South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Friday, February 4, 2011

A professor's recollections..

The following is a letter from Professor Gabriel Campbell. Professor Campbell was the captain of Company E, 17th Michigan during the Battle of South Mountain. He enlisted in June 1862 and was appointed captain of Company E. He would resign his commission in November 1863 to return to college to complete his degree in Philosophy. He would go onto to teach at the University of Minnesota and Bowdoin College. Company E was unique in that its ranks were made up of mostly students from the Michigan State Normal School, known today as Eastern Michigan University. It was written to Ezra Carmen for his history of the 1862 Maryland Campaign.

Dartmouth College
Hanover, N.H. Aug 23 1899.

Dear General Carmen,

I think you will find the following a very accurate itinerary of the 17th Mich at South Mountain, Sep 14, 1862.

Leave Camp 9:00 AM
March through Middletown   10:00 AM
At foot of mountain     11:30 AM
Enfiladed by battery    12:00 noon
Prostrate in cornfield   1:00 PM
"Attention" called        3:00 PM
First Charge        4:00 PM

The ridge of So Mountain ran nearly N and S, the road at the summit nearly East and West.

When I visited the field in 1892, I found that most of the woods had been cut away, the woods on the east of Wise's field, however remaining; while the little field, about an acre and a half was quite overgrown by trees and buses, the woods to the west remaining. Meanwhile the walls of the lane had been rebuilt about 20 yards to the west, the lane running close by the east end of the Wise house. Near the road, the south part of the wall had been carried to the east bringing it nearly in a line with the lane. The ditch like accent had been washed away and much leveled and an ordinary wagon road or highway had taken its place.

Of course, the so called "lane" was the "ridge" road, which here had a stone wall on either side. The walls were about three feet in height. The road, however, was worn or washed out so that the center of the "lane" was some six inches deeper than the sides.

Where we filed to the right at the deep cut of the road suddenly ended, the road sides becoming level. As we began to leave the cut, the rebels began to enfilade us. I stood at the edge of the track until my company (E) had all filed past. I could see the cannon balls coming, bounding down the road. One came within arms length of me, dashing through the head of the company just behind. There was an immediate scramble up the sides of the ditch and out of range.

Just as I was turning into the field, Gen Willcox came flying up on his horse, saying to me "Is this my Michigan". "Form into line". The expression "My Michigan" was applied to the 17th because we had been his escort in Detroit when he was given the reception upon his return from the rebel prison to which he was taken from The First Bull Run. Our Col. Withington was Captain in the 1st Michigan under col. Willcox and was taken prisoner with him. Willcox applied to the Secretary of War and had the 17th ,for that reason, put in his division.

Crossing to the left of the road, we marched forward in line of battle until we came in range of rebel batteries to the NW and W and of infantry in the woods before us. Here we fell on our faces, the grape shot cutting off the leaves of corn until we were quite thoroughly covered [a] considerable number were wounded.

Falling back a short distance, we passed into the woods to the right of the road. Here we formed in column of battalions, the left wing forming behind the right, the two wings mingling, the companies mixing as we moved on.

Although there was a sharp fire from the stockade, which reminded me of a hail storm on the roof, our men gave tremendous shouts as there were coming out of the woods pressing on without pausing. Although met by a terrific storm of bullets from the stone wall, we simply rushed forward giving a storm in reply. But before we could make a bayonet thrust, the enemy fled. The rebel batteries now fairly swept the open field. This drove us to the left across the road and into the woods. At the edge of the woods, came the tug of war. We were square in front of the double lines at the lane. The batteries played upon the woods bringing down an abundance of branches, but doing little damage. The discharge of musketry from the lane was a constant blaze. Evidently, they were unable to take aim and fired over us. We aimed at the top of the wall.

After a while, the artillery firing relaxed momentarily and our right moved into the field across the road and advanced to the stone wall when the rebel regiment was soon dislodged, but fought as it fell back across that field. Our men now obtained a raking fire from behind the wall, then a flank fire from the north on the men behind the lane walls. Upon this the major part of the regiment pressed across Wise's field from the east but the rebels fell back. We pursued them down the slope and into the woods, taking many prisoners. We at once began to reform the regiment at the edge of the woods to the east of Wise's field when we had done most of the fighting. Here we rested on our arms for the night.

