Monday, October 22, 2012

"I had not had a chance even to sleep for the two or three nights and days previous:" Lafayette McLaws' Advance to the West Woods

Following is a letter from Lafayette McLaws to Henry Heth from the Antietam Studies papers at the National Archives. This collection of documents contains veteran's replies to queries from the Antietam Battlefield Board as to their recollections about the events of September 17, 1862. Ezra Carman eventually used these letters to cobble together his sweeping monograph of the Maryland campaign of 1862. [1]
Savannah, Ga., December 13, 1894
General Heth:[2]
A communication from War Department, Antietam Battlefield Commission, Washington, D.C., December 3d instant, and signed by yourself received.
I have written and published a full account of the movements of my Division, in the Philadelphia Weekly Press, to which paper, I am indebted for many courtesies, and I also delivered a lecture in Boston, the subject being the Maryland Campaign—this last was published the morning after it was delivered in the Boston Herald. I cannot at present find a copy of either paper, but as a change of residence has confused everything about the house, I hope to find a copy of both papers and will take the liberty of sending the one to you which gives the most complete history (in my opinion). I would be glad if you would read it, for it contains much matter that is not in “History”? and it is only the nar[r]ative of events given in detail that the true history of events can be learned. The officia[l] reports, at least, those of the U.S. graduates in the army are so condensed that only the results can be learned, and not how it was that those results were obtained.
I crossed the river before daylight, coming from Harper’s Ferry and it was so dark, I had to use torches in crossing and for some distance on this side, (Maryland side). I rode past the place where Gen. Lee was[,] of course was ignorant of his whereabouts, and on past Sharpsburg, this before sunrise, and there was not at that time any firing, nor was there any indication of the close proximity of the two contending armies, as I met no one. I rode back to halt my command, so that I could “look around” to find someone who could tell me where to go and in returning met General Longstreet and staff, coming from the rear. In reply to my question, where is General Lee? he turned in his saddle and pointed to a Bosque or mass of trees about 1/4 of a mile to his rear—said “you will find him among those trees”—when I came by he had just gotten out of his ambulance[.”] I galloped on and found General Lee with his coat off and washing his face (in the bunch of trees pointed out)—which was but a few yards from the road and dismounting reported to him the arrival of my command. He said “well general I am glad to see you, and have to thank you for what you have done, but we have I believe a hard days work before us, and you must rest your men. Do not let them come quite this far as the shells of the enemy fall about here, and halt them about 1/4 of a mile back on the road and I will send for you when I want you.”
I told him that not a half hour previous an order had come to me from General Jackson to go to the right.
General Lee replied “never mind that order but do as I told you and consider yourself as specially under my orders.”
I rode back and halted my command, in plain view of General Lee’s Headquarters and set word along my lines for the men to rest themselves, and not to stray as they would be needed before long.
I, myself, go off my horse turned him loose and was asleep in the tall grass in about a minute. I had not had a chance even to sleep for the two or three nights and days previous. The next thing I remember was being wakened by an officer who was a stranger to me.[3] I jumped up and asked what he wanted—He said “General we have been looking for you, the tall grass in which you were sleeping prevented our finding you. Your division has been called for by General Lee to move in hast[e], and as you could not be found it has been put in motion by your adjutant-general,[4] we will ride together and overtake it.” I mounted at once and we galloped to the head of my division. Anderson’s Division had been ordered to report to Longstreet. Of course I was ignorant of the location of either the enemy’s or of our army, but General D.H. Hill’s staff officer[5] pointed out the direction I was to go and I met General Hood riding by himself in the rear and he gave me additional information. I rode on ahead and quickly realized the state of affairs and halted head of column rapidly formed line to the front, but believing that the Confederate troops—where they were I did not know—were being driven rapidly from the woods in my front,[6] at about 150 yards distant. I told General Kershaw whose brigade was on the right, that we must get to the woods in front of us before the enemy got full possession and to do this I could not wait for his brigade to come up in line and he must double quick there and come up as we would forward. I gave the signal, by waving my handkerchief for the movement to commence in[. I]n a few minutes we were engaged. There was no engagement going on to my right, except now and then some desultory firing. There was some Georgia troops lying quiet in the cornfield to the right which had to give away to permit the advance of Kershaw. I believe they belonged (I do not know to what division) but I think to Hill.
