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20th Connecticut Infantry - Gettysburg Aftermath

Item LTR-6533
August 1863 Robert E. Prior
Price: $925.00


Original Civil War soldier's letter. 11 pages written in period ink.

August [1863]
Camp of 20th Conn. Vol.
Kelley’s Ford, VA

Mr. Hine

Dear Sir,

As you requested, I will write a few lines. We have experienced lively times since I returned to the Regt. Left Stafford Court House June 11th. Marched to Brook’s Station, back to Dumfries. From there to Fairfax C. H., to Leesburg, crossed Potomac at Edward’s Ferry to Frederick city, then to Gettysburg. Aside from this direct line of march, we went to Harper’s Ferry, Loudoun and Shenandoah valleys, over the mountains and back again. Engaged the enemy at Gettysburg. After a severe battle of three days, were victorious. Rested part of one day and started for Williamsport. Built breastworks, expected a severe battle there but the Rebs stole the march in the night. In morning, all we could find was the rear guard of Lee’s retreating army. Followed to the river. Arrived there in time to find only a few hundred Rebs which we took prisoners. Here the men of our corps, as well as those of other corps, began to complain because Lee had escaped. We did not expect he would be allowed to cross the river. We were staffed up with the story that one corps of our men was on the opposite bank of the Potomac on the heights, also two batteries which commanded the ford effectively, so that Lee could not cross. Then to think it was all Gas, and Lee had escaped from the worst trap he was ever in and from a place we never will get him into again was discouraging, very. We were following a disorganized, discouraged, half-starved, tired out army. Barefooted, half-clothed, almost without ammunition, poorly equipped in every respect. And after all is said and done, they crossed the river and made good their escape with but small loss.

Union army: well fed, everything in the shape of equipment and arms an army could ask for, with more artillery than we could use, quietly rested behind our breastworks and allowed the enemy to escape at the same time knowing (from deserters and contrabands that came to our pickets, all telling the same story) Lee was rapidly crossing the river. It was discouraging. We had worked hard, marched a long way uncomplaining, expecting to accomplish something more than to defeat the Rebs at Gettysburg. We had time to cut off Lee’s retreat over the Potomac at Williamsport. Why was it not done? I’m almost forced to believe our leaders did not wish to destroy Lee’s army. Don’t like to think any such thing but when I see such opportunity neglected, what shall I think? Really, I don’t know. We left Williamsport, most every man discontented. Not as we went there, all hopes and expecting to do something towards ending this, the worst of all wars, but with bitter complaints. Men cursing the war, Union, our leaders and Halleck in particular.

Went to Harper’s Ferry into Loudoun Valley to Snicker’s Gap, from there to Ashby’s Gap, to Manassas Gap, through Thoroughfare Gap, Manassas Junction, to this place where we are stationed for the present to hold the ford. Have a pleasant camp and highly appreciate the rest we now enjoy after a march of forty-five days. There are many men here discouraged as we have things to discourage us. For instance: while enroute for Manassas Gap, we halted (we, one division, 12th Corps, Gen. Williams commanding) near the little town of Paris for dinner. Gen. Williams and staff passed the bottle around freely. Got quite noisy and appeared ridiculous and this plainly in sight and hearing of his command. Wished before night to gain a point eight miles distant before night. After dinner we started. Marched ten miles on a wrong road, about faced at 4 o’clock at same place as at dinner time. Started on right road. Marched until dark, 7 o’clock PM. It took two orderlies to hold Gen. Williams on his horse. On we went, nobody knew where, through tree lots, over ditches, through brooks, and over rocks and fences, men tired out and discouraged, having marched twenty-five miles the day before. At 12 o’clock, dark and rainy, we halted. Hungry, tired, foot sore and cross, having been led by a drunken commander fifteen miles out of the way. Leary’s division, 2d, 12th Corps were led by a sober man, although three miles behind us and going to the same place as ourselves, camped before dark. Such maneuvers as this causes great dissatisfaction in our division. I think the men have great cause for complaint. It’s disgraceful to know such things are permitted. This is not a single instance. Could mention many others, same sort. But one is enough to convince me a drunken man and one that very seldom sees a sober day is totally unfit to command a division of mostly intelligent men. Men that think for themselves and left a good home, a business and family, not to be bamboozled around by a drunken, unprincipled man such as Gen. Williams. He’s a disgrace to the army.

