Saturday, August 04, 2018

Parting shot: Rebels' battle cry like 'school girls at recess'

"J.H.E." said the Rebel yell was unmanly, like "school girls at recess." (Library of Congress)
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In a richly detailed letter published in the Lewiston (Pa.) Gazette on Oct. 15, 1862, a Union soldier told of his experiences in the recently fought Battle of Antietam. (Transcript below.)

"About 4 o'clock in the morning we heard the rebel drums beating and every man was then ready," wrote "J.H.E," probably John Ely, of Company G of the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves. "Before long they began; first a crack, then two or three, and then a whole volley from us through the woods, and the great ball of Wednesday opened."

According to the former printer at the Lewiston newspaper, Rebel sharpshooters aggressively (and unsuccessfully) tried to pick off a Union officer. But Orderly Sergeant Thomas Given wasn't as fortunate. Wounded in the head, Given died the following Saturday, after he "lost his mind and speech."

J.H.E recalled spending about an hour on the "firing line," undoubtedly at David R. Miller's Cornfield, near where Henry Couch [Couts] was killed by a bullet to the head. And in a biting parting shot, J.H.E. also took a figurative shot at the enemy.

We publish below an extract from a letter of a young "typo" of this place, in which he gives a graphic description of the part taken by the regiment in which he is serving in the battle of Antietam:

Camp, Near Sharpsburg, Md.
Oct. 6, 1862

We are still in camp by that beautiful and winding stream -- the Potomac. While in camp we are at a loss to know how to put in the time, and for a change this beautiful afternoon I have retreated to the cover of a towering oak to pen you a few promised lines.

My narrative begins on Tuesday morning, Sept. 16th. On that eventful evening we were marched across Antietam creek, and shortly after were formed in line of battle in a woods, and while in this place were made acquainted of the close proximity of our South Mountain acquaintances, who had been largely reinforced just after leaving the mountain, and who now disputed our further advance by shelling us in the woods.

Truman Seymour: During the battle
"J.H.E" delivered a message
to the Union general (above).

It  was fast growing dark, and we were ordered forward through a cornfield and also through a ploughed one. But, after going half the distance, were ordered to halt and lay down, which order we obeyed instantly, as the shell began to come in close proximity with that important member to human existence -- the head. While here I had a good opportunity to see a pretty sight. One of our batteries, which had been placed to our right, on a slight elevation, kept up a continual fire, throwing shell promiscuously through the woods in our advance. It was far prettier than any fireworks ever displayed in the old Diamond.

We remain here about half an hour when Gen. [Truman] Seymour ordered us forward. We started, and when we next halted it was within fifteen feet of the fence. Our Colonel here ordered us to halt and stack arms, which we did; and after making supper on a cracker I laid myself down to rest. In about fifteen minutes we were surprised by the rebels who poured a volley at us, which, as soon as we could recover our guns, we returned and kept up a fire for a short time and then ceased, the rebs having retreated. We then advanced to the fence (where we should have been at first) and lay down once more, not for sleep  however but to watch and wait. Nothing of importance occurred other than an occasional shot or two during the night. From prisoners captured the following day we learned they had a brigade in the woods, who heard our Colonel give the command to "stack arms," and only waited a sufficient length of time for us to be in the "land of nod," when they expected to capture our guns. The prisoners expressed some surprise when they learned we had but one regiment, and it only numbering about 300 guns. That night they did not touch a man; but our fire was far different. Our General, speaking of it, says they lay there there by dozens.

About 4 o'clock in the morning we heard the rebel drums beating and every man was then ready. Before long they began; first a crack, then two or three, and then a whole volley from us through the woods, and the great ball of Wednesday opened.

The sharpshooters, who had been placed on the trees in the dark, began their work early. They tried hard to pick off our Major, but were unsuccessful. One ball grazed his shoulder strap. They wounded our Orderly Sergeant in the head, however, who has since died. On the Friday following he lost his mind and speech, and remained so until Saturday night, when he was relieved from this world of misery and strife. His remains were sent home to his friends. We lose a good and brave soldier in him.

                   PANORAMA: David R. Miller's cornfield, "The Bloody Cornfield."
                                     (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

About 7 o'clock our regiment was ordered to cross through the woods, and there, the boys say, lay pools of blood all round. I was there when they advanced. A few moments before our Major had sent me with a message to General Seymour, and when I endeavored to return I became bewildered and came to a halt in a large field for which the two contending parties were fighting. I soon came to the conclusion I had no business there, and accordingly sought protection of the woods, and here I met my regiment as it advanced to where I was. We stood firing across this field about an hour, when we were ordered to cease by our officers and stood there doing nothing. It was here Henry Couch [Couts] fell pierced through the forehead.

We fell back and the rebels, thinking we were whipped, advanced with a cheer, but were driven back by a flank movement. You would be surprised to hear about them cheer. It resembles a lot of school girls at recess. It is far different from the manly voice of the men of the north.

-- J.H.E.
Co. G, 5th Pa. Reserve

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