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AS THE CAMPAIGN SEASON opened in 1864, Army of Northern Virginia was, in the apt words of historian J. Tracy Powers, “unlike the three previous years,… more a spirit of calm determination than one of restless confidence.” Historians have noted the high desertion the mood in Robert E. Lee’s – rates that plagued the Confederacy that spring, but elite units like the Texas Brigade have long been recognized as an exception to this trend. Indeed, the unit is often cited as one upon whose strength the rest of the Army could rebuild. We also know that it was right around this time that, like much of Lee’s army, the regiments of the Texas Brigade—the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas and the 3rd Arkansas—reenlisted, almost to a man, for the duration of the war, and scholars have recognized the Texas Brigade, rightly so, as one of the most die-hard units in Lee’s army. A previously unknown letter from Brig. Gen. John Gregg, however, indicates that even Lee’s beloved Texans were faltering that winter. Conditions were so bad when Gregg arrived to take command of the Texas Brigade in the spring of 1864 that he described the brigade as “a little body of malcontents,” with “some of them deserting every  day or two” and a total of only 500 men ready for the season’s first  battle in the Wilderness. Gregg’s letter, coupled with a missive from the May 1864 correspondence of 1st Texas Private Solomon T. Blessing, captures the wretched conditions that plagued even Lee’s best soldiers, as well as the grim determination that helped them rally for some of the war’s most relentless fighting.

THE FIRST LETTER excerpted here is from Blessing, a private in Company L, 1st Texas Infantry. On May 29, 1864, while camped near the Chickahominy River, he sat down and tried to explain to his sister back in Galveston his exhaustion, and also the twists of fate that had allowed him to live when so many of his friends had died at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and the North Anna River.

“It is with profound gratitude to Almighty God, for his preserving care over me that I once more attempt to write you a few lines. In the month that is now about to close, I have passed through a series of great battles, and while my comrades have fallen on every side, killed and mangled by the missiles of our ruthless invader, I have been spared, and am to day as sound as when the battles began. This I can ascribe, not to ‘good luck,’ but only to the mercy of God. Our powers of endurance have often been put to the test, by hard battles, long marches, &c, but within the past 26 days we have endured more hardships than we ever did before in a period three times its length. By day we fought the enemy and at night we either marched all night or were kept awake by alarms and demonstrations. And what made it worse was that it rained about one-third of the time. I have been so sleepy that I actually fell asleep walking along, and was only prevented from falling to the ground by those around me whom I fell against. At one time for the space of five days we did not dare to take off our accouterments [sic], and the most of the time we were kept in the ditches which were only prevented from filling with water by continually bailing  out—that is it was not a constant rain, but from one to three heavy thunder showers daily. In those five days I do not think that I slept for over  ten hours, all put together, and that was only taken by snatches of a few minutes at a time.”

Blessing added, “But I suppose you would like to have somewhat of a connected story of the part that we took in the battles,” knowing that  his sister would likely share his letter with the Galveston Weekly News for publication (she did; it appeared on July 27, 1864).

Before he could chronicle the battles, Blessing felt compelled to explain the tortures of the early spring, when the Texas Brigade, along with the rest of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps, had left Tennessee in February 1864 to rejoin the Army of Northern Virginia.

“Our corps left East Tennessee and came by Railroad to Charlottesville [Va.], and arrived at the latter place the latter part of April. We lay around there three or four days, had new clothing issued to us (which we very much stood in need of, for our brigade was very ragged, and some of the men half naked) and we sported around town in our new clothes in fine style.”

