South Mountain by Rick Reeve

South Mountain by Rick Reeve
South Mountain by Rick Reeve depicting the wounding of General Garland

Monday, December 13, 2010

"I may soon recieve my 'baptism of fire'."

This is a diary entry from Private George A. Hitchcock of the 21st Massachusett's in the brigade of General Edward Ferrero in the 9th Corps. At the start of the battle, Hitchcock's regiment near Middletown awaiting orders to move forward. The Maryland Campaign was Private Hitchcock's first taste of campaigning and at the Battle of South Mountain, he experience his first fight, and he would never forget it.

September 14

We lie on arms all the morning, listening to the battle of artillery up the side of South Mountain. The serious faces of my comrades warns me that I may soon have to receive my "baptism of fire." At half past one in the afternoon, the fated orders comes to us: "Forward Second Brigade"- this is composed of the 21st Massachusetts, 51st New York, and 51st Penn. Our division marches rapidly through the streets of Middletown and we see the village given up to the uses of the army.

Churchs are filling up with wounded as they are rapidly brought in on stretchers and in ambulances. From their steeple-tops the signal corps is busy with its waving signals. The streets are packed with troops hurrying forward and into battle. Passing our toward a sharp and constant rattle of musketry, we meet a steady stream of wounded pouring down the mountain sides. Up half a mile ahead we see the dense smoke where is the center of conflict, long black lines are sweeping across the open space and moving out of the woods.

As we begin to ascend the hill groaning and screaming men covered with blood, blackened with smoke lie on each side of the road. Officers and orderlies mounted and galloping frantically about. The sights and sounds fairly sicken me but John Wallace, the corporal who has us unders his direct command, cautions us to keep our eyes straight ahead. At las we file out into a field and form in line of battle.

With no delay we rush forward at double-quick-step to save a battery. Our part of the line swings around into the grove of trees on the left of the field, when suddenly a sheet of flame a few rods in front from out of the trees beyond greets us, a united volley of musketry and artillery. Instantly the order comes, "Lie down," and as instantly obeyed. An eternity of time it seems as we recieve the withering fire but possibly twenty minutes elapses when it is seen that an attempt is being made to flank us.

We are ordered across the road to the left which is called Fox's Gap. The sunken road is literally packed with dead and dying rebels who had held so stubbornly the pass against our troops who have resistlessly swept up over the hill. Here the horrors of war were revealed as we see out heavy ammunition wagons go tearing up, right over the dead and dying, mangling many in their terrible course. The shrieks of the poor fellows was heartrending.

Our brigade is moved forward into an open field on the summit of the mountain between two wooded pieces and again formed in line of battle when we recieve a waking fire from the enemy who is strongly posted behind a stone wall a half dozen rods in front. Falling flat for a few moments until the volley is over, then rising up, charge across the field reaching the stonewall, we find the 51st New York who were halting for orders. Our position is so far advanced and exposed that little time elapses before any of the field officers appear. Captain Richardson, the senior officer present, at last orders us back to the woods in our rear and not finding and superior officers, we retreat still further to a corn field where Colonel Clark finds us. General Sturgis immediately orders us up to the stone wall.

We learn that General Reno has just been killed and this accounts for the temporary disorder of the brigade. His death is a terrible loss for he was considered one of the finest, bravest, and most popular officers of the army.

Soon after breaching the stone wall, darkness settled down over all and the Battle of South Mountain has passed into history. We remain in position all through the chilly night expecting a renewed attempt by the rebels to force the pass. As the hours slowly pass by, I review the events of the past week and personally am not ashamed of my participation in them. Have succeeded in keeping pace with veterans in the long severe march which intercepted General Lee's Army in its attempt to carry the war North. Have not flinched in this my first battle and now my comrades tell me the next one will come easier.

What are my feelings when first under fire? I was fearfully that the rebels would his somebody and I wished they would not hit me. How did I feel? My brain was constantly telegraphing to my legs to take me down the hill. Yes, strange as it may seem, I did not want to be shot and I thought I might be if I remained. I was not brave and I did not want to be a coward so I watch the others and did just as they did, carrying on a conflict on my own private account in my heart and with the help of God I won a victory.

The following day, Hitchcock surveys the field and again writes in his diary about the carnage and other events that , reportedly, had taken place.

September 15

As daylight slowly lifts the curtain we begin to realize the heavy loss to the enemy. The first sight to meet our gaze was a dead rebel hanging over the wall. Just over the other side the ground was thickly strewed with dead who had been our silent companions through the night. We find the enemy has retreat but were startled just before sunrise by hearing the report of the guns of our pickets just in front of us in the woods.

We were double-quicked into the woods and take two or three rebels who by mistake came into our lines supposing the summit was in possession of the rebels. We lay on arms through the morning: many of our boys venture out beyond the lines and secure trophies of the conflice from the rebel dead. The face of many have changed color to a dusky hue, which gives them a frightful appearance. It is said to be caused by drinking a concoction of whiskey and gunpowder.

At noon General Burnside and a large escort rode by us down the Boonesboro road amid the hearty cheers of his men. He was followed by division after division. Fitz-John Porter's Corps composed largely of U.S. regulars also passed us. At last we start and South Mountain is left behind. March until dark though a beautiful, fertile country, the boys in good spirits singing the rebel song, "Maryland, My Maryland," and go into camp near Boonesboro. Reports to the effect that the rebel army is cornered between us and the Potomac, that General Wook is engaging them from Harpers' Ferry and that they are much demoralized and that Stonewall Jackson is killed.

Hitchcock would participate in the heavy fighting around the lower bridge during Burnside's Assault at Sharpsburg and he would be nearly captured when, being caught up in the action of loading and firing his musket, the regiment had retreated leaving Hitchcock and a friend behind. He would survive the fighting at Antietam.

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