigade watched them from their hiding places and awaited their near approach. Suddenly, when within about seventy-five yards of our line, as if by common impulse, a volley rang out from the rifle pits on the cold air, which sounded almost like one gun, and hundreds fell dead in their tracks. The front line of the enemy, paralyzed and dismayed by the shock, fell back in confusion. In the meantime, the Mississippians were firing on them as they ran. It was a dreadful slaughter, which might have been considered a retaliation for the dreadful bombardment of two hours before. Quickly the second line advanced, firing as they came, and was met by a deadly aim from the Confederates. The column halted in front [272] of Barksdale's men, when the third line rushed to their support and charged headlong into the city.

Whole companies of Barksdale's men were concealed in cellars, where they remained even after the enemy had passed, and emerging, fired into the rear of the Federal line from behind corners of houses and stone walls. The Mississippians began to retire slowly, fighting as they retreated. It was a grand sight, which was witnessed by both armies. Hundreds of brave officers and men fell ere they could reach the city.

General McLaws ordered Barksdale to fall back to our main line on the crest of the hills, which he did soon after dark. The fighting lasted until about that time. The brigade occupied a cut in the side of the hill until 10 o'clock the following day, December 12th. During the night of the 11th the enemy crossed over two divisions, and other troops crossed during the 12th. Barksdale had been engaged continuously for forty-eight hours, and was ordered back for rest and food. We went into camp in a woods behind Marye's heights, where we remained until the morning of the 13th. General Thomas R. R. Cobb, with his brigade of Georgians, took position in the sunken road, at the foot of Marye's hill, in front of the city.

When the Mississippians, who had thus far stood the brunt of the attack, marched over the ridge to rest, carrying their guns at a right shoulder, cheer after cheer rang out from along the line. Little hope was entertained that any of them would escape that dreadful bombardment, and when they held their ground after the bombardment had ceased, driving back line after line of the enemy, the other troops were struck with amazement and wonder, and felt a pride in their comrades which they could not conceal.

When daylight dawned on the 12th, the city and valley were again veiled in fog. It was so dense no object could be distinguished fifty yards distant, and this condition lasted until nearly midday. During the afternoon a heavy skirmishing was kept up, but nothing of a serious nature occurred.

Saturday, May 13th, the earth was again enveloped by a fog, which did not clear away before 10 o'clock. The whole country was covered with sleet and snow, and the men stood to the places without fires, and with very scant clothing.

McLaws' Division was posted from the foot of Marye's hill, where Cobb occupied the cut, extending towards the south, with Kershaw on his right, and Barksdale on the right of Kershaw, while Paul J. [273] Semmes was held in reserve. The Washington Artillery was posted on Marye's hill, just in the rear of Cobb, and behind Kershaw and Barksdale were two batteries of the Richmond Howitzers and the Rockbridge Battery of rifled guns.

Soon after the fog had cleared away Federal officers rode boldly out and examined the ground between the two armies. They rode within a hundred yards of our line, but were not fired on. No one seemed disposed to kill such bold, brave fellows.

Not long after they had retired, a strong line moved towards the right of Barksdale's Brigade, seemingly bent on turning our flank, but were surprised and driven back by the fire of the batteries just behind us.

Line after line of infantry stood along the valley, and we could distinctly see immense columns of troops on the opposite side of the river waiting to cross on the bridges. We were in a woods, our rifle pits concealed by underbrush, which also obscured our artillery above us.

About 11 o'clock the enemy moved forward, and halted about 100 vards from the cut where Cobb was concealed. The line was dressed, and every man stood in his place. It was a formidable column, out for a desperate encounter.

Everything in readiness, they advanced about thirty yards when the artillery back of us opened, throwing grape and shell into their ranks. The Georgians, resting their guns on the bluff, fired a volley which almost destroyed the alignment. The enemy fell back, leaving their dead and wounded. The color bearers threw down their flags, and numbers of the men dropped their guns and fell outstretched on the ground.

Quickly another line advanced and met the same disaster. A third and fourth line rushed forward, and were driven back with equal slaughter. Charge followed charge until night relieved the scene. The enemy acted with great gallantry, and rushed into our works to meet defeat and death, but others took their places and suffered likewise. There was no occasion during the war when the Federal troops displayed such determination and behaved with greater credit.

During that dreadful engagement General Cobb was seriously wounded, and died soon afterwards. General Cobb was a distinguished man in peace, and could have won even greater fame in war had he lived. [274]

Soon after he was wounded, General McLaws observed the enemy massing a final effort, and ordered General Kershaw to move his brigade into the cut also. Hardly had he done so when the enemy rushed at our line; then it was that hundreds of them fell almost in front of the cut, and numbers fought their way to our lines, to be driven back in defeat.

When the last charge was made the dead and wounded were lying so thick in our front that the enemy stumbled over them in their desperation.

The enemy retired to the river and remained along the bank until the 15th, then recrossed, leaving 15,000 dead and wounded behind. The Confederate loss did not exceed 5,000.

Looking back on the scenes of Fredericksburg, and remembering the conduct of General Barksdale and his men, we are forced to believe that the defense of the city was one of the greatest achievements of the war, and the behavior of the men unsurpassed by any troops in any field.

Their courage and endurance challenges comparison with any soldiers in history. No one who did not participate in the defense of Fredericksburg can form an idea of the terrible scenes of destruction and horror, and if hell be more dreadful than that bombardment men had better halt and consider.

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