Capt. William H. Mitchell, Co. A, 11th Georgia Infantry, On Movements from Atlanta to Manassas, the Battlefield, Prisoners, and Camp

26 01 2022

Interesting Letter.




Camp Bartow,
Near Manassas Junction, Va.,
August 12, 1861

Dear Doctor: I do not address this letter to you with any hope that what I write will be of much interest to you; but rather with the desire of eliciting a reply from which we may satiate the daily increasing desire to hear from old Hall county. We who are in the centre of the operations of the Army of the Potomac, really know less of what is going on here in the aggregate than you who are seven or eight hundred miles away. Looking out from our camp, we see, on every side, a wilderness of tents whitening the green hills as far as the eye can reach. Immediately around us are the 7th, 8th and 9th Georgia Regiments, and a Kentucky Battalion, which all belong to our brigade. Nearly a mile away, and in plain view, is the camp of the Georgia Regulars and the Georgia 13th; on the other side are the North Carolinians. The entire army, numbering not less than — men, according to the best information I can get, is now stationed in an extent of country equaling Hall county in area. In going over the country, on is always surrounded by camps, never losing sight of them. The troops are moving about every day; but we only know what we see, and have no idea what are the general movements of the army. We seldom see any newspapers; and, perplexed with continual camp rumors, we know nothing at all.

A North Carolina Regiment, stationed within two hundred yards of us, received orders, night before last, to cook provisions and prepare for going into battle in the morning. The preparations were accordingly made, but they have not marched yet. It is rumored that the Federal troops are maneuvering in the vicinity of Fairfax. Our higher officers anticipate hot work before the middle of September.

After being mustered into the service of the Confederate States, at Atlanta, on the 3d of July, we took the cars for Richmond by the Northern route, where we arrived about the 10th, having been detained a few days at Lynchburg. We remained a week in Richmond, during which time, we were reviewed by President Davis and staff. At that time, Gen. Patterson, with a large force, was manoeuvring before the army of the Shenandoah, commanded by Gen. Johnston; and an attack being anticipated, we were hurried off from Richmond on the 15th of July, for the supposed point of action. Without leaving the cars, we went for 36 hours, as fast as steam could carry us. Passing Manassas Junction, where Gen. Beauregard was strongly entrenched, during the night of the 16th, we arrived at Strasburg, and encamped, without pitching the tents, in the midst of a field; and, after cooking the scanty rations furnished by the Quartermaster at this point, we lay down to rest, with the blue, star-gemmed canopy of Heaven for a covering, and the cold ground for a bed. The scenery along the route from Manassas to Strasburg is very pretty. Crossing the mountains, into the celebrated valley of Virginia, and at Strasburg, the mountains rise picturesquely on every side. The next morning early we set out for Winchester, along a lonesome and hot turnpike road, on each side of which was an unending stone fence, and the richest lands in the world; but no shade. The water throughout this whole section of country is so strongly impregnated with limestone as to be almost undrinkable by those accustomed to good freestone water. The day was hot, and the men drank every time they could get water. To me it tasted exactly like epsom salts, and had the same effect; and I believe it was the same with all of our men. We marched about 20 miles, and arrived at Winchester. – After marching through the village, we encamped on a bleak hill, on the opposite side, where we again cooked and ate a scanty supper, and slept without tents. In the meantime, it had been discovered that Gen. Patterson’s operations were only a iruse de quere,i the real point of attack being at Manassas Junction. – We knew nothing of this, however, when, on the next morning, an order came for us to cook all the provisions we had, and to be in readiness for marching by 11 o’clock. Having been informed that our regiment had been attached to a brigade commanded (by seniority of commission) by Col. Bartow – three companies of which were encamped on the opposite side of the village, about three or four miles distant – I very naturally concluded that we were going to move our camp to the vicinity of theirs; but, upon arriving in the village, we found the streets crowded with a dense column of soldiery – the entire army of the Shenandoah, numbering many thousand men, were pressing forward with a rapid step. As we passed thru’ the streets, women with tears in their eyes upbraided us for leaving them to the mercy of the for; all of which was incomprehensible to us. We fell into the line of march at our place in Bartow’s brigade, which brought up the rear; and, after leaving the village some distance. Col. Bartow and staff halted and communicated to the regiments, that Gen. Beauregard was sorely pressed by an overwhelming Northern army, and that everything depended upon our speeding to assistance. The news was received with enthusiastic shouts, and the serried columns pressed forward at almost double-quick time. The men of our regiment, worn out by the want of food and loss of sleep, and exhausted by the toilsome march of the preceding day, marched on with step as light as the lightest. The Gainsville Light Infantry (being company A) was in front of the regiment; and well might Hall county have been proud on that day to see her sons, determined not to be outdone in the generous rivalry to go to the assistance of our General – their brave spirits striving with the weakness of the flesh, and determined to keep up with the older and fresher troops in advance of them. But this could not last long; Nature asserted her away, and the restless spirit, that would annihilate distance, was compelled to measure with slower and more unsteady steps the weary furlongs that seemed like miles. At one o’clock at night, we waded the Shenandoah, which was about as wide, and deeper, than the Chattahoochee at Shallow Ford. By this time, thousands even of the fresh and experienced troops before us had sunk exhausted by the roadside. Two only of our company had fallen off, and they had been sick. By daylight, we reached a small town call Paris, where we halted for the first time, and remained about an hour. Two more of our company had fallen off – making four in all – while some of the companies of our regiment could not muster more than ten or fifteen me, out of 80 or 90.

