A Soldier’s Letter: Frederick Pettit

Letter from Corporal Pettit (Company C, 100th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry) to his family after his involvement in the Battle of South Mountain on September 20, 1862

Dear Parents, Brothers and Sisters:

Having a little spare time this morning, I will commence to give you a short account of what our regiment has done since I came to it.

I overtook it about twenty miles from Washington at Brookeville, Md. It was dark when I found them. They had been resting a day to get provisions. The next morning, we started out a little before dark. Our rations are crackers, coffee, sugar, and beef when the cooks have time to boil it.

The next day, we started on our march again and passed through New Market, where the rebel pickets had been the night before. This town is eight miles from Frederick. After passing about two miles from the town, we halted and the cavalry and artillery were sent forward to reconnoiter. After waiting about four hours, we again moved forward. About three miles from Frederick, we again halted.

The front skirmishers loaded their guns and advanced cautiously. The artillerymen ran two guns to the top of a hill on the right. But the rebels had gone. A shot or two at their rear sent them flying. We marched about a mile further and encamped two miles from the city. The next day we could plainly see the cannonading. We could not see any effects of it except a dead horse or two and houses turned into hospitals. After going some distance further, we encamped and lay down and slept during the remainder of the night.

The next morning we started early toward Middletown. It was not long before we heard cannonading in front. About a mile from Middletown, we found a large barn and bridge burned. But the stream was shallow, and we had no difficulty in crossing. After going a short distance further, we could see the batteries at work and hear the whizzing of the shells. The rebels occupied a wooded pass in the mountains. The turnpike runs through the middle of the pass. On the right of it, the rebels had a battery in a ploughed field and others on the left in the woods.

When we came in sight of the enemy, our division halted and our regiment was sent forward as skirmishers. We advanced along the turnpike in plain view of their batteries on the right until we came within a half mile of it. We halted and protected ourselves as well as we could under the bank at the side of the road. The enemy sent their shell amongst us thick and fast. They exploded above and all around us. Shortly an orderly came and told us to fall back. When we commenced to move, the shot and shell flew faster than ever. Our loss this time was only one man wounded, but if we had stayed fifteen minutes longer we would have been cut to pieces…

We advanced up the hill steadily under a shower of shot until we came near the top of the hill, where the road ran between two high banks. Just had we halted when a number of cavalrymen and artilleries came rushing down upon us crying, “Clear the road for the cannon, we are beaten.” Then the artillery came galloping down with the guns and caissons. And to make things worse, the rebels were sending grape shot and shell amongst us in a perfect shower.

We clambered out of the road as fast as we could, and our officers soon formed us in line of battle on the right of the road. We were ordered to fix bayonets and expected to make a charge, but after we started down the hill again and marched on up the valley about a mile, we halted, about faced, and started back across the hill. While coming up the valley, a number of men gave out; amongst them Lieutenant Morton. We saw him no more that day. We soon met General Wilcox and, as we were almost exhausted, he ordered us to lie down and rest.

After resting about three hours, we formed in line of battle. The rebels had advanced upon our cannon and we must drive them back. The 45th Reg. Pa. and 17th Michigan went in before us and drove them behind a stone wall. We then advanced to the top of the hill through a shower of musket balls. When we came to the edge of the woods, we halted and commenced firing. We were about as far from them as from our corn crib to the barn. They were in a lane behind a stone fence and we were in the edge of a woods with a clear lot between us. I fired eleven shots. Most of the boys fired fifteen before the rebels ran. The lane was piled full of killed and wounded rebels…

I have a chance to send this now. We are all well and near the Potomac River. We move soon. I send you a rebel envelope I picked up on the battlefield.

F. Pettit

Source: The Brothers’ War by Annette Tapert (Vintage Books: New York, NY, 1988)

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This Week in the Civil War: Sep 10-16, 1862

Wednesday, September 10:  In Maryland, Federal cavalry informed General George McClellan that General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was falling back toward the Monocacy River, away from Frederick. McClellan responded by accelerating his previously sluggish pursuit. As Confederates advanced north in Kentucky, 1,000 “squirrel hunters” volunteered in Cincinnati to defend against a possible Confederate invasion.

Thursday, September 11:  In Maryland, Lee’s Confederates entered Hagerstown, and skirmishing with Federal forces increased. Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin called for 50,000 volunteers to defend the state. In Kentucky, Confederates under General Edmund Kirby Smith occupied Maysville. Skirmishing intensified as the Confederates came within seven miles of Cincinnati.

Friday, September 12:  In Maryland, McClellan’s Federals reached Frederick as Lee’s Confederates began dispersing in accordance with Special Orders No. 191. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate corps approached Harpers Ferry, and skirmishing took place over the next five days. In Kentucky, Confederates occupied Glasgow as skirmishing continued. The Federal Army of Virginia was officially absorbed into McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. In Pennsylvania, assets and archives were transfered from Harrisburg and Philadelphia to New York. The Confederate Congress debated the wisdom of the northern invasion. President Jefferson Davis wrote to the governors of Texas, Missouri, Louisiana, and Arkansas attempting to assure them that the Trans-Mississippi theater of war was not being ignored.

Saturday, September 13:  In Maryland, two Federal soldiers found a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. They were forwarded to George McClellan, who now knew that Lee’s forces were divided. McClellan pushed his Federals west, while Lee learned that McClellan had found his order. Skirmishing intensified. In western Virginia, Federals evacuated Charleston as Confederates under General W.W. Loring advanced from the Kanawha Valley. In New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Federal occupation forces, ordered all foreigners to register with Federal authorities.

Sunday, September 14:  In Maryland, the left wing of George McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac advanced toward Crampton’s Gap to cut off the Confederates at Harpers Ferry and divide Lee’s army. Meanwhile, another Federal force attacked Confederates at South Mountain. After hard fighting, the Confederates withdrew; Federal General Jesse Reno was killed. This became known as the Battle of South Mountain. Meanwhile, “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates lay siege to the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. In Kentucky, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates reached Munfordville. Federals under General Don Carlos Buell hurried ahead of Bragg and reached Bowling Green. In Mississippi, a third phase of the overall Confederate offensive began taking shape when Confederates under General Sterling Price occupied Iuka near Corinth.

Monday, September 15:  In Virginia (now West Virginia), “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates captured Harpers Ferry, taking about 12,000 prisoners. In Maryland, Robert E. Lee’s Confederates at South Mountain fell back to Sharpsburg. Lee was hurriedly concentrating his scattered forces before George McClellan’s Federals could launch a full-scale attack. Lee originally planned to withdraw, but when he learned that Jackson had captured Harpers Ferry, he began forming a line along Antietam Creek. In Kentucky, Edmund Kirby Smith’s Confederates reached Covington across the Ohio River from Cincinnati but quickly withdrew. Braxton Bragg’s Confederates lay siege to Munfordville. 

Tuesday, September 16:  In Maryland, Robert E. Lee gathered his Army of Northern Virginia and established battle lines along Antietam Creek. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederates arrived on the scene after a hard march from Harpers Ferry, while one of Jackson’s divisions under General A.P. Hill remained behind to accept the garrison’s surrender. George McClellan faced criticism for not attacking today. In Kentucky, Bragg continued his siege of 4,000 Federals at Munfordville. Smith’s Confederates withdrew from the Ohio River toward Lexington. President Abraham Lincoln, unable to contact McClellan, wired Governor Curtin of Pennsylvania: “What do you hear from Gen. McClellan’s army?”