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Maj Hilary A. Herbert's Report

Report of October 1864 for his Regiment and Wilcox's (Cumming's) Brigade

[author biography]

ORANGE COURTHOUSE, Virginia
October 1864.

[The following account of the 8th Alabama in this battle which General (E. Porter) Alexander in his "Memoirs" calls "the boldest and bloodiest battle ever fought on this continent," is transcribed literally as written in camp at Orange, C. H., in 1864, and approved by the officers who were participants. My excuse for so publishing it is that no report was ever made by myself, the last commander that day of Wilcox's Brigade, nor by our Division General, R. H. Anderson, who was wounded in the battle; and it therefore happens that this report, written in camp, for the Adjutant General of Alabama is the only official report ever made of our part, or the part taken by Wilcox's Brigade, in that battle, so far as I have been able to discover.]

Leaving Sharpsburg to our right we made a detour to our left, passing beyond the town and through open fields exposed for a half mile to a withering fire of artillery. Rising a hill into an apple orchard and still marching by the right flank, we came within grape shot range of the enemy's batteries and within reach of their small arms. We moved forward through a field of corn, which sloped downward from an orchard (near Pfeiffer's [Piper's] house), and went 'forward in line' on the right, opposite the enemy. (Before we had gotten into line Colonel Cumming, commanding the brigade, was wounded and compelled to leave the field.) The fight now became furious. Our Division occupied about the right center of the line, our Brigade on the right of the Division. On the right of the Brigade was a gap in the line unoccupied. (So great was this gap that no Confederates were in sight on our right.) Before getting into position we had lost heavily; Captain Nail had been temporarily disabled by a shell and Lieutenant (A. H.) Ravesies, acting Adjutant, had received a severe wound in the leg.

A compact line of infantry about 120 yards in our front poured a well-directed fire upon us, which we answered rapidly and with effect.

A battery of artillery about forty-five degrees to our right (A conversation with Federal General (Ezra A.) Carman whom on a recent visit I found in charge of the battlefield now under Government supervision, developed the fact that this battery was on a height across the Antietam river.) and another at a similar angle on our left, concentrated shells upon us with terrible accuracy. We were unsupported by any artillery on our portion of the line.

Sergeant J. P. Harris, bearing the flag, was soon wounded. Corporal Thomas Ryan of Company E immediately took the colors and was shortly afterwards mortally wounded.

Sergeant James Castello of Company G then seized the flag. Ammunition was being exhausted and men were using the cartridge boxes of their dead and wounded comrades. The enemy's line in front of us wavered and portions of it broke, but it was re-inforced by fresh troops. Our line to the left was being pushed back by overwhelming numbers. Major Herbert gave the order to the regiment, and we fell back slowly. About three hundred yards in the rear we found Major (John W.) Fairfax, General Longstreet's 'Fighting Aide' as the soldiers called him, endeavoring to rally the troops that had fallen back before us.

Despatching Lieutenant (M. G.) McWilliams (of Co. B.) and two men after ammunition, Major Williams (of the 9th) and Major Herbert rallied about 100 men of the brigade and moved forward again. Rising the hill into the apple orchard before spoken of, the enemy were observed coming through the cornfield in front in a strong line. Pouring a volley into them and charging them with a shout, we routed them completely. They rallied, however, and seeing how few we were, formed behind a rock fence on the opposite ridge about 100 yards distant. Taking post in the orchard, the unequal fire was kept up until our numbers gradually melting away under the fire of the enemy (Note: The batteries over the river were firing on us.), it became impracticable to hold the ground longer, and the order was given to retire.

