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‘The Awfullest Fire I Was Ever Under Yet’

By Robert K. Krick
5/2/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

A Rebel’s previously unpublished letters chronicle camp life, politics and Confederate triumph.

On May 5, 1861, 22-year-old James K. Lewis enlisted in the 16th North Carolina Infantry’s Company I. Just before the Seven Days’ Campaign, the 16th became part of Confederate Brig. Gen. W. Dorsey Pender’s Brigade in A.P. Hill’s Division. Transcribed here is a selection of Lewis’ letters home—now in the National Civil War Museum’s collection—from early 1863 that have never before been published. Just a week before the Chancellorsville Campaign opened, Lewis was selected to join a newly formed company of “Scouts and Spies.” By that time tactical changes had driven the army to create handpicked units for outpost duty. These “sharpshooter battalions,” as they came to be known, might more accurately have been called “skirmisher battalions,” at least in modern parlance. The 16th moved with Pender’s Brigade during Stonewall Jackson’s famed Flank March on May 2, but far enough back in the column to miss most of the explosive attack that shattered the Federal Right Wing. On May 3, Lewis and his mates fought north of the Orange Plank Road, then attacked eastward through dense thickets toward the Chancellorsville intersection. A regimental history recorded, “[W]e were in the thickest of the fight,” ultimately winning out with “one grand charge.” Lewis reported 17 casualties among the 30 men in his company. The bloodbath that shattered Company I did not affect the entire regiment. The 16th suffered 90 casualties, one-third of them in Lewis’ company, which made up only about one-twelfth of the regiment. Lewis and Lieutenant Morgan, whom Lewis had accused of cowardice in one letter, were killed at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Mills, of whom Lewis had written that his own men thought he deserved to be shot, was wounded, but would fight to the war’s end.

The Army of Northern Virginia suffered serious desertion rates in its North Carolina regiments. If caught, some deserters faced dire consequences.

Near Fredericksburg, Va.

Feb. 23rd, 1863

Dear Mother

I have been waiting for some two weeks now for a letter from you and none came yet. I recd one from Fan sometime ago. The weather is awful cold now and snow on the ground all the time. Night before last it commenced snowing and by morning it was 18 inches deep, then it began again last night and snowed pretty hard. Yesterday we were all astonished to hear rapid cannonading up the river. We didn’t know what to think of it. We thought the Yankees wouldnt be advancing on us in such a snow. At last we found out one of our Va. Batteries was firing guns in honor of Washington’s birthday. The yankees didn’t think enough of him to celebrate the day but the Virginians did and they made their cannon roar out over the snow till it sounded as if a battle was going on.

A few minutes ago I saw for the first time in my life a man punished with death for crimes. He was charged with desertion and threatening to kill his officers. The whole brigade was formed in the field in the snow knee deep to see him shot. He was a little boyish looking fellow and when they brought him out he came walking up to the stake as if nothing was the matter, kicked the snow off his feet against it and said he wished they would hurry. He was tied to the stake in a kneeling posture and blindfolded and the men ordered to fire. Ten bullets went through him, one through his head. The last words he spoke was that some of his Co. had sworn to lies on his trial but he forgave them for it. He professed religion and was baptized this morning by the Chaplain of his reg’t. (38th NC). Several of the 16th were whipped on their bare backs for desertion (in presence of the Regt). Some had to walk before the Regt in a barrel, some carry a log for hours at a time for 10 days and some to wear a ball & chain to their legs.

The whipping in our Regt was nothing only the name the switch barely touching them but in the 22nd & 34th they cut the blood from them at every blow. Our army is in better condition now than it ever was. There hasn’t been a case of sickness in our Regt in 2 months and no deaths from disease since we left the Valley. We have got so tough that weather that used to kill cattle just fattens us. We were all buried in the snow on picket the other night 18 inches deep. I have no more to write now. Will write again soon.

Your son, Kent Lewis

A lively snowball fight pitted Rebel against Rebel as the soldiers turned to faux battle to relieve boredom. The contest bloodied and battered a number of men.

Camp Near Fredericksburg, Va.

Feb. 26th/63

Dear Sister

….The snow is 18 inches deep here. Day before yesterday the S.C. brigade came over and charged us in our camp with snow balls. We repulsed them, drove them back to their own camp (about one mile) and took their camp. The fight got desperate here and they used not only snow balls but rocks sticks, ice, &c and even tore down their chimneys to throw sticks and mud at us. They knocked our Gen’l down (a Capt. of the 22nd N.C.) with a dogwood glut 2 foot long and like to have saved him but we gave it back to them & at last whipped them out. The snow was bloody in many places from mashed noses, _____, faces, and hands.

