site logo

BGen Joseph B. Kershaw's Official Reports

Reports of September & October 1862 on Harpers Ferry and Sharpsburg

J. Kershaw

[author biography]

[Maryland Heights, Harpers Ferry]

September 25, 1862.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

MAJOR: On the morning of the 12th instant I was directed, with Barksdale's Mississippi brigade and my own (South Carolina), to move from Brownsville and occupy the Maryland Heights, taking the road by Solomon's Gap to the summit of Elk Ridge, and thence, along the ridge, to the point which overlooks and commands Harper's Ferry. At an early hour the command was in motion and reached the gap without opposition. At this point, however, the pickets of the enemy were discovered, and it became necessary to approach the position carefully, with skirmishers thrown well to the right and left. This being done, the enemy withdrew his picket after a few scattering shots. Reaching the summit of the mountain, skirmishers were thrown well down the mountain to my right, while the column filed to the left along the ridge. Captain Cuthbert, Second South Carolina Regiment, commanding the skirmishers on the right, soon encountered a volley from about three companies of cavalry, but upon the fire being returned the enemy left with some loss. About a mile farther on, Major Bradley, Mississippi regiment, commanding skirmishers, reported an abatis across the line of march, from which he was fired upon by a picket. Directing him to press forward and ascertain the force in front, he soon overcame the obstacle without further resistance. Leaving then the path, which at that point passed down the mountain to the right, we filed along the crags on the ridge. The natural obstacles were so great that we only reached a position about a mile from the point of the mountain at 6 o'clock p. m. Here an abatis was discovered, extending across the mountain, flanked on either side by a ledge of precipitous rocks. A sharp skirmish ensued, which satisfied me that the enemy occupied the position in force. I therefore directed Major Bradley to retire his skirmishers, and deployed my brigade in two lines, extending across the entire practicable ground on the summit of the mountain, the Eighth Regiment, Colonel Henagan, on the right, and the Seventh, Colonel Aiken, on the left, constituting the first line; the Third Regiment, Colonel Nance, in rear of the Eighth, and the Second Regiment, Colonel Kennedy, in rear of the Seventh, constituting the second line; General Barksdale's brigade immediately in rear. These dispositions being made, the approach of night prevented further operations; the commands rested on their arms in the position indicated until the morning of the 13th, when I moved forward my first line to the attack. Early in the advance, the Eighth Regiment encountered a ledge of rock which cut them off from further participation in the attack; but Colonel Aiken moved briskly forward, under a heavy fire of musketry, surmounted the difficult abatis, and drove the enemy from his position in about twenty minutes. The enemy is stated by prisoners to have been 1,200 strong at this point. They retired about 400 yards, to a much stronger position, a similar abatis, behind which was a breastwork of logs, extending across the mountain, flanked, as before, by precipitous ledges of rock.

I had, at the commencement of the attack, directed General Barksdale to form his brigade down the face of the mountain to my left, in prolongation of the two lines on the summit, it having appeared the night before that the enemy's skirmishers occupied a part of that face of the mountain. I now directed General Barksdale to advance his command, and attack the enemy in flank and rear, while I pressed him in front. Again I moved forward the Seventh and Eighth Regiments. Reaching the abatis, a most obstinate resistance was encountered, and a fierce fire kept up, at about 100 yards distance, for some time. Our loss was heavy, and I found it necessary to send in Colonel Nance's Third Regiment to support the attack. They, too, were stoutly resisted. General Barksdale then sent me word that he had, with great labor, overcome the difficulties of the route and had reached the desired position, but that he could not bring his men to the crest of the mountain without encountering our fire, as he was in rear of the enemy. I sent to direct our fire to cease, hoping that we might capture the whole force if General Barksdale could get up. Before this order was extended, the right company of Colonel Fiser's regiment, Barksdale's brigade, fired into a body of the enemy's sharpshooters lodged in the rocks above them, and their whole line broke into a perfect route, escaping down the mountain sides to their rear. This took place at 10.30 o'clock a. m. General Barksdale was directed to occupy the point of the mountain, which he did without encountering anything more than a picket of the enemy, which he soon disposed of. In their retreat the enemy abandoned and spiked three heavy guns, which were in position on the lower slope of the mountain toward Harper's Ferry, and left considerable commissary stores, ammunition, and a number of tents near the same place. The guns were left by me, as it was impossible to remove them without fur ther time. Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy was directed to destroy all the stores, &c., which he could not remove when he left his position.

