This incredible letter was written by Capt. Alfred Mattock Smith (1831-Aft1891) of Co. C, 5th Pennsylvania Reserves (34th Penn. Volunteers). Smith enlisted in May 1861 as a sergeant in the company, was promoted to 1st Lieutenant in July 1861, and to Captain in November 1861. In February 1864, Smith was promoted to Major, and on 7 May 1864, after the regiment’s Lieut.-Colonel was killed in the Wilderness, Smith was promoted to take his place.
In his letter, Smith describes the Battle of Gettysburg in which the 5th Pennsylvania Reserves participated in the action at the close of the second day, helping to save Little Round Top and then, subsequently, to secure Big Round Top before dawn on the third day. It is Col. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry that generally gets all the credit for this final achievement due to the colonel’s popularity. The truth is that the Maine troops were equipped with better arms than the Reserves (Springfield rifles versus Harper’s Ferry muskets), and so the Mainers were chosen to lead the way through the darkness up the rugged, rocky slopes of “Round Top” mountain, with the Pennsylvania Reserves “not more than a rod or two in the rear.” [Note: The particulars of this movement, coordinated or not, has been the subject of debate for decades. Chamberlain maintained that he had taken the crest of Big Round Top a full three hours before the Reserves reached the top.]
Smith’s letter also describes the near engagement at Williamsport as Meade’s army closed in on Lee before they slipped across the river. It also describes the Battle of Manassas Gap fought on 23 July 1863.
[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Joseph Smith—a great-great grandson of Capt. Alfred Smith—and is published by express consent. The header image is a wonderful painting by Dale Gallon depicting General Crawford leading the Pennsylvania Reserves across Plum Run at Gettysburg on the evening of July 2, 1863.]
July 31st 1863
It is now some time since I last wrote to you but since the 25th of June we have been so constantly on the move that it was almost impossible to do much writing. Until within the last three days, we have in but one instance slept twice on the same ground making several marches of thirty miles in a day. This army has gone over more ground and marched more continuous days than any army ever did before in the world—the 2nd, 3rd, & 5th Corps (ours) left the main army at Rectortown [Va.] and went up the Manassas Gap to the Shenandoah Valley where we had a fight with the Rebels who had entered the Gap and had got partially through it. ¹ We drove them out and up the valley, capturing in the expedition—which lasted three days—850 head of cattle & 400 horses which I suppose they had stolen whilst in Pennsylvania.
I suppose you had read some of the accounts published of the great Battle of Gettysburg in which you saw how the Pennsylvania Reserves behaved. We marched on the 2nd of July 16 miles and came on the field just as the Rebels were driving the Regulars back in front of us. ² Our men were about spiking their artillery so as to leave it, the horses having been shot down and the guns could not be brought away.
In a few moments we were formed to meet the advance of the Rebels and the Regulars came pouring through our ranks, badly whipped although they had fought well. We got the order to “charge” and with a yell that was louder than the roar of all the musketry and cannon, we came down on the rebels and drove them back with great slaughter. Every man seemed as if he was determined to win or die. I never saw our men more resolute. Although my regiment was not in this charge, I felt as much interest in it as if it had been. Our regiment was placed on the left of those making the charge for the purpose of preventing the Rebels from what is called “flanking”—that is, coming down on the left of them after they had advanced some distance into the rebel lines and surrounding our men by getting in their rear, or getting a cross fire on them. This charge settled the fight that day at about dark. ³
That night, about ten o’clock, we were ordered to take a hill covered with wood and one of the most rocky places I ever saw. It had been skirmished over all day but the Rebels had it at night. In this we happily succeeded without any loss—only one man being wounded. It was a doubtful undertaking and one that I would not like to repeat often, for, from the nature of the ground, the imperfect knowledge that we had of it, connected with the profound darkness, one man on the hill was as good as ten coming up it. But the very rashness of the undertaking was the means of our safety. The rebels not supposing for a moment that we would think of taking it at night had withdrawn their men to the summit and had left no force to support them.
Our skirmishers were upon them before they suspected it and so surprised them that they fled down the other side of the mountain excepting 30 whom we captured. We lay on our arms all night prepared for a fight. We had orders to hold the mountain at any cost as it was the key to our position. At the break of day, we found it so and its loss was serious to the rebels. They made several efforts to get it but we were too much for them. We threw up stone breastworks so that we were doubly safe. Continual fighting went on to the right of our regiment which was on the extreme top of the mountain called “Round Top” and the slaughter of the Rebels was very great.
