Life & Letters

Correspondence

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Title: George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 21 September 1862

Date: September 21, 1862

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from George Washington Whitman, Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, ed. Jerome M. Loving (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 65-69. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00328

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Eric Conrad, Kathryn Kruger, Gillian Price, and April Lambert




On the Potomac River Near the
Villiage of Antietam Md
Sunday Sept 21/62

Dear Mother1

I had just commenced to write you a letter the day before yesterday when the order was given for our regt to fall in for an advance, and I had only time to let you know that I was alive and well when I have to stop writing and get ready to move.

I told you in the letter I wrote from Washington2 something about the battles of Bull Run and Chantilly and as I would much rather write of victories than defeats, (Although you can hardly call Chantilly a defeat as the enemy were foiled in their attempt to cut off our baggage train, though the loss on our side was heavy and included Generals Kearney and Stephens3) I will tell you of what we have done for the last two weeks.  We left Washington by the road leading to Frederick Md, on Sunday Sept 7th and moved by easy marches, untill Thursday Sept 11th when our advance came up with part of the Artillery force of the enemy who were posted in a very commanding position on a range of high hills on the opposite side of a stream called the Monochey4 River. As soon as our advance came within range the enemy opened fire but our Artillery soon got to work throwing shot and shell so fast that the enemy were forced to leave without our Infantry being engaged at all. After the enemy fell back our forces advanced in three or four different Collumns, each takeing a different road. Our Collumn was composed of Reno's 9th Army Corps, and in the wing of the Army Commanded by General Burnside.5 McClelan6 I believe was on the right of Burnside, and someone (I dont know who) was on the left. We came up with the Rebel army again on Sunday Sept 14th  the enemy were posted in a splendid position on a range of Mountains called the south Mountains or Middletown Heights. General Cox7 who commands a Division, of our Army Corps, somehow got around the enemy's left and drove him from his best position, on the crown of the Mountain. Our Division (which is the 2d of the 9th Army Corps and is made up princapaly of what is left of the old Burnside expedition and are commanded by General Sturgis8) was then brought up and took the advance, the enemy falling back slowly untill night, when we found ourselvs, on the opposite side of the Mountains and about a mile from where the fight commenced, with all the best positions on the feild in our posession, and as it was now dark our Division formed in line of battle so as to hold all the ground we had gained during the day and lay down to await the movements of the enemy. Our Regt lay in an open field near the edge of a wood into which the enemy had been driven, and had just got our position and laid down, when the enemy opened fire on us from the woods directly in front of us. Our regt was ordered to lie close and not fire a shot untill the enemy advanced out of the woods and into the field where we lay. The regts on our right and left had a regular cross fire on the enemy and kept pouring the lead into them like rain. I had command of our Company (as the Captain was not well although he was on the field) and I had mighty hard work to keep some of them from getting up and blazing away as they said they did not like to lay there like a lot of old women and be shot without fighting back. I thought it was mighty singular myself but when I saw next morning how things were situated, I saw that as long as we lay down their fire could not harm us much, while if they had come out to the open field we would have got up and given them a volley that would have done terrible execution. The enemy kept up a sharp fire for about half an hour (and it was about the toughest half hour that I ever experianced as I could hear the bullets whiz all around me and some of them seemed to graze me) when the enemys fire began to slacken and it was evident that he did not intend to come out of the woods so that we could get a fair chance at him,  the order was given for us to open fire and you never saw men go to work with a better relish. In about 15 minutes the enemys fire ceased altogather and we knew he had fell back out of range so we ceased fireing and lay down again untill daylight when we found there was no enemy in sight  they haveing Skedadled during the night. After assuring ourselvs that they were gone for good, we stacked arms and I took a walk over our part of the battle field. In some parts of the feild the enemys dead lay in heaps and in a road for nearly a quarter of a mile they lay so thick that I had to pick my way carefully to avoid stepping on them,  I think judging from what I saw that the enemys loss was fully 8 times as great as ours and I am told that the slaughter was equally as great on our right. General Reno was killed soon after we went into action and while he was looking at our position,9  He was a Brigadier general of our Brigade in the old Burnside expedition and was afterwards promoted to the command of the 9th Army Corps and was very much liked by all of us. After resting a few hours in the morning we pushed on again our Division takeing the lead and late in the afternoon of the 16th we found the enemy had concluded to make another stand at a stream about 100 feet wide called Antietam Creek. The bank of their side of the creek was very high and very steep and was covered with heavy woods which gave them a great advantage over us. It was so late in the afternoon that it was decided not to make an attack that night so we filed off into a field and stoped for the night. The only place near where we were, that our Artillery could cross was at a stone Bridge some 20 ft wide, where the enemy had made temporary breastworks of fence rails and logs behind which they could lay almost concealed from us while we would have to advance to the bridge through open fields in plain sight of them.

