HEADQUARTERS RODES' BRIGADE,
Wright's Farm, Va., October 13,1862
Maj. J.W. Rachford
Gen. D.H. Hill's Division
MAJOR: I have the honor herewith to report the operations of this brigade during the actions of September 14 and 17 in Maryland.
On the morning of the 14th my brigade relieved Anderson's about half a mile west of Boonsborough. Toward noon it was ordered to follow Ripley's brigade to the top of the South Mountain. Overtaking Ripley's brigade on the mountain, it was halted, and I immediately reported to Major-General Hill. After looking over the field of battle, I was ordered by Major-General Hill to take position on the ridge immediately to the left of the gap through which the main road runs. Remaining there three-quarters of an hour, part of the time under artillery fire, and throwing out scouts and skirmishers to the left and front, I was then ordered to occupy another bare hill about three-quarters of a mile still farther to the left. The whole brigade was moved to that hill, crossing, in doing so, a deep gorge which separated the hills. This movement left a wide interval between the right of my brigade, which in its last position rested in the gorge, and the balance of the division, which being reported to General Hill, together with the fact that no troops supported the battery on the first-mentioned ridge, by his order I sent back one of my regiments [the Twelfth Alabama) to support the battery. By this time the enemy's line of battle was pretty well developed and in full view. It became evident that he intended to attack with a line covering both ridges and the gorge before mentioned, and extending some half a mile to my left. I had, immediately after my arrival on the extreme left, discovered that the hill there was accessible to artillery, and that a good road, passing by the left of said hill from the enemy's line, continued immediately in my rear and entered the main road about half a mile west of the gap. Under these circumstances, I sent for artillery, and determined upon the only plan by which the enemy could be prevented from immediately obtaining possession of said road, and thus marching entirely in our rear without difficulty, and that was, to extend my line as far as I could to the left, to let the right rest in the gorge, still, and to send to my superiors for re-enforcements to continue the line from my right to the gap on the main road, an interval of three-quarters of a mile at least. Having thrown out skirmishers along the whole front and to the left, they very soon became engaged with the enemy's skirmishers.
This was about 3 p.m., and it was perfectly evident then that my force of about 1,200 muskets was opposed to one which outflanked mine on either side by at least half a mile. I thought the enemy's force opposed to my brigade was at least a division. In a short time the firing became steady along the whole line, the enemy advancing very slowly. The danger of his possessing the top of the left hill, and thus being in my rear, became so imminent that I had to cause my left regiment (the Sixth Alabama, under Colonel [J. B.] Gordon) to move along the brow of the hill, under fire, still farther to the left. He did so in good style, and, having a fair opportunity to do so with advantage, charged and drove the enemy back a short distance. By this time the enemy, though met gallantly by all four of the regiments with me, had penetrated between them, and had begun to swing their extreme right around toward my rear, making for the head of the gorge, up the bottom and sides of which the whole of my force, except the Sixth Alabama, had to retreat, if at all. I renewed again, and yet again, my application for re-enforcements, but none came. Some artillery, under Captain Carter, who was moving up without orders, and some of Colonel Cutts', under a gallant lieutenant, whose name I do not now recollect, was reported by the last-named officer to be on its way to my relief; but at this time the enemy had obtained possession of the summit of the left hill before spoken of, and had command of the road in rear of the main mountain. The artillery could only have been used by being hauled up on the high peak, which arose upon the summit of the ridge just at the head of the gorge before mentioned. This they had not time to do, and hence I ordered it back.