We came to fight for the Union and not to be worn out uselessly by incompetent officers. Sorry to say we have may such. Question: why are such men permitted to hold high positions or any position at all? I have not said this because I’m discontented, uneasy, tired of the war and want to complain. Not so! It’s the truth and admitted by all but a few such as Col. Ross who is a man of the same piece as Williams. I write nothing from rumor or hearsay. It’s my own observation. Would like to write our officers were good men (some of them are very good men) and had a manly feeling about them. I’d be proud to be led by such an officer. A man that thought of his country first, and office and whiskey a secondary affair. As it is, we have no faith in our division leader and every move is accomplished by more or less complaint. Nothing is of more benefit to an army than faith in a commander. It’s what the Potomac Army is deficient in. These continual changes have a demoralizing tendency. No sooner do we get a little used to one general than his enemies begin to cry out, “supersede him” and off goes his head (or his major general strips).

We have something of a copper element here. An officer of any kind that tries to put down this Rebellion with a will and thinks (as you said) the Rebs are awfully in earnest, has a hard row here. More especially a brigade or major general. He’s beset on all sides by the office loving, money making Union, destroyed when an opportunity offers itself. He says strike for the Union and is really in earnest.

Opposite side (copperheads) trade and abuse him outrageously. Every command given is closely inspected to find some flaw or excuse for disobeying orders. What can he look for when leaders jangle and fight. No two pull the same way. Can he look for better success than we have had, with harmony among officers and a determined mind at the head? I look for a speedy termination of the war. Without it, well, I hardly know what to look for.

I liked Hooker best of any man we have had yet. Believe he honestly intended to put down the Rebellion and improve every opportunity, to use his own judgment and not be governed by this or that man and push ahead, accomplish something. But no, Hooker was too fast for the Washington snail gaited officials, for he acted just as if he was going to hurt some part of Lee’s army. So of course, that wouldn’t do and the army went forth, superseded him. But I notice Gen. Hooker’s plan had to be adopted, that is, evacuate Harper’s Ferry, defend the gaps, let Lee go into Pennsylvania and then drive him out, whip his army and follow up the advantage. The advantage is just what Mead did not follow up and to the mortification of every true Union soldier, Lee escaped across the Potomac. I fully believe if Hooker had been in command today, Lee would have a very small army indeed. Hardly enough for a body guard. After we arrived at Williamsport, so you think Hooker would have quietly rested and allowed Lee to build flat boats and ferry his army, his disorganized, half-starved army across the Potomac? I think not! I know the Rebs were half-starved and worn out when they arrived at the river, among a miscellaneous collection of two hundred prisoners we took near the river. That according to their account were deserted by their general, told to make the best of their way to the other side of the river, where several colonels, majors, captains etc. One colonel says to me, “Sergeant, will you please give me a hardtack? Your haversack looks full. Mine has been empty for two days.” Prisoners all told the same story. Tired to death, nothing to eat, ammunition gone and discouraged. They were willing captives, glad to come into our lines, many would have done the same if they only had the opportunity. As I said before, to think these poor soldiers, many of them not knowing or caring what they were fighting for, escaped from a well equipped, well organized army. It sticks in my throat.

I might say much more about the fight scenes at Gettysburg, but I have not the time now to write more. I write this for only a few. If distributed, it soon comes back to the regiment, misrepresented. Makes talk, etc., “you know”. I seldom write anything of the kind home because there is so many there that will make a handle of it to promote the copperhead cause. That’s a worse enemy to us then the Rebs.

I get along very well. Have been fortunate enough to enjoy the best of health. Not been sick a day since I came out. We have 298 men for duty in the regiment. Company I has 18 men. Three commanding officers. We expect to have the regiment filled up with conscripts before long. A detail from the regiment has gone home to escort them to the regiment.

My best respects to Mr. and Mrs. and Misses Menoin.

Please accept my best wishes.

Most Respectfully,
R. E. Prior

Company I, 20th Conn Vol.
Washington, DC
12th Army Corps, Gen Wms, Commanding