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A private’s letter from the camp of an illustrious brigade

By Jerry W. Holsworth
11/21/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Grenville L. Gage’s letter to his family from his camp near Richmond,Virginia,is typical of the thousands of letters written home from the front. What distinguishes this letter are three words associated with him and the nine other soldiers he mentions in his letter. Those words are “Hood’s Texas Brigade.”

The Texas Brigade was one of the most distinct military organizations of the Civil War. Hood’s Texans wrote a story of reckless courage matched by very few units of any army in any war—from the swamps around Gaines’ Mill, where they played the pivotal role in breaking the Federal line and giving General Robert E.Lee his first victory as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia,to the tangled,burning Wilderness near the Widow Tapp’s house.There,under Lee’s eyes,they spearheaded the charge that broke the attack of Maj.Gen.Winfield S.Hancock’s II Corps. Hood’s Texas Brigade reportedly made Lee boast “Texans always move them.”

Gage and his companions were members of Company C,1st Texas Infantry,also known as the “Palmer Guards.” Organized in Harris County,Texas,immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter,they were among the first five companies from the Lone Star State to be enlisted for service in Virginia. Most of the men in Company C, however,enlisted in March 1862,and although there is no record of it,Gage probably did so at the same time. Gage mentions three battles in his letter,including one where he lies flat on the ground while artillery shells are exploding over his head. The battles were more than likely Eltham’s Landing, Seven Pines and Gaines’ Mill.

At Eltham’s Landing, the first engagement of the brigade, the Texans charged and broke Maj.Gen.William B.Franklin’s attempt to flank the Confederate retreat from Williamsburg to Richmond during the Peninsula campaign.Brigadier General John B. Hood’s first battle almost proved to be his last.Ordering his men not to load their weapons during the advance, Hood was confronted by a lone Union soldier not 30 feet from him. When the Yankee raised his rifle to dispatch Hood, Private John Deal of the 4th Texas Infantry quickly raised his loaded rifle and killed the threatening Yankee. Hood prescribed no disciplinary action for Deal’s disobedience of orders.

Gage is probably describing the Battle of Seven Pines in his account of artillery shells bursting. The Texas Brigade did not actively participate in the battle, but was under fire for most of it.Gaines’Mill was the Texas Brigade’s first major battle, and the beginning of its reputation for being almost unstoppable in assault.After a day of futile attempts at breaking Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter’s line behind Boatswain Swamp, Lee asked Hood if he could carry the position. Hood’s response was, “I’ll try.”

Hood personally led his men through three Union lines, and then broke a cavalry charge to secure victory for the Army of Northern Virginia. When General “Stonewall” Jackson surveyed the field,he commented, “The men who carried this position were soldiers indeed.”

The price for that reputation was high, and the men mentioned in Gage’s letter were a testament to that fact.James Enlaw was wounded at the Battle of Gaines’Mill, and was discharged after the Battle of Antietam because of a heart condition. Benjamin Buckner died in a Richmond hospital in April 1863. A.B. Harris was killed during the charge that broke the Union line near the Brotherton House at the Battle of Chickamauga on September 20,1863.After being wounded in the same battle, Solomon Lassiter, who Gage called “a noble boy,” not so nobly deserted in the spring of 1864. At the Battle of the Wilderness,with the Confederate line collapsing under Hancock’s II Corps attack, Lee attempted to personally lead the Texans in a counterattack when Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s First Corps finally arrived.Promising to stop the Union attack, the Texans yelled “Lee to the rear!” and refused to go into battle until Lee left for safety. As the Texans promised, the charge was a success,but J.H.Arnold paid for that promise with his life.

Only three of the men Gage mentions in his letter survived the war. James McCarter finished his service as first sergeant of the Palmer Guards. James Rogers was separated from his company during the evacuation of Richmond in April 1865, and was paroled on May 2, at Ashland,Va. James Freeman, although wounded at Malvern Hill and the Wilderness, surrendered with the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox and was paroled on April 12, 1865.

Shortly after the letter below was written, Gage and the Palmer Guards were on the march again. This time they were headed north in late summer 1862 to blunt the advance of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of Virginia before the retreating Army of the Potomac could reinforce it. Gage and his comrades participated in the forced march of Longstreet’s command to come to the relief of Jackson’s badly pressed Second Corps behind the unfinished railroad near Manassas.When Longstreet found Thoroughfare Gap blocked by Union cavalry, it was the Texas Brigade that scaled the mountain and broke through the Union resistance.At the Second Battle of Manassas, the Texas Brigade’s assault on the weakly held Union left flank won the day for the Army of Northern Virginia.