I have now have no news worth writing. Our army is sneaking up and moving off from here. Jacksons Corps D Armie is the only one left here now and we will stay till Spring I guess. Tell Sam Young and Wood to write to me. They neednt expect me to write regularly while I am under Old Stonewall. We are on less than half rations now, get less than ¼ lb. of meat per day but in spite of it I am fattening. I weighed 145 lbs. this morning. Make Merry write to me. I think I may get home on furlough before long. I have nothing more to write at present so I will close by subscribing myself.

Your Brother, J.K. Lewis

Disgusted that officers could take sick furloughs while enlisted men had to stay in camp, Lewis expressed his dislike for some company leaders.

Fredericksburg, Va.

March 5th, 1863

Dear Sister

I recd your letter dated Feb 22nd some time ago but have been so busy I didnt have time to answer it till now. I have been on picket & fatigue duty five days in succession and I am most too tired now to write. I am in excellent health in spite of the awfull bad weather. I weigh 145 lbs, more than I ever did before in my life. We were on picket day before yesterday and talked to the yankees, they say they are getting sick of the war. Eight of their pickets came over to where the 7th Tenn was on post and gave themselves up, horses and all. I believe if it was not for the deep river that is between us they would desert every day. What you say about the officers of Braggs army on sick furlough is true of ours too. There is many a scoundrel at home on sick furlough who is well as I am and just get furloughs to go home on Sprees. Some of our Co. have been home three times and here I have been for two years most of the time in bad health and never could even get leave of absence for a day or two to visit my friends in this state. Our Lt. in command of the Co. is one of the most contemptible, cowardly, thievish, ignorant rascals I ever saw. I watched him close at the battle of Fredericksburg in hopes of seeing him get killed but naught is never in danger when a man is fated to be hung, he neednt fear killing any other way. [Captain William B.] Whitaker was a complete scoundrel but we got rid of him by a yankee bullet. Also Lt. Lewis A. Ward our 2nd Lt. was killed, one of the bravest and best officers in the Regt. Col. McElroy said he was the best officer he ever saw, but our present Commander, J[ohn] W. Mills is a perfect dog and if he don’t mind some of us will kill him yet. I would like to have seen that Georgia Sleigh ride. They must be a queer set of fish out there. Our Cavalry is fighting a little now and then but there has been no fighting between the infantry in a long time. I see by the last papers Napoleon has offered his mediation and old Abe as good as told him to attend to his own business. I think it probable our Regt may be sent to NC for Provost duty before long. I am too tired to write more now and its dark too. Be sure and write soon.

Your Brother, Kent Lewis

Race relations and Lewis’ views on politics dominate this letter. He leaves little doubt how he felt about the “negroes” and “King Abe.”

Fredericksburg, Va.,

March 21st, 1863

Dear Merrie:

….We have a specimen of S.C. Chivalry in Co. I who was allways thought to be a particular fire eater till I took him in hand and made him think old Harry had him one night as he was coming in from a forage spree with a jug of brandy. I got his liquor and made him spoil his breeches eternally. I have just heard of Van Dorn’s victory in Tenn. I suppose that is the one you alluded to. I was sorry to hear of Mr. Lockharts death. The confounded negroes are getting to such a pass that we will have to kill them all. I didnt get the things sent by Sam Brown. I am left here in camp today sick and the regt is on picket. Its snowing and has been all day. On the 17th & 18th heavy firing was heard up the river & yesterday’s paper says Lee’s cavalry whipped the Yankees at Kelley’s Ford and Steuart at Culpeper. A big fight is going to come off soon as the roads get better. Hooker is bent on trying us….The recent change in the democracy and its coalition with the Republicans is nothing. They were not quite strong enough to carry things their own way and so they joined the Republicans, agreed to give King Abe supreme power for so long a time if he can conquer us, all right, if he don’t they clear their skirts. The Republican party will fall through and the democracy using them for their scape goat will take the lead and peace will soon follow. Genl. Lee will shape their policies for them in the next campaign.

Only let Pemberton & Johnston hold their own and Lee do as he has always done and we’ll bring the war to an end by the next campaign, and if the yankees pitch in soon enough and deep enough t’will be finished by July. Their large force is nothing, we have always been used to it, and the army won’t be as strong this year as it was last. By a clause in their Conscript bill any one can get off by paying $300. and none of the old soldiers will reinlist hardly and the new conscripts wont fight worth a cuss. If they were not hard up for the right sort of men they wouldnt be sending negro Regts into Western Va. fast as they are doing now. We are going to flog peace out of them or bust our ____ trying. I’m not needing any clothes now but socks. Write again soon. Tell the other boys to write to me too. I can’t get a stamp here to save me. Goodbye till next time.

