Monday, February 16, 2015

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 10

This is the tenth 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: Volunteers
Bolivar Heights, Va. September 26th 1862.

My dear Father.

I have received no letters from home since I wrote last to you from this Camp. We are still quietly recruiting ourselves, drilling our new men and getting things generally to rights.

Col. Lee⁠ [1] is, as you know, in command of the Brigade, and to-day he detailed me to act as Aide-de-Camp. Lieut’s. Hallowell [⁠2] and Milton [⁠3], the two regular Aides of Genl. Dana⁠ [4] being away ill. I am to remain “during the absence of Lt. Milton.” The Colonel asked me to share his tent, and I am now with him. He has quite a cold yet and is not well, but
Capt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell (1839-1914)
Courtesy, Massachusetts Historical Society
I hope he will soon improve. I of course get a horse by this arrangement, and many other comforts. It is of course only temporary.

We are camped on the brow of the hill, the air is very pure and healthy, and I think I never saw a better place for one’s health. If you can find a recruit or Officer coming on, I should be very glad if you would send me my buffalo skin. By the time it gets here the nights will be cold enough for it.

I am perfectly well. Best love to Mother. Please thank Sister Mary or her letter and say I intend to write very soon.

By the way, I believe I have not acknowledged yours of the 20th. Enclosing Sister Mary’s letter.

You seem to overestimate the battle of Sunday⁠ [5] 
compared with that of Wednesday the 17th. Sunday’s fight was a decided victory, but the battle of the 17th was the greatest battle ever fought on this continent and the loss fearful. Our Corps of about 15,000 men lost between 5000 and 6000, our Division more in proportion and our Brigade the most of any in the Division although it is the smallest. Col. Lee says except at Ball’s Bluff he never was under such a fire. It seems to me an awful responsibility rests somewhere. The 2d and 3d lines were advanced under the heaviest fire for no purpose, and the left flank left entirely exposed. Had the 3d line covered the left, the 2d been placed on the open field and ordered to lie down and the first kept the enemy at bay by skirmishers till a battery could have been brought to bear on the enemy’s position, I think things might have resulted differently, and lives saved.

However it is easy to criticise after all is over.

Col. Lee sends his respects.

Your ever 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 Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891).

2 Capt. Norwood Penrose Hallowell (1839-1914), Harvard College, 1861 was severely wounded in the arm in the West Woods.

3 Lt. William F. Milton, Harvard (1858).

4 Brig. Gen. Napoleon J.T. Dana (1822-1905).

5 The Battle of South Mountain was fought on Sunday, September 14, 1862.

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