South Mountain by Rick Reeve

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

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Many of our men were falling...": Recollection of Rufas Dawes, 6th Wisconsin Infantry

Rufus Dawes
 In the late afternoon hours of September 14th, what would become known as the Iron Brigade would advance directly against the Confederate defenses holding Turner's Gap. Major Rufus Dawes, as part of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry, would participate in the assault. He would write about his experiences during the war and they would be published in 1890. The following is an excerpt covering the regiments march through Frederick and into battle on the 14th, the night after the battle, and the pursuit on the 15th.

"Our camp on the quiet Sabbath morning of September 14, 1862, was in the valley of the Monocacy, new Frederick, Maryland. There are few fairer landscapes in our country than this valley affords from its eastern range of hills. The morning was bright, warm, and clear. The bells of the city of Frederick were all ringing. It was a rejoicing at the advent of the host of her deliverance, the Army of the Potomac. The spires of the city were glistening in the morning sunlight. To the south-west could be distinctly heard the muttering of cannon. This was General Stonewall Jackson attacking the garrison at Harper's Ferry. From right to left along the valley below us, were stretched the swarming camps of the blue coats, and every soldier felt his courage rise at the sight. Through a wooded and uneven country, by different and devious routes, the columns of the grand army had marched forward. We had known something of their progress, but had not so felt their power as we did now when they were concentrating before us. The deep feeling of almost affectionate admiration among the solders for the commander of our army, General McClellan, was often thus expressed: "We have got a General now, and we will show the country what we can do."

At eight o'clock A.M., our brigade marched forward on the National turnpike, the sixth Wisconsin in advance. Our entry into the city was triumphal. The stars and stripes floated from every building and hung from every window. The joyful people thronged the streets to greet and cheer the veterans of the Army of the Potomac. Little children stood at nearly every door, freely offering cool water, cakes, pies, and dainties. The jibes and insults of the women of Virginia, to which our men had become accustomed, had here a striking contrast in a generous and enthusiastic welcome by the ladies of Frederick City. At eleven A.M. we reached the summit of the Katoctin mountain. Fences and trees showed marks of a skirmish of the evening before. From the summit of this mountain a splendid view was spread before us, in the valley of Middleton. Over beyond the valley, eight miles away, from along the slopes of the South Mountain, we could see arising the smoke of battle. We hurried  along down the road toward the scene of action, every gun of which we could see and hear. Our march through the little village of Middleton was almost a counterpart of our reception at Frederick City. The people were more excited as the cannon boomed loud and near, and bloodstained soldiers were coming in from the field of battle. Hearing that a colonel of an Ohio regiment had been brought in to Middleton, wounded, I made a special inquiry and found that it was Lieutenant Colonel Hayes of the 23rd Ohio (Rutherford B. Hayes). We marched on beyond Middleton about a mile and a half and then turned into a field to make our coffee. The fires were not kindled, when an order came to fall in and move forward. It was announced that General Hooker had said "that the crest of that mountain must be carried to-night." General Hatch's division turned from the National road toward the right, but an order was recieved assigning Gibbon's brigade to a special duty. The brigade countermarched and advanced again on the National road for half a mole. We then turned to the left into a field and formed two lines of battle. The seventh Wisconsin and nineteenth Indiana were in the front line; the second and sixth Wisconsin in the second line. We had in the ranks of our regiment for hundred men. Simmon's Ohio battery, planted in this field, was firing shell at the rebels on the summit of South Mountain. Before us was a valley, beyond which by a steep and stony slope, rose the South Mountain range. From our position to the summit of South Mountain was perhaps two miles. Two miles away on our right, long lines and heavy columns of dark blue infantry could be seen pressing up the green slopes of the mountain, their bayonets flashing like silver in the rays of the setting sun, and their banners waving in beautiful relief against the background of green. 

Battle of South Mountain

Turner's gap through which the National turnpike passes over the mountain, was directly in our front. To attack this pass was the special duty for which we had been selected. To our left along the wooded slopes, there was a crash of musketry, and the roll of cannon, and a white cloud of battle smoke rose above the trees. From Turner's gap in our front, and along the right on the summit of the mountain, the artillery of the enemy was firing, and we could see the shells bursting over and among our advancing troops. For nearly an hour we laid upon the grassy knoll, passive spectators of the scene. The sun was sinking behind the mountain, when our order came to move forward. 

The two regiments in front (7th Wisconsin and 19th Indiana) moved in line of battle. Our regiment and the 2nd Wisconsin followed at supporting distance, formed in double columns. Thus we went down into the valley and began to climb the slope of the mountain, which was smooth at first and covered with orchards and cornfields. The regiment was halted in an orchard and two companies ("B" Captain Rollin P. Converse and "K" Lieutenant John Ticknor) were sent forward as skirmishers. Our skirmishers immediately encountered skirmishers of the enemy and drove them slowly up the mountain, fighting for every inch of the ground. Nothing could be finer than the conduct of these two companies, or more gallant than the bearing of their young leaders. The officer commanding the skirmishers of the second Wisconsin, Captain Wilson Colwell, was killed.