The next day, through the exertions of Major McLaws' assistant quartermaster, a road was opened, and four Parrott guns brought up the mountain and placed in position-two pieces Read's battery, commanded by Captain Read, and two pieces Captain Carlton's battery, commanded by Captain Carlton. As the major-general commanding was present on Sunday, and witnessed the constancy and efficiency of the fire of these guns, it is not necessary for me to refer further to it.

Sunday night I received orders to withdraw the command from the mountain and proceed to Brownsville, to meet the enemy in that direction, leaving Lieutenant-Colonel McElroy's Thirteenth Mississippi Regiment and Read's two pieces of artillery. We left the mountain at daylight Monday morning. In this engagement our loss was heavy; but three of my regiments were engaged, the ground not admitting of the employment of a larger number. The Seventh and Eighth Regiments exhausted their ammunition, and the Third Regiment had but a few rounds left when the place was carried. Prisoners were taken from three different regiments of the enemy, one of which was represented to number 1,000 men. Many of the enemy were left dead on the field, but, from the statement of prisoners and the indications in the rear, it is certain that they removed the most of their dead and wounded during the action. The conduct of the whole command, contending as they were against the most formidable natural obstacles, without water, which could not be obtained nearer than the foot of the mountain, and encountering an enemy most strongly posted and superior in numbers to all that could be brought into position against him, is worthy of the highest commendation. To General Barksdale I am much indebted for his hearty co-operation and valuable assistance. Dr. T. W. Salmond and the medical staff of the brigade were assiduous in the discharge of their duties, under great difficulties, as their ambulances and stores could not be brought upon the mountain. I am much indebted to Major Bradley, of the Mississippi regiment, for his brave and efficient handling of our advanced skirmishers. Colonel D. Wyatt Aiken, and his officers and men, who bore the brunt of the battle and suffered the greatest loss, are particularly deserving of mention. Of all the regiments engaged, it is worthy of mention that not one man went to the rear uninjured during the engagement. My thanks are especially due to Captain Holmes, assistant adjutant-general; Lieutenant Dwight, acting adjutant and inspector-general, and Lieutenant Doby, aide-de-camp, for most efficient and intelligent discharge of the staff duties on the field. I regret to say that Lieutenant Dwight was seriously injured by a fall from the rocks while communicating a message to General Barksdale.

I have the honor to be, respectfully, your obedient servant,



Near Winchester, Va., October 9, 1862.

Assistant Adjutant-General.

MAJOR: In obedience to orders from division headquarters, I have the honor to transmit a report of the operations of my command at the battle of Sharpsburg:

Owing to the exigencies of the service my command were without their usual supply of subsistence from Monday morning, September 13, until the night of the 17th. They were also under arms or marching nearly the whole of the nights of Monday and Tuesday, arriving at Sharpsburg at daylight on Wednesday morning, September 17. As a consequence, many had become exhausted and fallen out on the way-side, and all were worn and jaded.

