This is the second of five posts from “Reminiscences of the Civil War: by Judge John W. Stevens, a Soldier in Hood’s Texas Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia.” Stevens served in the 5th Texas Infantry. He was wounded at Antietam and captured on the second day at Gettysburg. He was later a Judge in Hill County, Texas. This publication was from 1902.
This segment will talk about a very unique experience on South Mountain. And as always when I do these sorts of posts, the italicized text is Stevens’ writing, whereas my remarks will be in regular type, enclosed within [brackets].
The 5th Texas found themselves late in the day at the Battle of South Mountain (September 14th – three days before Antietam) near Fox’s Gap. They were to the north side of the gap (facing south), essentially between Fox’s and Turner’s Gaps.
Our brigade was maneuvered and moved from one point to another on the mountain up and down, all the evening under fire from both artillery and small arms, sometimes in very close proximity to the enemy, sometimes in full view of the charges and counter-charges made at different parts along the line of battle; but as my memory now reaches back, I am inclined to think that so far as results to either side it was not much of a battle. True, there was a constant roar of both small arms and artillery, but when night put a quietus to operations both armies seemed not to have accomplished anything further than to kill and wound a few of each other. [This is a rather scant view of the action at South Mountain. It was clearly a loss for the Confederates, though they held the gaps as darkness fell … and more than “a few of each other were killed or wounded. With just over 5,000 casualties (more than 1st Bull Run), it ranks about 33rd in terms of total casualties – it simply tends to get overlooked in the shadows of Antietam.]
Really, it was not a place to fight a battle and I suppose all Gen. Lee wished to do was to put a temporary check on McClellan, who was now in chief command of the federal troops once more, the great Bombastes – Furioso Pope having been bound up in red tape and decently laid away for the remainder of the war. [John Pope, who had commanded Federal forces at 2nd Bull Run just three weeks before Antietam, was an especially hated figure by the South. Having made many grandiloquent statements about what he would do to the Rebels, and verbalizing and promoting a concept of “hard war” affecting civilian populations, even the kindly Robert E. Lee called him a “miscreant.” The reference to him as the great Bombastes Furioso referred to an immensely popular 19th century comic opera that ridiculed the grandiose style of operas that was much in vogue at that time.]
Just after dark that night and when everything was as quiet as a graveyard, Col. B. F. Carter, of the Fourth Texas regiment, came to our regiment and called for two men, for what purpose I did not understand. This writer and another man were detailed and ordered to follow him. He carried us down the mountain some 300 or 400 yards from where we lay in line, through a thick brush to a fence on the side of the mountain. We were halted at the fence, beyond which was open ground, and about 100 yards beyond the fence was a line of Federals. Some were standing up, with the line officers on horseback, but the most of them were lying down. Myself and comrade were placed in the corner of the fence with our guns pointing through the cracks between the rails. When we were thus posted Col. Carter ordered us to remain there and watch the movements of the enemy, to keep very quiet, and if they should advance to wait until their line was within twenty feet of the fence and then fire and fall back in all possible haste to our command. [Col. Carter was mortally wounded at Gettysburg, dying in Virginia in September of 1863.]
We sat there I suppose for an hour, or possibly two hours, conversing in a whisper and calculating the chances of escape should they advance upon us and should we wait until they were within twenty feet of us before we fell back. Now, I want to say right here that I got the biggest scare of the war right there. It seemed to me that I got as large as an ox and it appeared to me that the enemy knew we were in that fence corner looking at them and that if they moved up there we were sure to be killed. A kind of nervous demoralization seemed to take complete control of me, but I was very careful to keep it concealed from my comrade.
I talked to him as though I wanted them to come so I could get to take deliberate aim at one and know I had killed him. (I found out a month later that my comrade was as bad, or worse scared than I was.) Did you ever walk through or near a graveyard when a boy and whistle to keep up your courage?
Finally the Yankee officer called in a low tone, “Attention!'” and they were all on their feet at once. ”Guide center; forward, march!” We thought they were coming toward us. Every hair on my head stood up like a porcupine’s quills. We could not tell for the life of us whether they were moving toward us or away from us until they had gone some twenty-five or thirty steps. Greatly to our relief, we found they were moving in an opposite direction. I never felt so happy in my life, and in a few minutes my scare went off and I felt like I could whip a whole line of Yanks, especially when they were out of my reach. We were soon called back to our command and about midnight we began what I suppose you might call a retreat. We moved toward Sharpsburg, crossing the Antietam river about sun up, and a little way after crossing it we formed a line of battle, between the town and river, about three miles from the Potomac. [Indeed the entire Confederate force fell off the mountain overnight. To call the Antietam a “river” is rather generous! Anyone who has driven through Fox’s Gap and knows the lay of the land in the region of which the author writes, can certainly picture and imagine this scene.]