I counted on the 4th of July in a space about as long as from your house to your barn 360 dead rebels, all but one shot through the head. Again on the evening after a hard day’s fight, part of our division settled the fate of the day by one more charge which drove the Rebels pell mell for a mile and they never came in sight again on that ground.
Our loss was very light. For once we had the advantage of position and kept it. 135 in killed, wounded & missing was the total for the nine regiments, and I am glad to say that for once also, even the New York papers had to acknowledge that we would fight even against fearful odds. The Regulars who profess to despise volunteers candidly gave us the praise due us for saving them from destruction. The Rebels have always said that we were most dreaded by them of any division in the army.
Since that time we have been, until a day or two, in hot pursuit of the retreating rebels, being mostly in the advance of all others. We were the first to come up to their fortifications at Hagerstown and were the nearest to them near Williamsport and would have attacked them first on the morning that they crossed the river. As it was, we went after them in support of the cavalry and became for the time a sort of “flying infantry.” This is hard work but we have had a good deal of it to do in this campaign. Old Meade served in our division and knows that we can be relied upon, and puts us to it. After we came back from the Shenandoah Valley, came to Warrenton and were sent out with the cavalry again down the river to Bealton Station & other places. We returned and are now about six miles south from Warrenton.
Although I am much disappointed in not having a fight at Williamsport (which would have resulted in the capture or destruction of Lee’s Army), I can find no fault with General Meade. From what I do know of the circumstances surrounding the case and the efforts put forth to overcome them, I can safely say that he did all that any prudent or competent general could have done. His plans were all formed (and well formed) to attack one day previous to the Rebel “Skedaddle” [but] that night it rained hard and it was found impossible to move our artillery over the grain fields and corn fields which was the only ground we had to maneuver on. He immediately adopted another plan of attack. We commenced to approach the rebel works with our infantry as close as we could and then threw up breastworks opposite theirs. In three hours we had a chain of rifle pits around them on all sides except on the river side. At dark we left these, drove in their skirmishers, advanced about half a mile, and threw up another line of rifle pits in about two more hours, thus making all of ten miles of rifle pits in about five hours. As soon as we could see, we advanced onto their works only to find them deserted. Then commenced the chase.
We found hundreds of stragglers stuck in the mud with implements of war of all kinds. We captured all their rear guard—about 2,000 men. I have given you perhaps more details than you wish but I have seen so much since 25th June that I could hardly say less. I hear from [my wife] Carrie often. She is well. My love to all the family.
Yours son, — Alfred
¹ Smith is referring to the Battle of Manassas Gap—also known as the Battle of Wapping Heights—which took place on 23 July 1863 in Warren county, Virginia. Union forces forced the passage of the gap but were not able to capture Lee’s army before it retreated further up the valley. They did, however, capture the cattle and horses mentioned.
² The 5th Pennsylvania Reserves were brigaded with the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th Pennsylvania Reserves under the command of Col. Joseph W. Fisher (3rd Brigade) of Crawford’s Third Division in Syke’s 5th Corps. When Gen. Crawford “called out the order, ‘In the name of Pennsylvania, charge!'” and as he did so, he grabbed the regimental colors of the 1st Pennsylvania Reserves and led the charge. “The two thousand or so men of these five regiments executed a beautiful charge down the slope [of Little Round Top] and across the Plum Run Valley.” It was reported that “cries of Revenge for Reynolds,” along with the distinctive yell of the Pennsylvania Reserves, filled the air…The charge of the Reserves ended the Confederate advance on Little Round Top.” [Tobias’s Story, by Dough Kauffman]
³ “The thrust of the attack by the Reserves was carried out by the 1st Brigade led by Col. William McCandless. The Third Brigade with the 5th, 9th, 10th and 12th Reserves “started at a double-quick down the left-front of Little Round Top, stumbling over rocks, and the numerous dead of Vincent’s and Weed’s gallant brigades.” Hardin wrote. “As we advanced, a few scattered shots came from the retiring enemy.” Actually this latest Confederate attack had already come to an end, and they were in the act of trying to disengage when Fisher’s regiments arrived on the scene. The arrival of this force, however, was most fortunate, for it virtually ensured that Little Round Top would be secure against any more enemy attacks from that quarter.” [The Pennsylvania Reserves in the Civil War, by Uzal W. Ent, page 217]