A Soldier's Account of the Gettysburg Campaign. Letter from George W. Beale (son of
General R. L. T. Beale)
Four Miles Northwest of Williamsport, MD.
July 13th, 1863.
My last letter to you was written in Loudoun county, and so hurriedly and under such circumstances as to render it very brief and unsatisfactory, I have no doubt. In that letter I informed you of the many trials and dangers we had passed through, and how the tender mercy of our indulgent Heavenly Parent had so wonderfully attended us, and how through it we had been spared in health and soundness. How few and trivial the sufferings and dangers I then referred to, compared with those which we have since passed; and if such were possible, how more boundless and vast the compassionate love and care displayed towards us by Him who ordaineth all things! We, are yet alive and well! Surely our hearts should melt in gratitude to God, for the privilege of being able to say so. I am this morning lying flat upon the ground under a very low-pitched, leaky shelter, our horses saddled and bridled, and we in momentary expectation of being called upon to fight.
Meanwhile the rain is descending in torrents, so dampening my paper as to render it almost useless to attempt to use ink upon it. Under these circumstances, I am sure I will not be able to write you such a letter as our long silence should lead you to expect. Upon the very day I wrote you last, our brigade, with General F. Lee's and Hampton's, started from Lovdon in a southerly direction, encamping at night, for a few hours, near Salem, in Fauquier. This move, considering the direction our army was marching, filled us all with astonishment, and was one, the mystery of which, none of us could understand. The fact that General Stuart headed the expedition led many of us to believe that our journey southward would not continue long.
Leaving Salem at 3 o'clock A. M., Thursday morning, June --, we moved against Thoroughfare Gap, and crossing the rugged mountains, attacked a wagon train, but did nothing more than throw some shells in among them. That night was rainy and disagreeable, and we spent it without shelters or fires. Next day we moved to attack the Yankees at Bristoe Station, but they had fled before we got there. Continuing the march that day, we halted near Occoquan for the night.
Started very early Saturday morning, attacked the enemy at Fairfax Court-house, routed them, capturing many prisoners and stores, and secured rations, for which the men were suffering much. There were many nice things taken here and speedily consumed by "us ravenous rebbs." Being in anticipation of attack by the enemy all the time we were at the place, no opportunity was allowed many of us to secure the valuable merchandise with which many of the stores were well supplied. However, hurrying on from Fairfax Courthouse we moved directly to Drainsville, where we remained in line of battle until dark, then filing off into hidden paths in the woods, proceeded to the Potomac, over a difficult and dangerous ford, of which we, after some delay, passed in safety, and spent the rest of the night on the heights beyond, in line of battle. At light we moved forward, engaged the enemy a mile from the river, routed and drove them off in confusion, killing and capturing a few; then halted a few moments to feed, and commenced the march for Rockville, near which town General Hampton was in line of battle, having there a little fight, in which he captured many prisoners and wagons. General Hampton supposing the enemy to be in force near the town, waited for us to come up before making an attack. When we came up, a charge was ordered, which the squadron I commanded led, Company "K" taking a road to the right, and Company "C" moving straight down the pike. We charged down the pike for six miles or more, captured nearly two hundred wagons of the most elegant kind, and about 12,000 of the most magnificent mules I ever saw, besides many prisoners and runaway negroes. The last wagon caught was withing six miles of Georgetown. Many elegant wagons were upturned and broken and burnt, and many mules and drivers (especially negroes) escaped. The wagon train was four miles long, and the fight and chase was the most interesting, exciting and ludicrous scene I ever witnessed or participated in. It was truly sad and distressing though to witness the frequent piles of wagons and mules that in many places blockaded the roads. In several places I saw as many as four wagons, with their teams, drivers and bales of hay, all piled together indiscriminately in a gully, with the poor mules stretched upon the ground beneath the wagons, struggling in vain against the heavy burden and strong harness that held them, sufferers, in their places.