Just before this, I heard that some Confederate troops had joined my right very nearly. Finding that the enemy were forcing my right back, and that the only chance to continue the fight was to change my front so as to face to the left, I ordered all the regiments to fall back up the gorge and sides of the mountain, fighting, the whole concentrating around the high peak before mentioned. This enabled me to face the enemy's right again, and to make another stout stand with Gordon's excellent regiment (which he had kept constantly in hand, and had handled in a manner I have never heard or seen equaled during this war), and with the remainder of the Fifth, Third, and Twelfth Alabama Regiments. I found the Twelfth had been relieved by other troops and closed in toward my right, but had passed in rear of the original line so far that, upon re-establishing the line on the main peak, I found that the Third Alabama came upon its right. The Twenty-sixth Alabama, which had been placed on my right, was by this time completely demoralized; its colonel ([E. A.] O'Neal)was wounded, and the men mingled in utter confusion with some South Carolina stragglers on the summit of the hill, who stated that their brigade had been compelled to give way, and had retired. Notwithstanding this, if true, left my rear entirely exposed again (I had no time or means to examine the worth of their statements), I determined, in accordance with the orders I received about this time, in reply to my last request for re-enforcements, to fight on on the new front.
My loss up to this time had been heavy in all the regiments except the Twelfth Alabama. The Fifth Alabama, which had occupied the left center, got separated into two parts in endeavoring to follow up the flank movement of Gordon's regiment. Both parts became engaged again before they could rejoin, and the right battalion was finally cut off entirely. The left and smaller battalion, under Major Hobson's gallant management, though flanked, wheeled against the flanking party, and, by desperate fighting, silenced the enemy so far as to enable his little command to make its way to the peak before mentioned. In the first attack of the enemy up the bottom of the gorge, they pushed on so vigorously as to catch Captain Ready and a portion of his party of skirmishers, and to separate the Third from the Fifth Alabama Regiment. The Third made a most gallant resistance at this point, and had my line been a continuous one it could never have been forced. Having re-established my line, though still with wide intervals, necessarily, on the high peak (this was done under constant fire and in full view of the enemy, now in full possession of the extreme left hill and of the gorge), the fight at close quarters was resumed, and again accompanied by the enemy throwing their, by this time apparently interminable right around toward my rear. In this position the Sixth Alabama and the Twelfth suffered pretty severely. The latter, together with the remainder of the Third Alabama, which had been well handled by Colonel [C. A.] Battle, was forced to retire, and in so doing lost heavily. Its colonel (Gayle) [B. B.] was seen to fall, and its lieutenant-colonel [Samuel B.] (Pickens) was shot through the lungs; the former was left on the field, supposed to be dead; Pickens was brought off. Gordon's regiment retired slowly, now being under an enfilading as well as direct fire and in danger of being surrounded, but was still, fortunately for the whole command, held together by its able commander. After this, I could meet the enemy with no organized force except Gordon's regiment. One more desperate stand was made by it from an advantageous position. The enemy by this time were nearly on top of the highest peak, and were pushing on, when Gordon's regiment, unexpectedly to them, opened fire on their front and checked them. This last stand was so disastrous to the enemy that it attracted the attention of the stragglers, even, many of whom Colonel Battle and I had been endeavoring to organize, and who were just then on the flank of that portion of the enemy engaged with Gordon, and for a few minutes they kept up a brisk enfilading fire upon the enemy; but, finding his fire turning from Gordon upon them, and that another body of Federal troops were advancing upon them, they speedily fell back. It was now so dark that it was difficult to distinguish objects at short musket range, and both parties ceased firing. Directing Colonel Gordon to move his regiment to his right and to the rear, so as to cover the gap, I endeavored to gather up stragglers from the other regiments. Colonel Battle still held together a handful of his men. These, together with the remnants of the Twelfth, Fifth, and Twenty-sixth Alabama Regiments, were assembled at the gap, and were speedily placed alongside of Gordon's regiment, which by this time had arrived in the road ascending the mountain from the gap, forming a line on the edge of the woods parallel to and about 200 yards from the main road. The enemy did not advance beyond the top of the mountain, but, to be prepared for them, skirmishers were thrown out in front of the line.
This position we held until about 11 o'clock at night, when we were ordered to take the Sharpsburg road and to stop at Keedysville, which we did. We had rested about an hour, when I was ordered to proceed to Sharpsburg with all the force under my command--Colquitt's brigade and mine--to drive out a Federal cavalry force reported to be there.
