Friday, December 26, 2014

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 2

This is the second entry in the correspondence of Lieutenant Henry Ropes to his family between September 3 and October 5, 1862. Ropes was a Second Lieutenant in Company K of the 20th Massachusetts, Dana’s Brigade, Sedgwick’s Division, II Corps.

Camp 20th Regiment, Mass.
Near Alexandria, Va. September 3rd 1862.

My dear Father.

After 4 days of tiresome marching and picket duty, we are brought to the same place which we left on Saturday last. I wrote you from Chain Bridge that we were to occupy some forts permanently.[1] Then orders were changed and we crossed the Chain Bridge and went to some hills N.W. of Washington. Here we heard all day Saturday the heavy Canonading, and we knew a great battle was going on.
Map showing detail of Washington defenses.
The regiment moved across Chain Bridge to Tennallytown
and Ft. Pennsylvania (later renamed Fort Reno).

We marched again at 3 a.m. On Sunday; passed through Georgetown, crossed the river and marched through a heavy rain to Fairfax Court House, Va. Where we arrived at 12 m. after a march of 22 hours. We had several long halts however, and the march was well conducted and not very trying.

As we expected fully to go to the front and be engaged with the enemy very soon, I kept with the Regiment although my foot was very lame. 

We lay down for a few hours at Fairfax my Company[2] and Co. I being advanced and pickets thrown out, for a body of Rebel Cavalry &c. had appeared in rear of our main Army. Monday morning we advanced about 5 miles and occupied a road and rested all day. Our pickets were thrown out, and met a few of the enemy, and we had one man of Company C wounded. 

We found a large body of Cavalry had got in between us and the main body of the Army at Centreville. In the afternoon Hooker advanced, and attacked them, and we formed part of the 2d line, behind a hastily built breast work. I hear he drove them off. A rain storm made the night very uncomfortable, but Tuesday was a very fine day, and very cool.

Our Army now fell back, leaving us as the extreme Infantry advance. Casey[3] & Slocum[4] formed line of battle behind us and the Cavalry were a little in front of us. At about 5 P.M. We fell back, and afterwards halted and let all the other troops go by, and our Brigade covered the retreat. We were still detached from our Division and were now under Hooker. The enemy pressed us, but a section of horse Artillery was ordered to the rear and kept them back. I at first rode with the Regiment on the Adjutant’s horse, but before long got a chance to ride on a Caisson of a Regiment of Artillery in Bank’s Corps,[5] and thus reached Alexandria soon after midnight. The Artillery went much farther than the Regiment without my knowledge, and I could not find the Regiment in the darkness and therefor got in at a house and slept till this morning when I found the Regiment. I am now with it here. I rode because my foot was very lame after my long march. 

This morning I have seen Col. Lee and Major Revere,[6] and they both look very well, and we are delighted to see them again here. We shall no doubt have a season of rest here. The Army needs a month to recruit and refit, and then I hope we shall make our last advance. 

I am in perfect health, and have, no doubt a few days rest will restore my foot. 

I have received from Col. Lee’s servant the shoulder straps, pail &c. And thus I see you must have got my trunk and keys. I hope to write again very soon. Excuse this letter written under great difficulties.

All well in the Regiment.

Your affectionate Son



The source for Henry Ropes’ correspondence is the three volume transcription of Ropes outbound correspondence to his father, mother, and his brother, John C. Ropes. The original transcription can be found at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library. 

Henry Ropes was killed at Gettysburg on July 3 and from that point on, John C. Ropes undertook a life-long pursuit to memorialize his brother’s life and the regiment’s history. The transcription volumes are the center piece of John C. Ropes work and his legacy. Each of the three transcribed volumes are organized chronologically: Volume 1 is Henry Ropes’ correspondence to his father and mother, and Volume 2 and 3 to his brother, John C. Ropes. 

For more on the Ropes correspondence, see Richard F. Miller’s excellent essay on historical bibliography at pages 495-499 in his superlative study on the 20th Massachusetts in Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005). Any errors in transcribing and annotating the selected correspondence are mine.


[1] Probably Fort Ethan Allen or Fort Marcy (see map above), that guarded the western approach to the Chain Bridge. 
[2] Company K.
[3] So far, I am unsure what this reference is to. Brigadier General Silas Casey’s Division had been detached from the Army of the Potomac after Seven Pines and sent to operations at Suffolk,Virginia and later the coast of North Carolina.
[4] Major General Henry W. Slocum, commanded the 1st Division of the VI Corps. See further, David A. Welker's Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).
[5] Bank’s Corps was the II Corps of the Army of Virginia. Banks would be relieved from command on September 7 and five days later General Order 129 would change its designation to the XII Corps, Army of the Potomac, under command of Major General Joseph F. Mansfield. 
[6] Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891), attended West Point but dropped out in 1829Major Paul Joseph Revere, grandson of Paul Revere and Harvard graduate (1862).

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