Major Williams had now been wounded and the command of the Brigade devolved on Major Herbert, who rallied about fifty men and again advanced to the apple orchard. Here the combat was renewed with exactly the same result. The enemy were again advancing through the cornfield, were again driven back, and again took position behind the rock fence. We retained our position in the apple orchard and continued the fight, the enemy's balls playing fearful havoc in our ranks. The flag bearer, Sergeant Castello, whose gallantry had been conspicuous throughout the day, received a musket ball through the head. Major Herbert took up the colors, but shortly afterwards gave them to Sergeant G. T. L. Robinson of Company B, who insisted upon his right to carry them. Soon he too fell wounded, and Private W. G. McCloskie of Company G took the flag and carried it gallantly through the day. (Thus the flag that day was carried successively by five different persons.)

From their position behind the rock fence, and with the artillery across the Antietam, the enemy commanded the orchard. It, therefore, became necessary to fall back again, which was done by order, the enemy not again attempting to occupy the disputed ground until later in the evening.

It was near sunset; A. P. Hill's Division had come up and was hotly engaged with the enemy on our right. (The gap on our right heretofore spoken of as unoccupied was the gap between us and A. P. Hill. We saw no one on our right till A. P. Hill came up.) The enemy making no further attempt against our portion of the line we had moved over to support General A. P. Hill's left. The enemy (those in our former front) now attempted to gain such a position as to command our left flank.

Brigadier General (Philip) Cook, commanding a brigade of Georgians and with whom Major Herbert was now cooperating, saw this movement, and we changed front to meet it. The nature of the ground permitted us to shift our position without being seen. The enemy now came confidently forward. We were in line just in front of them but concealed by the crest of a hill. When they arrived within thirty yards of us we rose, poured a volley into, and charged them. They fled in, confusion, leaving us in possession of the oft-disputed apple orchard and seventeen prisoners besides their wounded." (Note: This possession was only temporary. The artillery over the river compelled us to seek shelter back of the hill behind us.) Thus closed the battle along our position of the line.

On the next day we held our position but there was no serious engagement. (Note: We lost one man under very singular circumstances. He was with the regiment which was lying in its position of the evening before, when a musket ball killed him coming from the enemy's direction, but we heard no sound of a gun nor did we see or hear any skirmishing during the day.)

Our loss in this battle was seventy-eight killed and wounded out of 120 carried into the fight. After the battle, the following men were complimented for gallantry in special orders from regimental headquarters.

Sergeant G. T. L. Robinson, now Captain, Company B.
Sergeant G. B. Gould, Company G (later appointed 2nd Lt. for gallantry).
Sergeant George Hatch, Company F (later 1st Lt.).
Sergeant (Charles F.) Brown, Company D (later 2nd Lt).
Private L. P. Bulger, Company B (afterwards Sergeant and killed at Gettysburg).
Private W. G. McCloskie, Company G.
Private James Ryan, Company L.
Private Peter Smith, Company G.
Private Charles Rob, Company G.
Private John Herbert, Company H.
Private John Callahan, Company C.

[What I peculiarly regret is that no report of the part taken by Wilcox's Brigade in this, which was the bloodiest of its battles, appears in the Official Records published at Washington. No report was ever made. General Wilcox was absent, sick; Colonel Cumming, temporarily in command, was disabled by a wound before we had gotten fairly into the fight. Major Williams commanded for less than an hour. I was in command for the remainder of the day, and did not make a report for what appears to me now the clearly insufficient reason that I was not called upon to do so. A sense of justice to the command ought to have given me the courage to take the initiative and send in a full report. Having failed then, I now make amends, as far as may be, by publishing verbatim the report-given above, which is official in the sense that, in obedience to the order of the Governor of Alabama, it was written in camp and was submitted to and approved by those who had participated, and it has necessarily included not only the 8th Alabama Regiment, but the handful of men then constituting the Brigade, as showing the part taken by the 8th.]

 

Source: Hilary A. Herbert, History of the 8th Alabama Regiment, C.S.A. (1906), a manuscript edited by Maurice S. Fortin and published in The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. XXXIX, Nos. 01, 02, 03, & 04 (Alabama State Department of Archives and History, 1977), pp. 77-81. Colonel Herbert's History was originally published in installments in the Montgomery Advertiser 22 July - 16 September 1906.

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