On the way Colonel [R. H.] Chilton, chief of General Lee's staff, met me with contrary orders, which required me to send only a part of my force. The Fifth and Sixth Alabama were sent. In a few minutes, however, we received orders from General Longstreet to go ahead, and did so; found no cavalry.
In this engagement my loss was as follows:
The men and officers generally behaved well, but Colonel Gordon, Sixth Alabama: Major [E. L.] Hobson, Fifth Alabama, and Colonel Battle, Third Alabama, deserve especial mention for admirable conduct during the whole fight. We did not drive the enemy back or whip him, but with 1,200 men we held his whole division at bay without assistance during four and a half hours' steady fighting, losing in that time not over half a mile of ground. I was most ably and bravely served during the whole day by Captains [H. A.] Whiting and [G.] Peyton and Lieut. John Birney, who composed my staff.
On the 15th, after resting on the heights south of Sharpsburg long enough to get a scanty meal and to gather stragglers, we moved back through that place to the advanced position in the center of the line of battle before the town. Here, subsisting on green corn mainly and under an occasional artillery fire, we lay until the morning of the 17th, when began the engagement of September 17. The fight opened early, on the left, but my brigade was not engaged until late in the forenoon. About 9 o'clock I was ordered to move to the left and front to assist Ripley, Colquitt, and McRae, who had already engaged the enemy, and I had hardly begun the movement before it was evident that the two latter had met with a reverse, and that the best service I could render them and the field generally would be to form a line in rear of them and endeavor to rally them before attacking or being attacked. Major-General Hill held the same view, for at this moment I received an order from him to halt and form line of battle in the hollow of an old and narrow road just beyond the orchard, and with my left about 150 yards from and east of the Hagerstown road. In a short time a small portion of Colquitt's brigade formed on my left, and I assumed the command of it. This brought my left to the Hagerstown road. General Anderson's brigade, occupying the same road, had closed up on my right.
A short time after my brigade assumed its new position, and while the men were busy improving their position by piling rails along their front, the enemy deployed in our front in three beautiful lines, all vastly outstretching ours, and commenced to advance steadily. Unfortunately, no artillery opposed them in their advance. Carter's battery had been sent to take position in rear, by me, when I abandoned my first position, because he was left without support, and because my own position had not then been fully determined. Three pieces, which occupied a fine position immediately on my front, abandoned it immediately after the enemy's skirmishers opened on them. The enemy came to the crest of the hill overlooking my position, and for five minutes bravely stood telling fire at about 80 yards, which my whole brigade delivered. They then fell back a short distance, rallied, were driven back again and again, and finally lay down just back of the crest, keeping up a steady fire, however. In this position, receiving an order from General Longstreet to do so, I endeavored to charge them with my brigade and that portion of Colquitt's which was on my immediate left. The charge failed, mainly because the Sixth Alabama Regiment, not hearing the command, did not move forward with the others, and because Colquitt's men did not advance far enough. That part of the brigade which moved forward found themselves in an exposed position, and, being outnumbered and unsustained, fell back before I could, by personal effort, which was duly made, get the Sixth Alabama to move. Hastening back to the left, I arrived just in time to prevent the men from falling back to the rear of the road we had just occupied. It became evident to me then that an attack by us must, to be successful, be made by the whole of Anderson's brigade, mine, Colquitt's, and any troops that had arrived on Anderson's right. My whole force at this moment did not amount to over 700 men--most probably not to that number.