Before reaching Paris, while some wagoners were watering their horses, we halted for two or three minutes. The men were so weary, that, upon the command to rest, they lay flat down in the road, and, in a moment, they were all fast asleep. On each side of the road were large piles of limestone rocks, which had been thrown out to render the road passable. The men had scarcely lain for a moment when the alarm was given, and suddenly a party came thundering down the hills. Thus suddenly awakened, the men scrampled out of the road as quickly as possible. The cavalry, without stopping or slacking their speed, kept on, and run over the legs of some of the men who had not awakened. Fortunately, none were hurt. But one of our company, in trying to get out of the way, strained his ancle. Soon after daylight, we left Paris, and, after marching seven or eight miles, we arrived at a small railroad station, in the midst of the mountains, called Piedmont, which we had passed three days before on our way from Manassas to Strasburg. This forced march brought to my mind, very forcibly, the celebrated retreat of Napoleon from Moscow; and more than once I was satisfied that we were retreating before Gen. Patterson; and what encouraged the belief was the fact that, after night, fires were built at intervals along the route, in the shape of camp fires, and left burning, as if to confuse and perplex a pursuing enemy. Our brigade was in the rear, and I momentarily expected an attack. Although I was mistaken in the main, it was only a chance we did not have a collision, for I have since been informed that, during the same night, Gen. Patterson crossed the Shenandoah, within three miles of where we crossed it with an army of 40,000 men. About 8,000 men left Piedmont daily, crowded into every train, day and night, yet our time did not come until Monday morning, 22d July. A part of our brigade, the 7th and 8th regiments arrived at Manassas, in time to participate in the battle of the 21st, and were badly cut to pieces, as you will learn more fully by the newspapers. It was raining hard on the morning of the 22d, when we arrived at Manassas.

After arriving at Manassas, and during the time that Col. Anderson was gone to Gen. Johnston for orders, I had an opportunity of seeing some of the captured Yankee officers, cannons, and other trophies of the fight. Several hundred privates, who had been taken, were kept in a pen close by, but I did not go to see them. I also saw a great number of our own men who had been killed and wounded in the battle. Nearly all of our own wounded had been brought to the Junction. I also had an opportunity of looking over the wilderness of tents, surrounded on every side by strong sand batteries, with heavy guns of every calibre frowning from frowning from the embrasures, and bidding defiance to attack. Beauregard says that the camp at the Junction is impregnable, and expresses regret that the Yankees did not come within reach of his fortifications, where they would doubtless have been mowed down like grass. After waiting a short time, we were marched from the Junction towards the battle-field; the way led through an old field; but a holiday having been given in honor of the victory, the whole earth had been trodden to mortar by the thousands whom curiosity or booty had lured to the battle-field, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather. Soon after leaving the Junction, we began to meet the returning soldiers loaded with Yankee blankets, overcoats, knapsacks, canteens, rifles, pistols, and, in fact, every kind of equipment that could be conceived of. The further we went the deeper became the crowd, and we met hundreds of wagons returning with captured arms, &c. Some wagons that had been sent with us to carry our provisions (all of our blankets, knapsacks, tents, &c., had been left at Winchester) were forcibly pressed into the service by those who were sent to pick up arms, &c., and every vehicle, regardless of ownership, was taken in the same way. It was still raining hard when we stopped in a sort of swampy place, about a mile from the point where Sherman’s Battery was taken. We took up camp without tents, or blankets, or any sort of covering or convenience. Having had fires built, there being no provisions to cook, and, indeed, nothing to do but take the rain, Anderson, Dorsey and myself took a stroll over the battle-field. The first dead Yankee I saw had his head shot off by a grape shot, while kneeling behind a fence. After leaving him, we went but a short distance before we came to another and another, thicker and thicker, till the ground was literally strewn with them and their dead horses. All of the wounded of whom there was any hope of their recovery, had been removed, but I saw several who showed signs that life was not extinct. It was a sad sight to seem them laying there in the cold rain, with their gay uniforms disfigured with mud and blood. Once I paused to look at a handsome young man, clad in the gaudy uniform of the New York Zouaves – blue cloth jackets, trimmed with lace, and red trousers. His youthful and expressive countenance seemed to bear vestiges of the death struggle; but although the blue lines began to appear around his eyes, there was a sweet, generous expression about them that arrested my attention. He was lying on his back; his hand, withered by long saturation in the rain, resting on his breast, which had been pierced by a bullet. I had looked but a moment, when there came a convulsive shudder over his whole frame; his breast heaved tremulously, and with that momentary struggle the thick clotted blood burst from his mouth and nostrils, covering his whole face. From this horrid spectacle I turned away, but similar ones met the eye on every side. At the point where the Sherman Battery was taken, the slaughter was tremendous. From one stand point I counted the dead bodies of fifty splendid horses; and the men were so numerous that I did not think of counting them. In a house about fifty yards from this point, occupied by a Mrs. Henry, (said to have been the family of Patrick Henry,) the Yankees took refuge, and in a moment it was riddled by the Southern Artillery. Mrs. Henry, who is said to have been 90 years of age, was unfortunately killed. She was buried in her own garden.

