Sunday, February 15, 2015

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 9.

This is the ninth 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 on field near 
Sharpsburg, Md. Sunday September 21st 1862.

My dear Mother.

I have not written to you for a long time, but I knew it was the same thing to write to Father, and I have kept him as well informed of my movements as possible. Ever since we left Harrison's Landing, August 16th, I have not had a day or even an hour when I could be sure we were not to get immediate orders to start.

I have written fully to the others about the late battle, and have no more to say. You have no doubt seen full lists of the killed and wounded. I am entirely ignorant of the movements of the Rebels and even of our own troops. I hear however two reports, one that Genl. Sumner's Corps is not to cross into Virginia, but be left to protect Maryland, probably to stay near the Potomac; the other that Dana's Brigade is reported
Col. William Raymond Lee
Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society
unfit for service. As you know Genl. Dana⁠
[1] is wounded; and of our Regiments the 7th. Michigan is almost destroyed, the 42d New York (Tammany) dispersed and almost broken up, and the 19th and 20th suffered heavily. Col. Hinks⁠ [2] mortally wounded, Lt. Colonel Devereaux⁠ [3] and the 1st Captain⁠ [4] wounded, the Lieut. Colonel of the 59th killed⁠ [5], and we have lost Col. Palfrey⁠ [6]. Col. Lee [7] is quite broken down and ill. Do not of course needlessly alarm his family, but it is the opinion of all here, that he is quite incapable of enduring the hardships of a camp life longer. He ought to go home and be attended to and nursed. He does not take care of himself at all, and gets wet through, and sleeps without a tent on the wet ground &c, when he could just as well be comfortable and leave such rough duty to younger men. Then you know he is by no means a young man, and, as far as I have observed, an old man cannot endure hardship like a young one. Cold and wet and exposure use up an old man, when a young one gets over anything after a few hours of sleep and a good breakfast. The reason why some old men do flourish so out here is that they take things easily and take great care of themselves, like old Sumner ⁠[8] for instance. So as we are very short of Officers, and the Regiments greatly reduced in the number of men, we shall probably be left to lie still and recruit for a time.

I am delighted to find Mr Willard⁠ [9] is Major. I have tried to see him but have been as yet unable. Capt. Macy⁠ [10] saw him, and he enquired particularly for me. 

If you have an opportunity please send me 2 pairs of my blue woolen socks. I like them rather better than the Government socks, and they wear better.

We are now camped on a part of the battlefield, and the trees are marked with shot and often split by balls and shells. Most of the dead are now buried, but large numbers of horses still remain and pollute the air.

The farmers about here have shown the greatest patriotism and kindness.

They came on the field the day after the battle and took great quantities of wounded to their own houses to nurse and attend to them. I hear that in the midst of the battle a farmer brought 5 horses to one of our batteries from his own barn, and generously gave them to supply the places of those killed. Herbert Mason ⁠[11] was particularly exposed, as he was on the left. He lost all his non-commissioned Officers, and half of his men. Our Division lost about one half.

A very good man of my Company, named Riley⁠ [12], was killed instantly. He was poor and worked in a foundry in Chelsea, where he has a wife and 7 children. They may possibly be in want. Perhaps you could visit them when you make your charitable rounds.

James⁠ [13] does very well now, and I shall no doubt keep him. 

Love to Mary Ann⁠ [14] and all. I shall try to write to her next.

Your affectionate Son


Source Note

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 Brig. Gen. Napoleon J.T. Dana (1822-1905), West Point (1842), commanded the Third Brigade of John Sedgwick’s Second Division, II Corps (second brigade in line in the West Woods). He was seriously wounded in the leg. See further, biographical entry in Cullum’s Register.

2 Colonel Edward Winslow Hinks (Hincks) (1830-1894) commanded the 19th Massachusetts, Third Brigade (Dana’s), Second Division (Sedgwick), II Corps. He was seriously wounded, but not killed, in the West Woods.