About this time I noticed troops going in to the support of Anderson, or to his right, and that one regiment and a portion of another, instead of passing on to the front, stopped in the hollow immediately in my rear and near the orchard. As the fire on both sides was, at my position at least, now desultory and slack, 1 went to the troops referred to, and found that they belonged to General Pryor's brigade. Their officers stated that they had been ordered to halt there by somebody, not General Pryor. Finding General Pryor in a few moments, and informing him as to their conduct, he immediately ordered them forward. Returning toward the brigade, I met Lieutenant-Colonel [J. N.] Lightfoot, of the Sixth Alabama, looking for me. Upon his telling me that the right wing of his regiment was being subjected to a terrible enfilading fire, which the enemy were enabled to deliver by reason of their gaining somewhat on Anderson, and that he had but few men left in that wing, I ordered him to hasten back, and to throw his right wing back out of the old road referred to. Instead of executing the order, he moved briskly to the rear of the regiment and gave the command, "Sixth Alabama, about face; forward march." Major Hobson, of the Fifth, seeing this, asked him if the order was intended for the whole brigade; he replied, "Yes," and thereupon the Fifth, and immediately the other troops on their left, retreated. I did not see their retrograde movement until it was too late for me to rally them, for this reason: Just as I was moving on after Lightfoot, I heard a shot strike Lieutenant Birney, who was immediately behind me. Wheeling, I found him falling, and found that he had been struck in the face. He found that he could walk after I raised him, though he thought a shot or piece of shell had penetrated his head just under the eye. I followed him a few paces, and watched him until he had reached a barn, a short distance to the rear, where he first encountered some one to help him in case he needed it. As I turned toward the brigade, I was struck heavily by a piece of shell on my thigh. At first I thought the wound was serious, but, finding, upon examination, that it was slight, I again turned toward the brigade, when I discovered it, without visible cause to me, retreating in confusion. I hastened to intercept it at the Hagerstown road. I found, though, that, with the exception of a few men from the Twenty-sixth, Twelfth, and Third, and a few under Major Hobson, not more than 40 in all, the brigade had completely disappeared from this portion of the field. This small number, together with some Mississippians (under Colonel ------) and North Carolinians, making in all about 150 men, I rallied and stationed behind a small ridge leading from the Hagerstown road eastward toward the orchard before spoken of, and about 150 yards in rear of my last position, leaving them under the charge of Colonel ----------.
It is proper for me to mention here that this force, with some slight additions, was afterward led through the orchard against the enemy by General D. H. Hill, and did good service, the general himself handling a musket in the fight. Major Hobson and Lieutenant [J. M.] Goff, of the Fifth Alabama (the latter with a musket), bore distinguished parts in the fight. After this, my time was spent mainly in directing the fire of some artillery and getting up stragglers.
In this engagement the brigade behaved very handsomely and satisfactorily, and, with the exception of the right wing of the Sixth Alabama (where Colonel Gordon, while acting with his customary gallantry, was wounded desperately, receiving five wounds), had sustained almost no loss until the retrograde movement began. It had, together with Anderson's troops, stopped and foiled the attack of a whole corps of the enemy for more than an hour, and finally fell back only when, as the men and officers supposed, they had been ordered to do so. We might have been compelled to fall back afterward (for the troops on my right had already given way when we began to retreat), but, without the least hesitation, I say that but for the unaccountable mistake of Lieutenant-Colonel Lightfoot, the retreat would not have commenced at this time, if at all. He was wounded severely in the retreat.
I saw but little of the operations of Carter's battery during the battle. I only know that it was actively engaged the whole day, and with some loss. The gallant captain received a slight wound on the foot, and one of his lieutenants (Dabney) received one from which he has since died. I beg leave to refer to his report, which is submitted herewith.
My force at the beginning of the fight was less than 800 effective men. The loss was as follows:
The aggregate loss in the two engagements is as follows:
The missing are either prisoners or killed. Most of them were captured on the mountain on the 14th.
Captain Whiting and Lieut. John Birney, C. S. Army, of my staff, were both wounded. They, with Capt. Greene Peyton, assistant adjutant-general, discharged their respective duties with ability and gallantry.
The subjoined tabular statement will exhibit the loss in the respective regiments of the brigade in both engagements. The enemy's loss in both engagements was far heavier than mine. I believe they lost three to my one at Sharpsburg, and at least two to one on the mountain.
R. E. RODES,
Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 1033 - 1039