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Narrow Escape at South Mountain

Diary of Capt James A Blackshear

[diarist's biography]

James Appleton Blackshear was a young Captain of an artillery battery with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, when he wrote the following entries in the diary he kept through the War.


Sept. 15, 1862

The other batteries of the battalion about 8 o'clock P.M. yesterday had returned to camp with most of their ammunition exhausted and the men and horses worn out from fatigue and hunger. I had taken occasion to call the Colonel's attention to the important position which my battery had held and to the valuable service which it had rendered; whereupon he had consented that I should take it to the battle field. I had mounted my horse to be going and 60 minutes later would have made me and my entire command prisoners of war had it not been that an Aid De Camp to Gen. Evans luckily galloped that way, from the field and informed us that our whole army had retreated during the night and that the enemy was advancing in full force by the very turn-pike which I was to take and that he was then within two miles of us. Where was the army gone! He did not know. He knew nothing more than that when he went in search of the General where he had left on yesterday, he saw nothing but yankees there and yankees everywhere. Cutt's battalion was immediately on the pike and moved off at Trot March but we had not gone far before we received intelligence that the enemy had flanked us on the right and that his cavalry was then in front capturing Longstreet's baggage train. Therefore with the enemy in front on our right and in rear we could escape only by the left, and to do this we had to turn round in a road so narrow that almost every carriage was unlimbered and to go back to the camp before finding a road which would serve our purpose.

Until now no uneasiness had been manifested and the privates knew not the danger that surrounded them. But the truth could no longer be disguised. It became necessary to go into the 'Gallop March' and the clouds of dust which loomed up to the very skies and the blue yankees themselves soon told to every man woeful tales of his impending fate. The united efforts of all both bodily and mental were called forth and they exemplified the proverb In unity there is strength, for our guns and wagons rolled over the rocks and hills and gullies of that country road easier and faster than they bad ever gone over the best macadamized pikes. Still we succeeded in making our escape by a providential occurrence. A Brigade of our cavalry engaged the advanced guard of the enemy and thereby stayed his progress and diverted his attentions from us until after we had got fairly off the pike and out of his sight. The enemy pursued us, but any man who saw us between this pike and Sharpsburg, a distance of ten miles, could safely swear that his pursuit was vain. Passed through Sharpsburg and camped in a beautiful grove near by.

Sept. 16

Moved out from camp at sunrise to take positions on the lines and halted in Sharpsburg until the positions could be found. Whilst halted here it was my good fortune to receive the first token of regard with which the yankees have ever complimented me. A 20 pound Parrott shell passing immediately over the officers grouped in front ranged the entire column but struck harmlessly into an outhouse in rear. The peculiarities of the feelings which the howling of that shell produced seemed to me plain indications of freaks in my moral nature, but I would not have dodged for a thousand dollars and if I had been by myself I dare say I would not have missed dodging for twice the sum. I am, however, proud to be able to say that this messenger startled me more than the tens of thousands which afterwards brought their woeful tidings. 11 o'clock A.M. Took position on a high hill imme diately in front of the enemy. 3 o'clock P.M. Fights begin in skirmishing and cannonading on the left wing. 5 o'clock P.M. Infantry fire from both sides begins. 5? P.M. Jackson's Corps arrives from Harpers Ferry. 6 P.M. Tremendous fighting, which lasts until 7. 7? P.M. Infantry fire ceases with the enemy driven a few yards from his original position. 9 P.M. Cannonadings cease and many a weary soldier pillowed perhaps upon the corpse of his comrade dreams for the last time of home, love & Kindred.

Sept. 17 Wednesday 5 o'clock A.M.

Occasional musketry had already disturbed our slumbers but the time had now come when none could sleep save the peaceful dead. The great battle of Sharpsburg was begun. Long lines of infantry fired the dark horizon with sheets of flame and filled the morning breeze with missiles of death. Tremendous batteries of artillery sent their missiles of destruction screaming through the air and the sun which seemed to rise through hills of blood soon illuminated a spectacle on that dreadful field which no pen can describe. The contest raged during the whole day and still it was undecided. Two hundred thousand men had for more than twelve hours made all the ingenuity, the skill and the experience of ages subservient in killing each other and beyond this not one thing had been accomplished. Both armies held and slept upon the field but neither could boast of victory.

Sept. 18

Both armies remained all day confronting each other unwilling and in all probability unable to renew the conflict in force. At 8 o'clock P.M. the Confederate army begins its retreat across the Potomac into Virginia, the transportation having already crossed.

Sept. 19

The sun rose bloomingly from behind the hills and lo! to the consternation of the yankees the rebels were gone. We had escaped, you may say, like a bird from the hands of the fowler. We had marched until we could march no more. We had perished until food or death one must come. We had fought until we could fight no longer, and a God send had saved us from destruction. Had the enemy pursued and attacked us on the evening of the 18th, as he might have done had he been vigilant our army would have been annihilated and our country over-run. Passed through Sheperdstown. Stopped at a country house where I ate the first apple butter that I ever saw. Whilst here and taking dinner of beef without salt some shells from the yanks made us git further and we camped.

Sept. 20

Went down river, formed line of battle. Drove 5000 enemy back with great slaughter, camped on Martinsburg road. Sept. 22 to Oct. 5, on the road between Martinsburg and Winchester and between Winchester and Front Royal.

Oct. 6

A quiet Sabbath afternoon brought orders which rended my happiness, wounded my pride and disappointed my ambition. The orders called for the reorganization of the artillery of the whole army under plea of the necessity of the service which necessity existed in the scarcity of horses and forage. More than twenty (20) batteries mine among them were temporarily reduced. The good horses and men with the best of the guns were assigned to other artillery companies in the service. Condemned horses, ammunitions and the most inferior guns were turned in to the ordnance department. The officers who were relieved reported to the Secretary of War and were by him assigned to duty.


Blackshear, Sr., Perry Lynnfield, Blacksheariana, published privately printed and bound by Foote and Davies, Inc., Atlanta, GA: 1954. The diaries themselves are now held at Emory University