With Virginia cleared of all major Union armies, Lee headed into Maryland. After saving the Confederate position at Fox’s Gap on September 14,Hood’s men covered the Confederate retreat to Sharpsburg.Held in reserve near the Dunkard Church, the Texans were in the process of preparing their first hot meal in three days when Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s I Corps and Joseph Mansfield’s XII Corps attacked the Confederate position on the north end of the field, beginning the Battle of Antietam. Hooker’s attack was directed at the Dunkard Church and carried I Corps through Miller cornfield. “The Cornfield,” as it has became known,became the bloodiest spot on the bloodiest day in American history.

With Jackson’s line completely crushed by Hooker and Mansfield’s attack, he was forced to call on his only reserves, Hood’s Texas Brigade,to save the day.Mad as hornets because they had missed their breakfast,the Texans launched their most violent attack of the war so far.With the 5th Texas Infantry sent to help stop Mansfield near the East Woods,and the 4th Texas Infantry and Hampton’s Legion acting as flank guards along the Hagerstown Pike, Gage and the 1st Texas pushed straight into the Cornfield. The 1st Texas and the Palmer Guards accomplished their mission that morning, but the cost was almost unbearable.The 1st Texas lost nine color-bearers in the charge and two battle flags.It also suffered 82.3 percent casualties, the largest of any regiment North or South in any engagement of the Civil War. Among those from the Palmer Guards left dead in the Cornfield was Grenville L.Gage.Before the battle, he had written the following letter:

(Gage’s letter was full of misspelled words and almost devoid of punctuation. The only corrections made to the text below were those necessary to make the letter easily understandable.)

“Dear Wife, little children, Uncle, and Grandmother,

“Once more I endeavor to write to you all.My health is very good and may this find you all in good health.I hardly know what to write as I have written so often and have never received a word from any of you,in no manner or shape.It renders me very unhappy to think that I have a dear wife and little children and can neither see nor hear from them.I would ask the question whose fault it is.I would say it is not my fault and I hope not yours.We hear a great many reports here about the war.Some think it will soon close,others think not,[so] I cannot say myself.I have thought several times that the war was near a close but there is no telling when it will close.I cannot say when I will be at home. They will not allow anyone furlough who lives west of the Mississippi River—on account of the river being blockaded, or that is, they will not under common circumstances.You cannot imagine how glad I would be to see you all. While I write, the tears run down my cheeks.But I thank God I have one consolation,and that [is] God is with me here in this far off distant land. I thank God that I often feel his presence in my poor heart. I want you all pray for me.Pray that I may live to a consistent life that I may live in the discharge of every known duty.Oh pray that I may be permitted to return to my family in peace.The boys that are here are as follows: A.B. Harris, J.H. Arnold, Solomon Lassiter,James Enlaw,James McCarter,Benjamin Buckner, James Freeman, Frank Jones, and James Rogers. The rest of the boys are at different points of the state,sick.

“Solomon Lassiter is a noble boy. No better lives. I hardly know what kind of advice to give you for the best—I hope and trust that Uncle James helps you whenever help is necessary.I have confidence to believe that He will not see you suffer—if he can help it. I have drawn money and intend to send it to you the first opportunity that I think is safe. I have been in three powerful battles and I am satisfied with battles.I have heard the cannon roar—yes the bullets near my head. I have had to lie on my face in an open field all day when it appeared to me that I would melt with heat and was afraid to move hand or foot for fear of being shot all to pieces, as there was between thirty and forty cannon firing on us all day long. Dear wife,I want you to raise your little children up in the fear of the Lord.Teach them the way in which they should go, and I hope they will not depart from it. Tell Virilla, John, James, Wilson, Asburn,and little Ann that their Papa wants them to be good children, and to mind their mother, and be good little children and that I will be at home to see them as soon as I can.Tell Uncle James to write to me. I want you to write to me as soon as you get this. Write to me about your mother and her children.I reckon you get plenty of milk. Write to me whether Mayor Boyers fixed up the McCollum debt or not. I mean the blacksmith account. Direct yours in these words: G.L. gage, Company C,First Texas Regiment,Hood’s Brigade, Richmond. If you have the chance,I want you to send the children to school but do not suffer them imposed upon by the teacher. Alfred Harris wants you to send his family word that he is well. Solomon says tell his father and mother he is well.Give my love to my friends and acquaintances. I remain, as ever, your loving husband until death.

Grenville L. Gage

“NB Give Henderson Hillon my best love and respects.Tell him that James Enlaw saw William Sheaves in Richmond on last Monday.He was well and was camped near Richmond.

G.L. Gage”

 

Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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