But this I know, where I engaged them there were no Confederates between me and the enemy. Many had given away and gone I know not where, just as I was moving forward, General Jackson come up and directed me to send a Brigade to support Early and I directed General Semmes on my left to go with his brigade, he, General S[emmes] came to me after awhile (himself and courier only) and I asked him where was his brigade? He replied ["]you ordered me to support Earl[y.] I went to the left a short distance and marched in line to the top of the hill.[7] The enemy were there and I advanced against them[.] They stood until I opened fire, when they gave way and I pursued, until I found myself and command in close proximity to a force in my front much greater than mine, with other forces of the enemy to my left and right and as no troops were supporting me I had no other way of getting out of the “cul de sac.” I was in haste to give the order to the brigade to run back regardless of formation and form again in rear of these woods and they are now gathering about the haystack “just in rear.”["][8]
I asked where G[e]neral Earley’s [sic] command was, he said “I never saw it.”
I saw no Confederate dead or wounded over the ground I went over, except those of my own division—there was a plenty of those however—and of the opposing army a great many.
Walker could not certainly been before me, and I am sure he did not come after me over the same ground. Our forces were not in touch with each other during the charge, nor before, nor afterward. D.H. Hill’s command was on my right and Jackson’s on my left and of course his left was a considerable distance from me.
After the enemy had been repulsed, and my men had returned and were along crest of the hill toward the enemy, at edge of woods the enemy opened on us with a large number of guns and being at short range—all species of projectile was used against us. We had no combination of artillery to annoy this against this many of artillery, and had to lie down and take it, shelter ourselves behind the trees on the slope and the rocks and boulders which were plentiful on side of the hill.
During this General Jackson sent for me and asked me to go an reconnoiter on the left for him, as it was reputed that the enemy were demonstrating in that direction. Jeb Stuart and myself went to the left and getting on a small hill were using our glasses when a battery of eight guns about 1/4 of a mile distant fired all their pieces at us, at the same time, but they over-shot us and did not wait for a re[p]etition, as General S[emmes] and myself rode along we saw lines of troops on left of Jackson. We made no inquiries, but I expect Walker was there on the left, as he reports having been ordered there, and I heard heaving firing in that direction after my charge was over, about an hour and a half after, [w]hich coincides with Walker’s report as to time? He may have gone in about the church but of that I know nothing. Hood had been driven back and was much scattered, so I was told. I do not know where they reformed. I met Hood as I have stated and never saw him again on that field. His men may have been in the cornfield. I had no opportunity to reconnoiter on that day, for not long after my charge the enemy opened such a terrific cannonade upon me and at short range, throwing shot and shell, grape and cannister over us and among us with the evident intention to break our center, that we had to lie down along the slope of hill, where we were, and seek the shelter of the numerous trees and rocks which were there. General Lee sent to my aid whilst this was going on the brigades of Arm[i]stead and Ransom (A. was wounded whilst lying down). We had no mass of artillery to content against, the numerous and concentrated batteries of the enemy, but a short distance from us, this continued for some hours. Charlton’s battery from Georgia was put into position by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, being a special order from General Jackson, and against my protest, to reply to artillery of the enemy, but in ten minutes he lost half of his command and half of his horses and I ordered him to leave his guns and withdraw his horses and the infantry would help take care of them. I lost one gun of Read’s battery[9] on my right, which was disabled, the spokes of the wheels having been cut by infantry bullets, so General Kershaw reported.
I return the map with my route map[p]ed out from just beyond General lee’s headquarters. The map, the maps, does not conform to my recollections as to headquarters of General Lee. I do not thin[k] he was so close to Sharpsburg on the morning I write about. The Bosque he was in then was not 100 yards from the road. I never saw him afterward except on the bank of the river on the night we were re-crossing into Virginia, but I believe the route taken by my Division was correctly marked.[10]
I send the number of the Philadelphia Press of which I have spoken. It has a bearing on the battle of Sharpsburg as it goes to elucidate the condition of affairs when the battle commenced and as it progressed, and shows the exhausted condition in which both Anderson’s and the men of my division were in, when they arrived at Sharpsburg. My men had, had nothing to eat for 36 hours, nor did they get anything until the night after our arrival, as my command was in such close proximity to the enemy, that I had their rations cooked on the other side of the river and brought over. I have the certificate of my chief commissary showing this, and also showing how he failed to get any subsistence stores, from the large amount captured at Harper’s Ferry.
Very respectfully, Lafayette McLaws.
Antietam Studies, RG 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (Washington, D.C.). Typescript. In the upper left corner of page one, in long hand, is “Copy.”
1. Carman's manuscript has been recently published in two volumes. See, Ezra Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam, ed. Thomas G. Clemens (El Dorado Hills, California: Savas Beatie, 2012).