Early on the morning of the 17th the first and second Brigades of our Division was ordered down to take the bridge. The first Brigade was ordered to take a position, at our end of the bridge and try and drive the enemy from behind his shelter while our Brigade which is the 2nd was to be held in reserve. The 1st did not seem inclined to advance to the position assigned them, but rather held back, so Burnside who was looking on ordered Sturgis to send our Brigade there saying, (so the story goes) that he knew we would take it. As soon as we were ordered to forward we started on a double quick and gained the position, although we lost quite a number of men in doing it. We were then ordered to halt and commence fireing, and the way we showered the lead across that creek was noboddys buisness. I had command of our Company again and as soon as the men got steadily settled down to their work I took a rifle from one of the wounded men and went in, loading and fireing as fast as any one. After about half an hour the enemys fire began to slacken a little, and soon the order was given for our Brigade to charge. The 51st Pennsylvania had the right of our Brigade, and should have crossed first, but our boys could not wait, and with the cry of remember Reno, we started for the Bridge  the 51st Penn and our Regt crossing togather. As soon as the rebels saw us start on a charge they broke and run and the fight at the bridge was ended. After we crossed we found the enemy had fell back about ½ or ¾ of a mile to another range of hills where they were protected by stone fences, and the 3d Brigade of our Division and a part of the Division of General Cox were ordered to advance and engage them. They moved up and charged, driving the rebel Infantry in fine style when the enemy brough up a battery of Artillery which poured the grape and cannister into our boys so that they were forced to fall back to our Brigade who was then acting as a reserve.

Things began to look rather squally and although our Brigade, was nearly out of ammunition we were ordered to the front again. We formed line of battle and advanced over the hill untill we met the enemy who was moveing down towards us, when both parties took a position, and we went at it again for the 2d time in one day.

Our Regt fired every round of ammunition we had, and took from all the dead and wounded on the field and then we lay down as we would not leave the field untill we were ordered. We lay there about half an hour without fireing a shot which seemed to puzzle the rebels very much as they did not come any closer to us, but kept up a pretty brisk fire from where they were.

After a while another regiment was sent in to relieve us and we were ordered back to the bridge where we were suplied with ammunition, and something to eat, and as it was almost night and the fireing had ceased on both sides, we were ordered to lay down and rest ourselvs and tired enough we was after our days work as you can imagine. The pickets on both sides kept up the stragling fire all night, and the next morning niether side seemed inclined to commence opperations, so we remained all day  each party occupying the same position they did when the fighting ceased the night before. During the day we took an account of stock, and found we had about 180 men left. One Company was away with the baggage train and we have quite a number sick in Hospital so I think that counting the sick and teamsters, Straglers, and cowards we have about 275 men left of the regt we brought from New York less than a year ago. The loss of our regt in the Sunday and Wednesday's fight10 was from 120 to 125 killed wounded and missing. Our Adjutant who lived in Brooklyn and was named Fowler,11 was killed at the bridge. Both Lieutenants in Co F which is on the right of our Co and both in Co K who was next to us on the left, was hit  one was killed  2 was badly wounded an one slightly12