As soon as we had fixed the point of rendezvous, I secured a small detachment of men and started to care for the wounded, who had been left on the field. Just as we finished removing and caring for the wounded in the field, a few rebels without arms appeared coming into the field, ostensibly looking for their dead and helpless comrades. I quickly observed that they were pilfering from our dead as well as their own, and also gathering up arms, occasionally discharging a musket into the air. When I remonstrated with them for picking pockets and firing at random, they answered [illegible]. As I was now the only Union soldier in the field, I walked quietly towards the exit. Just as I reached the doorway at the S.E. corner, I men General Willcox who asked with some indignation what that firing meant. I replied the men were rebels who were robbing the dead and picking up arms. I pointed to several who were just then climbing the fence, coming in from the woods, and added this was evidently the beginning of a volley. Gen. Willcox turned his horse, touching him with his spur, and rode back hastily. The twilight was growing dusky. Meditating on the stranger events of the day- a most suggestive Sunday eve- I was winding my way slowly back to the regiment when, about 50 yards from where I met Gen. Willcox, I encountered Gen. Reno and four or five members of his staff riding quietly to the front.

Reno, who was about half the length of his steed in advance, was leaning forward peering steadily through his field glass, in order, evidently, to reconnoiter for himself. I stood and watched. Just as I reached the end of the fence, there was a sudden fusillade- five or six shots in about a couple of seconds. There was at once commotion among the Reno horsemen, a dismounting and catching of someone. Evidently the rebels had begun to form behind the stone fence. Quickly an orderly comes back leading several horses. To my inquiring "what happened?" , he answered, "Reno's shot." Immediately men bearing the General on a blanket follow. They pause as they meet me, and are glad of a little assistance in carrying the middle of the blanket on the right side, which duty fell to me. It was too dark to see Reno's face at all closely. He seemed pale but perfectly composed. No one of us spoke. We bore our beloved commander silently, slowly, tenderly.

Reaching the corner of the wood east of the Wise Field, we were met by attendants and a stretcher. As we placed him on the better resting place, he looked up at us gratefully. It was the last I saw of the brave Gen. Reno. I may add that although conscious that he was mortally wounded, he did not utter a word or a groan as we were carrying him off the field. When the commander of the division came up, Reno said, "Willcox, I am killed. Shot by our own men." This implies that Gen. Reno did not, in the gathering darkness, satisfy himself that the rebels were so close at hand. Gens. Sturgis and Rodman, with their supporting divisions, were very nearly abreast of Reno, coming up, as they did, across the field to the North of the road. He could scarcely have recognized such a mistake as possibly on their part. Of course, he thought the shooting random and not intentional. Possessed of the conviction that the rebels were not there, it was the necessary inference that he was killed by his own men.

It is my recollection that Cox, his successor, at first accepted this opinion. In the Chicago Tribune for 1877 or 1978, there was a discussion by D.H. Hill and Cox as to the death of Reno, the article for each general representing a different view. My article following practically closed the contention. When the committee was locating the Reno monument at S.M., Gen. Hartfrant sent me a diagram of the field asking for facts as to where Reno was shot. Gen. Hartfrant died before I learned the result, but his chief of staff told me my testimony settled the question. The monument stands on the side of the road close beside the lane.

Our supporting troops, promptly, met the volleying rebels who fought for several hours to regain what they had found to be an uncommonly strong position. In the forenoon, the 30 and 36 Ohio had each struggled valiantly to dislodge the enemy from the lane but without success. A considerable number of the dead behind the lane walls were evidently the result of these struggles earlier in the day. I never saw it where dead men so emphatically heaped up. I recollect the group photograph in the Century War Book.

The 17 Mich was no doubt chosen for this emergency because it was strong and new. The report that there were about 500 for duty must be a mistake. Company A was absent on Provost duty at Frederick, and say 10-15 percent sick or detached, this would mean between 700 to 800 for duty. Evidently the new regiments were thought more reliable by the commanding generals than old ones for an attack in front of stonewalls, old ones being more inclined to "shy off" and attack the flank in such cases. When  Gen Willcox in his report speaks of a contest of some minutes he, of course, refers to only the carrying of the first stone wall on the right of the road.

My Co. E, was composed mainly of students from the Mich School and University. I do not see how better soldiers could exist. Their one impulse was to press forward and win. I prefer, however, that others should commend. As I have been writing the seven and thirty years have seemed to pass out of existence, an again its only the day after the battle. I hear again the church bells of Middletown ringing as we march through the town.

Very Truly Yours,
Gabriel Campbell
Capt. 17th Mich

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