After seeing more than enough to satisfy our curiosity, we returned to the camp, where we arrived near night, and where a cheerless prospect awaited us. The men had built large fires, but it was no protection from the cold rain, which fell incessantly throughout the dreary night. Some sat up all night, and others, overcome by fatigue, lay down in the mud and rain, and slept as composedly as if they had been in their comfortable homes – Towards morning the rain slackened, and by sunrise the clouds had dispersed. The warm sun now shone out, and as the water evaporated from the ground, there was an almost suffocating smell of fresh flesh – that sickening smell peculiar to a butcher’s pen. We remained at the same point till the wet weather springs and mud holes (our sole dependence for water) dried up. We suffered mostly from the scarcity of provisions, resulting from the sudden and unexpected concentration of so large a body of troops. We have moved several times, and are now only a few miles above Manassas, on the eastern side of the railroad, and about six miles from the battle field. The last time I passed through the battle field, it presented a horrible spectacle; the blackening and unburied bodies of the dead Yankees covered the ground, tainting the air with a stench that can only be imagined. The Yankees did not offer to bury their dead, and the weather favoring rapid decomposition, it soon became impossible to bury them all. Many were buried by our troops.

I have seen and talked with many of the prisoners taken in the battle. They speak highly of the Southern soldiers, saying that such fighting was never seen before, as was done on the 21st. There was a Mississippi Company which, after firing away all their cartridges, threw down their guns, and pitched in with their Bowie knives. I heard one of the prisoners say, that they had the Bowie knives fastened with a string to their arms, and threw it after the manner of the sling shot. He said nothing could resist such troops; every man fought on his own hook, and they did not know when they were whipped. Near one of the dead Yankees I found a letter, written the day before the battle, addressed to his sweet heart, and telling her that he was about to start for Richmond – that there would be a slight battle at Manassas, where they would gain the victory, and in two more days would breakfast in Richmond. Poor girl! If she loved him, it will grieve her heart to hear how his high hopes melted away, when Southern prowess turned the tide of invasion at Manassas. Some of the Yankees, however, were pretty saucy, and said that we had done nothing great in killing a few men and taking a few cannons – that there was plenty of the same sort left where those came from.

Notwithstanding the want of water and provisions, and the exposure of our men, little or no sickness has prevailed till within the past week, except occasional cases of diarrhea. At this time we have many cases of measles, mumps, and some typhoid fever. Out of 760 men composing our Regiment, not more than 250 men are fit for duty. Some of our Regiment have died – none of my company as yet. The sickness and mortality is not confined to our own Regiment; scarcely an hour passes without hearing a volley discharged over the grave of some deceased soldier. I trust, but it seems almost beyond hope, that our men may pass through this ordeal without a single death.

A few days ago, Col. Anderson told me he wished to adopt, as a regimental uniform, a suit of brown Jeans, and wished the Captains to make the arrangement. I find, upon the receipt of letters by some of the company, that the suit has been anticipated by the citizens of Hall County. They have truly been kind and liberal to my company, and I am sure they will feel satisfied when they know what our boys have undergone, and how much they have suffered without complaint, every trial and vexation incident to a soldier’s life. They have won the good will and esteem of all, and I am proud to say they have received in public and especial compliment from the regimental Chaplain.

I have now written you a long letter, and have in some sort given you a succinct history of the Gainsville Light Infantry, up to the present time, and I ask in return that you will give me a similar account of Gainsville.

Sincerely and truly yours,
Cpt. Company A., 11th Reg.
Georgia Volunteers

(Atlanta, GA) Southern Confederacy, 9/12/1861

Clipping Image

William H. Mitchell at Ancestry

William H. Mitchell at Fold3