Saturday, April 4, 2015

To the West Woods: The Correspondence of Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, Entry 12

This is the twelfth 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.

Head Quarters, 3d. Brigade,

Bolivar Heights, Va. September 27th 1862.

My dear John.

I received your letter (written by Mary Ann⁠[1]) last evening. I am very sorry your eyes are so weak. I know what a hopeless feeling
Detail from "View of the camps of the Army of the Potomac,
on Bolivar Heights, near Harper's Ferry, after the 
battle of Antietam." Edwin Forbes (1839-1895). 
Wagons and encampments in the near and far distance. 
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
one has, when one begins to find out that there is a settled weakness of the eyes. It seems as if everything was doubtful, and you are not sure what you are able to do. I hope you are able to read this letter. If anybody reads it to you, let it be only Mary Ann, for I shall write to you on the next page what I do not wish every one to know. I am now with the Colonel,⁠[2] and while he is here, I shall stay and do everything for him I can. But he ought to resign immediately. The fact he is completely broken down and is not fit for duty.⁠[3] He has now got the chills and fever (not badly) the diarrhea, and a cough. It is beautiful weather, but cold at night, and I know he suffers from it, yet he still keeps about an generally is in good spirits. Should we have one week of active service, I know he would completely break down. You know he is pretty old and not of a very strong constitution. He will not hear of getting a leave of absence, and says if he cannot do full duty, he had better do none and leave the service.

Now we are quiet and no immediate prospect of an advance. We have just been through a short but active campaign, and have done well, and this is exactly the time for Col. Lee to resign. There would be time to fill his place and arrange things before we are again called into the field. He has done his duty well by the Regmnt. He has been in every battle and escaped unhurt. He would retire now most honorably. If he stays, and breaks down when we are in active service, it may not be so well for him or for us. I write this of course for your private eye or ear.

Capt. Leach⁠[4] of Dana’s staff, a very able, clear headed man, is here, and Col. Lee places great trust in him, and he manages Brigade matters almost entirely. He has told me privately that he

Capt. William B. Leach (1834-1903).
Photo: Minnesota Historical Society
Retrieved from First Minnesota
Volunteer Infantry Regiment site at
probably will soon get an order to report to Genl. Dana, in Washington, and wishes someone to get into the harness here before he leaves. He first asked Herbert,⁠[5] but he could not leave his Company, and then (at the Colonel’s request) he asked me to come to Headquarters.

Do not let all this go far. I write in confidence to you. I think Col. Lee will resign before a month has passed. This is only my opinion.

Well, to answer your letter. Lieut. Beckwith⁠[6] was formerly a Sergeant, and was promoted 2d. Lieutenant, a few months ago. He is of the kind Capt. Shepard⁠[7] describes as a “wet rag.” No relation to Capt. Beckwith, as far as I know.

As to the Strategy: Everyone thinks and I think that old Sumner made a great mistake in dashing Sedgwick’s Division so recklessly against the key of the enemy’s position. We never should have gone down into that ravine,⁠[8] where the dead were piled closer than in the Orchard at Waterloo.⁠[9] We lost between 2 and 3000 men there out of about 6000,⁠[10] all in 2 hours or so.⁠[11] It was a slaughter pen. I think that our 3d line⁠[12] should have been held far back, our first⁠[13] advanced to the edge of the valley and skirmishers sent down, and our 2d line⁠[14] taken to the left to hold that part of the field until a connection could be made with French on the left. Then batteries should have been advanced and used against the enemy in the Cornfield, house, barn, &c.⁠[15] Had this been done and we gained the elevated land beyond the house,⁠[16] then Sumner’s whole Corps could have advanced and driven everything before them, as they did on the open land this side of the ravine. Then the whole of the enemy’s left would have been turned and our guns could have been place on a hill sweeping the whole right of the enemy, and Burnside would have had an easy victory, and I do not see how the Rebel Army could have beens saved. Sumner was too impetuous and too sure of victory. However, you underestimate our success. With the exception of this ravine or valley we gained possession of the whole field, and it was a most decided a[d]vantage to us. It forced the enemy to retreat. Then non of you see to appreciate what a tremendous battle it was. Fair Oaks, White Oak swamp, Malvern Hill, and the others, do not compare with it. It was from daylight till dark, and most obstinately fought, and at very close quarters. As you see, the comparative loss in our Corps, Division, Brigade, and Regiment greatly exceeds that of the British at Waterloo, or the Almor, or of the French at Magenta and Solferimo.