At daylight on the morning of Sept 19th we found the enemy had left and we moved foreward about 3 miles to the Potomac River where we are now and as near as I can find out the enemy are all out of Md. Wel Mother I guess you will get tired before you get through reading this letter. You must not think strange when you do not hear from me often, for sometimes I do not get a chance to write for weeks. I received last week a letter from you dated the 7th and one from Jeff of the 8th. I was very glad to hear you are all getting along well. I hope Mother you will take good care of yourself and not worry and frett, for that troubles me more than anything else. I supose you know more about the situation of affairs than I do as I do not see the papers often, but it seems to me the rebels have been terribly cut up within the last few days and as near as I can find out they are all driven out of Md. I dont know how soon I will have a chance to send this, but I am pretty sure that we will move from here in the course of a day or two, and will probably go to Harpers Ferry so I shall have a chance to send it from there, if not before. I heard General Burnside say the other day that our regt would now have a chance to go in camp and rest awhile so I think likely we shall stay at Harpers Ferry awhile.

You speak in your letter of Walts seeing the Captain of our Co at Major LeGendre's13 office,  it was the 1st Lieutenant who has been home since the battle of Newbern where he was wounded. I supose you have heard of the death of Joe Grummond.14

I have talked with a number of rebel prisoners lately and the more inteligent of them say that the late raid into Md. was a desperate thing, but they had to do something as they were in such a bad fix in Virginia that the war will soon have to be brought to a close. Well Mother I am about tired of writing so I will stop. I will write again soon if I have a chance  I would like to see you all very much and mabe I will get a chance to come home before a great while. Good bye Mother  Much love to Mattie, the Baby and all the rest. G.W. Whitman

Wednesday Sept 24th  I have not had a chance to send this letter since it was written but I hear, a mail will leave here to day so I open this to let you know that we are still here and that everything is quiet  G.W.W.15


Notes:

1. After having assured his mother that he was still alive (see George Washington Whitman's letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman from September 19, 1862), Whitman now gives her a fuller account of his experiences in the battles of South Mountain and Antietam. [back]

2. See George Washington Whitman's letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman from September 5, 1862[back]

3. Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818–1862) and Philip Kearny (1815–1862). Whitman is now speaking of the Battle of Chantilly; the fact that both these generals died here (see the letter from George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman of September 21, 1862) attests to the severity of the combat—which Whitman endeavored to deemphasize in the reports to his mother. [back]

4. Monocacy. [back]

5. Ambrose Everett Burnside (1824—1881) who organized the First Rhode Island Infantry at the outbreak of the war. He was then in command of the Expedition Against the Coast of North Carolina. [back]

6. General George Brinton McClellan (1826–1885) was General-in-Chief of the Army of the United States from November 1861, until July 1862, when he was replaced by General Henry W. Halleck. In 1864, when McClellan ran for the presidency, the Democratic party split between war Democrats and peace Democrats. To satisfy the war Democrats McClellan was nominated; to satisfy the peace Democrats C. L. Vallandigham and his followers were allowed to draft the platform. Thomas Jefferson Whitman evidently considered the entire Democratic party as "the peace party" as evidenced from the letter to his brother Walt dated July 7, 1863[back]

7. Jacob Dolson Cox (1828-1900). [back]

8. Samuel Davis Sturgis (1828-1889). [back]

9. General Reno was killed at Fox's Gap in South Mountain (also called Middletown Heights) on September 14, 1862. See George Washington Whitman's letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman from February 9, 1862[back]

10. The battles of South Mountain and Antietam. [back]

11. Andrew L. Fowler (1840-1862). [back]

12. The wounded officers from Company F were Second Lieutenant William T. Ackerson and First Lieutenant Clifford Coddington. Both were wounded on September 7, 1862, at Antietam Creek. The officer killed from Company K was Second Lieutenant Charles F. Springweiller, who died on September 14, 1862, at the battle of South Mountain. The officer slightly wounded from Company K was probably First Lieutenant William W. Chapman—the only other lieutenant in the Company at this time. [back]

13. Charles W. LeGendre (1830-1899) was born in France and educated at the University of Paris. He helped recruit and later commanded the Fifty-First New York Volunteers. [back]

14. First Lieutenant Josiah M. Grummond, Company H of the same regiment, was wounded in action on August 29, 1862, at Groveton, Virginia. He died of his wounds on September 9, 1862, at Washington, D.C. [back]

15. See Civil War Diary[back]


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