Returning to Rockville from the charge, we were joined by Fitz. Lee, who had been operating on a different road, and who brought with him many prisoners, among them a great many contrabands, some of whom were recognized and claimed. There were some known to me, among whom was one of Uncle Tom's, two of F. W. Cox's, one of J. W. Branson's, besides several free negroes.
From Rockville we continued the march towards the Baltimore and Ohio railroad; traveled all night, and crossed the track, a part of which we destroyed next morning. This day we traveled all day, and had a sharp fight in the evening at Westminster, in which the Fourth regiment lost two Lieutenants. The enemy were routed, and most of them captured, and many stores fell into our hands, which were all destroyed or consumed.
The men, now well-nigh exhausted, were allowed four hours' rest, after which we started and proceeded towards Hanover, in Pennsylvania. Reaching Hanover we learned that the enemy held the town in force. Both men and horses being worn out, all of us regarded the prospect of a fight with no little regret and anxiety. No time was to be lost though, and whilst I was sent with a small party to the left to prevent the enemy's flanking us from that direction, the Thirteenth and Ninth Virginia, and Second North Carolina regiments, were ordered to charge. The charge was made, and the enemy driven from the place. But our men were soon turned upon by the enemy, again, or else attacked by another force, and driven off in confusion. We lost many men, principally from the North Carolina regiment. Our company lost E. D. Brown, wounded badly in the leg, and Wm. Franklin, missing, who I fear was killed. Being on the left I did not participate in the charge, and do not know how our men acted, but I am quite sure, if they had have done their duty bravely, we would have captured the town and held it. Having failed to do this, all of us regarded our situation as critical; blockaded in front, but twenty miles from the Yankee army, and encumbered by an immense wagon train and escort of more than a thousand broken down horses and men, as we were. After fighting the enemy for several hours with our sharpshooters, and shelling the town quite furiously, thus giving our train time to move around and get many miles away, we withdrew without being pursued. In the fight to-day, we captured and killed as many of the many of the enemy as we lost, though Colonel Payne, Captain Billingsly of this regiment, and several subalterns were captured from us. We marched all night, and the next day, and arrived in front of Carlisle about dark. It was here we confidently expected to meet our troops; but what was our surprise, and almost dismay, when we learned that General Ewell had left the place twenty-four hours before, and quite a large force of Yankees held the town.
It is impossible for me to give you a correct idea of the fatigue and exhaustion of the men and beasts at this time. From great exertion, constant mental excitement, want of sleep and food, the men were overcome, and so tired and stupid as almost to be ignorant of what was transpiring around them. Even in line of battle, in momentary expectation of being made to charge, they would throw themselves upon their horses necks, and even the ground, and fall to sleep. Couriers in attempting to give orders to officers would be compelled to give them a shake and a word, before they could make them understand. This was true of Colonels.
As soon as we reached the town, General Stuart sent an order for its surrender, which was refused. A charge was made, but repulsed by the enemy, who fired upon our men from the windows of brick buildings. After this, General Stuart put his artillery into position and opened a terrible cannonade, to which the Pennsylvanians made a feeble reply.
Weak and helpless as we now were, our anxiety and uneasiness was painful indeed. Thoughts of saving the wagons now, were gone, and we began to consider only how we, ourselves, might escape; but this was not so with the "lady's man," Stuart. He seemed neither to suppose that his train was in danger, or that his men were not in condition to fight. He could not have appeared more indifferent with fresh men and horses and no incumbrance. Most of us were kept in our saddles to fight till 12 o'clock--though neither the prospect of a melee, nor the thunder of artillery, nor the bright red glare of a burning town, "in the enemy's country," kept me awake that night. About 12 M. we started, the wagons moving behind us, F. Lee in the rear, and traveled till nearly light, when we stopped on the summit of South Mountain. The mountain side was yet illumined by the light from burning Carlisle. Tired--exhausted as I was, I could not but reflect, as I looked back upon the burning town, upon the wickedness, the horrors of this fell war. Frightened women driven with screaming children, in terror from burning homes, could not have suffered much more keenly, than many of the "vandal rebels" who with "fiendish delight" (?) beheld the conflagration in Carlisle that night. Truly, I was made to feel unhappy, indeed; God grant that terrible war may lead to early peace!
