21 July 1863: “base and mean and pusillanimous must be the man who remains and allows the enemies lines to encircle his home…while there is a musket in his reach

Item Description: Letter, 21 July 1863, to Mrs. John S. Lewis from her son John, describing in detail his brigade’s role in the battle of Gettysburg, having his slaves captured, and his feelings about Union occupation in the south.

[Item transcription available below images.]

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Item Citation: From the Harry Lewis Letters #122-zSouthern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Item Transcription: 

Camp Near Bunker’s Hill Va July 21st 

My very Dear Mother,

Van Eaton starts home shortly so I write this to send by him whenever he may start. I fear it will be the last you may hear from us in a long time, and I doubt if you get this by Van Eaton, as I fear the Yankees are now in possession of our homes, and many sad thoughts does the fear bring with it. If it were possible I should you dont know how earnestly wished you to have gone into Alabama with such property, negroes, &c so you  could get along, for I know if this army takes possession of any country they pillage & plunder, and will take all the negroes, besides laying all its inhabitants open to insult and oppression. I had hoped that this might have been spared us, and if the whole country had done its duty it would have been. base and mean and pusillanimous must be the man who remains and allows the enemies lines to encircle his home, and find him within those lines while there is a musket in his reach. The women of the South, I have often thought, have proved themselves its bravest defenders, an the finest enemies of our enemy. Let such of those whose hard lots it is to be left in the yankee lines, finish their good and glorious mission by spurning from among them such men as are able to bear arms. If this is done the enemy can never hold our territory. I am afraid Ed has joined the army. if he been two years younger the time has past when one of your sons could refuse or fail to contribute his mite to his country’s defense. We thank God are all safe after another hard campain and hard fight. I was struck on the foot the second day of the fight at Gettysburg, it swelled up considerably but is all right now. If you will examine the map you will see that Genl Lee made a rapid movement around Hooker’s army from Fredricksburg to the Potomac our cavalry force protected and conceded our front by one or two hard fights and by this means Genl Ewells corp was at Winchester before the enemy could determine our intention. as you have heard he captured about six thousand of the enemy then. our corps (Hill’s) was then not much past Culpepper Ctt. coming up . the army finally was moved on and concentrated at or near Chambersburg Penn where we rested three days and moved forward about 25 miles to Gettysburg, and here let me remark that all were perfectly certain of a great victory whenever we should meet the enemy, and no army that he ever had, nor will would any which he may be able to get have been able to stand up before us as we were there for half a day in a fair field, but we did not have that. Early on the morning of 1st of July our division was put in motion we had a narrow pass in the mountains to go through and the roads were bad, but we pushed ahead and as we proceded through the pass we could hear the canons ahead. I did not think at the time that we were so close on their army. we marched nearly twenty miles y one oclock, and arrived on the battle field. the fight was still going on to our left. Genl Ewells corps and two div. of our corps Heath’s and Pender’s had been engaged with parts, I suppose nearly half of the yankee army, and had whiped them badly driving them two or more miles and capturing three thousand prisoners. soon after we came up Genl Longstreets corps came up also, and we rested that night about one mile to the right and rear of Gettysburg. so ended the first days fight. we all knew that the grand battle was yet to come off as half of our army had not yet been engaged.

On the morning of the 2nd we moved further to the right and went into line of battle, our div. joining the right of the troops who had been fighting on the 1st. We were just below the rise of a hill extending around in a semicircular form our [cannon?] in large numbers posted a few yds in front of us. about 1500 or 1800 yds across were the enemy’s batteries their lines conformed to ours but we were more contracted & consequently shorter and their guns in front of us were about as thick as they could work them. As soon as we got into line orders were given for the men to make such protection as would shelter them. this of course could not be well done but fences were pulled down & the rails piled up & a little dirt thrown up. about that time the artillery began to play upon each other and our frail bust works stoped many a fragment of shell. soon Longstreet at our right (now evening) pressed forward his corps it was the most terrific musketry fire for some two hours ever heard on so short a line as his. he drove the yankees steadily for two miles I suppose. when the sun was getting low the center was advanced but unfortunately it lacked concert of movement and tho at a large sacrifice we charged & took some of the enemies guns, were unable to hold them. and night formed the center in the position it occupied in the morning. Ewell on the left attacked the enemy fiercely about dark & drove them a short distance. at night we all knew tha tthe battle was not yet decided and that the coming day was to be a bloody one. our brigade did not get into the musketry fire. it was advanced in the evening over the hill and to within 400 or 500 yds of the enemy guns in fact under them where we remained until dark. just after we got to the top of the hill a piece of shell struck me on the foot but did not prevent me from going ahead at that time tho the next day it was considerably swolen & I couldn’t march for some time.

By the morning of the third day the enemies lines we much contracted from a straight line they now formed an acute angle we a little to the right of the apex of it. They were well fortified all round and occupied a formidable range of hills or hights. Our men felt that to advance on them double our numbers strongly fortified & their cannons on position to get a fair number of unobstructed range of us while advancing a mile was a desperate undertaking almost a forlorne hope. So it proved. I have not the patience to write the particulars of this fight. it was most disastrous to us. we charged; the whole army charged and was driven back, tho the cowards would not charge our shot tired lines in turn. the line they knew was hurt but not killed. Our brigade was out of the bust works moving on the enemy when a courier dashed up and halted us. it saved many lives, and while we were willing to go to the last man, we were thankful for it. Night again found us & the whole army in our old positions, but how different from the preceeding night. You see we could inflict no serious damage upon the enemy’s infantry as they were under cover all the time tho our artillery silenced many of their batteries. This attack commenced about 3 oclock pm. and was prefaced by the heavies artillery duel ever heard on this continent I believe no army ever heard one to surpass it. if it ever was equalled. Not less I suppose than 350 guns and maybe more kept up a continual & rapid fire for two hours, then it ceased and our infantry charged. On the day of the fourth we were quiet except the skirmishers, not wishing or able to make another attack, and the enemy in the same condition I believe on the fourth day ever if we could have swaped positions we would have whiped them badly.

Camp near Culpper July 31st

You see I have not yet finished my letter. Van Eaton goes tomorrow so I must finish. The whole army is here now after a long march from Gettysburg. In good health & spirits bare footed. They are being rapidly shod however. our retreat was leasurely. we stoped at Hagarstown Md. rested for three or four days & offered the enemy battle which he respectfully declined. We will have another battle soon, and you will soon hear of another victory. we are all more or less discouraged about affairs elsewhere. Let our men fight and all will be well.

Frank and Ebb are both gone. They were captured I think and I may yet git them back. Am almost shure to see Frank soon tell Aunt Alice about it as if it was a certainty it is hard on me as I was going to sell him to pay my debts. I was offered 3500 for him a few days before but did not take it as I could have got 4000. I expect every thing at home is gone too. All right lets get through like we ought to & I am stisfied. I hope all the cotton has been burned. if people fail to do they just offer an inducement for the ballance of the country to be plundered, besides giving aid & comfort to the enemy. If they find you at home I hope you will be able to live in comfort. it makes us out here feel more miserable than all and every thing else put together. Harry & Fletcher are very well. I suppose one of them will write. Mack is here, and I dont know what we should do without him. I have to depend upon him now too. The time is coming I think when I will have to wait on myself- pretty rough on a lazy man. We manage to get in first rate now for clothing, you need not trouble yourself about that. Answer soon if you can. I am afraid this letter wont reach you without difficulty. My respects to all friends.

Your son 
[John] Lewis

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