It was the first time I ever appreciated what I have often read of “men mowed down in rows like corn,” but it was so. When they came in on our left and rear the fire was awful. I was once covered with stones and dirt cast up by a shell striking close to me, and the trees of the wood were crackling as if on fire. Then, when the New-York and Pennsylvania troops were rushing by us and through us like sheep, our Regiment showed its discipline, and my Company did not take one step at double quick, but marked out at shouldered arms without the loss of one man, except those left dead an wounded on the field.

If you want to know more of the battle, you must ask questions, and I will try to answer them. I think McClellan was right in keeping troops near Washington, How did he know the whole rebel force was here? The day after the battle he got a despatch from Hillock, telling him this fact. It would have been wrong to leave Washington in the slightest danger. That should be protected at every cost.

I am sorry you found so much trouble with the tents. Please also send me from my trunk the pair of dark blue pants I sent back, also 1 pair woolen ribbed drawers. Let stoups (for riding) be put on the pants, to unbutton, of course. Probably the Express⁠[17] will soon run to Harper’s Ferry. Grafton’s Regiment (the 2d Mass.) is not with ours, but at Sandy Hook, 6 miles off. I can send there easily, however. Please send me $1._ worth letter stamps. I have none at all now. I hear poor Abbott is very ill indeed. [18] I am exceedingly sorry for him. Glad you are well, Mary Ann must not be sickly. Make her ride on horseback, and walk &c. Love to all.

Your affectionate brother


P.S. Direct in future “Lieut. Ropes, Head Quarters, Dana’s Brigade.


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 Ropes’ sister Mary Ann Ropes (b 1842)

2 Colonel William Raymond Lee (1807-1891) commanded the 20th Massachusetts.

3 For more on the state of Col. Lee, see Henry Ropes to Mother, September 21, 1862, footnote 7 and posted on this blog.

4 Captain William B. Leach (1834-1903), served as Brig. Gen. Dana’s aid. OR, Dana’s Report, September 30, 1862. For more on Leach, see the excellent First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment site at website, see Roster  for Leach’s biographical entry.

5 Lt. Herbert Cowpland Mason (1840-1884), Harvard College, 1862.

6 Scottish born Robert Beckwith, 22, an ironworker before the war, will be killed at Marye’s Heights. 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. 183, 212.

7 Capt. Alan Shepard headed Company K. He will be wounded at Fredericksburg and end the war in the Invalid Corps. Miller, pp.  22, 206.

8 As the 20th Massachusetts moved across the Hagerstown Pike, it traversed an open field and then, at the eastern edge of the West Woods descended on a gradual 200 yard downslope ending at the Alfred Poffenberger farmstead. A number of accounts from those engaged in the West Woods describe this part of the field as a valley or ravine.

9 Ropes is referring to the action in and around the Hougoumont farmstead, 5 km south of the village of Waterloo. For an excellent source on Waterloo, see Napoleon, His Army and Enemies at

10 Casualty counts in the West Woods vary as they do in nearly all engagements. As of October 2013, the National Park Service numbers for the West Woods is 5,400 Federal troops engaged with 2,200 casualties and 9,000 Confederate troops engaged with 1,850 casualties.

11 One of the enduring misconceptions of the fighting in the West Woods is that action took place over a 15 to 20 minute span. Primary sources, however, strongly suggest that elements of Sedgwick’s Division engaged in a running battle from 
the Dunkard Church northward to the David R. Miller farmstead. This conflict lasted from approximately 9:15 a.m. to approximately 10:30 a.m.

12 The third line was Oliver O. Howard’s Philadelphia Brigade.

13 The first line was Willis Gorman’s brigade.

14 The second line was Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana’s brigade.

15 The Alfred Poffenberger farmstead included a two-bay cabin, some outbuildings, and a bank barn. A small orchard grew on the east side of the cabin while corn was planted in the fields west and north of the farmstead.

16 Hauser’s Ridge.

17 Adams Express Agency. See Henry Ropes to John Ropes, September 3, 1862 and posted here on December 22, 2014.

18 Lt. Henry Livermore Abbott (1842-1864), suffering from typhoid, had been left in Frederick on September 14. Miller, p. 165.