 Your Brother, Kent Lewis

As the spring campaigning season approached, Lewis remained concerned with the political landscape, cowards and “black devil” Union troops.

Fredericksburg, Va.

March 25th, 1863

Dear Fanny

….I am suffering severly with neuralgia just now but have been well most of the time through the winter. I allways have a spell like this every spring and I am in hopes it will soon wear off. Our Corp (Jackson’s) is still here in camp. There has been some fighting up the river above here. We are looking for a general engagement here every day. We’ll be sure to have it soon as the roads get dry enough for them to move their artillery. No more furloughs given now except on surgeon’s certificates of disability and a fellow has to be most dead before he can get one in Jackson’s Corp….What do you think of the present Coalition of the Democrats & the Republicans? ….The way I look at it is this, they found their party wasn’t strong enough to carry out their purposes and so they came to terms with the wooly heads. Agreed to let King Abe have supreme power over everything for six months. If he can conquer us in that time all right. If he dont it will suit them just as well, for with defeat Abe will have to come down from his throne. Neither Abolition nor democrat will support him longer. In the mean time the Copperheads, as they call themselves, look on our struggle with more indifference than Europeans do. They say peace has to be on the way in six months one way or the other. Either the Lincoln government must conquer us completely by that time or they will come to a separate understanding with us and let New England shift for herself and one thing I am sure of, if they conquer us in six months, they’ll have to work harder & faster than they have ever done before.

Our men are always talking of the large army Lincoln has at his disposal and now he has increased it by recent levies. Some of them were ready to give it up when they heard of the yankee conscript bill, but that’s nothing, anyone can get out of it on payment of 300 dollars to the government and the old soldiers of the Army of the Potomac whose time is now expiring have been whipped by us so often they cant be got with it again, by any bounty they may offer, and those from _____ who can’t avoid the conscript law won’t fight. Their army won’t be as strong this summer as it was last and ours will be about the same. Our army is in better health now than at any time since the war begun.

It has been a mob of heroes who fought when they chose up to this time, but Sharpsburg taught Genl Lee a lesson. There out of our large army, only 40,000 could be mustered to fight back McClellan and his powerful army. Once our army is thoroughly drilled and if a fellow runs off from the battle field, unless he is wounded, if the court martial finds him guilty of it, the penalty is death. In consequence of this order, at the battle of the 13th, there were no stragglers and 60,000 yankees couldnt whip 15,000 of us. But for the strict orders, instead of fighting 15,000 men against them, we wouldn’t have had more than 7,000 fight at least one half have been seen to sneak off in fight, not half as many as at Fredericksburg.

We would have been overpowered and disgraced for it would be taken for granted that all fought. They all have to toe the mark now and I am glad of it. I saw one of the biggest cowards in our Regt., who never could be got into a fight before, when forced into it there, fight like a lion. I saw him blow one yankee’s brains out. If Yankees want [weren’t] so hard up for men they’d not be raising Regt’s of Negroes as fast as they are. They have sent several Regts of the black devils into Va. to act as provost guard to keep down the white people there. If I was living there I’d give them a lesson in bushwhacking they’d not soon forget.

Your Brother, Kent Lewis

Lewis’ sharpshooting skills qualified him to be in “Col. Ashby’s Corp of Scouts and Spies.” He reveled in his new, more independent assignment.

 Near Fredericksburg, Va.

April 22nd, 1863

Dear Fanny

I have been looking for a letter from you all this week but haven’t got any yet so I will try and write to you once more anyhow. I am out of the 16th now & belong to Co. Ashby’s Corp of Scouts and Spies. But we have no mail arrangements yet & my letter will have to come to Co. I as usual they tried hard to keep me out of the Corp but today Ashby made us practice at a target and was going to keep the best shots with him and send the rest back to their own Companies. Five Co.’s were firing by detail. At last it came to my time. The Col. called out in a passion that he wanted some body to hit the target or go to our companies. It was four hundred yds. I stepped out and fired. Soon as my gun cracked he called out who shot that time. I told him Lewis. The Capt. who was watching and marking the shots on the target stepped up, called out, LEWIS CENTER SHOT. They all shot 3 times, I beat everything in the Co. from the 16th. The 16th Co. beat the balance of the brigade and its given up by all that our brigade are the best shots in the light division. So I have the pleasure of being considered the crack shot of the division….

