South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A letter from McRae

Duncan McRae was the colonel of the 5th North Carolina Infantry regiment in Samuel Garland's infantry brigade and would take command of the brigade when Garland was mortally wounded. Just over 20 years after the battle, McRae would write a letter to Hill answering questions about the fight at Fox's Gap. He also mixes in some criticisms of other regimental commanders at the fight. Enjoy.

New York City
August 21, 1885

General D.H. Hill
Hendersonville, N.C.

Dear Sir,
Your letter has just been forwarded and recieved by me and I hasten to reply. I have no memoranda whatever of the events inquired about and must rely entirely on memory.

1. On the night before the Battle of South Mountain I learned for the second time from a scout, that McClellan had reached the foot of the mountain ridge on the other side by a general advance of his army. I at once notified the fact to General Garland and suggested that we should proceed at once to occupy the summit and make some breastworks, but he did not deem the information trustworthy and caused us to bivouac down the mountain and proceed leisurely to the summit on the next morning.

2. When about 8 AM the 5th Regiment reached the summit and took position on the right of our line, it covered a road leading down the mountain towards Sharpsburg, good for Artillery and general transportation, and it faced a dense undergrowth, distant about 100 yards, and stretching back for some two miles or more, to the left of which the country was open down the mountains into the valley on the East side.

3. Before he got into line I discovered in an open space at distance of about a mile in the woods, considerable bodies of troops, and calling Genl Garland's attention to it, he directed me to detach a portion of my Regiment to feel the woods and if encountered by any material force to summon the balance of the Regt to dislodge and drive them back. I went with the detail and at the edge of the woods one encountered skirmishers and had a sharp skirmish in which we killed and wounded several Ohio men of the command of a Colonel whos name I don't recall (Rutherford B. Hayes), but who was the late minister to the Sandwich Islands- Crouly, I think.

The belief of General G. that the woods was full of enemy troops induced him to place the 5th Regiment in the edge of it, with theleft thrown back towards, but not connecting with, his line of battle. There was therefore a space on the right of the 20th which was left open.

I remained in charge of the 5th, all the while desultory skirmishing going on in the woods but with no effect of the enemy to advance, until I recieved a message from General G. that he was wounded, and devolving on me the command of the Brigade. Leaving the disposition of the 5th as he had made it, I hastened to the center of the line and found that General G. was dead, and his staff had all gone off with his body: so that I was left without the assistance of any staff officers.

I found that General G. had thrown the 23rd Regiment, Col. Christy, to the front, some 100 yards towards the brow of the mountain, and this left another space between the 12th on the left of the 20th and the 13th Scales Regiment, under Ruffin, Lieutenant Colonel.

There had been two or more serious efforts by the enemy to reach our line, which had been repulsed, and I found that a large overpowering force was making ready to charge our line.

Had I been disposed, I could not easily have withdrawn the 23rd from its advanced postion without subjecting it to serious loss, but I saw the necessity of filling the spaces if possible, and as soon as possible. I therefore availed myself of the Chaplain of the 13th to bear you a message. His name I don't remember, but I sent you word of our exact condition, and asked that sufficient force might be sent from Anderson or Ripley to fill our blanks, and that one of those Brigades should be moved to easy supporting distance, as I feared the result of the movement about to be made. I also told him to say to you that an easy road down the mountain lay in our rear and the enemy might thus interpose between you command and the river.

Very soon after this, Colonel Tew arrived with his regiment and I requested him to fill the space between the 12th and 13th, which I hoped would give Christy support to fall back on.
Colonel Tew laid claim to rank me, and I said to him that there was no time to settle rank, that I would gladly serve under him. He made no reply, but seemed to relinquish the claim and moved off with his regiment towards the vacant space, but did not fill it, nor do I know what became of him and his command. I know I was subjected to a sharp censure from Colonel Ruffin afterwards for the exposed position in which his regiment was left.

By this time the Enemy in very heavy force came on with a yell, surrounding the 23rd Regiment, which was made the more easy by the fact that the 12th broke and fled. The 20th made some resistance and gave way fighting and in order, but was obliged to retreat, accompanied by its Colonel and Officers. In this condition I turned towards the 13th which had become enveloped, but was maintaining an obstinate resistance, which it continued to do, till beaten off by superior numbers. Colonel Ruffin received a severe contusion which laid him up for several days. I omitted to mention that the 23rd, notwithstanding its position, made good its retreat, with no great loss either of killed or wounded. This kind of loss was altogether slight, because the enemy fired no volleys, being intent to win with a rush.

I will now endeavor to answer your questions categorically.

1. The fighting was maintained after the death of Garland for two or more hours.

2. The loss was very slight, I can't now remember, more of them were killed or wounded than of us. Nothing like the 300 prisoners were taken; indeed I don't think 100 in the whole brigade.

3. The 20th was not surrounded but as I said, retreated with some show or order and fight. Colonel Iverson retreated along with his men, as he did at Sharpsburg, leaving me on the field in both instances, but was fortunate to secure the promotion.

4. I could not see the operations of the 5th from my position but it was reported to me that the enemy broke in upon it from the woods and also broke into the space on its left, driving it towards the South; and that it fought it way out inflicting some loss, but receiving little for the reason I have given above.

5. The 12th on account of being without officers in chief command worthy of it, did break in confusion and I don't think rallied in any force.

Most of the brigade was rallied promptly and when Anderson moved up to attempt to recover the position, it was ready to go along into the fight, but I found that the ammunition was well nigh exhausted, and so I held them close in the rear of Anderson to render any support which we might.

It was at Sharpsburg that the unaccountable panic occurred, when I was left along on the field, with only Capatin Withers of Caswell and perhaps one other officer, and I had just gotten off, when I encountered you and General Lee, and it was while, with him I was trying to get some men out of the Hay Stacks that a piece of shell struck me in the forehead.

I did not expect ever to write this much about the war. To tell the truth I recur to it with little pride and no satisfaction. It was an enterprise begun in folly and conducted with imbecility of Legislation to a disastrous failure. All there is of glory belongs to the self sacrificing and brave men who endured to the end.

I am under the Doctors here, and beg you will take this as excuse for this hasty note.

Yours truly.

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