Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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John C. West–A Texan in Search of a Fight.

July 27, 2013

John C. West–A Texan in Search of a Fight.

Letter No. X.

Camp Near Culpepper, C. H.,
July 27th, 1863.

To Major Charles S, West, Judge Advocate General of
Trans-Mississippi Department.

Dear Brother:

I would have attempted a letter to you long ago, but the difficulties presented to a private on a regular march unfit him for anything like recreation, and the uncertainty of getting a letter across the Mississippi disinclined me to make the attempt amid the confusion of camp life. If I were seated in a comfortable chair instead of having my naked buttocks upon the sand (for my last article of underwear is in the wash and the seat of my pants is in Pennsylvania.)

I could give you a succient account of the campaign into the enemy’s country; whereas you must be satisfied with this hurried and meagre history which Captain W. H. Hammon, our quartermaster, has promised me to mail across the river. We left the camp from which I now write on the fifteenth day of June, under a burning sun and a brazen sky. The march was conducted by that unmerciful driver, our beloved General Hood, who simply strikes a trot and is satisfied that the Texas Brigade at least will camp with him at nightfall. We moved twenty-four miles on that day, camping near Gaines’ Cross Roads, with the loss of two hundred men from sunstroke.

The road for the last ten miles was literally lined with soldiers fallen from exhaustion. We were required to wade Hazelrun, two branches of the Rappahanock, the Shenandoah and other minor streams, under positive orders not to stop to pull off or roll up. We crossed the last named on the afternoon of the 18th, and camped about a mile from it.

On the 19th we marched down the river and recrossed at Snigger’s Gap on the summit of the Blue Ridge. At those last two camps we were drenched in the hardest rains I ever saw, pouring down during the entire night. On the 20th, in the morning, we built a rock fence half a mile long and made all necessary arrangements to defend the Gap if required. On the afternoon of the same day we re-crossed the river and camped on the north side, four miles from Berryville. On the 21st marched ten miles down the river and three miles out from it through Millwood, and camped two miles from it and within four miles of Berryville on the regular turnpike, which passes through Martinsburg, Smithfield and several other smaller places.

At this camp it was formally announced that “we are about to go into the enemy’s country, that private property should be respected, that all pillaging and private foraging and should be abstained from as the troops would be subsisted upon the very best the enemy’s country afforded.” This amounted to an official falsehood or mistake, as the sequel showed. We trudged on, nothing occurring worthy of record until the twenty-sixth, on which we took breakfast in Virginia, dragged through mud and rain to the Potomac, crossed it at Williamsport, and were halted two miles beyond with the promise of rations and of time to cook them. Our wood was gathered, fires kindled, a stiff drink of whiskey issued to each man) about one-third got pretty tight), and the order to march was given. We dragged—many slipped down and literally rolled over in the mud (for it rained all the time), and among the most conspicuous was Captain M. of the Texas, one of your legislative brethren; and finally, about dusk we reached the Pennsylvania line and took supper in the United States. A brilliant and eventful day! Breakfast in Virginia, whiskey in Maryland and supper in Pennsylvania. The portions of the two last mentioned states through which we passed are the most thoroughly improved which I ever saw. There was not a foot of surplus or waste territory. All had been made to answer the demands of the consumer. Wheat, corn, clover, half a dozen varieties of grass, rye, barley—all in full growth and approaching maturity—met the eye at every turn, all enclosed in rock or strongly and closely built wooden fences. Apples, cherries, currants, pears, quinces, etc , in the utmost profusion, and bee hives ad infinitum. The barns were, however, the most striking feature of the landscape, for it was one bright panorama for miles. They invariably occupied the most select building site on the tract, and were equal in size, elegance and finish, and superior in arrangement and adaptation to this purpose to three-fourths of the dwellings in Texas. On the other hand, the dwellings, though neat and comfortable, were secreted in some nook or corner, as if there had been a close calculation that a horse or an ox being the larger animal, required a more spacious residence than a human being. I think the class or position in society must depend somewhat on the size and elegance of the barn.

The springs and milk houses or dairies were also a noted feature of the country. I think I have seen more than fifty springs equal to those of Barton, San Antonio, San Marcos and Salado. But the most singular phenomenon which impressed me was the scarcity of visible inhabitants, in this apparently densely populated region. Women and children were seen peeping about but as shy as partridges, but in the towns and villages men, women and children thronged by hundreds. I believe two brigades of able bodied men under thirty years of age could have been raised in Chambersburg alone. We were, of course, coldly received everywhere.

