Sunday, January 11, 2015

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 7

This is the seventh 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 on Battlefield near Sharpsburg
Md. September 20, 1862.

My dear John.

I have written to Father giving an account of the late battle. I have received 2 letters from you of the 12th one from Mother of the 8th and one from Mary Ann, and one from Father of the 9th inst. Which I have not yet acknowledged.

Yesterday I went over the field, and it was really a most awful sight. The dead were really piled up and lay in rows. The slaughter was more awful than anything I ever read of, for it is not a small field on which the dead lay thickly scattered as if there was a separate fight at that one place, but a vast extent of country several times as large as the Commons⁠[1] where there is no place which you can stand and not see the field black with dead bodies as far [as] the eye can reach. Then the wounded gathered into barns &c. are an awful sight. The Rebels let them lay for 2 days without care, and would not allow our men to either take them off, or dress their wounds, as they lay, although their own men robbed them of everything and often stripped their clothes from their bodies. No description I ever
Location of the 20th Massachusetts in the West Woods.
Detail from Cope/Carman Map, 1904. Library of Congress.
read begins to give one an idea of the slaughter and the horrible sights of this battle-field. We drove them for about 1/2 miles, and they then repulsed us from the ravine into which we were too hastily advanced.⁠
[2] The Artillery was by far the heaviest we have ever yet heard.

The 20th has lost about 150 about of about 400, and it never acted better or better supported its reputation for perfect steadiness. The advance of our Division was a splendid sight. I had 2 very narrow escapes. The spent ball made a hole in my coat and only scraped up the shirt a little and made me lame for a day. The Cannon ball I saw distinctly. It first hit the branch of a tree, glanced, passed between my legs slightly burning my knee and leaving a black mark on my pants. It struck the ground behind me and again glanced up and smashed the shoulder of Corporal Campion⁠[3] of my Company. A great many of our men were killed by the grape shot they piled into us from the top of the hill⁠[4] about as far off as from our house to Charles St.⁠[5] 

Well, it is over, and we may not see another such battle for many months.

Much obliged to you for your attention to my things. Your recruit has not yet come. James is doing better of late and [seems] capable of improvement. I should not take an enlisted man for a servant. Col. Lee⁠[6] is well and in command of the Brigade, Genl. Howard⁠[7] of the Division; Capt. Dreher⁠[8] of the Regiment. Herbert⁠[9] is all right and unhurt. So are all other friends except those I mentioned as wounded. We have beaten the enemy badly and they acknowledge it. I should not wonder if the war was now brought to a speedy end.

I have heard that our left was unprotected in consequence of Genl. French taking a wrong road. He should have been there.

I have received the pistol &c. And have determined to keep John Bradlee⁠[10] and send home the heavy one. Have not seen Lieut. Morse⁠[11] of the 2d. They were out near us for 2 days. Saw Caspar⁠[12] and Forbes⁠[13] of the Cavalry the other day. Murphy⁠[14] and Abbot⁠[15] were left sick at Frederick and were not in the battle.

Your affectionate brother,


Source NoteThe 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 The Boston Commons.

2 The location of the 20th Massachusetts in the West Woods placed them in a broad depression between two limestone ridges. See, illustration.

3 This was Irish-born Corporal Edward J. Campion. He and his brother, Sgt. Patrick J. Campion, served in Company K, 20th Massachusetts. The medical history of Corporal Campion follows: “Campion, Edward J., Corporal, Co. K, 20th Massachusetts, aged 31 years. Antietam, September 17th 1862. Shell fracture of right temporal bone. Baltimore hospitals. Removal of spicular of bone. Discharged March 10, 1863. Examiner David Choate, M.D., reports, November 27th, 1863, that the patient is subject to vertigo, palpitation, and morbid wakefulness. He was admitted to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers at Togus, Maine on September 20, 1887 where he lived until his death on December 26, 1910. The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870), p. 238; 62d Congress, 2d Session (December 4, 1911-August 26, 1912) House Documents, Vol. 121 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1912), p. 287; National Archives, Record Group 94, (M544, Roll 0006). Alphabetical card index to the compiled service records of volunteer Union soldiers belonging to units from the State of Massachusetts.

4 This would be Hauser’s Ridge.

5 The 9:00 to 9:30 location of the 20th Massachusetts is marked on the Antietam Battlefield Board Atlas a little less than 600 yards from Brockenbrough’s and D’Aquin batteries located on Hauser Ridge. The distance from the family residence on 92 Beacon Street and Charles Street is 500 feet. Cope/Carman Map 1904; Boston Directory… for the Year Commencing, July 1, 1862 (Boston: Adams, Sampson, & Co., 1862); Mitchell’s New General Atlas, Plan of Boston (Philadelphia: S. Augustus Mitchell, 1866).

6 Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891), attended West Point but dropped out in 1829. John C. Ropes, “William Raymond Lee,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 28 (May, 1892-May, 1893), pp. 346-348.

7 General Oliver O. Howard (1830-1909), took command of the division vice the wounded John Sedgwick. Cullum’s Register.

8 Captain Ferdinand Dreher (1822-1863) commissioned as Major on September 5, 1862 will be wounded at Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862 and die in Boston on April 30, 1863. Annual Report of the Adjutant General of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with reports from the Quartermaster-General, Surgeon-General, and Master of Ordnance for the Year Ending December 31, 1862 (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1863), pp. 676-77; NARA, RG 15, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861 - 1934, Application Number WC8673.

9 Lt. Herbert Cowpland Mason (1840-1884), Harvard College, 1862, will be severely wounded in the West Woods.

10 Unknown reference.

11 Lt. Charles Fessenden Morse (1839-1926), Harvard (1858) served as Captain of Company B, 2nd Massachusetts.

12 Caspar Crowinshield (1837-1897), Harvard (1860), originally with the 20th Massachusetts, was a captain in the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry. The regiment, deployed across the Middle Bridge and finding some refuge in the hollows and banks adjacent to Antietam Creek as the “air was full of shot and shell.” Ezra A. Carman, The Maryland Campaign of September 1862, Vol. II: Antietam. Thomas G. Clemens, ed. (California: Savas Beatie, 2012), p. 363.

13 William Hathaway Forbes (1840-1897), Harvard (1861), served in the First Regiment of Massachusetts Cavalry. Obituary, The Harvard Crimson, October 31, 1897.

14 Lt. James Murphy would resign his commission on August 28, 1863 due to wounds received at Chancellorsville. He will serve as one of Henry Ropes’ pallbearers.

15 Lt. Henry Livermore Abbott (1842-1864), Harvard College, 1860 will be killed at the Battle of the Wilderness.

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