Letter From Charles Marsh, September 27, 1862
This is a letter that Charles Marsh sent to his brother George six weeks after he first reported for duty with the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. The letter was written after what had obviously been a major battle. The letter writer does not specifically identify the battle, but the date of the letter and a reference to the town of Sharpsburg in Virginia indicate that he had survived the Battle of Antietam (sometimes also called the Battle of Sharpsburg) on September 17, 1862. Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American military history. The battle ended in a draw but the Confederate forces withdrew after the battle, and that represented enough of a Union victory that President Lincoln felt empowered to issue the Emancipation Proclamation some time afterwards. Learn more about the Battle of Antietam and the role of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment.
Saturday Eve September 27th 1862
Bolivar, VA 2 miles from Harpers Ferry
To Mr. Geo M. Marsh
54 Cambridge Street
I rec’d your letter dated 24 this afternoon and also one from Fannie one from Hattie and an Evening Transcript, all of which were acceptable I assure you. You write that no letters have been rec’d from me since the battle. I have written 4 letters since then such as they were but as there was no regular mail then I gave them to citizens who visited the battle field to carry to the Post Office preferring to run the risk of their being secessionists than not to send any letters at all. I have written something about the fight in each of them but I will write some additional particulars which I could not think of at that time.
We were ordered to leave out knapsacks at the camp only taking our haversack, canteen and rubber blanket. I was provided with a gun that day before the fight but had no bayonet or cartridge box. I had to carry my cartridges in my blouse pocket and the caps in my watch pocket which did not make it very easy to load and I did not fire so many times as some of the rest of our boys. I picked up a cartridge box and a bayonet as I was coming off the field so that now I have a full set of equipment.
We were rushed into the fight on the double quick over fences, through woods, cornfields, nearly a mile and were nearly tired out before we saw any rebels. On the way we passed over the battle field of Tuesday afternoon. Quite a number of rebels wounded and dead lay there. One of their officers who was wounded told us “Boys you have got a hard job before you” and we found he spoke the truth. We stopped in the edge of the woods just at the top of a hill. The rebels were in front of us in the hollow, lying on the ground, and behind a house, barn and hay stacks. On the hill beyond was a line of rebels and at first our boys fired at them and did not see the rebels directly in front of us.
We could stand the fire in front of us but when the regiment on our left gave away and gave the rebels a chance to take their place and pour in a flanking fire then it was that our men very fast gave way. I believe two thirds of our men were hit in the last five minutes and we were in the fight about half an hour. Had we stayed there 5 minutes longer I don’t believe there would have been scarcely a man left. The regiment on our right had run and also our supports in the rear but we did not know it at the time. Our regiment did not leave until ordered and then it was every man for himself.
The greater part of our officers were either killed or wounded. Our Company did not have an officer higher than a corporal and but six men when we rallied and left the field. Our First Lieutenant was killed and our second Lieutenant was wounded slightly in the neck. He joined us again in the course of the day. All of our color guard were either killed or wounded but a private picked the colors up and held them in one hand and loaded and fired with the other. When we came away the rebels ordered him to stop and give them up but he gave them a saucy answer and brought them safely away.
One of the Lieutenants took a secesh battle flag which he brought away with him. It was a red flag about two feet square with a cross extending across it from the corners and the cross filled with stars. General Gorman seemed quite proud of it and when any officer came along he would order it to be brought out in order to show it.
The rebels fired a bullet and three buck shot at each charge which will account for the large number of our wounded. Company C had 3 killed, 40 wounded and 3 missing out of 61 men who went into the fight. Many of the wounds were slight and we expect some of the men here again in a few days. The regiment now numbers 225 men on duty.
I see by the paper you sent me that it tells a long story about our supporting a battery and having a hard fight. It is true we supported a battery, but all the fighting we did was to lay down on the ground behind a hill and be ready to help in case the rebels charged on the battery. The battery soon silenced them but we lay there all the next day. Friday morning we moved to another part of the battle field and Monday we came to this place. On the way we passed through Sharpsburg nearly every house was riddled with cannon balls. We were obliged to ford the Potomac at Harpers Ferry as the rebels had burned the railroad bridge and also the pontoon bridge but the pontoon bridge has been rebuilt. The river at the place where we forded was about half a mile wide and the current was quite swift but it was not deep. The report is that we will stay here some time and as the railroad runs to Sandy Hook on the Maryland side of the river we shall probably get the mail pretty regularly.
I went over to the 13th Regiment after the battle and the soldiers told me that Dave Chenery was wounded in both legs but not dangerously. He was in the hospital and I have not seen him. We could not get a chance to see the wounded of our own regiment but the Colonel went to see them the Sunday after the battle. We had a dress parade that evening and the Colonel made a speech. He said he had seen the wounded that day and they said “tell the boys to go ahead”. He said he was proud of the conduct of the Regiment that they honored themselves and the State to which they belonged, that had others done their duty we could have held the ground. He hoped it would not be his luck to ever lead the Regiment into another such place, but he knew that they would go wherever ordered. In conclusion he said, “Give me back my men and others may have the honor”
I like the officers and men very well. The officers are kind to the men and the men seem to take an interest in helping the raw recruits all they can. I suppose you want to know how I like soldiering. I like it as well as I expected (which is saying that I don’t like it at all) but I don’t want to come home again until the war is ended. The sooner that happens the better I shall like it.
Joe and Albert are well.
Write often and do not wait for an answer.
Give my love to all friends
From your brother Charles
Read this if you can excuse the mistakes