3 Lt. Col. Arthur Forrester Devereux (1838-1906), 19th Massachusetts.

4 Probably Captain Edmund Rice (1842-1906). For more on Rice, see Brian Downey’s Antietam on the Web under Edmund Rice.

5 This is John Lemuel Stetson (1834-1862). For more on Stetson, see blog entry for November 11, 2009.

6 Col. Francis Winthrop Palfrey (1831-1889), Harvard College, 1851, Harvard Law School, 1853. He would be hit with grapeshot in his shoulder in the West Woods on September 17.

7 Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891) led the 20th Massachusetts from its inception at the outbreak of the war through Antietam. He was captured at the Battle of Ball's Bluff (Virginia, October 1861) and spent four months in close confinement in bad conditions at a Richmond POW camp. Once paroled in late February 1862, he returned to Boston to recuperate. A family member was struck by the changes to Lee and other returning officers: "They were worn and old-looking, with the strange expression those carry who have been in confinement, or under a great pressure of care. [Y]outh had gone out of them...[replaced by] silence and listlessness, and dull lines about the face that were sad to see." After convalescing in Boston, Lee rejoined the regiment and took them through the punishing Peninsula Campaign of the spring/summer 1862 where he was left severely wounded and unable to walk. A commentator wrote of the regiment that at the end of the campaign, "they look used up." Returning to the regiment in early September 1862, Lee led the 20th into the West Woods on September 17th. Of the 400 that entered the woods that morning, 137, or 34%, were left dead or wounded on the field. Some went missing and have never been found. Nearly all regimental officers were counted as casualties including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis Palfrey, and Edward Revere. The action left Lee broken. Two days after the battle, Capt. George Macy found Lee in a stable not far from the field, he was "drunk, broke, and hungry, and his uniform soiled with his own diarrhea...he was just like a little child wandering away from home." He resigned his commission shortly afterwards and he remained "frail and shaky" for the remainder of his life. Richard F. Miller, Harvard’s Civil War: A History of the Twentieth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2005), pp. 116-119, 127-28, 154, 161, 170-183, 218; John C. Ropes, “William Raymond Lee,” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 28 (May, 1892-May, 1893), pp. 346-348.

8 Edwin Vose Sumner (1797-1863) commanded II Corps, Army of the Potomac.

9 Major Sidney Willard (1831-1863), a Harvard graduate (1852) and Boston lawyer, served as a Major in the 35th Massachusetts, IX Corps. He would be killed at Fredericksburg on December 13. C.A. Bartol, A Nation’s Hour: A Tribute to Major Sidney Willard (Boston: Walker, Wise, and Company, 1862), pp. 14, 30-31.

10 Lt. George Nelson Macy (1837-1875) from one of Nantucket’s oldest families would rise to General by war’s end.

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

12 Irish born Private John Riley (1824-1862) served in Company K of the 20th Massachusetts. A resident of Chelsea, Massachusetts he was an “iron puddler” at the time of his enlistment on August 26, 1861. The 1860 Massachusetts Census found him residing in Worcester with his wife Fanny, also born in Ireland, and six children ages 15 to 1 years old. Fanny filed for widow’s and minors' pensions on May 11, 1863. John Riley is buried at Antietam National Cemetery, Section 17, Lot A, Grave 15. U.S. Census, Massachusetts, 1860; Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, The Adjutant General, compiler (Norwood, MA: Norwood Press, 1931), p. 585; NARA, RG 15, Organization Index to Pension Files of Veterans Who Served Between 1861 and 1900, compiled 1949 - 1949, documenting the period 1861 - 1942.

13 James Smith (1842-1864) was a “case maker” from Northampton before the war. He wrote to John C. Ropes on November 5, 1863 “a few lines in accordance with the expressed wish of your late Brother Lt. Ropes with whom I was a servant…” He signed his letter “James Smith, Head Qrs, 3d Brig., 2d Div., 2nd Corps, A.P.” He would be killed on June 9, 1864 at Cold Harbor. Ropes Manuscript, Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library; Massachusetts Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Civil War, The Adjutant General, compiler (Norwood, MA: Norwood Press, 1931), p. 586.

14 Ropes’ sister, Mary Ann Ropes (b 1842).

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