Our camp was not more than two miles beyond Chambersburg on the night of June 27. On the 29th we moved ten or twelve miles to Fayetteville and were encamped there until the evening of the 1st of July, the day on which the fight at Gettysburg was opened. About dusk we started for the battlefield, Hill and Jewell having driven the enemy four miles back on that day. General Lee, it was said among the men, was opposed to giving battle at that point, and in favor of giving the enemy the slip (I don’t know how), and marching straight for Baltimore. It was found that this would be impracticable, owing to the difficulty of protecting twenty or twenty-five miles of train from Yankee cavalry. It was then suggested to burn one-half the train. It was opposed by the argument that the subsistence would not be sufficient and the consequent risk of demoralization for want of food. General Lee then said to fight was the only chance, and he was fully satisfied of a complete victory.

Generals Longstreet and Hood were opposed to attacking the enemy in a position of their own choosing. I am unable without a map to describe the locality of the forces or the face of the country along the entire line, but can give you a faint idea of affairs on the right wing. Hood’s division occupied this, and our brigade was the last but one on the extreme right of the division. The line must have been five or six miles long. We were put into the fight about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of the 2d, having marched all night on the 1st and laid in line of battle all the morning of the 2d, and my first lesson as a recruit was to lie for about half an hour under what the most experienced soldiers called the worst shelling they ever witnessed. Several were killed and many wounded in a few feet of me, and the infernal machines came tearing and whirring through the ranks with a most demoralizing tendency. This, however, was soon over. Our line was formed, and with a voice that Stentor might have envied, General Hood gave the command: “Forward—steady!—Forward!” (He was on horseback, on the left of a line from our brigade to the battery playing upon us, and about three hundred yards from me.) And forward we went. The word was passed down the line, “Quick, but not double quick,” but we moved as fast as we could. Off went blankets, knapsacks and all surplus baggage, and yelling and screaming we rushed on the batteries—one on a lofty eminence beyond a rock fence and a small branch, the other back of it on quite a mountain about three hundred yards farther off and a little to the right—were full three quarters of a mile from us when the word “forward” was given. The result was the line became broken and confused and the men exhausted (having marched all of the previous night) by the time they reached the foot of the hill. Nevertheless, the first battery was taken, and after rallying in the best manner possible, several desperate efforts were made to charge the second, but courage and even desperation was useless. There were places full ten or fifteen feet perdendicular around which we were compelled to go, and the entire ascent would have been difficult to a man entirely divested of gun and accouterments. It was a mass of rock and boulders amid which a mountain goat would, have revelled, and being subjected to a fire on our left flank, made it a most dangerous and unsafe place for a soldier, and many a fellow reminded me of the alliteration, “Round the rude rock the ragged rascal ran.”

Our assault, with short intervals, was kept up until dark, when we rested on our arms and spent an uneasy night amid the crags. Our position was now rather in advance of the troops on our left. All day on the 3d we held our ground, making unsuccessful sallies, checking skirmishers and passing shots with sharpshooters, one of whom, secreted in a tree on the side of the mountain, put a bullet in an inch of my head as I leaned against a rock, part of the bullet flying into my lip.

About 4 o’clock in the afternoon cannonading was opened along the entire line, and such a thundering and crashing and roaring surely was never heard. An eagle in the very midst of a tremendous thunderstorm might possibly have experienced such confusion. All agreed that Sharpsburg and second Mannassas was not a priming to it. Milton’s account of the great battle between the combined forces of good and evil, which originated in this same question of secession, gives some faint idea of this artillery duel.

Later in the afternoon we heard terrible musketry on our left and yells and huzzahs swaying alternately back and forth as the line gave way, first one side and then the other. We could not see through the timber, but the location of the final huzzahs satisfied us that our center was giving way. This compelled us to withdraw down the mountain and out in the open field to prevent being flanked, which we accomplished with the loss of a few men. The fighting here ceased, darkness preventing either party from making any important move. We threw up breastworks on the 4th, with the hope that the enemy would leave his position in the mountains and attack us on the open plain, where we could have routed him and kept him in such confusion that a rally would have been impossible.

I believe the wounding of General Hood early in the action was the greatest misfortune of the day,. Our position could have been held by very few men, and if a considerable force had been thrown around the mountain to our right the enemy would have been routed in half an hour. I think many of the Federal army would have deserted, being in easy reach of home. Baltimore would have been ours and the New York riots would have been as famous as the battle of Bunker Hill.

As it is, let who will say to the contrary, we made Mannassas time from Pennsylvania. It is unnecessary to give any detailed account of myself. Suffice it to say I have endured more than I believed myself capable of. I have been through a campaign and participated in a furious and terrible battle. I am satisfied that I am not afraid to go into another, though, since the fall of Vicksburg, I prefer to be west of the Mississippi, closer to Texas and closer to my family. I would like to have a long talk with you, and hope for the better days when we can enjoy it. Write to my wife and let her know that you have received this letter. I had intended to allude to that “official falsehood” referred to above, but let it pass. Suffice it to say that if we had depended on our commissaries, we would have suffered seriously for food.

                                            Your brother, truly,

John C. West.

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