THIS WAS THE RAGGED BAND of men that General John Gregg first saw upon arriving in Virginia to take command of the Texans. Following his recovery from a near-fatal wound during the Battle of Chickamauga, Gregg came east with Longstreet’s Corps in the spring of 1864. The Texas Brigade’s previous commander, Brig. Gen. Jerome Bonaparte Robertson, had earned Longstreet’s scorn when Robertson, a medical doctor by training, appeared more worried about his men’s health and living conditions than he was in winning the war. Robertson’s complaints and demand for more supplies, while legitimate concerns, led Longstreet and Brig. Gen. Micah Jenkins to bring court-martial charges against Robertson for “conduct highly prejudicial to good order and military discipline.” While those charges left a black mark on Robertson’s record, most officers understood his comment that  “God only knows where more [food and supplies] would come from” had not been meant to undermine or sabotage  Confederate morale. Still, Robertson was transferred to command troops in Texas, and Colonel King Bryan, still suffering from the lack of a full staff, as well as sufficient  food and materiel, was left with the task of leading the Texans through the first months of 1864.

This is key to understanding Gregg’s initial impression upon arriving in Virginia. He found a unit that little resembled the determined, noble band that contemporaries celebrated as one of Lee’s best brigades. On May 25, 1864, Gregg confided to a friend in Huntsville, Texas, “You know, when I took command of it, Genl. Robertson had been absent a long time. Col. Bryan, not even having the first officer of a regiment could not reasonably exercise  the influence which a brigade commander might. And the  consequence was that I found the brigade a little body of malcontents, some of them deserting every day or two — having, I suppose present for duty about 500 muskets. Our  Genl. Robertson prophesied that I would never be able to carry more than five hundred (500) muskets into a fight.”

So it appears from this previously unknown letter that even the Texas Brigade was suffering the disastrous results of quarter-rations and desertion. But Gregg’s arrival, or perhaps the resupply that Blessing described in Charlottesville, brought the discipline and support necessary to stabilize the brigade. It also appears that the wounded from the battles of Gettysburg and Chickamauga were returning to the brigade. Historian Alfred Young III (Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study) estimates that 325 to 350 of the 880 men present  in the first week of May 1864 had rejoined the unit after recovering from their wounds of 1863, and even 1862. This would explain how the tone of Gregg’s May 25 letter changes as it continues. He boasted that, contrary to Robertson’s insistence that the Texas Brigade would never surpass 500 in number, “at the Wilderness we had  714 muskets” and “perhaps officers enough to make the  number 800.” Still, they suffered 454 men killed, wounded  or missing at the Battle of the Wilderness. “This was a terrible loss for so small a command, but the sacrifice was  necessary,” Gregg insisted.

BLESSING’S AND GREGG’S LETTERS also offer new insights into one of the war’s most famous events, the “Lee to the Rear” scene at the Wilderness. On the morning of  May 6, 1864, Union forces were attacking and the Confederates in General A.P. Hill’s Corps were barely holding the line. An uncharacteristically nervous Lee was trying to help Hill rally his men when he saw a column approaching on the Orange Plank Road. He spotted an officer he did not recognize and asked him  which brigade this was. “The Texas Brigade,”  John Gregg replied. Both Blessing and Gregg describe in detail what happened next.

John Gregg wrote, “Our corps was just coming in and filled the road, and the stragglers of  Heth were breaking up the road in the front. In riding forward, I found Genl. Lee, and told him who we were. He said he was glad to see us back. He said ‘we must drive these people back.’ ‘the Texans always drive them’; ‘you must stand and exchange shots with them, they will shoot as long as you [do]; but push up and they will not stand before you.’ I then said, ‘Men the eye of Genl. Lee is on you’; they responded with a cheer. The old Genl. pulled off his hat, and we rode forward. The Genl. was very much excited and tears were coming from his eyes. He followed us some distance into the enemy’s fire,  and though I did not see him, Capt. Bedell, I learned (he is wounded and I haven’t seen him) says he took his horse by the bridle and turned him back….[T]he men did not falter, but went ahead and drove the masses of the enemy until they actually ceased to have the weight to press them any further. I think we contributed greatly to save the fight, small as our number were.”

