CLEARLY IT WAS NOT THEIR WAR
"Before the sunlight faded, I walked over the narrow field. All around lay the Confederate dead, clad in butternut. As I looked down on the poor pinched faces, all enmity died out. There was no secession in those rigid forms nor in those fixed eyes staring at the sky. Clearly it was not their war," So recalled Pvt. David L. Thompson, Company G, 9th New York Volunteer Zouaves, at Antietam Creek, Sharpsburg, Maryland, September 17, 1862.
That day, that single, sickeningly horrific day, was the deadliest day in the history of the United States. When Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia slammed into George B. McLellan’s Army of the Potomac, the resulting carnage amounted to the deaths of nearly 3700 men (CSA-1546, USA-2108), coupled with 17,300 men wounded (CSA-7752, USA-9540) and nearly 2000 missing or captured (CSA-1018, USA-753.) In all, 23,000 of the 113,000 effectives became casualties in a single day. Imagine if you can, the entire populations of all the incorporated towns and cities of Laurens County being wiped out in a single day. It was the day when the hilly grounds of Maryland turned red.
Although the battle was a tactical draw, President Abraham Lincoln claimed victory and began to accelerate his plans to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. For General Lee, the battle proved that an invasion of the North and the capture of Washington, D.C. was within his war-ending grasp.
But, back in East Central Georgia, the words of Private David Thompson had a deeper, more personal meaning. To understand what Private Thompson meant, you must turn back the clock a dozen years to the year 1850.
As the issue of slavery came to the national forefront in the 1850s, a division arose among those in the South over the issue of secession or remaining in the Union. The vast majority of the residents of East Central Georgia, where the slave population was in the 30 percent range in the smaller counties, were not opposed to the institution of slavery, but were somewhat against secession. In Montgomery County, in the popular vote on the issue of secession, white male voters voted for the Unionist position by a landslide margin of nearly nine to one. Even after Georgia narrowly approved secession from the Union, Montgomery County’s two delegates to the General Assembly consistently voted no on all issues dealing with the Confederacy.
Montgomery County, which today also includes parts of Treutlen, Wheeler, and Toombs County, was primarily settled in the early 1800s by Scots from the Carolinas. The Wiregrass region of Georgia along the lower regions of the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers at the point where they form the Great Altamaha River was covered with wild natural grasses and pine tree meadows, ideal for the grazing of cattle.
The Scots were a hardy lot, believing in the power of the individual and a strong work ethic. In 1860, there were 977 slaves in Montgomery County representing 32.6% of the total population and owned by 119 slave owners. Nearly 53 percent of those Montgomery County slave owners owned five slaves or less. Seventy two percent owned less than 10 slaves.
Despite their aversion to seceding from the Union, several hundred Montgomery men enlisted in the various infantry, reserves, and militia units of the Confederate Army. The main company, the Montgomery Sharpshooters, was first organized in Montgomery County in the summer of 1861. In May 1862, the Sharpshooters were designated as Company E of the 61st Georgia Infantry Regiment. About two dozen men enlisted in other companies in the regiment.
The regiment traveled to Virginia just in time to be engaged in the Battles of the Seven Days on the Virginia Peninsula in June 1862. The Sharpshooters, attached to the Army of Northern Virginia, moved north with General Lee, stopping to fight at Cedar Mountain and Second Manassas.
Then came that day, that vicious September day in western Maryland, 150 years ago this week.
One man, Henry C. Mozo, was killed that day. Twelve Sharpshooters were wounded, including flag bearer F.G. Williams.
The dying continued. Three months later at Fredericksburg, Virginia and just two weeks before Christmas, four were killed, one was captured and fifteen were wounded. R.D. Wooten was listed as missing in action. It was duly noted that Hillary Wright, a native of Laurens County, had “part of his cheek bone gone.” The Sharpshooters were with Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, but suffered no casualties. They were with John B. Gordon at Gettysburg and carried the Southern flag further north than anyone. Nine men were wounded and four more died in the killing fields at High Tide of the Confederacy.
Regimental Commander Col. Charles McArthur, a former captain of the Sharpshooters, was killed when a random shell exploded while his regiment was on reserve duty at Spotsylvania. Before the dying day ended, one man was killed, one man was wounded and eight infantrymen were captured.
The hardy, independent Montomery Scots, most of whom were determined to remain in the Union, put up a valiant fight for Georgia. After the slaughters of Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse when a lull in the fighting came during Grant’s siege of Petersburg, the 61st saw more fighting in the valley of Virginia in the autumn of 1864.
When the 6lst first arrived in Petersburg, VA on June 22, 1862, they numbered 1,000 men strong. When they left the trenches of Petersburg on April 2, 1865, they tallied only eighty-one men, with only one officer in command, Captain Thomas M. McRae of Montgomery County, who was killed shortly afterwards. Only 49 were able to stand or kneel when General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox.
When the remnants of the Sharpshooters limped, crawled, or simply collapsed onto the rolling countryside surrounding Appomattox Courthouse on April 8, 1865, thirteen lucky survivors, at least four of whom had survived severe wounds, answered present.
Brothers Hector and John McSwain cousins Lucius and J.S. Nash and former Laurens County kinsmen, L.L. Clark and John Franklin Clark, made it home. So did Private James O’Connor, who was wounded at Second Manassas, Sharpsburg and Gettysburg. In command of the Sharpshooters at Appomattox was 2nd Sgt. Daniel M. McRae, a tall fair- complected, blue-eyed, thirty-two-year old Scotsman who survived his wounds at Sharpsburg. He was the company’s only surviving non-commissioned officer.
Of the 133 Montgomery County men who went off to war with the 61st, an unlucky 13 percent or 17 men were killed. Twenty one, or nearly one in six, were wounded. The leading cause of death, as it would be with the entire Southern army, was death from disease. Forty one men, almost a third of the force, died from communicable diseases or unsanitary conditions. Roughly one fifth of the men were captured and spent utterly miserable, starving, sickly months in Union prison camps equally abhorrent to the supremely atrocious Confederate camp at Andersonville. Eight men were sent home because of their disabilities. Two officers, somewhat unfit, unable or unwilling for command, resigned their commissions and went home. In the end, 112 of the 133, or 84 percent, were casualties. Sixty percent of the men died or were wounded. Malcolm Peterson lost his chance at becoming a casualty when he was discharged for killing a comrade early in the war.
Only one in ten made it to the so, so sad, indeed pitiful and most merciful end. They fought for liberty, with treasure, blood and toil, suffering and dying for a cause. Turns out it was a lost cause. Alas, there was no secession in their Bonnie Blue eyes. Clearly, it was not their war.
In memory of Pvt. Benjamin H. Brantley, Pvt. 28th Georgia, and my great, great grandmother Braswell’s first husband, who was wounded in Miller’s Cornfield near the Sunken Road and died three weeks later. Had he survived, you would have never read what you just read.