South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Friday, January 7, 2011

"If you will permit, I will tell you about the afternoon at South Mountain in 1862..."

Chaplain George Gilman Smith was a member of Philips (GA) Legion and participated in the heavy fighting that occured in the afternoon at Fox's Gap. During the course of the fighting he would recieve a rather dangerous wound. Smith writes about his motivation for going to war and the unexpected and bloody fight at Fox's Gap. He would survive his wounding and the war, writing several books. Born on Christmas Eve in 1836, he would pass away in 1913.

" If you will permit, I will tell you about the afternoon at South Mountain in 1862, when I recieved a bullet through the neck, and when night alone saved General Lee's army from capture. A year before I had been the pastor of a charming little church in a beautiful valley in upper Georgia. I was just married and ought to have been content to have staid at home, but in my veins was the blood of those who had fought in the Revolution, and when I saw my parishioners going to the front I went too, as the chaplain of the Phillips Legion. We had fifteen companies- nine of infantry, five of cavalry, and one of artillery- commanded by Col William Philips. We had had our share of hard work, but until the summer of 1862, we had no serious fighting. On the Sunday monring (September 14) on which the battle of South Mountain began, we were in camp at Hagerstown. We were expecting quite a time of repose when the order come to move towards Boonsboro. I had not the remotest dream of any hot work, nor do I think any of us had, for we had no idea that the army of the Potomac could be reorganized and mobilized so soon. We thought the assualt upon our lines was merely a feint of cavalry. This was evidently General Lee's opinion, or else he would not have allowed Jackson to have crossed the Potomac; but it was soon evident from the rapid motion of the artillery and infantry that hot work was before us. My regiment had gone and I ambled off as rapidly as I could toward the front.

Somehow I got the name of the "fighting chaplain', and candidly I did not like it, for it was neither just nor complimentary, I did not go to the army to fight, I did not fight after I got there. I had as little stomach for fighting as Falstaff had. I went to the army as a chaplain, and as a chaplain I did my work, and yet that day I got a bullet through my neck. I ought no to have gone where the bullets were flying, but I did go and I got hit, and this is how it came about.

I found Generals Lee, Longstreet and Jones, standing at the base of the pass, and with them was one of the staff officers of our brigade, Captain Young. Inquiring of him for my regiment, he told me that it was behind a stone fence on the right of the Boonsboro and Frederick Pike, and I immediately repaired to that place. A battery of light artillery was firing overhead and we lay quietly looking toward the south. Suddenly the order came to change front. We were now to face towards the west. The turnpike wa narrow, and the enemy were upon us. The change of position called for a change from line of battle to column, and then from column into line. My own regiment did beautifully and for a moment we looked to the woods expecting the Federals to charge upon us, but instead we were ordered to leave the protection of the stone wall and charge into the woods. As we entered the woods I saw a poor fellow fall and heard him say, "Lord Jesus, recieve my spirit." I went to him and said, "My friend, that's a good prayer, I hope you feel it." He answered, "Stanger, I am not afraid to die; I made my peace with God over thirty years ago." Just at that moment I heard Cook, our commander, say in a loud voice, "For God's sake don't fire; we are friends!" I turned and saw a body of our troops ready to fire. I said, "I will go back, colonel, and stop them." As I ran back to the fence, I looked down the very road we had just left, and saw a body of Federals moving upon us. Something had ot be done, and I ran to General Drayton, our commander, and told him the position. A feint certainly must be made; if the Federals should know that the stone fence was abandoned, they would sweep upon the fence and capture the last man. Major Gest, when he saw how matters were, placed the few men had had in position; and I started for my regiment. As I came to the pike, I saw a soldier shooting towards the east. It took but a moment for me to see that the Federals were east, south, and west of us.

The firing was now fierce, but I felt that my regiment must be brought out of that pocket at all hazards, and I started to warn it, when I found it retreating. Poor Ellis, a Welchman, had run the gauntlet and given them the warning, and the regiment was now retreating in a broken and confused manner. One of the boys, Gus Tomlinson, in tears said: "Parson, we've been whipped; the regiment is retreating." "And none too soon either," said I, "for we are surrounded on all sides but one." Just then I felt a strange dizziness and fell, my arm dropping lifeless by my side. I knew that I was hit, and I thought mortally wounded. But where was I hit? Was my arm torn off by a shell? No, here that is. Was i shot through the breast? or- yes, here it was - blood was gurgling from my throat. The dear boys rushed to me, laid me on a blanket and bore me off the field. I thought I was mortally wounded; so did they. "Yea, parson," said they, "It's all up with you." The ball had entered my neck, and ranging downward, came out near my spine paralyzing my arm. How does a man feel under such circumstances? Well one thing I felt, and that was, that it's a good thing in such an hour to have faith in in Christ and love towards all men. I had been in battle but there was not one of the soldiers of the Federal ranks for whom i had any feeling other than love. As we came out Hood's division went in, but it was the caution of the Federals and the cover of the night that saved our army from a worse defeat and from capture."


W.C. King and W.P. Derby. Camp-Fire Sketches and Battle-field Echoes: A Fighting Chaplain Experience at the Battle of South Mountain - Fierce Mortar Duels. (Springfield, Mass: King, Richardson, & Co., 1886). 147-149.

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