“In fact this whole subject of battle is misunderstood at home.”–Adams Family Letters, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., to his mother.

Sharpsburg, Md.
September
25, 1862

Next morning my only good horse was fairly done up and in the name of humanity I had to leave her at Frederick to take my chance of ever seeing her again, and with her, as I could not burden my other horse, I had to leave all my baggage and left everything including my last towel, my tooth-brush, my soap and every shirt and this, alas! was a fortnight ago! As soon as I left her I followed the regiment and had hardly left the town when the sound of artillery in the front admonished me that now we were practically in the advance. I pressed forward and rejoined the column some three miles from the town at a halt and with sharp artillery practice in front. Here we stood three hours resting by the side of the road and waiting for it to be opened for us. Now and then the shot and shell fluttered by us, reminding me of James Island. Some of them came disagreeably near and at last some infantry came up and for a moment sat down to rest with us. I told a Captain near me that the enemy had a perfect range of the road and he’d better be careful how he drew their fire and just as I uttered the words, r-r-r-h went a round shot through the bushes over my head, slid across Forbes and Caspar as they lay on the ground some thirty yards further on and took off the legs of three infantry men next to them. After that it did n’t take long for the infantry to deploy into the field and leave us in undisturbed possession of the road. Still the infantry did it and the enemy soon limbered up and were off, having delayed our pursuit some three hours. Then we followed and pushed over the hills wondering at the strength of the enemies’ position. As we got to the top we pushed on faster and faster until we went down the further side at a gallop. The enemy were close in front and now was the time. Soon we took to the fields and then, on the slope of a hill, with the enemy’s artillery beyond it, formed in column. More shelling, more artillery, and the bullets sung over our heads in lively style, and then “forward” as fast as we could go, over the hill, pulling down fences, floundering through ditches, struggling to outflank them. But the fences were too much for us and we had to return to the road, all losing our tempers and I all my writing materials, the one thing I had clung to. We made the road, however, in time to witness some of the humbug of the war. As we clattered into the town the Illinois cavalry, commanded by Colonel Farnsworth, not unknown to my father, were in front of us and, having hurried into the town were cracking away with their carbines and giving to me, at least, the idea of a sharp engagement in process. We followed them and got our arms all ready, but, as I rode through the single street of the pretty little town, a little excited and pistol in hand, I was somewhat surprised at the number of women who were waving their handkerchiefs, hailing us with delight as liberators and passing out water to our soldiers. For now we were in the truly loyal part of Maryland and everywhere were greeted with delight. It certainly did n’t look to me much like a battle, and yet there were those carbines snapping away like crackers on the 4th of July. In vain I looked for rebels, nary one could I see and at last it dawned on my mind that I was in the midst of a newspaper battle — “a cavalry charge,” “a sharp skirmish,” lots of glory, but n’ary reb.

Here we paused, while I thought we should have pressed forward, and our artillery battered away from the hill to see if any one was there. Meanwhile the rebels burned the bridge before us and made off for the range of hills on the other side of the valley. Presently we followed, forded the stream and followed them up the road, through the most beautiful valley I ever saw, all circled on three sides with lofty wooded ranges surrounding a beautiful rolling valley highly cultivated and blooming like a garden. A blazing bridge and barn in the middle of it suggested something unusual. We hurried through the valley and up the hills on the other side and there we made a pause, brought to a dead stand. It did n’t look like much, but we did n’t like to meddle with it. It was only a single man on horseback in the middle of the road some few hundred yards before us, but it stopped us like a brick wall. We stood on the brow of one hill, with a straight road running through the valley below and disappearing in a high wooded range on the other side. We did n’t know it then, but we were looking on what next day became the battle field of South Mountain. In the road below us were a few rebel videttes and on the hill beyond were posted, hardly to be distinguishable even with our glasses, a battery of artillery. We stood and looked and debated and at last our leaders concluded that it was n’t healthy to go forward, and so we went back. We went into camp on a hill-top and passed a tedious night. It was very cold, and we were hungry, but still we slept well and in the morning feasted on an ox we killed the night before.

At seven o’clock we moved forward to our position of the day before, struggling along to the front through a dense advancing army corps. We got there and took up our position in support of a battery and soon our artillery opened and after about an hour the enemy began to answer. Presently we were moved far to the front and of course a blunder was made, and we found ourselves drawn up in a cornfield in front of our most advanced battery and between it and the enemy, with the shells hurtling over us like mad, and now and then falling around us, but fortunately doing us no harm save ruffling our nerves. Here we sat on our horses for two hours, doing no good and unpleasantly exposed. At last we were moved from there and sent round to our left to support some infantry and there we passed the afternoon, listening to the crackle of musketry and the roar of artillery till night, when it ceased and the men lay down in ranks and slept, holding the bridles of the horses. This was all we saw of the battle of South Mountain, which at the time we supposed to be a heavy skirmish….

Here we lay all that day and I think the next, with a continual spattering of shells around, some of which injured other commands adjoining but all spared ours, and, at last, one day we were ordered early to the rear and we knew there was to be a big fight. Then came the battle of Antietam Creek and we saw about as much of it as of that at South Mountain. We were soon brought hurriedly to the extreme front and posted in support of a battery amid the heaviest shelling and cannonade I ever heard. It was a terrific artillery duel, which lasted where we were all day and injured almost no one. At first, as we took up position, we lost a horse or two, and the storm of artillery, the crashing of shells and the deep reverberations from the hills were confusing and terrifying, and yet, so well were we posted and so accustomed to it did we become, that ten minutes after the imminent danger was over and we were ordered to dismount, I fell sound asleep on the grass and my horse got away from me.

In fact this whole subject of battle is misunderstood at home. We hear of the night before battle. I have seen three of them and have thought I saw half a dozen when the battle did n’t come off, and I have never yet seen one when every officer whom I saw did not seem, not only undisturbed, but wholly to fail to realise that any thing unusual was about to occur. In battle men are always frightened on coming under fire, but they soon get accustomed to it, if it does little execution, however heavy it may be. If the execution is heavy they’re not nearly so apt to go to sleep, and I can’t say I have ever yet fallen in with that lust for danger of which I have read….


Adams Family Civil War letters; US Minister to the UK and his sons.

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