‘We were in a tight place’
On September 15, 1862, 19-year-old Aleck Erwin wrote his brother back in Habersham County, Georgia, describing his unit’s part at the Second Manassas and shedding some light on why so many Confederates were missing from Antietam.
Dear Willie: – We received orders to leave our camp five miles from Gordonsville at 8 o’clock one night – I forget the day of the month. We marched, I remember, the whole of that night and the next day and until 11 o’clock the next night in the direction of Fredericksburg, leaving Orange CH to our left and crossing the Rapidan River at a place called Raccoon Ford, when our advance came up with the rear of the enemy, who were in full retreat, and accelerated their movements a little, taking several prisoners. We kept the road to Fredericksburg and advanced to within twenty miles of that place….
Sept 15th – This place (Jeffersonton) is near where the railroad bridge crosses the Rappahannock. This bridge the enemy burned, and made a stand with a part of their forces on the opposite bank, in order to cover the removal of their trains and the retreat of the rest of their forces. Here is the first place we were ever shelled. Our brigade was ordered down near the river to support a section of the Washington Artillery, which pitched into the enemy very unceremoniously as soon as we got there. The Yankees replied with two batteries and we were subjected to a cross fire for several hours. Their shells make a terrible hissing noise as they come crashing through tree tops. You can hear them coming some time before they get to you and when one starts, every man in the whole regiment will think it is coming right towards him. They are an infernal contrivance; and although they make a terrible fuss, they generally frighten without doing much harm. I have seen them filled with balls emphatically charged with destruction, to burst seemingly right among a company of men and none get hurt. Of course they are generally farther from one when they explode than they seem to be. If they go in forty feet of a fellow, he will be ready to swear almost that they were not more than a yard from him.
The Legion here had its first men killed. Two of the Blue Ridge Rifles (one of them a brother in law of Alick Church, McAfee) were killed and several wounded. The engagement, or rather artillery duel, was, I think, a demonstration to engage the enemy’s attention while Jackson crossed the river higher up. The rascals poured such a murderous fire into our artillery there, that it got away in quick time, with the loss of several men.
The next morning early we moved up the river higher to a bridge which had been hastily constructed and where Jackson had been vainly endeavoring to cross the day before. The enemy were in such force and position that they could not be dislodged without great sacrifice of life, without any corresponding advantage. So we went to work there to engage the enemy’s attention while Jackson went still higher up four miles and effected a crossing. They shelled us a little at the bridge without any damage to our Legion, and very little to the Brigade. The next morning we followed Jackson and crossed the river at the same place. The river there is the line between Culpepper and Fauquier counties. We proceeded on our route, Jackson about a day in advance, without any adventure until we arrived at Thoroughfare Gap – a gap in the mountains, through which the Manassas Gap Railroad passes; and the position was one of the strongest natural positions that I ever saw to check and advance of an army.
The enemy came in here between Jackson and Longstreet (to whose corps we are attached…) but Longstreet was so close behind Jackson that the Yankees did not have time to complete their preparations for our reception, having arrived just a moment before we did. Our Division (DR Jones’) consisting of Toombs’, Anderson’s and Drayton’s Brigades, was in the advance. Anderson’s brigade got through the gap and drove the Yankees off just as they fired a few shots from one piece of artillery, and were just getting another piece into position to fire. A sharp musketry fight took place, lasting about an hour, resulting in our driving the enemy back and getting through the gap.
John Patton distinguished himself here. His company took a position behind a large rock. As the Yankees came up in a few steps of them, John killed three with his repeater, one of them a Captain. They were left on the field with about thirty others of their dead. The Yankees suffered a good deal, leaving thirty dead on the field. Our loss was not more than twenty killed and wounded. Theirs must have been a hundred and fifty or two hundred. We stayed that night just beyond the gap and moved the next morning early, via Gainesville, in the direction of Manassas. Jackson and Ewell and AP Hill had a severe fight with the enemy that day, of which you have seen accounts. We arrived near the old battlefield about noon that day and took our position on the right of the line. Our Legion was thrown out in advance of our lines at that point, and our company and the Dalton Guards were thrown forward as skirmishers in front of the Legion.