Next morning found up upon the mountain, more jaded and wearied than I ever saw men before; but with our train safe and the enemy considerably behind us. This day we marched all day, expecting all the time to be attacked on the flank by Yankee cavalry. About 12 o'clock M. we reached the pickets of our army. This ought to have been a source of profound relief and gratification, but was not, for our army was then engaged furiously in the great battle of Gettysburg, and we well knew, that tired as we were, there was to be no rest for us, till it was over. We marched straight into position, and commenced the fight about dark, which soon ended for the night. We were ordered to remain mounted ready to drive the enemy back should be attempt to move that way that night; but General Stuart being informed by the proper officer, that there was a limit to human endurance, replied "yes," and as he noticed that one of our brigade in attempting to get over a fence fell to sleep on it, he said that we might rest that night; accordingly we went back one-quarter of a mile, fed our horses, and spent the night in peace. Next morning commenced early the hard day's fighting at Gettysburg. The appearance of the sun was welcomed by the roar of a cannon; as he rose higher and higher in the heavens, louder and louder became the roar of heavy guns and at breakfast time, the thunder sound of artillery was truly deafening. Then the roar became less loud, and, until perhaps half-past 10 o'clock, the firing was not regarded as very heavy, meanwhile the cavalry was carried far down on the left of our line, almost in rear of the enemy and far away from the scene of carnage at Gettysburg. The guns there were audible to us though, and so furiously did they seem to fire that we knew a terrible scene of death and slaughter was being enacted there. Though we were all day expecting to fight we did not become engaged until about 12 o'clock, when the Yankee cavalry made a powerful assault upon us. The combat did not last long, not more than three or four hours, but was the fiercest I ever saw waged by cavalry. The enemy fought well; and our men evinced no disposition to yield an inch of ground. The fight occurred on an extensive plain. The enemy in vain endeavored to force our sharpshooters back to the woods. Drove them back in several places, and at a moment when our men were hard pressed, their cavalry dashed forward in a charge to clean the field. This regiment and the Thirteenth, numbering in the charge no more than 150 men, dashed forward to meet the Yankee charge. We met them at a fence over which neither party could readily get; they outnumbered us, and were well supported by their sharpshooters, yet we dismounted, pulled down the fence and drove them out of the field and through another, almost back to their artillery. We then fell back to our sharpshooters, followed by the enemy, who were charged by another brigade and driven from the field. The loss of the enemy in this fight was very great, indeed. We suffered considerably, but small, I think, in proportion to them. General Hampton who led the second charge, was severely wounded. Ashton is missing in our company; Rust (mortally); Carroll and Palmer were wounded, the two latter very slightly. Poor Eddie -- did not go into the fight, but lost his horse subsequently, wandered off, and was, I fear, captured. Since I parted with him that evening, looking for his horse, I have not heard from him. I think it likely he went to our hospital in the neighborhood, and being without a horse, remained to attend to our wounded. A. Cox was left for that purpose. That night we traveled about ten miles, and spent the night in quietude.