2. General Henry Heth was on the Antietam Battlefield Board.
3. McLaws, in his Official Report, states “my division was ordered to the front by an aide-de-camp of General Lee, Major Taylor.” This was Walter H. TaylorDouglas Southall Freeman, R.E. Lee: A Biography (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1934), Vol 1, p. 638); Antietam on the Web for Lafayette McLaw's Official Report,
4. This was Major T.S. Mcintosh who was later killed in the battle, “shot through the heart while carrying out one of my orders.” Antietam on the Web for Lafayette McLaws' Official Report,
5. McLaws reports that Maj. Ratchford of D.H. Hill’s staff pointed out the position that his division was to occupy. This was Major James Wylie Ratchford (1840-1910). Confederate Veterans Magazine (Vol. 19, p. 133); Antietam on the Web for Lafayette McLaws' Official Report,

6. West Woods.

7. This was Hauser's Ridge. See further, Atlas of the battlefield of Antietam, prepared under the direction of the Antietam Battlefield Board, Lieut. Col. Geo. W. Davis, U.S.A., president, Gen. E.A. Carman, U.S.V., Gen. H Heth, C.S.A. Surveyed by Lieut. Col. E.B. Cope, engineer, H.W. Mattern, assistant engineer, of the Gettysburg National Park. Drawn by Charles H. Ourand, 1899. Position of troops by Gen. E. A. Carman. Published by authority of the Secretary of War, under the direction of the Chief of Engineers, U.S. Army, 1908, 9:00-9:30 Map showing Semmes' advance. Also see, Semmes' Official Report at The movement of Semmes' Brigade will be the subject of future posts.

8. I have supplied the beginning and closing quotes with the supposition that McLaws is quoting Semmes in this passage. The opening quote, certainly, is required. The position of the closing quote, however, cannot be determined in the typescript and so should be viewed with some caution until the original manuscript can be consulted (if ever).
9. “Captain Read's battery had been placed in position on the right of the woods, which we had entered, and did most excellent service, but it was exposed to such a severe fire, General Kershaw ordered it back after losing 14: officers and men and 16 horses.” This was Captain J.P.W. Read’s Battery of the Pulaski (Georgia) Artillery. Antietam on the Web for Lafayette McLaws' Official Report, and Order of Battle,

10. The microfilm of the Antietam Studies collection at the National Archives contains map segments marked up by correspondents. The quality of the black and white image, however, makes it nearly impossible to discern anything especially since respondents often used colored pencils to mark their routes and positions. In a future visit to the Archives I will try to photograph (or arrange for a copy) from the original map in their collection.