For half a mile of advance, our skirmishers played a deadly game of "Bo-peep," hiding behind logs, fences, rocks and bushes. Two pieces of artillery of battery "B" moved up on the turnpike under Lieutenant James Stewart, and when the skirmishers were checked, they would wheel into action and fire shell at the houses, barns, or thickets, where the rebels found a cover. The enemy now turned upon us the fire of their batteries, planted in the pass near the mountain top, but their shot flew over. 

General Gibbon mounted upon his horse and riding upon high ground where he could see his whole line, shouted orders in a voice loud and clear as a bell and distinctly heard throughout the brigade. It was always "Forward! Forward!" Just at dusk we came to a rough, stony field, skirted on its upper edge by timber. Our skirmishers had encountered the enemy in force and were behind a fence. The seventh Wisconsin in front of us, climbed the fence and moved steadily forward across the field and we followed them, our regiment being formed in double column. Suddenly the seventh Wisconsin halted and opened fire, and we could see a rabid spitting of musketry flashes from the woods above and in front of us, and wounded men from the seventh began to hobble by us. The sharpest fire came from a stonewall, running along in a ravine toward the left of the seventh. Captain John B. Callis was in command of that regiment. He ordered a change of front, throwing his right forward to face the wall; but there burst from the woods, skirting the right of the field, a flame of musketry which sent a shower of bullets into the backs of the men of the right wing of the seventh Wisconsin. Many men were shot by the enfilading fire to which they could make no reply. Captin Hollon Richardson came running towards us shouting: "Come forward, sixth!" Sharp and clear rang out on the night, the voice of Bragg: "Deploy column! By the right and left flanks, double quick, march!" The living machine responded to this impulsive force with instant action, and the column was deployed into line of battle. The right wing of our regiment came into open field, but the left wing was behind the seventh. "Major!" order Bragg, "Take command of the right wing and fire on the woods!" I instantly ordered:
"Attention, right wing, ready, right oblique, aim, fire, load at will, load!" The roll of this wing volley had hardly ceased to reverberate, when Bragg said: "Have your men lie down on the ground, I am going over you." "Right wing, lie down! Look out, the left wing is going over you!" was the command. Bragg had brought the left wing behind the right wing and he ordered them forward over the ment of the right wing as they laid upon the ground. The left wing fired a volley into the woods, and the right wing advanced in the same manner over them and fired a volley into the woods. Once more Bragg gave a volley by the left wing. There were four volleys by wing given, at the word of command. In a long experience in musketry fighting, this was the single instance I saw of other than a fire by file in battle. The characteristic of Colonel Bragg in battle was a remarkably quick conception and instant action. The conduct of the men was worthy of their commander. In the deployment of the column under fire, they hurried over the rough and stony field with the utmost zeal, and while many men were struck by the bullets of the enemy, there was neither hesitation nor confusion. After the four volleys by wing and a welcome cheer by the seventh Wisconsin, there was positive enthusiasm. Our whole line was slowly advanced up the mountain, the men shouting and firing. The rebels behind the stone wall and i the timber shout: "O, you d---d Yanks, we gave you h--ll again at Bull Run!" Our men would shout back: "Never mind Johnny, its no McDowell after you now. 'Little Mac' and 'Johnny Gibbon' are after you now." The rebels fell back from the woods, but stuck to the stone wall. The hostile lines had approached each other closely and the fire was deadly. It was dark and our only aim was by the flashes of the enemy's guns. Many of our men were falling, and we could not long endure it. Colonel Bragg took the left wing, directing me to keep up the fire with the right wing, and crept up into the woods on our right, advancing a considerable distance up the mountain. He gained higher ground than that of the enemy in our front, and from this position opened fire. 

Colonel Bragg directed me to join him with the right wing. Owing to the thick brush and the darkness of the night, it was a difficult matter to scramble up the stony side of the mountain. To add to our difficulties, the rebels opened fire upon us; but our gallant left wing fired hotly in return and the junction was completed. Our cartridges were getting short and our guns were dirty with bad powder. Gradually by direction of Colonel Bragg we ceased firing and lay still on the ground. A man in company "A" exclaimed: "Captain Noyes, I am out of cartridges!" It is likely that the enemy in the woods above us heard him, for they immediately opened upon us a heavy fire. We returned the fire, and for a short time the contest was very sharp. This was the last of the battle. When all was again still, Colonel Bragg felt sure that he could here the enemy withdrawing. He ordered, "Three cheers for the Badger State." They were given and brought no reply. A few volunteer skirmishers crept forward into the woods in front of us. Further pursuit was impossibly. We were nearly out of ammunition and our guns so dirty that we could hardly use them. We lay among thing bushes on the steep rough slope of a mountain in almost total darkness. 