Next day we were ready for, and in anticipation of, a fight, but had none. Commenced in the evening a march after the Yankee cavalry, who were said to be after our wagon trains. Marched all night, all next day, and had a fight at a pass in the mountains below Emmettsburg. Were in the saddle all next night, reached Lightesburg where we learned we were close upon the enemy, who had that day captured about thirty of our wagons, besides many prisoners. Next day we followed the enemy towards Hagerstown, where we came up with him. This day we captured many prisoners, who with those caught yesterday amount to nearly three hundred. The fight in Hagerstown lasted nearly all day. Our company was in three distinct charges. We killed and captured a great many Yankees. In the evening we drove the Yankees off, and General Stuart ordered us to follow them up. Our brigade endeavored to take a piece of artillery. We were front. We charged up almost to the mouth of the piece. They poured the grape or canister into us. When we got close up to the gun we found it so well protected by sharpshooters and cavalry, that we could not hold it; we accordingly left the pike and formed in the field, and fought until our support came up, when the enemy broke and fled, our men closely pursuing. Our company had but a handful of men. We lost but one in number, a host in value, Orderly Sergeant Richard Washington, than whom no truer or braver spirit has yet been martyred in defence of our country's freedom. My horse was broken down, (the fifth since I left Virginia,) and when Washington fell, I paused to take a last look at him--one whom I had not known long, but one whom I learned to esteem, admire and respect. He spoke not a word after he fell, nor was there any evidence that he was alive visible, though with my hand upon his breast I felt his heart still to beat. Driven from the body by the enemy before I could pull a ring from his finger, ere I returned the blood had left his cheek, and he lay calmly, painted in the sallow and ashy paleness of death. I remained, after taking his arms and effected, until arrangements could be made to carry his body off, and as I saw him wrapped from view in coarse blanket, distressed as I was, I felt relieved. I contrasted the excitement, the strife, the horrors of this world, with the peace, the happiness, and bliss this Christian soldier had found in death. Peace to his ashes! The next day was spent in camp, and we were not interrupted except by a severe rain storm.
For the last five days we have been skirmishing with the enemy very heavily, whilst our army has been making preparations for the impending battle. We have lost very heavily in men. Yesterday we had a very severe fight, in which we suffered quite severely. One man, young Sandford, was slightly wounded in our company.
You will be able to form some idea from this account of how much in need of rest we are. Indeed, we have had a most laborious time of it. Thus far we have had enough to live on, how much longer it will continue so, I cannot say. The cavalry was driven in yesterday, since which time heavy skirmishing has been going on along our lines. The enemy, I have no doubt, are going to make a desperate effort to crush us here. If we are defeated, indeed the blow will be a terrible one to us and our cause; but we have no reason to fear we will be defeated. If we do our duty, that Devine Being who has so often given victory to this army, will surely not desert us now. The issue is in His holy hands; may He comfort and aid those who put their trust in Him!
Our Generals think the cavalry will have a heavy part to bear in the coming battle. We are called upon to do our duty bravely. I look to the only true source of safety, for protection, amid the dangers to which we may be exposed.
I saw Captain Davis a few days ago; he was well and hearty. Captain Bowie was badly wounded at Gettysburg and Ferd. Blackwell, slightly. These are the only casualties I have heard of in that battle--in the Fortieth. I saw Wilbur Davis yesterday; he was very well; not engaged in the battle of Gettysburg. Captain Murphy arrived a few days ago with Holliday. Your letters reached us safely, and we were much delighted to hear such cheering news from home. May the peace, quiet and health, now your fortune to enjoy, continue long! I have not seen Captain M. yet; he will show himself soon, though, I reckon. I wish, as you say, General Lee would not let the Yankees come back to the Northern Neck again. Unhappy as I was made to feel by hearing of the unauthorized depredations of our men in Pennsylvania, upon the private rights of people, I had much rather those people should be made to feel the horrors of war than an armed Yankee should ever tread our soil again. If we should be so fortunate as to gain a great victory here, I do not think the enemy will be upon us for some time. Father says do not think of making any such arrangement in reference to the farm, as the one you spoke of. He unites with myself and the boys in best love to yourself and the children. Remember me to each one of my uncles, aunts and cousins whenever you see them.
Excuse bad writing and incoherency of what I have written. You know the circumstances under which I have written.
Your son, very affectionately,
G. W. Beale.
(Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 11, p.320-327)