The Yankees threw some shells into us here, killing one of the Greene Rifles and another of the Blue Ridge (Rifles) and wounding several in both companies. We were on picket that night and the next morning went back a short distance and ate breakfast and rested until about 1 o’clock, when we were marched down near the old battlefield, about a mile from it, on the extreme right and formed in line of battle. The fight opened about this time on the left, where Jackson was, on the center, where Ewell and AP Hill were and on the right where Longstreet was. All of Longstreet’s forces were engaged then except our brigade, which was kept on the right in anticipation of a flank movement of the enemy.
We stayed there for several hours until nearly dark, with the din of the mightly conflict thundering in our ears, when Longstreet, not fearing a flank movement in that late period, ordered us on the left. We double quicked nearly all the way, and arrived on the plains of Manassas about an hour before dark. I remember distinctly the scene that presented itself to our view; dark clouds of smoke hung all over the battlefield and almost obscured the contending hosts. Shells were bursting in the air on all parts of the field and the rattle of small arms was incessant. We met scores of wounded retiring from the field all of them cheerful and telling us to go and give it to them. The enemy had fled from all other parts of the line and had been driven back for miles at this part. They brought in some fresh troops here, who made a temporary stand in some woods while they drew off their forces, which they did in a hurry. Gen Toombs rode up to our Regiment just as it was going in and waving his hat, in language more plain than proper, told us to “go in boys, and give the d —-d invaders hell.”
We immediately marched up to the woods I spoke of and started in at two or three points, when some fellow would come out and tell us not to fire there, they were our own men, right in front. We, after some delay, found a point lower down on the right, where we had no troops, and with our Regiment alone (Drayton, for some cause, not sending up the other Regiments of the Brigade to support us) marched up on a whole Brigade of Yankees supporting a battery. Our Sergeant Major asked them what Regiments they were, and they told him some N.Y., Mass. and Penn. Regiment. He replied, “All right.”
It was nearly dark and we would probably have been used up pretty badly if they had known we were enemies. We, without any confusion, marched quietly past them under a shower of balls from other parts of the field and stopped just out of sight of them in the woods. If we had been supported by the rest of the Brigade we could have driven their Brigade off and probably taken their battery Drayton’s conduct is severely criticized by all who know anything of the officer. We were in a tight place certainly, but Providentially got out of it without much loss. The Yankees, who had left before all other parts of the field, left this part also at this time. I heard them distinctly as they drew off their forces. It was about 9 o’clock when the firing ceased. We remained on the field the night, and the next morning early I walked over the scene of the conflict….
On the 31 st, we marched out and camped at Sudley church…. We moved next day in the direction of Fairfax CH and Jackson, who was ahead, fought the battle of Germantown – we got to Germantown – went from thence to Drainsville. The enemy in the meantime having disappeared and from Drainsville to Leesburg. Gen Longstreet issued an order here that all barefooted, weak and inefficient troops of each regiment be left with the baggage in charge of an officer. I was detained for that purpose and left at Leesburg with about one hundred and fifty of our Regiment. The detail suited me very well as I had blistered my feet so that I had been riding in a wagon for several days and could not march – so I took charge of them and have a good deal of trouble attending to my present duties. They then ordered all that were left, about five thousand in all, to Winchester where we are now. We expect to start tomorrow for Harpers Ferry to rejoin the army, who, at last accounts, were cooking and eating at Frederick City, Maryland, with no enemy in his front…. Kirby Smith, I have no doubt, has Cincinnati. What wonderful success our arms have had lately….
Letter edited from long version that appeared in the October 1, 1862, Athens Watchman.
Copyright Military Images Sep/Oct 2001
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