Private Blessing witnessed the same event within the ranks of the 1st Texas. As he confided  to his sister on May 25, just four days before Gregg wrote his letter, Blessing explained: “On the morning of the 6th we commenced our march at 3 o’clock and arrived at the front about 10  o’clock, and I think just in time to turn the tide of battle, for Heth’s division were coming out in great confusion. Our brigade was in front. General Lee was present, as we marched up he [Gen. Lee] asked what brigade that was and was told the Texas Brigade. He said, ‘put them in I have confidence in them’ and was about to lead us to  the charge, but the men refused to go in until he should go back. The men hollowed ‘go back General, go back, we wont go in until you go back, you will get killed dady [sic],’ He was at last prevailed on to go to the rear, but only a short distance, and the brigade started forward. The Yankees were driven near a half mile, when our ranks became so decimated that we were compelled to fall back. Gen. Lee was still a spectator and is said to have wept when he saw how badly we were cut up. The brigade was immediately reformed [sic] and made a second charge again driving the enemy before them some six or eight hundred yards, and having support this time held our ground. Later in the day we did some skirmishing; we were under fire all day. We went  in as a brigade that morning 715 strong, and lost 452 killed, wounded, and missing….At night we buried our dead….

The next day we threw up breastworks and did some skirmishing. [General Richard] Ewell gave them a sound thrashing. On the night of the 7th Grant tried to flank us by moving to our  right, and of course we had to make a counter movement. We marched all night and day till 10  o’clock, and then immediately advanced to meet the enemy. We did not do much fighting, as the  Yankees had only a small force in our front, and we were easily driven back. We took our position, and in the evening threw up works. The next day, which was the 9th, we did some skirmishing and were under a very hot shelling and again on the 10th they shelled us. On the evening of the 10th,  just before sundown, the Yankees charged our works, and actually got into our trenches. They came over crying ‘No quarter.’ We had no bayonets, but we used clubbed muskets on them, and soon drove them out. They left many killed and wounded behind, and about 50 prisoners….I received a slight cut with a bayonet on my thumb. I have also been struck twice by spent balls…. My thumb was quite sore for several days, but I did not quit the field. On the 11th we did  some skirmishing, and on the 12th the Yankees charged us twice, but were both times repulsed when about 250 yards from our works. We lay in  this position till the morning of the 15th. As I have before told you, it rained every day, and we got but very little sleep. I was over the battle field on the 14th. (The Yankees having left the  night before.) There were a great many killed; the wounded had all been carried off. During all this time the Yankees had been charging other parts of our lines, and in every charge our men murdered them….We have made four successive movements to the right to head off Grant on his flank movements, and every time we get  nearer to Richmond….Although the Yankees are now something like 40 miles nearer Richmond  than they were at the commencement of the battles, yet a worse whipped army the world never saw. Their loss has been at least ten to our one. On several occasions of late they have refused to charge on our works when ordered to do so. If Johnston can only whip Sherman in Georgia, I think this campaign will end the war, and I pray God that it may, so that we may have peace once more. All reports (and I hope they are true) from your side of the Mississippi river are very encouraging. I hope the enemy may see their folly and bring this dreadful war to a close.”

BLESSING’S AND GREGG’S letters capture the darkness that enveloped Confederate camps in the early spring of 1864. But they also highlight the South’s continued ability to resupply their forces, as well as the fact that while desertions were a serious concern, the wounded of the previous years’ fighting were leaving Virginia hospitals and private homes and returning to Lee’s Army. The letters also offer new images of the “Lee to the Rear” scene, and the grim  determination that sustained Confederates in the third campaign season of the war. As Gregg boasted when he closed his letter, “My command are in the finest possible spirits and I learn that  the same is true of the entire army. This series of battles could have been a lesson to Marlborough or Turenne.”

The heady optimism of the war’s first years  had, indeed, been replaced by steady resolve that, despite such a hard, dark winter, was unshaken by the brutal fighting of May 1864. Confederate will was far from broken and would remain strong, despite their thinned ranks, for another long and bloody year.

Susannah Ural is the Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It.

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Civil War Times.