 I amuse myself nearly every clear night watching the Yankees make their signals, shooting up rockets, balloons, and all. Jackson’s division was moving day before yesterday….I am now where I think I can get along right. I have been scouting, skirmishing and spying about ever since I have been in service and got no credit for all the hard duty I have done but our Col. now watches every man close and knows who can be depended on and who can’t/ the Yankees keep moving up & down the river all the time. We don’t know what they want. We can hear firing about & below us on the river & occasionally a little Cavalry fights but no infantry engagements yet. I am looking out anxiously for news from D.H. Hill & Longstreet at Washington & Suffolk. I believe we will hear of a victory near Norfolk & at Washington to before mighty long. I haven’t heard anything from Clay in a long time. I have nothing new to write so goodbye till next time.

Your Brother, J.K. Lewis

The Battle of Chancellorsville, fought May 1-5, forced the Union Army of the Potomac back across the Rappahannock River.

Camp near Deep Run,

May 13th, 1863

Dear Fanny:

I rec’d your letter yesterday and must try to answer it today. I wrote to you last week but it is so uncertain about your getting my letters that I must try it again. In the wholesale slaughter that took place on both sides in our late battles of the Wilderness & Chancellorsville you might well think I was killed if you didnt hear from me. I was glad to hear of For[r]est’s victory at Rome. Our victory was a complete one but our loss terrible. Genl Jackson is dead, A.P. Hill wounded & Pender too but they didn’t leave the field. I was in it with the skirmishers on friday and saturday then on sunday I was in that charge at Chancellorsville. It was the awfullest fire I was ever under yet. Co. I lost 17 men out of 30 that went into the fight. Sunday evening the skirmishers were called out again and from that time till Wednesday morning we were fighting constantly without any intermission. On Wednesday morning I tried to get our line to advance but Lt. Morgan who had been detailed to relieve Lt. Prophet [Ira J. Proffit], our old skirmish officer who was broke down and sick, was a coward and instead of listining to my report and advancing as I wanted him to do insulted me for leaving my post and threatened to report me for leaving to go to the front as a scout. I told him if he did I’d report him for cowardice. I then went up the line to the skirmishers of Archer’s Tenn. brigade and reported the result of my reconnaissance during the preceding night. The officer in command immediately sent off a dispatch to Genl Archer. And then turning to me said he’d be d–d if it should ever be said that a Tennessee officer was afraid to follow where a N.C. private led the way. I then started forward, the Lieut. 30 yds. behind his orderly sergt. 30 yds Behind him & his whole force in line of battle 30 yds behind us all. I went on dodging from one tree to another, the Yanks giving us a shot now & then till I reached the field. After looking round for a few seconds we were convinced there was only a small force before us. The officer ordered his men forward and we all fell into line together & charged double quick on their rearguard. Cavalry and skirmishers all cut out fast as they could but we overhauled something like 100 of them (I took 3 of the 8th N. Jersey) lots of ____ some 50 artillery horses with harness on them, and got plenty of plunder in their camp.

They threw away nearly everything they had that morning. New Blankets, oil clothes, over coats, such as sell with us for $50.00, left their tents standing & left their rations, haversacks, knapsacks, canteens, even their guns, cartridge boxes and other accoutrements were thrown aside. There were more signs of demoralization this time then in the 7 days fight at Richmond. I don’t see how we whipped them so easy for, by their own account, Jackson’s Corp fought 9 Corps of Yankees. It was a bold move on his part. He run us right in between them and the river, & if they had whipped us we would all have been taken prisoners. On Saturday night after the battle of the wilderness the 16th went with Genl. Stuart to the rear of the yanks & fired into a new division that was camped on the bank of the river. We were so close to them when we fired that I could hear every word they said & could have thrown a rock into them.

We gave then 3 or 4 murderous volleys and then Stuart told us to shift for ourselves. We scampered back about a mile, rallied and hid in a thicket to ambush them if they attempted to pursue us. After we quit them they fired into one another in the confusion & killed one another in splendid style. While we were fighting them their cavalry tried to go round us. They went in a few miles of Richmond. Tore up the railroad at Ashland & at Louisa Co. Ho. on the Central R.R. Some of them made their way out by way of the peninsula & some tried to come back through Culpepper but Fitzhugh Lee gave them a check up there, took 500 of them. Genl Jones has cleared out the valley and Imboden is pushing everything before him beyond the mountains has torn up the B. & Ohio R.R. & given them such a scare that they sent off all specie in the Bank of Wheeling to Pittsburg, Pa., for safe keeping. Imboden & Jones have taken some 1200 prisoners & got 600 head of horses out of Pa., & a large number of beeves. Hooker is wounded, it is said, & Dan Sickles killed & Sigel too. The body of Major Genl Birney fell into our hands….

Your Brother, J.K. Lewis

 

Robert K. Krick is a former chief historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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