About 9 o'clock we were ordered forward to the relief of General Jackson's forces, then engaged on the left, in the wood in rear of the church. The Georgia and Mississippi brigades were formed in a plowed field to the right and rear of the wood; my brigade in their rear in the same field. The enemy was discovered in the wood, advancing toward its right face, where some of our guns had been abandoned before our arrival. Perceiving this, Major-General McLaws directed me to occupy that part of the wood in advance of them while our lines were being formed. For this purpose I ordered forward, at double-quick, Colonel Kennedy's Second South Carolina Regiment to march by a flank to the extreme point of the wood; then by the front to enter it. Before the head of the regiment had reached the point, and when entangled in a rail fence, the enemy opened fire upon them from a point not more than 60 yards distant. They promptly faced to the front, and returned the fire so rapidly as to drive the enemy almost immediately. At the same time the brigades of Cobb and Barksdale, now on their left, advanced to their support. I then hurried up my three remaining regiments-the Eighth, Lieutenant Colonel [A. J.] Hoole; Seventh, Colonel [D. W.] Aiken, and Third, Colonel Nance-and conducted them to the right of Colonel Kennedy, who by this time had advanced beyond the wood and to the left of the church, driving the enemy. I then ordered Read's battery to a position on the hill to the right of the wood and sent in Colonel Manning, who reported to me on the field, with Walker's brigade, to the right of my brigade. Our troops made constant progress for some time along the whole line, driving in column after column of the enemy. Colonel Aiken's regiment approached within 30 yards of one of the batteries, driving the men from the guns, and only gave way when enfiladed by a new battery placed in position near them, leaving Major White dead and one-half their men killed or wounded upon the field.

About this time the enemy was heavily re-enforced, and our line fell back to the wood, which was never afterward taken from us. Read's battery, having suffered greatly in the loss of men and horses, was withdrawn, by my order, when the infantry fell back. The lines were reorganized behind the fences, near where they entered the fight, and their exhausted cartridge-boxes replenished.

Later in the day we moved to the left of General Early's command, which occupied the wood to the left of the church, where we remained until ordered to move across the river on Thursday night, September 18. I deem it proper to state that I left two companies on picket in front of our lines when we marched under command of Captain Hance, of the Third Regiment, with instructions to remain until relieved by the cavalry.

After daylight next morning, Captain Hance, not having been relieved, perceived the enemy advancing in line of battle, and brought off his men in safety and good order, passing the cavalry pickets some distance in his rear.

I cannot too highly commend to your notice the gallant conduct of the troops of my command.

The Eighth Regiment carried in but 45 men rank and file, and lost 23 officers and men.

The Second Regiment was the first to attack and drive the enemy. Colonel Kennedy was painfully wounded in the first charge, and was sent by myself from the field. After our lines were first driven back, under command of Major [Franklin] Gaillard, they rallied and broke a fresh line of battle that attempted to follow them.

The Third Regiment, let by its efficient commander, twice changed front on the field in magnificent order, and, after twice driving the enemy, retired with the precision of troops on review.

The Seventh, led by Colonel Aiken, trailed their progress to the cannon's mouth with the blood of their bravest, and, when borne back by resistless force, rallied the remnant left under command of Captain John S. Hard, the senior surviving officer. Colonel Aiken was most dangerously wounded, and every officer and man in the color company either killed or wounded, and their total loss 140 out of 268 men carried in. The colors of this regiment, shot from the staff, formed the winding-sheet of the last man of the color company at the extreme point reached by our troops that day.

Major White, whose death we lament, was a most gallant and accomplished officer of elevated character and noble principles. No better or braver soldier survives him.

Read's battery performed the most important service in a position of great danger. Second Lieutenant Samuel B. Parkman was killed on the field, gallantly discharging his duty. One gun was disabled and abandoned, and so many horses as to render it necessary to bring off their pieces severally. The acts of individual heroism performed on this memorable day are so numerous that regimental commanders have not attempted to particularize them.

I am, as usual, greatly indebted to Captain Holmes, assistant adjutant-general, and Lieutenant Doby, aide-de-camp, of my staff, for intelligent and efficient assistance in carrying orders to all part of the field. They were everywhere exposed, with characteristic courage.

Privates Baurn and Deas, orderlies, were also with me in the field, bearing themselves with courage and intelligence. The latter had his horse shot in three places.

I have already transmitted a statement of our losses.

I am, major, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Source: OFFICIAL RECORDS: Series 1, Vol 19, Part 1 (Antietam - Serial 27) , Pages 862 - 866


« to OR Index