We did not dare to let the men sleep. Colonel Bragg sent to General Gibbon for ammunition. General Gibbon replied that it was impossible for him to furnish it, but that he hoped that we would soon be relieved by other troops. He said that we must hold the position we had gained so long as there was "an inch of our bayonets left." The night was chilly, and in the woods intensely dark. Our wounded were scattered over a great distance up and down the mountain, and were suffering untold agonies. Owing to the difficulties of the ground and the night, no stretcher bearers had come upon the field. Several dying men were pleading piteously for water, of which there was not a drop in the regiment, nor was there any liquor. Captain Kellogg and I searched in vain for a swallow for our noble fellow (William Lawrence, Co. I) who dying in great agony from a wound in his bowels. He recognized us and appreciated our efforts, but was unable to speak. The dread reality of war was before us in this frightful death, upon the cold, hard stones. The mortal suffering, the fruitless struggle to send a parting message to the far off home, and the final release by death, all enacted in the darkness, were felt even more deeply than if the scene had been relieved by the light of day. After a long interval of this horror, our stretcher bearers came, and the poor suffering heroes were carried back to houses and barns. At last word came that General Sumner's troops were marching up the mountain to relieve us. How glade we were to hear it, they only can know who have experienced the feeling of prostration produced by such scenes and surroundings, after the excitement of a bloody battle. It was after midnight, and it seemed to us bitterly cold. The other regiments of our brigade had marched down the mountain, but our relief--where was it? We sent Adjutant Brooks to General Gibbon, who said that our relief had been ordered, and would certainly come. But it did not come. Colonel Bragg finally sent Adjutant Brooks to Brigadier General Willis A. Gorman, the brigade commander, who had orders to relieve us. The Adjutant reported that he offered to lead the war to prevent the possibility of confusion or mistake, but that General Gorman's reply was:" I can't send men into that woods to-night. All men are cowards in the dark." He forgot that the men whom he condemned to shivering and misery for the rest of the night had fought and won a bloody battle in the dark. We were not relieved until eight o'clock in the morning of September 15th, when the 2nd New York regiment of Gorman's brigade came up. As soon as it became daylight, we examined the field of battle, and found many dead and wounded rebels. The troops opposed to us were five regiments of a brigade commanded by Colonel A.H. Colquitt, the 6th, 23rd, 26th, and 28th Georgia, and 13th Alabama regiments. One rebel soldier from Georgia, wounded in the head, his face a gore of blood, fled from us as we approached. We could hardly persuade him that it was not our purpose to kill him. 

General George B. McClellan was stationed in the same field where Simmon's Ohio battery was planted and he had watched our brigade in the engagement. He wrote the following to the Governor of Wisconsin: " I beg to add my great admiration of the conduct of the three Wisconsin regiments in General Gibbon's brigade. I have seen them under fire acting in a manner that reflects the greatest possibly credit and honor upon themselves and their stated. They are equal to the best troops in any army in the world."

After being relieved by the second New York we marched down the mountain to the National turnpike and the men began to build fires to make coffee and cook their breakfast, but we were ordered to march immediately to the Mountain House on the top of South Mountain. It was hard, but the men fell in promptly and marched along munching dry hard tack. It was now 24 hours since they had had their coffee. Our brigade was put by General Hooker in the advance in the pursuit of the enemy and our regiment marched at the head of the column. We pushed along the turnpike down the western slope of the mountain. Presently old gray haired men, citizens of Maryland, came rushing up to meet us. They seemed almost frantic with joy. They swung their hats and laughed and cried without regard for appearances. Once respectable old gentleman who trotted along beside my horse said; " We have watched for you, Sir, and we have prayed for you and now thank God you have come."

Here his feelings got the better of him and he mounted a bank and began to shout. The last I saw of him, he was shouting and thanking God and the 19th Indiana was responding with lusty cheers. As we approached the village of Boonsboro, it seemed deserted, but when our column entered the streets, doors and windows flew open and the people thronged out to greet us. Flags that had been hidden in the darkest corner were now unfurled. These people informed us that the rebel infantry had passed through the town in haste and in much disorder. Colonels were in some cases, they said, carrying regimental banners. They said that General Lee was present when the retreat commenced. We turned to the left in Boonsboro toward Antietam Creek."
Two days later, Dawes and comrades would find themselves in the maelstrom that was David Miller's cornfield now known as The Cornfield. Dawes would survive the fighting at Antietam and go to serve in the Army of the Potomac until the summer of 1864 when he mustered out of service. He would be made a brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers in 1866 to date from March 1865. After the war, he would serve on the board of trustees for Marietta College and serve one term in the US House of Representatives. He would pass away in 1899.

Dawes, Rufus Robinson, Service with the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers, Marietta (OH): E.R. Alderman & Sons, 1890. Available online at here.